10 great films set in the West Country

From Straw Dogs to Hot Fuzz, these 10 films capture the wildness, weirdness and wonder of England’s south-west.

12 May 2017

By Sam Wigley

Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (2016)

Between Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Daphne du Maurier and Robert Louis Stevenson, the canon of great literature has ensured that depictions of England’s south-west have never been far from our screens. Few books have been adapted more often than The Hound of the Baskervilles (set on Dartmoor) or Treasure Island (which kicks off in Bristol), while versions of Hardy and du Maurier show no signs of abating – there’s a new version of du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel due this summer.

This literary pedigree, together with the storied wildness of the place, means that the West Country was once a setting – before location shooting became commonplace – that was imagined and rebuilt on a soundstage as often as it was actually seen on screen. Atmospheric Hollywood visions of the south-west can be enjoyed in films such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), adapted from the children’s classic by J. Meade Falkner (a Wiltshire boy). Yet even the British industry often built Cornwall rather than actually filming there (cf various Hammer horrors).

Since those days, the region has welcomed a number of world-class auteurs, including Sam Peckinpah, Jerzy Skolimowski and Nicolas Roeg (who filmed The Witches in Newquay in 1990), and their conclusion seems to have been the same: that there’s some pretty strange shit going on once you get west of Stonehenge. (For the record, in 1995, Cornwall also welcomed the crew of Blue Juice).

Hope Dickson Leach’s extraordinary debut film, The Levelling, is a welcome corrective, then, to all the swashbuckling romance and whacked-out weirdness. Set on a farm that’s still dealing with the fallout of the Somerset floods of 2013-14, it’s an emotionally blindsiding story of grief and family friction, with a riveting performance at its heart from Ellie Kendrick.

To celebrate its release in cinemas and on BFI Player, here are 10 gems set in the West Country, whether real or imagined.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Director: Anthony Asquith

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

One of the jewels of British silent cinema, this 1929 melodrama begins with an escaped convict making his way across blasted moorland to a lonely cottage, where a mother tends her baby unaware of the intruder. The story then flashes back to a time when the man worked in a salon in a small Devon town, where his infatuation for his co-worker, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring), develops into a dangerous obsession.

The young Anthony Asquith had already shown his flare in films such as Shooting Stars (1928) and Underground (1928), and A Cottage on Dartmoor is a fine example of how richly visual film storytelling could be in the period just before the arrival of sound (an event that Asquith’s film explicitly references with a long scene set during a date at a ‘talkie’). The gothic stylings of the film’s bookending Dartmoor scenes are especially memorable, and, while A Cottage on Dartmoor has often been eclipsed by Alfred Hitchcock’s silent productions, there’s an interesting foreshadowing of the croft scenes in Hitch’s The 39 Steps (1935) in the triangular setup of a fugitive seeking shelter at a remote home, with all the odd undercurrents of feeling that creates.

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Rebecca (1940)

Cinema has done surprisingly well by the novels of Daphne du Maurier, who lived in Cornwall for much of her life and repeatedly set her stories there. But, while Alfred Hitchcock filmed three of her stories, only the first (and least) of the resulting movies – the out-of-character period melodrama Jamaica Inn (1939) – took the production to the West Country. Picking du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca for his first project in Hollywood, Hitch used the California coastline as a stand-in for Cornwall, while his 1963 film of her short story ‘The Birds’ had the temerity to move the story’s setting there too.

That injustice aside, Rebecca remains one of film’s great gothic melodramas, featuring immortal performances from Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier as a nameless ingénue and the handsome playboy Maxim de Winter who sweeps her off her feet. After a whirlwind marriage, he takes her back to live on his Cornish estate, Manderley, where she’s haunted by the household’s undying memories of de Winter’s late first wife, the eponymous Rebecca. Both leads were Oscar-nominated, alongside Judith Anderson’s extraordinary turn as the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, but wins for best picture and for George Barnes’ atmospheric camerawork were enough to announce Hitchcock as a major Hollywood player.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Director: Terence Fisher

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Not the first, nor the last, adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor-set mystery, but perhaps the finest. This was produced by Hammer Films, when they were riding a wave of success following their colour versions of Frankenstein and Dracula, with the same director (Terence Fisher), stars (Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) and composer (James Bernard) all in place. 

