When Lancashire schoolchildren became movie stars
In 1961 the Ribble Valley played host to one of the best loved films to be shot in Lancashire. With the Longridge Palace cinema set for a special screening of Whistle Down The Wind, Mike Hill recalls the making of a cult classic
In the spring of 1961 the Ribble Valley was invaded by film stars and local children became stars of the silver screen.
Charismatic actor turned film producer Sir Richard Attenborough decided to make a film in the farms and fields around Downham, in the shadow of Pendle Hill.
Most of the children who appeared with Hayley Mills in the film – playing her siblings and school pals – were from the Ribble Valley villages nestling below Pendle, Chatburn, Downham and Worston, and chosen from auditions at local schools.
Pam Dyson (nee Londsdale) was an 11-year-old farmer’s daughter and vividly remembers that spring and summer when the film took over their lives. Her family lived on a farm in Worston, on the lower slopes of Pendle, they had no TV and children spent those days playing out in the fields.
So when a whisper went round that a film star was looking for a location to make a film and one of his researchers had suggested Worsaw Hill Farm – next door to where Pam’s grandparents lived – it was interesting, but not earth shattering, as TV and film was not a part of their lives.
Little did Pam know that a few months later Sir Richard Attenborough would be waiting outside her classroom door as she sat her 11-plus exam to take her straight back to the film set when she had finished.
In an interview in 2011 Pam recalled: “One day at school the headteacher told us we were going to have a visitor – Sir Richard Attenborough – then I did take notice! He was to make a film called ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ starring Hayley Mills, who was only 14, but already a sta,r and even I had seen some of her films.
“Her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, had written the book from which the idea for the film had come. Bryan Forbes, who was a friend of Richard Attenborough, was going to direct in his first venture away from acting.”
The heart-rending story of Whistle Down The Wind revolves around three country children who discover a man hiding in their barn and, naively believing him to be Jesus, try to protect him from unbelieving adults. Unknown to them he is actually an escaped murderer.
Pam remembered Sir Richard’s first visit to her school to find his young actors. She was not chosen as one of Hayley Mills’s siblings because of her dark colouring, but was picked to play one of the village children – the “disciples” – and had a speaking part.
Her elder sister, Pat, who was 14 and a pupil at Ribblesdale High School, was one of the many local extras. During filming, purpose-built schoolrooms and film caravans were set up just yards from her home, and as they were told to wear their normal “playing out” clothes for filming she found herself in her everyday navy gaberdine mac and wellies for the whole of the next few weeks.
She remembered trying, not very successfully, to concentrate on her schoolwork in the makeshift classroom while waiting to be called for filming – with everything revolving around the other cast members and the weather.
“In the middle of the filming that April I had to sit my 11-plus, so Richard Attenborough waited outside the school in his Rolls Royce to take me back to the set as soon as the exam was finished,” said Pam, who also fondly remembered going to Pinewood Studios in London, where some of the indoor scenes were shot.
For those village children to spend days in London staying in a hotel and seeing the sights in between filming created memories to be treasured for ever. She kept hold of the letters she wrote home every day to her mother along with lots of other memorabilia.
The film was given rave reviews, with the critics emphasising how brave it had been to use local children and how using black and white film had added to the overall effect.
All of the local cast were invited to the Northern premiere at the Odeon Cinema in Burnley and Pam said it was only after watching the film several times that she began to really enjoy it and understand all the subtle references to the Bible, such as the children taking gifts to the barn, the boy denying three times that he had seen “Jesus” and the symbol of the crucifixion at the end when the man is arrested.
“I feel even now many have not noticed some of the religious connections,” she said. Pam kept lots of news cuttings, as the film made all the national newspapers. And she also received Christmas cards from cast members, the Mills family and Sir Richard for many years afterwards.
* Whistle Down The Wind is screened at Longridge Palace cinema on April 21 and 22. For details visit www.thepalace-longridge.co.uk