A snapshot of Summerisle and the Wicker Man

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IT never ceases to amaze me how events in life intertwine and return when you least expect it.

And more than once a movie has been the catalyst – read my blog post There’s no exit in any direction… except the one that you can’t see with your eyes if there is any doubt!

But this tale is more straightforward…

I worked at the Galloway Gazette in Newton Stewart as deputy editor between 1992 and 1994. I returned to the paper as editor between 1998 and 1999.

During my first stint at the newspaper – a weekly broadsheet which covers the Machars, the Rhins of Galloway, parts of Kirkcudbrightshire and everything between – we would run a weekly 20 Years Ago feature which would feature news snippits from past editions.

While researching for one issue during late 1992, I came across two issues of our paper from 1972 which featured articles on the filming of the classic British horror movie The Wicker Man.

I was rather gobsmacked, as until that time I had always assumed (wrongly) that the movie had been filmed on Skye or Harris, or one of the other Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland.

I had watched The Wicker Man on release at the Odeon cinema in Worthing as a teenager, back in 1973 (on a double bill with Don’t Look Now) and it had always stayed with me.

The movie’s story, inspired by David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, centres on the visit of Police Sergeant Neil Howie to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle, in search of a missing girl.

Howie, a devout Christian, is appalled to find that the inhabitants of the island have abandoned Christianity and now practise a form of Celtic paganism.

The film’s denouement is shocking, as is the manner of Sgt Howie’s death.

Anyway, my discovery of the back issues of the Gazette also stayed with me.

So when I returned as editor in March 1998, I decided to do a bit of digging. I was curious and wanted to find out more about the making of this amazing film.

The darkroom at the paper’s offices in Newton Stewart was antiquated (this is still before digital photography) and had negatives stored in old Kodak boxes in stacks under wooden benches.

Some of the negs went back to the mid-1960s and were kept in decaying parchment envelopes.

Anyway, after one dusty Saturday morning I found a box with about 70 negatives from the filming/making of The Wicker Man movie.

The negatives looked pristine and by holding a few up to a light I could see they were crystal clear. Was that really Britt Ekland – who played the landlord’s daughter Willow in the move – I was looking at in the town’s high street!

All of these pictures had been taken by our old photographer John McEwan, a loyal servant of the paper for more than 30 years, but now retired.

Newspapers didn’t make contact prints, as they were too costly and time consuming for editors, who had to deal with scores of photos each week. Instead we simply viewed negatives on a light box on our desk then instructed the photographer on which prints we needed.

So most of the negatives had never been made into prints before and John was an amazing snapper.

Although retired, John still popped in for the odd freelance job. By the time he next came into the office, my then photographer Peter Foster, had made some brilliant black and white prints of about two dozen of his Wicker Man photos.

John was amazed that the negs still existed and sat down over a coffee and explained where each photo was taken.

He also told me that Britt Ekland caused a bit of a stir in the town when she stayed at one of the local pub/hotels and after two nights moved out, complaining about the standard of the place!

Apparently by contrast her fellow stars Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) and Edward Woodward (police Sgt Howie) were absolute charmers!

I then realised that we were sitting on the makings of a brilliant 25th anniversary feature for my newspaper.

A few evenings later I showed the prints to a good friend (whose family had farmed near Whithorn for generations) who regaled me about the making of the movie and his childhood memories of local kids being involved in some of the scenes.

He even took me to the site near the Isle of Whithorn at the southern end of the Machars and showed me the burned out rotten stumps of where the Wicker Man had once stood.

I returned to the office and tasked my young reporter Kat Dearden to put together a special feature for our paper.

I envisaged a double page spread, but by the time Kat had finished (one of her jobs was to return to the location of each scene in the movie with our photographer and do a ‘then and now’ picture) we had enough to run over six pages of broadsheet.

And so that is how we came to run a three week double pages feature on The Wicker Man. The series was published on 4th, 18th and 25th December 1998 in the Galloway Gazette and covered every aspect of the making of the film.

As part of that feature, Kat interviewed the movie’s director Robin Hardy and Britt Ekland’s agent and spoke with many local people who had been extras in the filming.

I put in a request for an interview with Edward Woodward and was gobsmacked when a few days later he suddenly returned my call.

I happened to mention at the start of the interview that he had been evacuated during World War 2 to the same primary school in Lancing in Sussex, as my mother and she remembered him well. He didn’t remember my mum, but remembered the school and his time in Lancing. It broke the ice and we chatted for more than 40 minutes about his time in Galloway, the incessant rain, and the making of the movie.

