Blott on the Landscape (TV series)

Sylvie Nickels

Our Fifteen Minutes (or more precisely 5 hours) of Fame

Motorists travelling east-west through Deddington on a certain week-end of August 1984 will have stumbled upon an unexpected scene of mayhem. Buildings were in ruins, crushed cars scattered the scene amidst piles of rubble and traces of smoke.

Could there have been a terrorist attack in this quiet backwater? Had the inhabitants of Deddington lost leave of their collective senses?

Wrong, and wrong again. The BBC had been in town filming Blott on the Landscape.

Blott you may recall is a rural romp by Tom Sharpe based on events following a decision to build a section of motorway through some highly desirable landscape. Extremely tenuously linked with this is the desire of Lady Maud (Geraldine James) of the manor to produce a son, and the reluctance of the lord of the manor (George Cole) to co-operate in the matter. There are lots of shots of quaint architecture, quintessential English countryside, public protests, irreverent innuendoes and much apparently irrelevant but entertaining nudity. Naughty, funny, not terribly subtle are epithets which come to mind.

And one of the main hubs of this saga? Our very own hostelry the Unicorn, renamed for the purpose the Royal George.

The first that Fred Ellis - then landlord of the Unicorn - knew of it was when three strangers began showing a curious interest in some of his upstairs rooms. Dealers on the hunt for rare antiques? No, some BBC bods sussing out the property which would become centre stage.

The name of the pub was not all that changed. A block of false frontages were built next to the Town Hall. The bus stop acquired a thatched shelter (pity it had to go). Some petrol pumps (here and here)and a war memorial made an appearance. Huge vehicles carrying generators to power the proceedings became temporary fixtures. The climax came when the centre of Deddington was 'blown up'.

In an evocative editorial of the September 1984 Deddington News (which includes a splendid poem by Deddingtonian Molly Neild), then-editor Ralph Elsley wrote: "Indeed for many Deddingtonians the night of August 10/11 will be one they will long remember - for some of the youngest, if for nothing else, as one of those occasions when they stayed up till the ungodliest hours with the best will of their parents. It was certainly a beautiful night to be out in the open air under a full moon, but as a night of phenomenal events it is unlikely ever to be repeated or rivalled. "….only the hardiest lingered until its closing moments around 4 a.m. Some were sustained by the splendid hospitality and privileged dress-circle seats in the bedrooms of friends living in the Market Square; many strolled or squatted patiently and revived their spirits while extra time allowed in whatever inn or restaurant was at hand. The biggest queues formed for the latest opening in local history of the Butcher's Shop, where, with lights ablaze when shooting permitted, Andy Clarke did his manful best to cope with the enthusiastic demand for hot pies.

"We will all have our memories of the BBC's sojourn in Deddington, from the earliest intimations and preliminary meeting in the Town Hall in June to the Sunday aftermath and lightning clear-up. There were visitations and autographs from the luminaries of the small screen, George Cole, Geraldine James, David Suchet and Simon Cadell, not to mention the author himself. We all watched with astonishment George Gibbs at work perched high on his fated nine-days-wonder of building construction. I shall not forget wandering into Wallin's one morning amidst a bunch of patient extras and a camera man and calmy demanding a couple of cottage rolls from an unfamiliar and formidable young woman in dark spectacles who later proved to be much handier with a loud-hailer than with small change. Thirsty patrons of the new resplendent Unicorn will doubtless recall longer periods of puzzlement and frustration and rejoice to have things restored to normality.

"Of the great night itself we will no doubt remember the moments of excitement rather than the inevitable longeurs. It will be difficult in time to find people to believe our tales of riotous scenes of drunknness witnessed by hundreds on our streets, of the tragic shattering of the bus shelter and the merciless pounding of an endless supply of motor cars by an amiable Irishman who modestly brushed asides compliments on the accuracy of his aim with the disclaimer that it was 'a bit of luck'.

"…. Now that the excitement has died down, the rubble has been so speedily cleared, and the welcome £4,500 earmarked for the Windmill Centre, it seems hard for us to realise it all happened here."

An intriguing insight into negotiations with the BBC is offered by Mary Robinson, Parish Council Chairman at the time. Her diffident request to the production manager for a facility fee of 'about four' (meaning hundred) was interpreted as the £4000-plus which went into the coffers of the Windmill project. Colin Robinson adds another memory: the shock horror discovery of a very nasty crack in the wall of the Town Hall. He reports "a nice man from the Beeb climbed a ladder and peeled it off"!

As for the performance itself, screened in February/March 1985, Ralph's successor as Deddington News editor, his wife Marianne Elsley had this to say in March 1985: "And what about Blott? Having reserved the next few Wednesdays in anticipation of fascinating viewing, we are rather inclined to go out instead. It was interesting to see the little glimpses of Deddington they have shown so far, but …. Do we really have to have George Cole naked quite so often?"

By the following month's editorial, Marianne had softened a little: "Well, our Wednesday evenings are free again. Whatever we thought of Blott, it seems to have been a huge success and topped the viewing ratings. I have to admit that I found the sight of Lady Maud clad in a huge nightie, grappling with spouse in that sea of black oil very funny, and I liked Blott's transformation from a sinister foreigner to a pukka English gentleman. Let us hope the BBC will come again, and perhaps film something more gentle, like Miss Marple."


For pictorial coverage see the Gallery

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