How Essaouira came to the rescue of a Hollywood legend

You don't need to be a location scout to spot the appeal of Essaouira, on Morocco's Atlantic coast, for photographers and film-makers. The working harbour is packed with brightly painted boats. Seagulls swoop, as sardine-fishermen wheel box-loads of silvery fish towards the open-air grill-restaurants that crowd the harbour. And the souks of Essaouira's Medina ("old town") and its Jewish Mellah area are typically Moroccan hybrids of exotica, colour and chaos, selling leather slippers, jewellery, spices and bundles of ostrich feathers.

You don't need to be a location scout to spot the appeal of Essaouira, on Morocco's Atlantic coast, for photographers and film-makers. The working harbour is packed with brightly painted boats. Seagulls swoop, as sardine-fishermen wheel box-loads of silvery fish towards the open-air grill-restaurants that crowd the harbour. And the souks of Essaouira's Medina ("old town") and its Jewish Mellah area are typically Moroccan hybrids of exotica, colour and chaos, selling leather slippers, jewellery, spices and bundles of ostrich feathers.

In June 1948, Essaouira was known as Mogador. It was then that the American actor-director Orson Welles arrived to shoot Othello. For the exterior filming, he wanted to return Shakespeare's Moor to his homeland.

An 18th-century fortress-town seemed ideal: magnificent ramparts and battlements, windswept headlands and views of storm-tossed rocks in one direction and empty white beaches in the other.

Welles's personal Road to Mogador had so far been anything but smooth. The filming of Othello had been beset by desperate financial difficulties – not least when the initial set of Italian backers withdrew after suddenly realising that they were sponsoring a film of the Shakespeare play rather than of Verdi's opera.

Casting had proved a nightmare. Welles was by now on to his fourth Desdemona, and had also had to junk reels of earlier footage following the premature departure of the original Iago.

Arriving in Mogador one sunny day in June, to an enthusiastic welcome from the town's governor, he must have thought his luck had changed.

How wrong can a man be? Within hours, a telegram had arrived with the news that the latest lot of finance had fallen through. There he was, Welles recalled to the New York biographer Barbara Leaming in the early Eighties, with an entourage of 60 people, "And we didn't even have return tickets! No costumes, no return tickets, nothing!" What he was later to call his "desperate adventure" – in all, Othello took four years to complete – had begun.

Impressively, if recklessly, Welles resolved that the show would go on. And, ironically, adversity inspired what was later to be recognised as some of the most creative improvisation of his career. The lack of costumes for his planned first sequence of filming – the attempted murder of Cassio – was solved by the brainwave of filming the attack in a local hammam, or steam bath, so that only towels were needed.

The townspeople also played their part – sometimes literally, by standing in for departed actors in sequences that the resourceful Welles shot deliberately in silhouette. For later scenes, the tailors of the Mellah came up trumps with suits of armour made from sardine cans. But, as Welles was later to reflect, his time in Mogador was "one of the happiest times I've ever known – despite all the struggle".

To get a feel for what so attracted Welles to Essaouira, there is no better place to begin than by climbing the ramparts. The opening shot of the film pans the full length of the Skala de la Ville, the great sea bastion running along the northern cliffs of the town.

Along the top walkway, there's a row of massive European cannons, gifted to the town by merchants. Along the rue de Skala below, and built into the ramparts, are Essaouira's wood workshops. Inlaying local thuya wood with lemon wood, mother-of-pearl and silver thread, the town's skilled craftsmen create some of the most exquisite marquetry in Africa.

Otherwise, throw yourself into the bustle of the souks or the harbourside, where in many ways little has changed since Welles's sojourn 50 years ago. The atmosphere of the town is relaxed and friendly – much less hectic, for example, than Marrakesh. Horse-drawn carriages remain the preferred form of cheap public transport, with ranks at the southern entrance to the Medina or at the large Bab Doukkala square to the north of the town. Markets in the open squares sell piles of chillies and peppers, barrels of dressed olives and dried apricots, and live sheep.

Nightlife in Essaouira can be lively if you know where to look, with music featuring prominently – as you might expect from a town visited by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and other musicians in the Sixties. Hendrix supposedly wrote "Castles Made Of Sand" about Essaouira.

If your aim is to paint the town red, however, you'll have your work cut out to match the excesses of Micheal MacLiammoir, the Irish actor playing Iago in Welles's film. He and his partner, Hilton Edwards – who was playing Brabantio – were affectionately nicknamed Sodom and Begorrah. Welles received regular bulletins on MacLiammoir's nightly antics from the town's governor, and proved himself splendidly unshockable. At least, he remarked – ever the pragmatist – "he picked up from the policemen he took home with him at night a great deal of useful Arabic".

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