The Location Hunters: Whistle's echo in the valley: It is 33 years since Hayley Mills and the film crew arrived in a Lancashire village to make Whistle Down the Wind. The locations are still there, and many of the actors, says David Prest

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
There are three distinct groups of visitors to the village of Downham in Lancashire's Ribble Valley. Throughout the summer, coachloads of American Mormons come to picnic by the brook where their founding fathers were baptised. Then, every Hallowe'en, the village is besieged by the witch followers who are searching for the spirits of Mother Demdike and Alice Nutter, who roamed nearby Pendle Hill in the 17th century.

The third group of pilgrims are a sentimental bunch. They come to Downham because of its connection with a film about a murderer on the run, who is mistaken for Jesus by a group of village children and secretly given refuge in a remote barn.

Whistle Down the Wind is one of those slightly cringe-making, saccharine juvenile classics. Directed by Bryan Forbes (his first feature), and produced by Richard Attenborough's Beaver Films, it is packed with doe-eyed youngsters, groups of children running down country lanes and barrels of postwar innocence and nave one-liners.

Apart from the 14-year-old Hayley Mills, all the children in the film were recruited from the primary schools in Downham and Chatburn. The salient requirements were angelic features and the ability to deliver Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's lines with a natural Pennine country twang. Central were Diane Holgate, who played Kathy's sister Nan ('Funny, him coming to our barn, it's like a miracle'), and Alan Barnes, who played young Charles and stole the film with such lines as, 'He's not Jesus, he's just a fella.'

At the post office in Downham, run by Stephen and Dianne Smith, I stepped on to a well-worn path. There had been a steady flow of inquirers about the various locations, especially since the last television showing of the film on New Year's Day. The Smiths bought the business, which includes a tea shop and the village ice-cream booth, 16 months ago, after spotting an advertisement in Daltons Weekly. Last month, an anonymous donor sent them a pile of cuttings from the local newspapers of 1961, and the couple now offer them to anyone on the trail of the film. 'Film producer topples pennies', and 'Pendle mist did not stop the film-making' are two classics from the Burnley Express scrapbook.

But it was in nearby Clitheroe, at the local tourist information centre, that I found Kirsteen, who 'only does Saturdays', my best lead. Wearing her 'Ribble Valley - the centre of the Kingdom' sweatshirt, she explained that she lived not half a mile from the farm that hosted the film crews, then described a nice little three-mile walk that leads you round all the locations.

In 1961, Beaver Films could have chosen any of a handful of quaint little villages in the Ribble Valley, but none fitted the bill better than Downham. It sits in a fold of Pennine Hills. The stone-built Tudor houses and 19th-century hand-loom weavers' cottages that tumble down the slope provide perfect balance to the scene as you stand at the bottom of the village looking up from the stone bridge over the brook. Even through the viewfinder of a box Brownie camera, the place would have a made-for-the-movies look.

Exactly 33 years on from the arrival of the film crew, Downham has taken its tourists to heart. There is an award-winning car park for trippers; the public conveniences in a converted cow pen are commended as among the best in Britain. The parish church of St Leonard's has a free guide to parts of historical interest, and boasts that Queen Mary once remarked it had 'the most beautiful view from any church porch in the land'.

Standing at the lower end of the village, it is easy to conjure those opening minutes of the film, as the three children skip down the hill. 'Our Charles' attempts to give his salvaged kitten to a member of the Salvation Army band playing by the stream. The band plays, the mallards honk in the background, young Charles's oversized wellies slap against his calves, and the blue woodsmoke slants from the end-of- terrace chimney stack. Today, the area where the band played is a bit of waste ground where people park their cars and eat their sandwiches off the dashboard. Occasionally, they get out and feed the odd crust to the ducks, but generally they arrive, park, eat and depart. The gable end of the last house has had an upstairs window installed, and some of the porch stones up the main street are straighter, but the woodsmoke is still there. The map showed a footpath meandering through the fields towards Worsaw End Farm. There were no signs, just a series of stiles to confirm I was on the right track. To the left was the long brow of Pendle Hill, punctuated by deep gullies, the sort which, if you believe Harrison Ainsworth's account, were scorched by witches' fireballs in the time of Mother Demdike. Ahead and to the right was the steep gradient edge of Worsaw Hill where, in the title sequence, the three children, silhouetted on the horizon, made their ascent, carrying the kittens they had rescued from a watery grave.

The farther you go, the easier the locations are to spot. The head of the farm track on the little lane where an ancient Ribble Bus drops the children, the stream the 'disciples' vaulted, and the hedge along which they scurried as they made for the barn where the murderer/Messiah was holed up. All are instantly recognisable.

