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1970s, BBC Archive, BBC East, BFI National Archive, Dramatised Documentaries, Regional Drama

In a Country Churchyard (1975-78)

Of the BBC’s regional production centres BBC East is not known for its television drama productions.

In fact I know of only one series that might fall into this category and that is a series of dramatised documentaries called In a Country Churchyard, five half-hour programmes shown between 1975 and 1978 in the East Anglia region and networked on BBC 2 from 1976-78.[1]

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Each programme begins in a churchyard in Suffolk or Norfolk where the narrator Ronald Fletcher, who also wrote each programme, introduces the location and the person, or people, buried there who will be the subject of the programme.

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The series was inspired by Thomas Gray’s 18th century poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (published 1751) and Fletcher begins each programme by reading some lines from the poem which begins:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The first programme in the series, Promoted to Glory… (BBC East, 5 September 1975, repeated in BBC 2’s Network series on 10 January 1976) explores the lives of three people, buried in three different churchyards:

“Trinity Piffney was a village odd-job man, Blind Montgomery wrote penny poems and played a barrel-organ, William Cowper wrote some of the best remembered lines in English verse. All three overcame adversity and tonight Ronald Fletcher brings them to life in a dramatised documentary.” (Radio Times, 10 January 1976)

Fletcher’s project was to reveal the stories behind the inscriptions on the graves of people, some well-known, some unknown, buried in East Anglian churchyards. At the beginning of Promoted to Glory… he presents a black and white photograph of people who lived in the Suffolk village of Westleton, near Dunwich: “Stories could be told about any of them. This is Trinity Piffney…” and a sense of mystery about the character is evoked as the image changes to colour and the story of Trinity Piffney is dramatised: “His real name was George Bloomfield. This is the church Trinity Piffney loved to attend. This is where he is buried, with no memorial at all, and nobody knows where his mother is.” The lives of the different characters are well researched and the story of Trinity Piffney is aided by the existence of his diary.

The inscription on the gravestone of Walter Scott Montgomery, buried in Halesworth churchyard in Suffolk, gives the programme its title: ‘Promoted to Glory’. Montgomery, as Fletcher explains, wrote poetry but he had to dictate his poems to someone else because he was blind, hence the nickname ‘Blind Montgomery’. The information about the characters is supplied by Fletcher to camera or in voiceover narration, supplemented by dramatised material. In the case of Blind Montgomery an actor with a Suffolk accent is seen reading one of Montgomery’s poems.

Fletcher devotes most of Promoted to Glory… to William Cowper, a much better-known figure who is buried in St. Nicholas’s Church in East Dereham, Norfolk. Cowper was an 18th century poet who wrote poems about everyday country life and was responsible for many hymns. One of his poems, ‘Light Shining Out of Darkness’ (1779), contains the famous line ‘God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform’ and this poem is recited in the programme over shots of Cowper (played by John Franklin-Robbins) walking in his garden carrying one of his pet hares. Cowper’s wife, Mary (Kathleen Helme) and a family friend (Roy Macready) also appear in dramatised scenes.

The second programme in the series, The voice that breathed o’er… Little Stonham (BBC East, 4 June 1976) was shown in the East Anglia region nine months after Promoted to Glory… and repeated on BBC 2 in the Network series – a showcase for regionally-produced programmes – on 26 March 1977. The focus this time is on one particular village in Suffolk, Little Stonham, and a dispute which occurred “one hundred years ago” between a parson who was new to the village, the Reverend William Barley, and his parishioners. After once again reading from Thomas Gray’s poem Ronald Fletcher invites the viewer to look at the gravestones in the churchyard: “They lie peacefully enough in this spot now, but once these bones were stirred to a great passion.”

Fletcher’s narration continues as the historical dramatisation begins, but unlike Promoted to Glory… the dramatisation, because it focuses on a particular issue, is more extensive and the number of characters who feature in the telling of the story is greater. The dispute revolved around William Barley’s insistence that services in the church should be read, not sung as had been the practice before his arrival. When three of the parishioners insist on singing the Magnificat instead of reading it Barley asks the local police constable (played by Jim Broadbent!) to intervene. The men are arrested for causing a public disturbance and the case goes to court. Fletcher reads from the public records of the court case at Ipswich Quarter Sessions and the case, which lasted “six uproarious hours”, is dramatised, at the end of which the singing parishioners were found not guilty. Nine leading characters are credited at the end of the programme and there is also a credit for ‘Members of the Stowmarket Operatic Society and the People of Little Stonham.’

