Black Legend was a film made about Combe Gibbet and the story of the crime associated with it.
- Some of the original cast of Black Legend, including Robert Hardy, on stage at the showing at The Watermill Theatre, Mar 2011
The history of the film:
How is it that a double murder committed over 300 years ago by a farm labourer and his mistress in an insignificant village set in the downs that lie on the borders of Berkshire and Hampshire has such a fascination for us today? The answer is very simple, and for two reasons:
First it was the subject of the first feature film made by a man who was to become one of England's best film Directors and who in 1948 at the age of 22 and while still at University wanted to see if he could manage to do it.
He was John Schlesinger who in his career won three Oscars and several nominations but who acknowledged that undertaking the project "confirmed his passion for making films" and who regarded 'Black Legend' as "his first success".
And second because it also starred a fellow undergraduate Robert Hardy who was later to become one of the country's best known actors on stage, screen and television. Robert Hardy was cast as Mad Thomas, the village idiot, who wore a long blonde wig, no shoes, "was mad and bad, and ran a lot"!
John Schlesinger was, according to his brother Roger, captivated even in his childhood by photographs. His first ciné camera was given to him by his grandmother when he was aged 11 years, and he made short movies at Uppingham School - including a secret film of the headmaster sunbathing!
Making 'Black Legend':
In 1948 when the film was made, the Schlessinger family was well known in the area, living in a house called Mount Pleasant (on the Inkpen Road to Christchurch crossroad) from which they could see the gibbet on the nearby hill.
Whilst staying at the house in the Easter of 1948, he and his fellow undergraduate Alan Cooke conceived the idea of making a film about the gibbet, and the story behind it.
They researched the history, planned the film, and managed to get the £200 funding they required. They described the film as "A Mount Pleasant Production, Written, Produced and Directed by Alan Cooke and John Schlesinger".
Through the summer they generated interest to get involvement by other members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, members of their family and friends and local villagers. From these various groups they selected a cast which was as follows:
- The Oxford University Dramatic Society. These were Robert Hardy who played Mad Thomas, the village idiot, Charles Lepper playing Ezra Daniel, David Raeburn (who was John Schlesinger's cousin) played the Rector of Combe, and John Schlesinger and Alan Cooke, besides directing and producing the film, played the Judge and the Prosecutor respectively.
- Family and Friends. These included four of John's siblings - Wendy (Farm girl), Hilary (Cyclist), Susan (Penelope, Ezra Daniel's daughter), Roger (Sheriff of Newbury and Continuity); their friends were John Marples (George Bromham) and Nigel Finzi (Robert Bromham).
- Support Principals from Inkpen which had a flourishing WI with a strong Drama Section were Ena Morgan (Martha Bromham), Dela Bradshaw (Dorothy Newman) and Kate Lovelock (Sarah Pummis).
- Extras. Various neighbours, farm-workers and wives, school children and crowd were all drawn from the villages of Inkpen, Combe and Kintbury.
Newbury.co.uk said in Feb 2011:
"The grisly role of hangman was assigned to pig farmer Percy Billington. The late Jean Tubb was given the part of one of three gossips with Kate Lovelock and Ethel Druce. Her costume included a mobcap which she is recorded as saying, "did nothing to enhance my peculiar style of beauty".
A programme note refers to the patience of the actors who, dressed in XVIIth-century costume were "stamped and shouted at" and compelled to desert their families to spend whole days in windy fields. The pressure was on, for more than 400 separate shots had to be taken in a fortnight and the weather was unkind. At the same time, the harvest had to be brought in and children would cadge lifts on the carts as workers picked up the sheaves.
For ease of filming, a fake gibbet was erected on a brow nearer Inkpen, though many scenes, including the final hanging, were shot on the Beacon itself.
Watching the villagers silhouetted against the sky, trudging up the hill as they followed Roger Schlesinger as Sheriff of Newbury for the execution of the condemned pair on the lonely gibbet still sends a shiver down the spine and underlines the praise Schlesinger was later to receive for his ability to create dramatic effects.
He recalled getting rather too ambitious when it came to shooting the actual hanging.
