AUDIENCES at Iford Opera in 2018 arrived to find parts of the Manor gardens cordoned off and obvious signs of film crews in the narrow lanes, but curiosity was met with stony, and contractual, silence. Iford Manor owners, staff and all those involved with the festival were sworn to secrecy, and it was only later that the announcement of The Secret Garden being filmed in Harold Peto’s Iford garden was made.
By that time it was much more complicated, as the film company also named many other gardens and estates across the UK as locations for the film, which starred Colin Firth and Julie Walters and a trio of exceptional newcomers. Then came the news that Julie Walters had been diagnosed with bowel cancer, treatment for which forced her absence from some of the planned scenes in the film.
And then came Covid 19.
All this meant that the opening of a new version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, scripted by Bristol (and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) playwright Jack Thorne, planned for 2019 was delayed and delayed until most of the major cinemas had shut down and its release depended on small independent theatres, and cable television.
To add insult to its many unforeseen injuries, the general critical opinion has been, at very best, middling. Thorne has radically changed the story, bringing it 40 years further into the 20th century, to Partition-era India and post-war England, embellishing the relationship of Colin and Mary’s mothers, and altering the ending. A gardener has disappeared, his place taken by a dog, and the magic realist element of the original is accomplished by a CGI robin with an alarmingly static bright yellow eye.
The three young stars, Dixie Egerickx, Edan Hayhurst and Amir Wilson (about to expand his starring role in His Dark Materials) more than fulfil their promise as the petulant and lonely Mary, her frightened cousin Colin and Dickon, the garden boy.
The problem is to discern the target audience for this film. Its sumptuous settings will appeal to an older demographic, who will probably be irked at the changes for what might be change’s sake. Will younger viewers identify with Burnett’s children, any more than they might sympathise with her more famous hero, Little Lord Fauntleroy?
I don’t agree with critics who said this Secret Garden is boring – all the boring bits from Harry Potter put together, said one. It’s magical, mysterious, full of the spooky atmosphere of the great house with its dark corridors and locked rooms. It’s beautifully filmed.
But, without all the obstacles that leapt up in its way, did it ever really have a blockbuster future? It might be better to ignore the original and view it as a new story.
And if you, like me, went to see it for Iford, don’t give up trying to spot the familiar Wiltshire garden.