My full interview featured as part of the series.

I actually had a huge job convincing my managing director (and owner of the paper) Iain Brown to let me run a three week feature, which would take up valuable advertising space.

“No one remembers that small film,” he said. “It would bore readers”. His attitude surprised me as he was also chairman of the local community cinema!

Anyway, eventually Iain relented and let me go-ahead. Back in 1998, The Wicker Man only had a small cult following, so I guess it was a bit of  a gamble as to whether readers would be interested in something which had happened 25 years earlier.

But the reaction to our feature series was immense with scores of readers’ letters and even requests from the USA for copies of our paper. Kat went on to win Scottish Weekly Journalist of the Year, largely on the back of that feature.

There was then a piece of bizarre irony.

Within five years, for no obvious reason, The Wicker Man went from being a small cult movie into a world-wide phenomenon, even spawning the annual Wickerman music festival.

It was as if the movie suddenly gained a new life.

In 2011, a spiritual sequel entitled The Wicker Tree was released. This film was also directed by Hardy, and featured Christopher Lee in a cameo appearance. Hardy was working on his next film, The Wrath of the Gods, which would have completed The Wicker Man Trilogy, at the time of his death in July 2016.

In 2004, Total Film magazine named The Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time; and during the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony the film was included as part of a sequence that celebrated British cinema.

In 2013, a copy of the original US theatrical version was digitally restored and released.

Anyway, I left the Galloway Gazette in mid-1999 with about 16 wonderful prints of the making of The Wicker Man.

I also had copies of each edition of the paper while I was editor.

Sadly, over the years most of the prints and copies of the paper were lost or sold.

Then last year, after moving house I found a few surviving prints. These are the ones I feature here for any reader’s amusement or interest.

  • The two photographs of the Wicker Man under construction, were taken at the filming location near the Isle of Whithorn in the Machars.
  • The two photographs of Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie) and Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) were taken in the grounds of Culzean Castle in south Ayrshire and at Logan Botanical Gardens near Stranraer.
  • The photograph of Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie) in a boat was taken in Loch Ryan off the west pier, Stranraer.

One day I will return to the Machars and relive my small journey in the history of The Wicker Man.

 

 

Academies – another brick in the wall of privatisation

In the not-so-sleepy seaside resort of Hastings the parents are angry.

Not just kiss-me-quick hat or candy floss angry… they are absolutely furious.

They are waging a war against education overlords which promises to match a similar battle fought here 950 years ago.

If the parents lose, the victims won’t be Saxon warriors… but small children.

The board of governors of Castledown Primary School wants their 400 pupil school to become an academy by September 2017.

They claim the school is failing by virtue of its recent SAT results, while failing to recognise its long held excellent reputation for music and the arts.

Now parents have formed a Hands Off Castledown group to fight the plans, which many see as a backdoor to privatisation and cherry picking of elite academic pupils.

In January, Castledown formally announced its intention to join the Ark Academy Trust. But parents, teachers and local residents were only told of the decision via a letter explaining a six week consultation period. And there have been no consultations on any alternatives to Ark or academisation.

The Ark group already runs several other schools in the Hastings area. Nationally it had an income of £21.9 million and assets of £31.3 million in the year ending August 2015 – the last year for which full accounts are available.

Its income and assets are increasing by about £2.5 million a year.

Richard Sage, chairman of governors at Castledown, said the governors decided after meetings with various trusts that Ark was best for the school.

“We felt it was important to move rapidly to ensure the school is delivering the highest possible quality education for Castledown pupils as soon as possible,” he said.

Castledown is in the bottom 10% of schools for 2016 SATS exam results.

But according to Hands Off Castledown, results were poor because the 2014 curriculum was implemented two years too late. Pupils sitting the exams in 2016 had not received up-to-date teaching.

Additionally, the previous Ofsted report in 2013 marked the school as Good.

Hands Off Castledown says it has spoken to parents who removed their children from other Ark academies because of its history of imposing restrictive and regimental behaviour policies, which many believe are not suitable for young children.

On 15 February, Hastings Borough Council gave its full backing to the Hands Off Castledown campaign.

Council leader Peter Chowney put forward a motion to the full council which said: “We believe by taking schools out of local authority control, and reducing the powers and responsibilities of governing boards, educational performances are not necessarily improved and a less rewarding educational experience for students can be created through a narrower curriculum.

“There are now currently only two schools left in Hastings that have not converted to academies, and at one of these, Castledown Primary, there is now a proposal to convert this school to an academy too.