First glimpse of the farmhouse, though, is somewhat confusing. It is only when you get close up that the film-maker's perspective drops into place, and you can imagine the children running towards the barn for a last glimpse of Alan Bates before he is frisked by Superintendent Teesdale and led away. There is still a neat little dry-stone wall around the farmhouse garden, and despite the addition of a couple of glass-fibre feed hoppers and piles of polythene-bagged silage, the barn, too, is relatively unchanged.

Ian Hanson is the third generation of his family to farm at Worsaw End, and his three children go to school in Clitheroe. The eldest, David, sports a Blackburn Rovers strip, and seemed unimpressed with the film, which he saw for the first time this year.

Ian was 12 when his parents played host to the Beaver crew and, through a timely bout of appendicitis, was around for much of the action. He remembers the excitement occasioned by the arrival of John Mills at the farm, and the hilarity when his car broke down, blocking the gate. 'Two of the sound engineers put a sign on it: 'For sale - one knackered Rolls-Royce'.'

Most of the film was done on location (only the interior of the farm kitchen was rebuilt at Pinewood), and yet the life of the farm went on. 'They rigged up a red light in the milking parlour,' remembered Ian, 'and if it was switched on we had to make sure we didn't make too much noise with the milking tins.' Richard Attenborough was 'a gentleman', and Bryan Forbes was 'very nice, too', they all say; and Ian's mother, Stella, who now lives in Clitheroe, still gets a Christmas card from Lord Attenborough.

After tying up a shippon full of Friesians, Ian and his wife Karyn led me into the final hallowed place. The interior of the barn is narrower than it appears in the film and, for lowly effect, in an attempt to sustain the allegory, the crew evidently erected a couple of hay byres. I suggested that a commemorative plaque on the wall outside might encourage the tourist trade, and could be a fitting tribute to the barn's place in cinematic history. 'I don't think people would want to come here,' replied Ian, his boots sinking in two inches of manure.

Mention the film to people in Clitheroe, and you get that 'Oh, has it been on again?' response. In Woolworths on the High Street - an architectural gem - the person behind me in the queue confided that her mother had not let her be in the film, and it was brother John ('He was one of the crowd of children who ran down the lane at the end') who pocketed the 10-shilling appearance fee. Susan Wood remembered Richard Attenborough coming round the school looking for local talent. She was invited to the Northern Charity premiere at the Odeon in Burnley: 'Mum still has the souvenir programme.'

It was a Pinewood accountant from Burnley who tipped off the Beaver Films location manager as to the potential of Downham. All those who know Whistle Down the Wind agree that, without the scraped hills and skeletal trees, the slate sheen of the houses and the winding lanes, it would not have been half as good a film.

The local child stars are now grown-up celebrities. 'You've just missed Ann Newby,' said a customer in the post office, 'she was one of the latecomers at the end, you know, the little blonde girl.'

Diane Holgate moved to Cheshire last year. She pops back to visit relatives and walk in the Ribble valley. 'Even after the film had just come out, I remember going with my dog round Worsaw Hill in wellies and a mac. It's a marvellous place.' A career in films, perhaps? 'I don't think there were any more offers, but I'm not sure my parents would have told me anyway. I didn't have much experience, the only thing I'd done before Whistle was Snow White at school.'

Keith Clement, who, at the age of six, played 'the small boy with glasses', enjoys the attention each new showing brings. He lived in Downham until his mid-teens and, like the God-fearing children portrayed in the film, attended Sunday school. 'It was a realistic story with children of that age, you could well believe that they could think Jesus was in the barn. I'm glad I was in it, it was a grand thing to happen.'

Of the outsiders, John Arnatt, who played the police chief, recalls waiting around for the final 'crucifixion' scenes of the film. 'All the way through the filming it had been fairly dismal weather, and when we came to shoot, it suddenly cleared up, so we had to wait three days for the sun to go in. Everyone else seemed to be making films in exotic locations such as Trinidad; I spent three weeks in a hotel in Burnley.'

It is surprising how such an unassuming film can stir such feelings of affection. After I had left the farm, I overheard a couple discussing camera angles outside the churchyard. Maybe now was the time for a sequel. If Gone with the Wind can have a second coming, why not Whistle? After all, 30 years on, Arthur Alan Blakey (Alan Bates) would be due for parole. He could, as the Messiah, return to a similar farmhouse, where Kathy (Hayley Mills) would have married a local farmer, and the two of them could have a glorious affair rolling around in the old barn and skipping over Worsaw Hill. Alan Barnes could make a cameo appearance as the wise younger brother, and I am sure there are still some angelic faces at Chatburn School.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments