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KEVIN DIXON: How Torbay impersonates the world

By This is SouthDevon  |  Posted: September 14, 2012

Torquay's Grand Hotel

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Imagine that you have just got the job as a location scout for a film company, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.

You have loads of exotic locations to find, but a limited budget, so what would you do? The answer is to find a filming location that looks vaguely similar and hope no-one notices.

You may think that if The Onedin Line (1971-1980) can pass off the River Dart as the Amazon with the addition of a few jungle noises, then anything is possible... Just add guitars if the setting is Spain and accordions for France...

Indeed, the Bay has been used as a filming location since the very beginnings of cinema.

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After the Great War it was hoped that Torquay would be the British Hollywood. We had the natural light and a range of scenery that could be utilised by inventive directors.

The first Bay production was the 90-minute film Nelson, filmed in the second half of 1918. It has a wartime propaganda theme and begins with views of British warships. The captions inform us that British sailors ‘are the best and always have been’.

A young boy is being told to read the story of Nelson. He opens his book and we’re back in 18th century Naples where Nelson is defending the monarchy from the mob.

Torquay stands in for Naples and the revolting peasants are played by locals. In the film, British sailors first confront the mob at the bottom of Madrepore Road, force them along Pimlico and then the fight continues along Cockington Lane. They storm the gates of the Royal Palace (the Recreation Ground) and the Palace itself (the Grand Hotel).

In the 1919 movie The Rocks of Valpre, the ‘Magic Cave’ on the ‘rocky coast’ of France is Corbyn Head.

The storyline has a young English woman injuring her ankle and being rescued by a Frenchman. He invites her back to his cave to see a ‘magic secret’ (careful now). This turns out to be a new gun he is inventing. Rumours spread and the gun inventor finds himself challenged to a duel. This duel is fought on Corbyn Head just behind today’s public toilets. As the men fence, the heroine stares towards the Marine Spa (now Living Coasts), and the movie ends with a romantic scene on Rock Walk where the couple promise to love each other.

As was common practice, the film was tinted: sad scenes were given a blue tint, action scenes were red, and romantic scenes were sepia.

In the social satire The Last Holiday (1950), Alec Guinness plays a salesman who is told he has only a few months to live. His doctor advises him to take his savings and enjoy himself in the little time left.

George travels to Pinebourne, an exclusive resort with an elite clientele with whom he has nothing in common. Pinebourne is, of course, Torquay and the up-market residential hotel he stays in is the Rosetor.

Incidentally, the movie also features Ernest Thesiger, best known for his performance as Dr. Septimus Pretorius in the 1935 masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein – and possibly the first openly gay character in the history of movie-making.

If the plot seems familiar, in 2006 there was an American remake with Queen Latifah and LL Cool J.

‘Brandy for the Parson’ (1952) sees a young couple experiencing a series of mishaps and accidents, and getting unintentionally involved in a racket smuggling brandy from France. The ‘French port scenes’ were filmed in Torquay.

In ‘Churchill: The Hollywood Years’ (2004), we have Christian Slater, Neve Campbell, and a host of British comedy talent, including Bob Mortimer, Vic Reeves, Rik Mayall, Harry Enfield and Leslie Phillips.

The movie is a satire on the way Hollywood has largely ignored Britain’s role in the Second World War, in films such as U571 (which had the capture of an Enigma machine being by the Americans rather than the British) and Pearl Harbour (where Americans appear to have won the Battle of Britain). The film’s other targets are Britain’s aristocrats who sought a compromise with Hitler.

The movie’s opening shot features Brixham Harbour, and we have Oldway Mansion doubling as Buckingham Palace, along with Cockington as Frothington-on-the-Waddle.

As with the big screen, filming budgets for classic TV series often didn’t stretch to actually visiting the places described in the script.

The Persuaders! was a 1971 action-adventure series starring Tony Curtis and Roger Moore. The show needed an American star to appeal to an American audience. Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford turned down the role, while Tony Curtis accepted - and was promptly arrested for possession of cannabis when he flew into England in April 1970 to start filming.

The show ended after one season, due to failing to make an impact on US TV. This released Roger Moore to star in the Bond movies.

A 1971 episode called Nuisance Value features a scam with the spoilt daughter of a millionaire being abducted. The establishing shots for the location of Hotel Don Juan in Spain are clearly of Torquay.

The town also appears in The Saint (1962-1969) which was broadcast in over 60 countries with almost 120 episodes – being only exceeded by The Avengers as the most successful show of its kind produced in the UK.

In June 1966 an episode called The Better Mousetrap finds the Saint in the South of France as the chief suspect following a spate of jewellery robberies. Torquay harbourside doubles up for night-time Cannes when Simon Templar is questioned by the French police.

The 1968 episode The People Importers finds the Saint fishing off the south coast and coming across a boat-builder smuggling illegal immigrants into the country. The scenes supposedly in a ‘Sussex yacht club’ were filmed in Torquay.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie wrote and starred in a surreal British television series combining sketches and situation comedy. This was The Goodies.

While some critics have dismissed The Goodies as a children’s programme, it was also attacked by Mary Whitehouse for being ‘too sexually orientated’.

One such risqué episode was No.54 (of a total of 74). It was called 2001 and a Bit, and was broadcast on October 26, 1976 at 9pm.

The story is set in the permissive future world of 2001 where all is tolerated, including a violent spectator sport based on that of the just-released 1975 James Caan movie Rollerball.

Yet everyone is bored with excess. Enter the New Goodies who want to add some excitement to the lives of the people. To get them enthusiastic about something again, they decide to resurrect the ancient game of Cricket. The idea is that something truly boring might be enough of a novelty to stimulate the population. The Recreation Ground becomes Lord's Cricket Ground before a nuclear explosion decimates the nation – or at least Cockington where it was filmed.

Perhaps our best known classic comedy is Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–73) which was partly filmed in the Bay: including Barton playing fields and the YMCA in Clennon Valley.

Episode 23 Scott of the Sahara shows Paignton Pier while Episode 18 Live from the Grill-o-Mat was hosted by John Cleese from the fictional Grill-o-Mat snack bar.

To conclude, let’s end a long-standing myth: Occombe Woods isn’t Camelot.

In the Python movie masterpiece, Monty Python & the Holy Grail (1975), the Black Knight is seen being dismembered. For years the story has been that this scene was filmed in the Bay.

However, in The Pythons’ Autobiography, they state that 95% of the Holy Grail was filmed in Scotland. In the commentary track of the Holy Grail, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones all say ‘this was shot in a forest outside London’. Gilliam even states that it was Epping Forest.

...Unless anyone knows differently...?

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