Friday, 17 November 2017

Weekend in Wallop

Weekend in Wallop


On the news last week I saw Billy Connolly at Buckingham Palace being transformed into Sir William Connolly. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory I felt sure he had some connection to Nether Wallop but it would not come to mind. So, like the hard-chasing investigative reporter I am I turned to Google and sure enough there it was: Weekend in Wallop on YouTube. I would re-write the Wikipedia entry but it says it all:

"Weekend in Wallop is a made-for-television documentary of the First Nether Wallop International Arts Festival. The premise was the creation of a new arts festival to compete with the Edinburgh Festival. It was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1984.

The village of Nether Wallop is located in rural north Hampshire, close to Middle Wallop and Over Wallop. It was used as a location for the BBC Television version of Miss Marple, starring Joan Hickson.

Nether Wallop hosted the festival on a scale far less grand than Edinburgh. The main review show was held in the scout hut with a video feed for the overflow audience in the village pub (the hall looked as if it could only hold about 150 people). Ned Sherrin and Gore Vidal vied in the village shop for the best location to hold their book-signing sessions. Norman Lovett did his turn on the back of a farm vehicle. The festival included a guided walk of the village with Michael Hordern and a quiz hosted by Bamber Gascoigne which pitted village locals against the greatest minds in the world featuring the philosopher A. J. "Freddie" Ayer (the locals won!).

The main review was compered by a local dignitary (Major Billy Jepson Turner) and performers included Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Peter Cook (as two members of a "lesbian" synchronised swimming team), Rik Mayall first as "Kevin Turvey" and then later singing "Trouble" with Jools Holland on piano and John Otway on guitar, Jenny Agutter, Wayne Sleep, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Arthur Smith, John Wells, Roger McGough, Stanley Unwin in a sketch as a school teacher trying to dissuade Bill Wyman from going and playing that Rock and Rollode. It also featured local people doing their "turn". The closing act was Billy Connolly.

Although the festival was a "one off" and was not repeated, all the stars gave their time for free in aid of charity. A seed was sown in Nether Wallop and many of the same performers went on to found the highly successful Comic Relief which has raised millions for charity since."

Being a bit of film bore at present CHALK has taught me the pecking order between Executive Producer, Co-Producer, Producer, Associate Producer and so on. Believe me it is quite the contentious subject worthy of a special edition of Burke's Peerage in itself so I watched through the closing credits. It is surprising what you will learn, not least when the caption:

SCENARIO Vanya Hackel

appeared on screen. Now I know a Vanya Hackel. He is an uber keen fisherman, a Fishing Breaks regular for two decades, was involved with Broadlands and is a regular in Norway. Surely not the same? I phoned the Vanya I knew immediately. "Goodness", he said (actually he said something a bit more expletive), "I haven't thought of that in years". 

It transpires that Vanya, who was living in Timsbury down the road by the Test at the time, was one of the moving forces behind the Weekend in Wallop that was six months in the making. Why Nether Wallop? 

Well, the village will not be flattered to hear that the name sounded sufficiently absurd to match the silliness of the whole concept. The Wikipedia entry is not entirely accurate; not everyone gave their services for free. Michael Horden leveraged a day of fishing on the Wallop Brook. Jenny Agutter, based in Hollywood at the time, was only available because the date coincided with her twice yearly return to England to tend her garden roses. And such a stellar cast? I suspect Vanya is being modest but he attributes this to the address book of producer Richard Curtis (Not The Nine O'clock News, Blackadder, Mr Bean, Four Wedding and A Funeral ....) who knew all the upcoming talent.

Nobody seems exactly sure who had the original idea but it was probably a combination of director and writer Stephen Pile and charity fundraiser Jane Goodall. At that time Stephen was the columnist Atticus of the Sunday Times so provided invaluable publicity whilst Jane was trying to change the ethos of these headline events so all the money raised went directly to the cause. 

So from what Vanya describes as a 'totally mad' idea the event gained a life of its own. Once a few names were on board the festival snowballed. The two hour slot given by Channel 4, still in its infancy itself, gave the First Nether Wallop International Arts Festival yet more momentum. 

