It is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Ford Madox Ford’s pre-First World War novel, The Good Soldier, a seminal book of the 20th century. It opens with this sentence: “This is the saddest story I ever heard,”–spoken by the narrator, John Dowell—my part, in the Granada TV adaptation filmed in 1980. It was poignant for me to retrace my steps, 30 years later, from the fountain in Bad Nauheim, where I had once been greeted by Roger Hammond as the Grand Duke: “Good morning, Mr. Dowell!”.
I am the sole surviving actor of Ford Madox Ford’s doomed quartet —who made the film of The Good Soldier 35 years ago. Jeremy Brett, Vickery Turner (r) and Susan Fleetwood (l)–all died too young. Susan was only 51! All had so much more to give. Meredith and I were in Germany to pursue another project, but passing so close to Bad Nauheim, on our way to Frankfurt, we couldn’t resist the short detour from the motor-way.
Meredith admired the film and knew Susan. I had spent three intense weeks there in the autumn of 1980, much of the time as elegant set-dressing (so it seemed to us!), for this extraordinary Edwardian spa town. We walked and walked, in line of four, dressed in pre-war finery without–it seemed–a care in the world. Bad Nauheim is still a spa town, but the beautiful Sprudelhof bath buildings (built between 1905 and 1911 in what the Germans call the Jugendstil style) are open only for special guided tours–and sadly none were available over the days we were there.
However we managed to slip into one of the bath houses, opened by maintenance workers for cleaning, and it looked exactly as it had 30 years ago–indeed probably as it had 100 years ago. Elegant bath cubicles line the corridor (where Florence took her cure).
Pretty interior courtyards and reception rooms are decorated with shells, mosaics, stained glass and wrought iron–every fitting finely-crafted in the art nouveau style.
Until director Kevin Billington sent me the script, I was unfamiliar with The Good Soldier. I later regretted that my first contact with the story was via the screenplay, rather than the novel itself—thereby missing out on the mystery angle of the story—the gradual way Ford peels his onion, slowly revealing what lay beneath the facade of the four elegant walkers, “all good people”.
The adaptation–loyal to the novel–was written by the English screenwriter and playwright, Julian Mitchell. Filming took three months, on location in England and Germany (extended by a labour dispute at Granada TV involving the shooting of Jewel In The Crown–which delayed our schedule too). I had recently played another diffident American, Robert Acton, in Merchant Ivory’s production of the Henry James novel, The Europeans. Perhaps Kevin saw it. Though there are comic possibilities in playing innocence–three months is a long time to spend with John Dowell— someone so blindly and determinedly, out of touch with the truth.
Almost by definition we could not film the book in sequence and Kevin helped us all hang on to the arc of each of our character’s complicated and intersecting narratives. He had a firm grip on the ‘unpeeling onion’ and we were grateful to him for that. Yet while admiring his exigence and his quest for perfection, we found the endless “clothes-horse” aspect of the filming difficult.
The scene where the two couples meet for the first time, in the dining room of the hotel, for instance, was filmed FIFTY-SEVEN times from every conceivable angle! The local German extras, initially excited to be in a film, decided by lunchtime that they never wanted to be in another one–not even for ready money!
The film does look sensational though–brilliantly shot by Tony Pierce Roberts. The pace and style evoke so well the pre-war era–soon to be killed off and changed for ever by the coming carnage, launched on August the 4th– Florence’s birthday, wedding day and the day on which she commits suicide. No coincidence!
Filming back in England hopped from one “Great House” to another. Some retained the faded charm of the period—of a class feeling the pinch, if not exactly on its uppers. In one, there was a strong reminder of the devastation the First World War wreaked in social and human terms. The large brick-walled kitchen garden was still visible, as were the magnificent greenhouses—but dilapidated and neglected since the twenties–the men who had made them flourish, all slaughtered in France.
Writing in 1915—one hundred years ago—Ford Madox Ford foresaw that this was the end of an era. Edward Ashburham’s world–complacent and arrogant—was doomed. Strange that John Dowell, the unconvincing Quaker and “casual Yankee”, was so much in awe of it—and indeed joined it.
The strain of the long shoot, began to take its toll towards the end. It was the day of Nancy’s (Elizabeth Garvie) departure and we were filming the buggy ride to the station. “Pony’s going well!”
A little too well I thought–given that Edward/Jeremy was driving it and not the horsemaster!
The director wanted a shot of us driving over the hump-backed railway bridge, on our way to the forecourt. It would certainly have had a poignancy to it, but I could only picture the frisky pony taking off down the steep descent, and Jeremy not being able to control it.
Memories came to mind of a near-fatal accident, while filming the BBC series Poldark in Cornwall. The coach I was in, turned over on a rock on Bodmin Moor and the cameraman, who was tied to the side of it, was lucky to escape with a broken leg. I was in shock and couldn’t speak for three hours afterwards without bursting into tears.
Kevin insisted that it was perfectly safe. I found myself getting out of the buggy and demanding loudly whether he’d allow his young children do the shot. “Yes– of course,” he replied. I stomped down to the platform and into the waiting room; where I stripped off my costume, and that was the end of the buggy ride.
Perhaps after months of being unassuming John Dowell, something of Robin Ellis had to be let loose again! You can watch the entire film of The Good Soldier on YouTube now!