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Malham in the Movies

Thursday, 1st August 2002

Bette Davis There's been continuous rain and drizzle since Tuesday so today gives me an opportunity to catch up with some research work indoors. For my forthcoming book on Malham in the Yorkshire Dales I've been looking into some of the films that used Malham and Gordale as locations.

One that I'd already spotted, as I have a weak spot for British black and white films of the period, is A Boy, a Girl and a Bike A Boy and Girl and A Bike (1949), featuring Diana Dors in an early role, which follows a cycle club tour from Hebden Bridge to the dale but I was surprised to learn from a local contact that the Bette Davis melodrama Another Man's Poison (1952) also includes a scene shot near the village.

The Dark Crystal

Dark Crystal But for me the most extraordinary movie to feature a Malhamdale location has to be Jim Henson's Dark Crystal (1982).

'When we first started on this project,' said Henson, 'I wanted to create the world first. I wanted to start with the visual world of what these characters looked like and what the whole place was; plants, trees, rocks . . . all that; start with that first and then have the story grow.'

'Jim came to visit me in Devon,' recalls the film's conceptual designer, illustrator Brian Froud, 'and we went for a walk and there were twisted trees and moss and he said he wanted the film to feel like this. Jim wanted a rich organic feeling to the whole film, reflected in some of the landscape that surrounds me in Dartmoor.'

Gordale Since the world of the Dark Crystal was created from scratch, from the skies and landscape right down to everyday details such as knives and forks, almost all the filming took place on a series of large sets at Elstree Studios, Hertfordshire, but there is just one location that appears in the film exactly as it appears in real life, and that's Gordale. I think I've spotted a brief glimpse Brimham Rocks too, but that's tucked away in a matte shot and so barely recognisable.

Gordale Scar represents the entrance to the hidden Valley of the Mystics; the one oasis of peace in a wild and ravaged world. It's onscreen for only a few seconds; Jen the Gefling pauses for a moment before he sets out on his quest at the top of the tufa waterfall, which looks spectacular in full spate (my watercolour shows it during a dry summer). He's then seen hurrying down what appears to be the slope of the western side of the valley.

I considered trying to contact the film's location manager to check on this but Redmond Morris is a location manager no longer; he's now a director and producer with films like Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1998) and The Affair of the Necklace (2001) to his credit.

The Water Babies

The Water Babies Although Charles Kingsley was inspired to write The Water Babies in 1863 after a visit to Malham the live action/animated film (1979) was made at Denton Park, near Ilkley, 18 miles away and set in a very different landscape; on millstone grit rather than on carboniferous limestone.

There's is a link between the two films; in both there's a pivotal character, you might call her a wise woman, who holds the key to the plot and who can step at will, without too much trouble, from one world to the next. Both are played by Billie Whitelaw.

In The Water Babies she plays a mysterious Irishwoman, who appears again in the magical underwater world as Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Her true identity is revealed in the original story;

she had stept down into the cool clear water; and her shawl and her petticoat floated off her, and the green water-weeds floated round her sides, and the white water-lilies floated round her head, and the fairies of the stream came up from the bottom and bore her away and down upon their arms; for she was the Queen of them all; and perhaps of more besides.

I suspect that Kingsley based this character on Janet, or Jennet, described in a guide to Malham written in 1786, as 'Queen of the fairies of the whole district'. She is traditionally supposed to have resided at the tufa waterfall still known as Janet's Foss.

Aughra, Keeper of Secrets

Aughra In Dark Crystal Whitelaw voices Aughra, keeper of secrets; a wise woman, astronomer and prophet. Frank Oz enjoyed bringing this puppet to life and guessed that there must be a lot of himself in Aughra.

Billie Whitelaw's career has ranged from the 50s television series Dixon of Dock Green to surrealist stage works. Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) wrote at a physically demanding monologue for her.

From Darth Vader to Dark Crystal

I could go on about the connections of Dark Crystal; for instance, Gary Kurtz, the producer, also produced the first two Star Wars films.

According to Star Wars fan Robert Hanlon there is a dark crystal subplot to the third, and penultimate, draft of the script for the original Star Wars film (1977).

Obi-Wan hands Luke the Kiber Crystal shard, the scene immediately cuts to the Crystal Chapel on Alderaan, where Darth Vader and two other Sith Lords suddenly feel a great disturbance in the Force. 'Darth, did you feel that?' one asks.
But I'll leave it to Jim Henson (1936-1990), in an interview from the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal, to have the last word;

'I like to think of Dark Crystal as sort of a work of art and it feels to me like it is, but it's not a personal work of art. It's not something I did, but it's something that Frank and Brian and Gary and all the performers . . . so hundreds of people created this thing and, as a work, I think it's something we'll always be happy with.

'All in all we spent over five years working on the film. It's probably the hardest thing that I've ever worked on; it was the most work, it was the most difficult but it was the most fun, it was the most rewarding and, of all projects that I've ever worked on, it's the one that I'm the most proud of.'

Related Link

The Jim Henson company website features storyboards, photographs, sketches, video and audio from the film.

Dark Crystal © 1994, 1999 The Jim Henson company. Video and DVD distributed by Columbia Tristar Home Video.

The Water Babies is distributed on video by Productions Associates, Pethurst International.

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Richard Bell
Richard Bell,
wildlife illustrator

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