Powell and Pressburger’s Kent: finding the mystical locations of A Canterbury Tale

The past endures inside the present in Powell and Pressburger’s spiritual masterpiece A Canterbury Tale, filmed during wartime in the Kent countryside. We went on a pilgrimage to the film’s locations.

25 October 2023

By Adam Scovell

A Canterbury Tale (1944) © ITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Writer-producer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were one of the most successful and imaginative creative pairings in British film history. Their beautiful, eccentric and often mystical films managed to be distinctly British while also leaning towards the otherworldly. The results ranged from uncanny dramas such as I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and Black Narcissus (1947) to more overtly fantastical films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). Though their films were often heavily studio-based, Powell and Pressburger also knew how to make evocative use of actual locations – something very apparent in their use of Canterbury and the surrounding Kent countryside in the 1944 film A Canterbury Tale.

A Canterbury Tale is set and filmed against the backdrop of the Second World War, with the story revolving around British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), US Army Sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet) and ‘Land Girl’ Alison Smith (Sheila Sim). The trio find themselves in the quaint Kent town of Chillingbourne where an assailant, known locally as the ‘glue man’, is targeting women in the town at night by dousing their hair with glue.

Intrigued and determined, the three embark on a quest to unveil the identity of the man before they’re due to head to Canterbury, where problems in their various personal lives seem to draw them. Their suspicions fall on local magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who seems determined to keep the soldiers focused on his lectures about an older England and the fight against the Nazi enemy.

No doubt inflected by Powell’s own memories of his childhood and education at The King’s School in the town, Powell and Pressburger’s film poignantly documents an array of locations towards the tail end of the war, after Nazi bombing raids had destroyed parts of the town. Relying on some fictional places as well as some camera trickery and illusion, the picturesque German Expressionist-influenced cinematography of Erwin Hillier brings the settings a fantastical, mysterious, even spiritual character.

Here are five locations from A Canterbury Tale as they stand today.

Fordwich

The film’s journey begins with the three characters arriving in fictional Chillingbourne, a composite of several small towns and villages in the area. The following shots were taken in the town of Fordwich, just outside of Canterbury itself. This shot shows the town’s High Street.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Later we see shots of the town again, though mostly blocked by a huge bale of hay being transported. This shot is round the corner from the previous one, on King Street. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The next shot on King Street is a little easier to recognise due to the presence of The George & Dragon pub seen in the back of the shot. The pub is still standing.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Later we see another shot of the High Street as members of the public head to the talk being given by Colpeper. This shot looks in the opposite direction to the earlier one but is of the same buildings, the one on the left being The Manor House, marked by a blue plaque commemorating the artist Alfred Palmer. The building itself was the inspiration for the Colpeper Institute in the film. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Selling

One of the first shots we see of Chillingbourne is of its railway station. Chillingbourne Railway Station is just outside of Canterbury again and is in fact the station at Selling.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Much has remained as it was, being a country station with little need to adapt to the hustle and bustle of more modern, busier stations. The gangway over the line, for example, is pretty much as it was, aside from the overgrowth of foliage.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The foliage is even more overgrown in the shot below. The field seen behind Charles Hawtrey’s stationmaster is now hidden, but the adjacent fields have since been built over.  

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

One of the few aspects to have changed at the station is the signal box, which, although the surrounding stairs remain, has since gone.  

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Canterbury streets

Considering how much of the film’s focus is on Canterbury itself, it’s surprising that the town doesn’t make a full appearance until much later on in the film (though, of course, the narrative is mostly about journeys rather than destinations). Canterbury was heavily bombed before the filming, so many of the streets were heavily damaged. However, many of the older buildings seen in the film are as they were. This shot of St Dunstan’s Street, for example, is easily recognisable.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Another view of the Westgate Tower is seen in this earlier shot. This time, it’s taken from the other side, again unchanged.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The police station that Gibbs intends to visit in order to inform on Colpeper’s glue-related activities is also next to the Westgate. The building is just beyond the gate on Pound Lane.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

We see a close-up of the building as Gibbs approaches, before he bottles out of informing on Colpeper. The building is now part of the museum that is built into the Westgate.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The outside of Canterbury Cathedral

The film reaches its climax at Canterbury Cathedral. One of the first images we see of the cathedral is from Cathedral Gate, whose arch can be seen darkening a portion of the shot.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The camera then moves closer to the beautiful architecture, focusing on the many details of the building, its towers and its ornate arches. The cathedral today is currently undergoing intensive maintenance work. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The film shows the building’s most famous entrance at the foot of its tower, the south-west porch, with its array of statues of saints and archbishops. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

However, it isn’t this entrance that Gibbs goes through when entering the cathedral to play its organ. He uses a smaller door, further along, that brings him next to St Michael’s Chapel. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

We see a better shot of the doorway just before Gibbs goes into the building. As with all of these locations, almost everything is as it was – being one of Britain’s most historic religious buildings. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The inside of Canterbury Cathedral

It’s by an incredible feat of simulation by art director Alfred Junge that the film appears to enter into Canterbury Cathedral. It’s well documented that the team couldn’t use the building’s interiors, partly due to permissions, partly because, during the Nazi bombing campaigns, wartime procedure had forced the cathedral to move the stain-glass windows and organ to places of safety.

Instead, replicas and trick perspectives were created on a large lot at Denham Studios, and it’s relatively easy to line up these illusory shots with the real cathedral today. The inside section that we (apparently) see in the first shot of interior is now one of the cathedral’s gift shops.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Gibbs looks up from his position and, again, it seems unthinkable that this isn’t the real thing, due to the sheer depth and detail that is clearly present. If it is a model shot, then it is uncannily accurate, and certainly easy to recreate today. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

Another rooftop shot looks equally real. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

But the film’s trickery comes more obviously into play when Gibbs is considering playing the cathedral’s organ. The stairs in the following shot do not lead up to the organ as seen in the film, but instead run alongside St Michael’s Chapel, leading eventually to the south-east transept.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

The film’s ultimate trickery occurs in the shots of the vast nave and its stain-glass windows. Such is the accuracy of the shot and its camera trick, however, that it is relatively simple to line up a shot in the real location as it is seen today. Real or illusion, there was always an unspoken magic to Powell and Pressburger’s work. 

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Location from A Canterbury Tale (1944) in the present day

References


Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).

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