It was another eighteen months before the next three programmes in the series were shown in the East Anglia region, on consecutive weeks from 17-31 January 1978, repeated one year later on BBC 2, between 4 January and 1 February 1979, when they were described as “three dramatised social history documentaries written and narrated by Ronald Fletcher”. The first of these, By the Banks of the Wensum (BBC East, 17 January 1978), once again tells the story of a parson, James Woodforde of Weston Longville in Norfolk.

After once again reading from Gray’s elegy Fletcher’s narration continues as he walks down to the River Wensum, which gave the programme its title: “Country churchyards are among the best history books in the land, filled with stories of ordinary people and ordinary communities but sometimes too with the most extraordinary characters and surprises.”

Parson Woodforde went to Weston Longville in 1776 and the fact that Fletcher was able to tell his story is because Woodforde kept a diary. In fact the dramatised sequences begin with Woodforde (played by Roddy Maude Roxby) writing in his diary and the historical dramatisation is largely a mixture of Fletcher’s narration interspersed with Roxby’s voiceover readings from Woodforde’s diary. Woodforde, it transpires, had a passion for entertaining his friends with sumptuous meals, washed down with generous drafts of cognac from barrels acquired as a result of smuggling. This makes for a humorous narrative and the fact that both this programme and The voice that breathed o’er… Little Stonham are light-hearted and entertaining prevents them from becoming dour historical reconstructions.

The Akenham Burial Case (BBC East, 24 January 1978), in contrast, deals with a more serious subject, the refusal on behalf of the authorities to bury a young child in consecrated ground because he died before he had been baptised. As Fletcher explains, the case became a national cause celebre concerning the burial of non-baptised people. In fact the Akenham burial case brought about a change in the law when the Burial Law Reform Act was passed in 1880. Seeking out the grave of the two year-old Joseph Thurston in Akenham churchyard, Fletcher’s closing narration is a vindication of the approach to social history adopted in the series: “Akenham church is closed now, a relic of an earlier age, but in my opinion this small stone should be regarded as nothing less than a national monument.”

The fifth and final programme in the series was entitled Monument: A Victorian Village (BBC East, 31 January 1978) and this time the programme begins not in a churchyard but at a monument in the Suffolk village of Wortham. Like the gravestones in previous programmes the monument is a starting point for finding out about the life and legacy of the writer and social historian Richard Cobbold, who was born into the affluent Cobbold family of Ipswich, whose wealth came from the brewing industry.

Born in 1797 Cobbold grew up in Ipswich but moved to the village of Wortham, near the border with Norfolk, in 1825 and remained there until his death in 1877. He wrote historical novels but his real legacy is the four-volume history of Wortham “kept on the shelves of the Suffolk archives” in which he recorded the lives of his fellow villagers, in words and pictures. As Fletcher explains: “Richard Cobbold’s memorial to his friends was in fact the first illustrated record of an English village community, of a Victorian village; a monument which is unique. Today it’s possible to go round the village and bring its past to life” and the programme proceeds to do just that by dramatising the scenes and the people that Cobbold describes in his social history.

Focusing on villages in Suffolk and, to a lesser extent, Norfolk, In a Country Churchyard provides a valuable record of East Anglian life, presented in the form of ‘dramatised social history documentaries’. It is a series, produced at the BBC East studios in Norwich, which benefits immensely from being shot on film so that the landscape, houses and churchyards of Suffolk and Norfolk can be realised without recourse to studio sets. Through extensive research and with the aid of a poetic commentary Ronald Fletcher succeeds in bringing local history to life. As he says at the conclusion of the series: “In these stories from English country churchyards the people who were once lost have been found again. Those who were at the roots of our communities are still there to be discovered.”

Lez Cooke

[1] I am grateful to Simon Coward for bringing this series to my attention and to Kathleen Dickson at the BFI National Archive for arranging viewings of all five programmes, the first of which, Promoted to Glory…, is held in the BFI Archive while the remaining four are held in the BBC Archive.

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “In a Country Churchyard (1975-78)

  1. In a country churchyard was a moving series and helped me in my quest for understanding local history.

    Posted by Christoph Bull | October 15, 2016, 8:50 pm
  2. So pleased to have found this. It was indeed a moving series and there was also a book produced of the same name (published by Paladin) which I have enjoyed many times. The Banks of the Wensum is my favourite and there is an active Parson Woodforde Society for those who wish to find out more.

    Posted by David Horne | July 23, 2017, 5:16 pm

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