As you watch the grainy footage the thing you have to keep in mind was that this was 33 years ago. Many of the participants, if not exactly unknown, were at the outset of stellar careers. Rowan Atkinson is now one of the most recognised faces in the world thanks to Mr Bean. Hugh Lawrie an international star after the US hit House. And so it goes on to the hundreds of millions subsequently raised by Comic Relief.

I do wonder if some of the sketches would pass the censor today, but you can judge for yourself on You Tube here. This is less than half the original broadcast but if you Google/YouTube Weekend in Wallop you will find more. Truly some comic gold.

I consider myself to have been lucky with my two books Life of a Chalkstream and The Otters' Tale because they have made it to print at a time when nature writing has never been more popular. Shops like Waterstones dedicate prominent sections to a category that a decade or two ago would have been a single, dusty shelf as publishers vie to sign the best talent and put their considerable marketing heft behind each new title.

I must admit I was slightly unaware of this phenomenon until nominated for the Wainwright Prize earlier this year and all the subsequent hullabaloo that came with reaching the final short list. As Land Lines, a major new research project, says, "The diversity and influence of nature writing has never been so great" and they are asking people across the UK to help find the nation's favourite book that captures our special relationship with the natural world. Which nature book is a real favourite? Or maybe inspired a life-long love of wildlife?

Stretching from Gilbert White's seminal The Natural History of Selborne back in 1789 to Helen Macdonald's soaring and award-winning H is for Hawk in 2014, this pioneering project will look at how nature writing in this country has changed over the last 200 years, and what it might say about the world today and our connection with nature. Land Lines is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is being undertaken by the Universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex.

Everyone can take part in the national survey by nominating their favourite UK work on nature - along with up to 100 words about why they have chosen it. Entry must be in by 30 November, after which an expert panel will take these suggestions and compile a shortlist of 10 popular books. Then in January, an online vote will decide the nation's favourite piece of nature writing.

If you'd like to nominate your favourite book visit the Land Lines web site here.


The past few days have been busy as the final touches are put to CHALK. Actually I am not being 100% honest with you. A better word would be frenetic. With the premiere just a few days away directors Leo Cinicolo and Chris Cooper disappeared into the recording studio on Wednesday with actor James Murray to lay the voiceover onto the film.

Now if you think this smacks of being a bit all last minute you'd be right in one sense, but wrong in another. It has been planned this way for months. It seems to me the film and TV business thrives on the buzz of running up to the wire. For me, where a book has a leisurely nine month gestation, the flurry of emails as one script re-write follows another was something of a shock. But it is worth all the pain, effort and struggle - Leo and Chris have created an amazing film.

If you'd like to attend the premiere of CHALK, our much talked about documentary about the chalkstreams of England, we've kept just one pair of tickets back to offer as a prize to one lucky person. 

You'll get to come along on Thursday 23rd November 2017 to the pre-screening drinks in Leicester Square and then be among the first 104 people in the world to see the film. The whole cast and crew will be there, including the likes of Marina Gibson, Alex Jardine, Pete McLeod, Steve Cullen and Glen Pointon, plus a few selected guests from the world of fly fishing.

Please note that the event begins at 6pm on Thursday 23rd November in Leicester Square, London. Please make sure that you are able to attend. The dress code for the event is Black Tie. It is a premiere after all!

Be quick: the completion closes at noon today Friday November 17th.  If you don't win we have two screenings planned as part of the River Test One Fly Festival. Click here for details.

Swans are not always the anglers' friend, seemingly having an unerring instinct to swim right over the top of the only feeding fish you have found in the entire river. They are, of course, haughtily dismissive of your shouts and waving arms.

So, it should really be of no particular surprise that this particular swan at Dunbridge has found an easy source of food, stretching up to rattle illicit batches of fish pellets from the feeder. You have got to give him credit. 

Now our river keeper Simon Fields has what Baldrick of Blackadder fame would call a 'cunning plan' to foil the pellet thief.

We will see. It may well be a very long winter.


A very random selection this week and again no theme other than the topics of this Newsletter.

1) Who wrote the book on which the 1992 film A River Runs Through It starring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford, was based?

2) Young swans are known by two names. Cygnets is one. What is the other?

3) What typically are the constituent elements of a fish pellet?

It is just for fun, with the answers at the bottom of the page.

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:
1) Norman Maclean
2) Swanlings
3) Fishmeal, vegetable proteins and binding agents such as wheat or soya


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