Cushing is Sherlock Holmes, with André Morell as his Watson, who is called west to Devon to watch over the new owner of Baskerville hall, Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee), lest the same fate befall him that has befallen his ancestors: mauling by a mysterious giant hound. Beginning with a florid prologue, which establishes the history of the Baskerville curse during a lusty night of 18th-century debauchery, Fisher tells the story with great intrigue and colour, effectively conjuring the swirling mists and prehistoric grandeur of Dartmoor even though the Hammer crew never went further than Chobham Common in Surrey. Likewise, the two classic, Cornish-set horrors that Hammer made back to back in 1966, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, were made on a Cornish village set constructed at Bray Studios.

The Damned (1962)

Director: Joseph Losey

The Damned (1962)

An outlier in the Hammer canon, The Damned begins as a juvenile delinquent movie before setting sail for stranger shores. Made by the exiled American master Joseph Losey, immediately before his move into increasingly high-brow fare with Eva (1962) and The Servant (1963), it stars Oliver Reed as King, the leader of a young gang of bikers who mug an American yachtsman. King’s sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), subsequently strikes up a friendship with the tourist, and opts to escape King’s clutches by joining him to sail around the coast.

What the boaters soon discover in nearby caves, however, where they hide out to escape King’s gang, tips Losey’s film well and truly into atomic age sci-fi territory. Filmed in Weymouth and at Portland Bill, The Damned’s mixture of textures confused its studio, which held up the release. But this is one of the strange gems of 1960s British cinema, dating far better than some of Hammer’s more lurid fare. The gang scenes are often seen as a precursor to the viciousness of A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

Director: John Schlesinger

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

You need a Thomas Hardy adaptation in a list of West Country films, and this lauded version of Far from the Madding Crowd edges out Roman Polanski’s luxurious 1979 Tess as the latter saw fit to cast parts of Normandy as Hardy’s Wessex. More properly shot in various locations across Dorset and Wiltshire, John Schlesinger’s epic 1960s version cast Julie Christie as the tragic heroine Bathsheba, with Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch as the three men in her orbit.

Released in Britain in October 1967, after the Summer of Love, Schlesinger’s film seemed to anticipate the hippie era’s move towards folk pastoralism, including traditional songs on the soundtrack and with vivid photography from Nicolas Roeg that turns positively psychedelic during a farm worker’s drunken vision. It’s a relatively faithful imagining of the Hardy classic, which was done before in a 1915 version (now sadly lost) and since in Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 film, starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah is best known for his violent fables of the American west, notably 1969’s The Wild Bunch, a watershed moment in the depiction of violence on screen. After the far gentler desert story The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), however, he decamped to England’s own wild west for this grim adaptation of Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm that remains notorious for its central rape scene.

Filmed in St Buryan, Cornwall, a village out towards Land’s End, Straw Dogs creates an oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere from its opening moments, as an American academic, David (Dustin Hoffman), and his wife, Amy (Susan George), arrive in the village where the latter grew up. They’ve escaped the unrest of student protest-era America in search of some peace for David’s research, but immediately attract attention from Amy’s ex-boyfriend and the lascivious creeps who associate with him, who lewdly eye up Amy at every turn, encroaching upon the couple in ways that escalate into terror. Be warned: this is a deeply depressing and disturbing film, with a despairing view of the incompatibility of people – whether male-female or urban-rural. The Cornwall tourist board should probably have sued for damages.

