Inspired by the eighteenth century diaries of the Reverend James Woodforde, a parson whose last living was in Norfolk, we suggested a drama documentary film on the very full working life of a contemporary parson, for Channel 4 Television’s religious department. We called it "THE DIARY OF A MODERN COUNTRY PARSON", and it was conceived and written by David Spenser.
At the heart of the programme was Nicholas Martin, the young vicar of Blakeney in North Norfolk, who was also responsible for at least four other parishes, including the very picturesque village of Kley. The entire film was shot on location at the end of the summer of 1990, which gave us the golden opportunity to end our programme with the Rev. Nicholas conducting the annual Harvest Festival service in the town church. Anyone who has visited North Norfolk will know that it is brimming with gentle views of rolling fields and delightful, colourful landscapes, and of course Blakeney itself is immensely photogenic with its flat marshlands, long white sandy beaches, and a small harbour used by fishing boats and various shaped yachts bobbing up and down in the mostly calm tides.
We were lucky too that the Rev. Nicholas had a delightful family, his wife Zillah, and two adolescent children, Christopher and Rachel (not to mention a real scene-stealer Irish Wolfhound dog!). We were fortunate too that the entire family were talented musicians, who often played together, often to an accompaniment of their own compositions, young Christopher playing a tuba that was almost the same size as himself. They were also wonderful interviewees, who gave us some fascinating insight into the daily life and thoughts of their husband and father, which gave the programme much poignancy and humour.
Contributions from parishioners included an incorrigible pair of fullsome middle-aged twins named Gladys and Dorrie, whose delightful Norfolk burr couldn’t help but bring a smile to anyone’s face. We were even allowed to eavesdrop on the many Church council meetings that a modern country parson has to preside over, and more intimate talks such as the advice to a young couple before marriage, and having heart-to-heart chats with difficult youths.
Our two clever actors were David King, who portrayed the Reverend James Woodforde, and Philip Sully who portrayed an earlier clergyman, the metaphysical poet, George Herbert. Woodforde’s relish of huge breakfasts and other meals, with his love of gossip, made a delightful contrast to the more serious parson, the poet Herbert, but David King’s painful and moving description of having to preside over the burial of a newborn child matched our modern parson’s agonising description of having to do the same for a little child with Downs Syndrome, who had been drowned by his mother in his bath.
The use of the 16th and 17th century parsons also gave a chance to show their similarities with the modern country parson, despite their different personalities. They shared one thing in common – faith, which was only separated by the passing of time. This was beautifully expressed by a montage in which all three parsons contemplated their next sermon, as they strolled quietly in their own gardens, or along the vast expanse of seashore.
The programme ended as we had hoped, with the Harvest Festival in Blakeney’s beautiful old church, accompanied by visuals of ploughs turning over the rich brown earth ready for the following year’s crop. "DIARY OF A MODERN COUNTRY PARSON" was a film I was proud to produce. Everyone in our team felt uplifted by working on such an unusual project, mainly because the film had captured such a warm, human aspect of an everyday community going about their daily lives. Once again, David Spenser had directed the programme with a delicate, loving insight, which made it all quite special.