"I decided to put the camera on a rope and drop it ... giving the impression of plunging to one's doom. What it did was to shake the camera up so seriously that it ruined the motor and shooting was held up!"
The film was in black and white, silent, and was shot on location with wind-up cameras. It was filmed and produced from start to finish between 4 - 24 September 1948 – just before the start of the University Autumn Term! Robert Hardy directed on 16 Sep because Alan Cooke was in bed with asthma. On 21 Sep, when the camera broke down (see above!), there was a hiatus while a replacement came from London.
John Schlessinger gave an account of this hectic activity in the original 1948 Programme which he wrote for the first showings of his film (five in total!) to all who had been involved in any way in the making of it. He wrote:
"In September Mount Pleasant Productions came to Inkpen. Their arrival was unforgettable. They unloaded a mass of strange apparatus at Inkpen Lower Green; they dumped a horse and a wagon-load of children in somebody's front garden; they dressed up respectable villagers in XVIIth Century costumes and stamped and shouted at them, compelling them to desert their families to spend whole days in windy fields, patiently awaiting a single scene. The villagers, already accustomed to the vagaries of professional film units from 'Quiet Weekend' to 'My Brother Jonathan', might well have sent these amateurs packing. For here was a tiny team of locals foolhardy enough to attempt a full scale reconstruction of the Broomham story – murders, executions and all.
We first hit upon the idea of a film about Inkpen Beacon last Easter, struck by the dramatic possibilities of the Gibbet, which had seen a hanging only once, three centuries ago. We scoured the district for information. The many versions of the story - the hornets' nest, the poisoned ham, the chains in the pond - perplexed us, the more so as each new narrative, we were assured, was the "true" one. At last we came upon some written evidence from the Western Circuit Gaol Book. It appears that George Broomham and Dorothy Newman were convicted at Winchester Assizes in 1676 of the murder, "with a staff" of Broomham's wife and son, and were condemned to be hanged "in chains near the place of the murder". On this slender basis the film was built. Inevitably, many will dispute the accuracy of the version chosen. Our aim was merely to present this story as convincingly as possible within the limitations of a film that had to be silent, and which could be shot for the most part in the open air.
Armed with our script, our camera and absurd faith in the September sunshine, we went ahead. Actors were chosen - partly from the Oxford University Dramatic Society, but mainly from the local district. By the end of the summer most of the innumerable preliminaries were in hand. Time was still our constantly harassing enemy, for over four hundred separate shots had to be taken in a fortnight. We had to work late on bleak locations. Actors huddled together on the Beacon in shivering, but patient, misery, while director and cameraman debated interminably. Then Martha, cowering beneath her shawl, or Mad Thomas, who went barefoot throughout the film — would step into position for the next shot, just as the sun dipped beneath a cloud. It is not the studio fan but the authentic scourge of the west that blows through these evening scenes. The finished film is necessarily less smooth than a studio production. But with all its failings we believe black legend to be an achievement that in one respect at least has rarely been equalled. For it shows how much can be achieved by the co-operation of enthusiastic people, even in a project so technical as a film.
Experts demand where the money came from. The answer is that the heavy expenses of film-printing were met by loans from local people, freely and anonymously made. It is to repay their generosity that you are charged an admission fee for this film. Black Legend is dedicated to the villages of Inkpen and Coombe, and to all those for miles around whose unbounded good will was sufficient to bring the Story of the Gibbet to the Screen.
The first showings - three of them - were in the Village Hall, Inkpen on 10 Jan 1949 -at 6pm, 8pm and 9.30pm! There were two further showings shortly after.
Synopsis of the film:
(from themodernantiquarian.com): "The black legend is the tale of forbidden love, a femme fatale, exposed passion and a multiple murder.
Crafted by a Hollywood icon into a 1940's silent black and white movie, the story told by a young John Schlesinger and Alan Cooke contains the same sinful mix of ingredients found in such film noir classics like The postman always knocks twice.
Unlike the pulp fiction penned by Raymond Chandler, this eternal triangle of temptation, lust and homicide, was not played out on the backstreets of some depression hit U.S. city, but on top of the highest and most sacred hill on the Wiltshire Berkshire border.