“This council therefore supports parents in their campaign to oppose the academisation of Castledown without any alternatives being presented, and calls for the current plans to be to be halted immediately so that parents, governors, staff, and other stakeholders can explore all possible options to improve standards and effectiveness of teaching at the school.”

The motion was carried unanimously.

Councillor Tania Charman even suggested the school governors should resign.

“They oversaw Castledown’s decline,” she said, “So should not decide its future.”

Campaigner Louise Hersee has delivered a petition of over 1,000 signatures to East Sussex County Council, opposing the academisation.

Hands Off Castledown is simply calling for a halt to this consultation with Ark, in order for every stakeholder group to have a proper discussion about the school’s rapid decline and then to look at all the alternative solutions available,” she said.

“This is extremely reasonable and justified.

“All over the country schools are turning into academies, and all over the country parents are wondering why this is happening.

“Here in Hastings we believe that Ark Schools is a bad fit for Castledown and that there are other options!”

Nationally, the imposition of academy status on many supposedly “failing schools” has been met with similar outrage and opposition as that currently evident in Hastings.

Many believe that academies are part of a Conservative government mantra to introduce privatisation and “grammar school type” selection on state schools.

They point to the profit margins of many academy trusts and the salaries paid to their headteachers.

One head of a primary academy chain took home a salary in excess of £200,000, after being handed a massive pay rise.

Sir Greg Martin, executive head of Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, saw his salary rise by 56 per cent to a total of £200,822 – due to the fact he runs several schools.

He also received £28,316 in pension contributions, which took his overall remuneration package to £229,138.

Sir Greg – who is planning a boarding school in the Sussex countryside – also earned a further £160,000 from a company set up to run the school’s sports and fitness centre last year.

This is more than the Prime Minister and many city bankers.

Last year delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Liverpool, heard that growing numbers of heads were now also earning more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £149,440 a year.

“When schools were under local council control, it would have been unthinkable as well as impossible that a headteacher, of even a group of schools, could earn more than a director of education, let alone the Secretary of State for Education, let alone the Prime Minister,” Simon Clarkson from Leicestershire told the conference.

“We need to guard against the rot of greed. Executive headteachers and headteachers have looked at their budgets and I am afraid some have decided to pay themselves excessive salaries.”

Figures showed that in 2015, a total of 41 heads were earning more than £142,000 a year.

Mr Clarkson said: “Our state schools are paid for by the public. They need to be accountable. When I started teaching, especially in the state sector, there was little or no corruption.”

He added: “Let me remind you whose money is being used to do this… ours!”

So what are academies?

  • Academies receive their funding directly from the government, rather than through local authorities like other state funded schools. They also operate independently of local authorities and the National Curriculum.
  • There are two types: converter academies (those previously with ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grades that have converted to academy status) and sponsored academies (mostly underperforming schools converting to academy status and run by sponsors).
  • In 2016 there were around 5,200 academies open across all age groups. About 3,600 are converter academies. A further 700 are in development.
  • Evidence on the performance of academies compared to local authority schools is mixed. One analysis found little difference in GCSE performance between academies and similar local authority schools. There’s little evidence available which looks at primary schools.
  • Academies are directly accountable to the Education Secretary, while all other state-funded schools are accountable to local authorities. Both are inspected by Ofsted.
  • Academies are run by academy trusts and don’t have to follow the national curriculum and have greater freedom to set their own term times and admissions. They also have more freedom over employing unqualified teachers.

A 2014 survey of academies by the DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have changed the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.

In 2015, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the DfE for allowing academy chains to grow in size without independent assessments of their capacity and capability to do so.

And 17 sponsors had been formally paused from being able to expand further because of concerns over the performance of their schools by the DfE.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw raised concerns with the government in March 2016 regarding the performance of seven multi-academy trusts.

He said that “much more needs to be done to reduce the variation in standards between the best and worst academy trusts”.

Back on the Sussex coast, the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, Amber Rudd, who is also the Home Secretary, has not become involved in the battle over Castledown School, although she is a known supporter of academies.

But shadow education minister Angela Rayner MP is a vociferous opponent of academies and grammar schools.

Last September, she said: “Tory academy plans are in complete chaos. 

“The impossible job the Department for Education has set itself in trying to directly run thousands of schools from Whitehall is fully exposed as we learn over half of existing academy chains have refused to take on schools and 70% of inadequate academies have been left languishing with poor academy chains.

“Forcing all schools to become academies and introducing even more disruption into the system with new grammar schools will make this situation even worse.

“The Tories need to get a hold on this once and for all or it will be our children who pay the price.”