Long before the actors arrived, the production designer Leo Austin, the art director Richard Elton, and their team had been working feverishly to turn back the clock to 1919 at St. Mary’s church and its surroundings. They were enormously blessed in their location.
This historic photo [©The Francis Frith Collection] was taken circa 1955, and shows St. Mary’s church in its Radnage landscape. Though only an hour outside London, the landscape was virtually unchanged when the filmmakers arrived in 1986. Radnage remains remarkably rural today. As one writer noted, it is “a pretty hamlet which looks like it’s been rooted here since time began.”
St. Mary the Virgin Church was built by the Knights Templar at the beginning of the 13th century. Eight hundred years later, the little church on its narrow one-track lane in Radnage is still an active parish.
For the film company in 1986, a first step in returning St. Mary’s to 1919 was to remove the modern plastic rain gutters and downpipes. [In all juxtaposed photographs below, REAL LIFE is on the left, FILM VERSION is on the right.]
Click on all photographs to see them full size.
This lent a certain piquant humor to Birkin’s reply to Reverend Keach on entering the church for the first time. Keach asks the younger man what he has been doing. “Ch-ch-ch-checking the rain g-g-g-gutters.”
Then the south tower window had to be opened for Birkin to get sunshine and wave at Moon in his field.
In the tall grass, among the real headstones, prop grave markers were added, including a box tomb.
The box tomb would be the setting for sharing a lunch, for savoring a cigarette, for taking a nap in the summer sun, for meeting a beautiful woman. It would become an icon of the film. Even today fans of A Month in the Country visiting the churchyard look for it hopefully.
Inside St. Mary’s
St. Mary’s in Radnage is small, but clean-lined and airy. The church of Oxgodby is tiny and dim. To create this effect, though the real church is 80’ from chancel to nave, the viewer is never given a complete sightline. Rare long shots are shrouded in gloom.
Kenneth MacMillan, the cinematographer, lit the church artfully. The mood is intimate, almost claustrophobic. Matches flare and shadows play.
Long before location work started, the artist Margot Noyes had been hired to paint the enormous “medieval” mural Birkin uncovers. [Read more ...] Yet it was genuine ancient art that proved a headache for the film crew. St. Mary’s boasts a number of wall paintings, dating from the 13th through 17th centuries, all of which had to be carefully hidden from view.
The paintings on the long walls of the church were easy enough to conceal, as those walls never come into camera range. However there was no way to cover the paintings c. 1200 on the stone window niches above the altar. Instead, Mr. MacMillan focused below and cloaked them in shadow.
Note that the real altar was exchanged for one simpler and more austere.
Other church furnishings were also changed. St. Mary’s original pews had been removed in the 1930s, replaced by locally made chairs. These were carefully stored, and dark old-fashioned pews brought back in. At the same time the decision was made that the stone floor flags, though Victorian, did not look quite “period” enough. The entire nave, to the rear of the pews, was laid with old brick pavers.
In the real church, pre-Cromwellian paintings can be seen on each side of the west window. For the film, these were hidden. An antique-looking chest covered the modern radiator. A coal stove — an important feature in J.L. Carr’s novel — and a harmonium organ were added.
St. Mary’s stone font is believed to date from the Saxon period (roughly 500 to 1066 A.D.). In Oxgodby, the Ellerbeck children played gramophone records on it.
The staging that allowed Birkin to work on the mural in the top of the nave was, in the film, a source of tension between him and Reverend Keach, and surely, in pre-production, for the art department as well.
It had to appear to be simply lashed together in 1919 out of wooden poles, ropes, and rough planks, yet also be strong enough to safely support a camera, lights, tiny film crew — and at one time or another, almost every member of the cast except the Ellerbeck family.
The belfry tower at St. Mary’s is 10 feet square and, like Birkin’s aerie in Oxgodby, accessible only by a narrow ladder from the floor of the church. Putting a camera in the top of the nave might be difficult, but getting equipment, lights, crew, and actors into the real belfry was impossible. Birkin’s belfry was perfectly recreated on a soundstage at Bray Studios, then intercut with shots of Colin Firth at St. Mary’s. [Read more ...]
Meanwhile, in the story Birkin peers down from the belfry through a break in the wall to watch the congregation during church services. The wall at St. Mary’s is unblemished. To create a “hole,” the filmmakers slid boards behind the braces above the nave, on which they had painted an opening — a replica of which was then built at Bray to film the scene.
In most respects — except for the constant rain — Moon’s bell tent and archaeological site were the easiest location work on the picture. St. Mary’s is surrounded by sheep pastures.
The sheep that occasionally wander past Moon’s Oxgodby summer home were presumably Radnage locals hired for walk-on roles.