After 333 years of damnation, have the murdered or murderers' found peace in this ancient landscape?
As with any tale that has become legend, sorting fact from fiction is not straight forward. Many variations on the same theme have grown up and with the script writers hand at work, aspects may have been lost in the mix, added to or completely created. The tale I will now tell may not be the whole story but I shall attempt to be as honest and direct as can be construed.
Travel back in time to a cold winters day in the year 1676, the 23rd of February 1676 to be precise. The place is Winchester Assizes where a farm labourer named George Bromham and a widow named Dorothy Newman are standing trial for murder. The record of the trial is to be found in the Western Circuit Gaol Book for the period XXII-XXIX Charles II, the exact chapter XXVIII Ch.II, is retained in Winchester Library. George Bromham was a farm labourer living in the tiny village of Combe, just below Walbury Hillfort on the edge of Berkshire. He was married to Mrs. Martha Bromham and had a young son, Robert. It would appear that George Bromham had formed some kind of illicit association with the widow Dorothy Newman who lived in the larger village of Inkpen, a few miles over the other side of Walbury Hillfort, in the valley below.
It is not stated how long this relationship had been formed or what brought the two together or even if the relationship was "village gossip". What is clear is that one dark day in the weeks leading up to the trial, Martha and her son Robert were walking the ancient Wigmoreash Drove which connects Inkpen and Woodhay to the top of Inkpen Beacon and Combe. Either George or both George and Dorothy were lying in wait, and beat Martha and Robert to death with a "staffe". Whether both committed murder or not, the beaten bodies of Martha and Robert were dumped into the dew pond known as Wigmoreash Pond or as it became known "Murders' pool".
The tale now twists with the addition of a character called "Mad Thomas". Thomas is said to have been the village idiot and either deaf , dumb or both. It was Thomas who is said to have witnessed the dastardly deed and altered the authorities to the bodies and the culprit(s). Indeed Thomas is said to have been called as a witness at the Assizes. Whether this was fact or fiction is unclear, it may have been written into the film's script for convenience, the guilty party(s) may have been brought down by other factors such as tracks in the snow or mud, the murder weapon(s), blood stained clothing, village gossip or a guilty confession.
Whatever or whoever it was that pointed the finger of suspicion at George Bromham and Dorothy Newman, both were haled off to the Assizes at Winchester, both stood trial for the murder of Martha and her son Robert, both were convicted and found guilty of murder and both were ordered to be hanged "in chaynes near the place of the murder". Their public hanging took place on 3rd March 1676 in Winchester.
Records suggest that some dispute arose as to who would be liable for the cost of the "hanging in chaynes", which would involve the building and erection of a considerable sized double gibbet, together with two sets of iron "chaynes". As the crime was neither committed, or planned in either the parish of Combe or Inkpen, but on their borders. This was settled by the cost being equally split between both parishes and the place that neither parish had claim to as the boundary stopped at the side ditches, the Long Barrow itself. Records indicate that the two dead bodies were then brought back to Inkpen and laid out in the barn at the back of the Crown and Garter Inn, where they were measured up by the local blacksmith and fitted in their chaynes. This barn is reputed to have became a tourist attraction, probably initiated by the landlord, and was renamed 'Gibbet Barn'. It would appear that the final hanging of the bodies of George and Dorothy, now bound in their chaynes, took place each side of their double gibbet on the 6th day of March 1676.
The original gibbet lasted an unknown length of time, but the second gibbet was erected in 1850 to replace the rotted original. This was struck by lightning, and was replaced by number three in 1949. It is unclear if this was a 'prop' used in the film. However, that one lasted only one year, and number four was erected in 1950. Since then the gibbet has been sawn down by vandals on two occasions, in 1965 and 1969, both events believed to have been in protest against hanging. The fourth gibbet blew down in gales during the winter of 1977-78, where the stump had rotted away. The current gibbet was re-erected on May Day, Beltane, 1st May 1979.
Triumph ... Near Oblivion ... Renewal. The film in its first form was shown (five times to meet demand!) to all who had helped in so many ways, and John then gave it to them.
