Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Uncovering Helena Bonham Carter's elusive role in THE EARLY LIFE OF BEATRIX POTTER

I was happily convinced that I had seen every film in which Helena Bonham Carter had been cast. Considering she's had over eighty roles to her name, I was quite proud of that achievement! However, while flicking through Instagram recently, I happened upon a still of Bonham Carter from a docudrama that I'd not only never seen, but one that I had not until that point even heard of.

So why is The Early Life of Beatrix Potter, originally broadcast on BBC 2 in 1991, no longer available for public consumption? With little information about the drama out there (it's not even connected to Bonham Carter's IMDb page, hence my previous ignorance about its existence!), I went in search of more. 

Although I was able to locate a little information on the British Film Institute (BFI) website, I still wasn't satisfied. That's when I decided to get in touch with Mike Healey, the film's writer-director, who was kind enough to answer my many questions about the drama and the disappearance of art. Here's what he had to say:

How was the casting of the character of Beatrix Potter? Did you have anybody in mind while you were writing the script?

It was written with Helena in mind. We met for the first time at the Savoy in London. I had, earlier that day, been holding auditions for a child to play the younger Beatrix but Helena convinced me over tea and scones that she could play both roles. In the finished film she ages from 10 to 30 - a quite remarkable achievement.

Did production run smoothly? Are there any interesting stories from during filming that you're able to share?

Helena was always a joy to work with and the six-week shoot was enormous fun. We filmed entirely on location in Scotland, in many of the parts of Comrie and the Borders that Beatrix herself knew in the 1890s.

Apart from the mouse that Helena may have squashed to death, we had an enormous Belgian hare to play the part of Benjamin Bunny. Helena walked it around Comrie on the end of a lead.

Helena walked Benjamin around Comrie
After filming, none of us had the heart to return it to the labs in Glasgow, so for the next two years it lived with me at my cottage in the Lake District. When six tiny, chocolate brown bunnies appeared one morning on my lawn I changed its name from Benjamin to Benjamina!

What was the reception for the Early Life of Beatrix Potter like after its initial broadcast on BBC 2?

It achieved critical acclaim and was rapidly repeated on BBC 1. The following year (1992) it won gold at the New York TV Festival.

Its subject matter was unusual in that it concentrated on Beatrix’s early interest in mycology. She teamed up with the local ‘postie’ in Comrie and eventually produced a scientific paper that was read by her uncle on her behalf at the Linnean Society in London.

We had fun filming sequences in which John Millais, a close friend of Beatrix’s father Rupert, taught her to paint. Indeed, it’s Beatrix’s early watercolours of assorted mushrooms that predate her far more famous illustrations for her children’s books.

In my research I came across a pressed flower inside a book that Beatrix herself must have placed there! Magic!

What makes this drama so moving is Helena’s sensitive portrayal of a young, Victorian woman seeking independence through scientific discovery and learning to paint in the process.

Despite the fact that it is, as you've mentioned, an award-winning drama, why do you think it has become obsolete?

I fear that this is not an uncommon fate for regional drama. I previously produced a series for BBC Manchester called Sense of Place, commissioning new plays from writers such as Beryl Bainbridge, Alan Bleasdale (his first ever TV drama), Alan Garner (The Owl Service etc.) and the wonderful Shelagh Delaney whom I found alone and forgotten in a bedsit in Bayswater.

This series (12 x 30 minute dramas) won a Royal Television Society award for 'best regional drama' yet not one of these TV plays has ever been shown again or made available online or in DVD format. That is a disservice to me and those wonderful writers and talented casts I was lucky enough to employ.

While it's unfortunate, we expect films produced at the beginning of the twentieth century to slip away from public consumption. Considering so much work, time, and money is dedicated to creating films, do you think it's ever really acceptable that anything produced over the last few decades should disappear?

There is no excuse for the loss of such archive material. 

Even if shot on 16mm film it is so easy now to convert to digital formats for archival purposes and further distribution. I once produced a series of 52 profiles of great sportsmen and women for Mark McCormack’s ‘Transworld Sport’ (IMG) – including a remarkable interview with O.J Simpson a year or two before the alleged murder of his wife. This series – called Sportatraits - was shown in 60 territories, with global viewing figures of a staggering 600 million! 

When I later asked for copies of my original footage (some 80 hours of taped interviews) I was told that most had been wiped for re-use!

That's quite shocking! Are there any films that you remember enjoying that seem to have fallen off the radar now?

I made a film for BBC Scotland called The True Story of Whiskey Galore, which won several prizes – one of which was a small, wire-frame statue. This film has never been re-shown but one night a drunk staggered into the reception area at BBC Glasgow, threw a brick at the glass case and made off with the BBC silver – Baftas et al. The only thing he left was my little statue, now broken in two.

I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions from this sad tale of neglect and vandalism!

Your creative contributions aren't just to film either, are they? You're also a novelist and artist. Do you think there's the same concern about works from other art forms becoming elusive? What's the emotional impact here for the creator who pours their soul into their work? 

As a professional painter I am concerned at the durability of digital art and how best to protect original works from commercial and creative exploitation using digital ‘theft'.

New digital formats also allow relatively untrained artists to manipulate images creatively – hence, perhaps, the resurgence in Surrealism in recent years – yet this renders original works vulnerable. Art should not be an exclusive domain yet new technologies blur the formal distinctions between great art and, well, the rest!


Are you able to offer an insight into what you're working on at the moment?

I have just published a stage play called The Angel Maker – a true story about a remote village in Hungary in which the women murdered over forty of their menfolk. This is still looking for its first stage production.

I have also been working with Francois Ivernel (producer of films such as Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech etc) on a feature film based on Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. This, in part, is based on my novel (as yet unpublished). The heart of the film is Napoleon’s infatuation with a young (married) woman from Carcassonne, smuggled into Egypt by her husband and disguised as a cavalry officer. It is called Napoleon’s Little Cleopatra. My third draft has just been deemed too expensive (£20 million is Montebello’s estimate!) so I guess its back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, I am writing another stage play about a Jacobean woman called Anne Gunter who, when possessed by the devil, vomited pins. 

Great fun! Watch this space.

I'll certainly keep an eye out for those! 
Many thanks to Mike Healey for shedding some light on the mysteries of The Early Life of Beatrix Potter, and for his personal views on the issues surrounding the disappearances of certain artworks. 
You can find out more about Mike Healey's work on his website and via his LinkedIn profile
Perhaps we will be able to enjoy The Early Life of Beatrix Potter someday soon. Until then, I shall leave you with a few more images kindly sent to me by the drama's creator for us to enjoy!
Amy x
Helena Bonham Carter as Beatrix Potter in The Early Life of Beatrix Potter
Could this be the moment the mouse was "squashed to death"?
Mike Healey's crime trilogy is available to purchase online

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