Nuts in May (1976)

Director: Mike Leigh

Nuts in May (1976)

Mike Leigh’s much-loved Play for Today details a turbulent camping trip to Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, where Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman) and her fastidious partner Keith (Roger Sloman) have come away for a break. Hell is other people, however, as the couple’s efforts to get back to nature in peace are continually frustrated by the behaviour of fellow campers and tourists.

The key inspiration for Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (2012), in which the angst turns murderous, Nuts in May visits many of the Jurassic Coast’s most scenic spots, from Lulworth Cove to Corfe Castle (supposedly the inspiration for Enid Blyton’s Kirrin Castle). But Leigh shows how the pernicketiness of an obsessive mind means there’s always trouble in paradise, painting a rather bleak picture of people’s inability to exist alongside one another on the same patch of land. Luckily, it’s also an uproariously funny film – one that gets to the heart of that peculiar unease of the English on holiday.

The Shout (1978)

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

The Shout (1978)

The beach at Saunton Sands on the north Devon coast had already given Michael Powell and Pressburger a location for the opening scenes of their immortal 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, but in the late 1970s they hosted more visionary filmmaking when Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski arrived to film this one-of-a-kind horror movie amid the dunes and in the nearby village of Westleigh.

It’s the bizarre story of a wandering weirdo (Alan Bates) who claims to have the power to shout people to death – a skill he learned from an Aboriginal shaman. In the mesmerising opening, his sinister silhouette looms over the dunes towards the camera (an effect which suggests Skolimowski may have spent some of his time in England watching that classic Ghost Story for Christmas, A Warning to the Curious), and before long he’s inveigling himself into the household of an experimental musician (John Hurt) and his wife (Susannah York). Hands down one of the best and strangest films ever made in Britain, The Shout needs to be seen to be believed – and then hollered about from the rooftops.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Director: Edgar Wright

Hot Fuzz (2017)

West Country born and bred, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg followed the cult success of Shaun of the Dead (2004) with this hilarious riff on 1980s and 90s cop movies, set in a fictional Gloucestershire village though actually filmed in Wells, Somerset, where Wright grew up. Pegg plays the London police officer deemed too ruthlessly efficient by the Met so is sent out to pasture in a sleepy rural community out west, where his new partner is the Bad Boys II-obsessed Nick Frost.

Packed to the roster with British TV stars, Hot Fuzz happily swerves the awfulness that usually befalls such casting, rattling off its gags with an impressive hit rate and sending up English village life in a way that’s both delicious and fondly observed. Things turn sinister when a spate of killings rocks the neighbourhood, which gives Wright and co the opportunity to invoke that rich strain of British cinema – from Straw Dogs to The Wicker Man – that deals with urban outsiders trespassing perilously into rural communities. Indeed, long before the likes of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) or Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’ video (2016), Hot Fuzz now looks like one of the first shots across the bow in the current resurgence of interest in folk horror. And, watched again in today’s political climate, the villagers’ cries of “Make Sandford great again” chill the bones.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

Director: Stephen Frears

Tamara Drewe (2010)

Screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Stephen Frears have great fun upturning our idealised picture of English country life in this deftly amusing big-screen version of a graphic novel series by Posy Simmonds, a modern spin on the Far from the Madding Crowd story that began life as a Guardian comic strip.

Gemma Arterton stars as the eponymous heroine, who returns from the big city to her home village in Ewedown, Dorset, transformed from the girl that the villagers remember and ready to set local libidos aflutter. Roger Allam (as philandering crime writer Nicholas Hardiment, who owns the local writers’ retreat), Dominic Cooper (as an up-himself rock star) and Luke Evans (as Tamara’s hunky ex-boyfriend) are the three men competing for her attention, while there’s fine support from Tamsin Greig as Nicholas’s patient wife Beth. A richly entertaining comedy of middle-class manners and mores, Tamara Drewe was filmed in the Dorset villages of Salwayash, Blackdown and Yetminster, and is said to have instigated a boom in visitors.

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