For safe keeping and continuity it was lodged with the Parochial Church Council of St. Michael's, the local Inkpen Church. Over the next 50 years, as John's film making career blossomed to the full, organised showings from time to time.
However, it progressively became clear that in that form, the film was nearing its end. All connection with the Schlesingers had been lost, John's film making career was over, indeed he had died in 2003, and local interest was inevitably waning.
So recognizing its responsibility for the stewardship of what was very much part of Inkpen and Combe's past and present history, the Church Council led in particular by Gerald Atkinson took action.
By 2011 it had been transformed from a worn, grainy, silent film to one that used the longer, better version that John had lodged in the archive of the British Film Institute in London – and it had a sound track (including Welsh Rhapsody (Edward German), English Folk Song Suite (Vaughan Williams), Romance from Gadfly Suite (Shostakovich), and March to the Scaffold from Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz). 'Black Legend' was reborn!
On 6 Mar 2011 the completion of the project was celebrated with a very special showing of Black Legend to a capacity audience at the Watermill Theatre, Bagnor.
The special evening, organised jointly with the Friends of the Watermill Theatre, brought together Robert Hardy and as many of the original cast as possible. The theatre was packed.
Jon Snow (of Channel 4 News) was in conversation live on stage with Robert Hardy and Charles Lepper (now aged 89yrs and who had played a prominent part in the film). They introduced the revitalized 'Black Legend'. To say the least, the evening was memorable one.
In his presentation after the showing of the film, Robert Hardy said:
"Black Legend was a grim tale indeed. But I think I can speak for all of us who were involved in making the film when I say that for us it was great fun to make. For John it was that and more. He had proved to himself that he really could make a feature film.
When she saw it, the much respected critic of The Sunday Times, Dyllis Powell could see the talent that would flower so handsomely in later years, and in her critique of the film she wrote: 'The story is told with a feeling for the medium -which not every professional has preserved. And as I also enjoyed John Schlesinger's camera-work with its bold selection of image, angle and distance, I felt once more that experience is not everything in the cinema. There are also imagination, devotion and intelligence'. Prescient words of what was to come. And my word did we have fun!"
"In the Programme Note for the first showings of the film, John wrote: 'Black Legend is dedicated to the villages of Inkpen and Combe, and to all those for miles around whose unbounded goodwill was sufficient to bring the Story of the Gibbet to the Screen'. He also gave them the first copy which incidentally they still have today.
But that was in 1948 and 50 years and many screenings later, it was very much showing its age. In addition there were two audio tapes that accompanied it, both of immediate postwar vintage. One was of the commentary and was spoken by Alan Cook and the other was selected music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Arthur Bliss. But both tapes had been lost, stolen or had just strayed. The net result of this was that all that was left of John's gift was a film, which was just about serviceable, but was looking distinctly old and worn. And that was it. No commentary and no music. So if Black Legend were to live on, something had to be done.
So a number of enthusiasts from Inkpen lined up and produced the film you have just seen. A copy of the one lodged by John at the National Film Archive was sought and since he was no longer alive permission to use it was asked for and given by the trustees of the Schlesinger Estate. It was silent but it certainly is the definitive version.
But to it we have added new narrative and new music. For the former I was asked by Tony Atkins to read the commentary that had been written and used by Geoff Luton whenever the film was shown in Inkpen for at least the previous 30 years. The music was chosen by Gerald Atkinson who also initiated and co-ordinated the whole project. And the re-mastering and final production were performed by David Thomas. In addition at varying times villagers - in particular Mark Smith, Nigel Pateman, Steve and Hazel Connors and Chris Keene gave their support.
So in its new yet original form, Black Legend lives on and we trust that John casts a judicial but benevolent eye on the contribution we have made. In the Programme Note I mentioned he wrote: 'The finished film is necessarily less smooth than a studio production. But with all its failings we believe Black Legend to be an achievement that in one respect at least has rarely been equalled. For it shows how much can be achieved by the co-operation of enthusiastic people, even in a project so technical as a film'."
John Schlesinger CBE
Born 16th February 1926
Died 25th July, 2003
"The memory lives on"
(With thanks to Gerald Atkinson)
- "Black Legend" [DVD in HHA Archives]