The Making of 'Other Days Around Me'
Archie Reid recounts how the book came to be written and the experience of making the film version.
“Other Days Around Me” records life in our area at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Archie Reid recounts how the book came to be written and the experience of making the film version with Florence Mary McDowell.
When she was five years old Mary’s father moved the family from Derry to a new home near Doagh where he was to farm. Her mother was one of the daughters of the owner of Cogry Mill and they built Bridge House within the sound of its horn. Sadly, within two years of the move her mother died, leaving Mary, Alfred, Lennox, Fredrick and Little Sister. Aunt Laetitia, who had been matron at Foyle College, came to Bridge House to keep a stern but loving eye on the little family.
Their world extended to the river which divided Pappy’s land from that of Mr Gault’s at the Tumbling Bridge, with occasional welcome trips into Ballyclare. In the summer days at the turn of the century it was a full and fascinating life even if it lacked the comforts and pleasures that children today take for granted. That world and Mary’s childhood ended with the death of her father, her own entry into teaching and the boys’ decision to seek their fortunes in America.
Many years later their children were to write back to ask what life was like when their fathers were growing up in the Country Antrim countryside. Mary wrote long and detailed letters until it was suggested that there was enough material for a book. She protested that she had no idea of how to set about writing a book. How should it be structured? How many chapters would be needed? Her daughter Iza remembers taking a book from the shelf. It was ‘Jane Eyre’ which her mother examined with a new interest then said, “Go down to the post office and ask Mrs Elder for a dozen school note books.” The work had begun.
She had a sense of purpose for although she described the book that was to emerge, “Other Days Around Me”, as a personal memory she also tried to make it ‘a book containing gleanings of a value to the sociologist and historian, for many of the scenes and ways of life have gone forever’. The book records the everyday happenings as the children grew up. It is filled with accounts of their lessons and games, dressing-up and play acting. The Ulster Sunday in all its solemnity is observed and contrasted with the hard day-to-day work in the mill or in the fields.
When the book was finished it was published privately and became an instant success. Soon ‘Other Days Around Me’ went through a number of editions and was translated into other languages. The ultimate accolade came when it joined Shakespeare and Dickens as one of the set books for GCSE literature. Mrs McDowell herself remained unaffected by the fame which had come to her late in life. She had described a Victorian childhood whose boundaries were limited but she herself had an insatiable interest in the whole world.
Each time I returned from my travels she invited me over to Doagh to see the films I had made and showed a clear understanding of the wider world. One evening she made the suggestion that we might make a film of the book which I agreed to undertake with the practical help of her daughters, Iza and Joan, who would cope with the casting and costumes for what was to prove a large cast.
We began in the spring of 1972 and filmed through the summer and into the autumn. A helpful farmer cut the corn with a scythe for the camera and we recreated harvest customs. An abandoned school came to life again and thirty modern children experienced teaching methods from the early 1900s. They sat on wooden benches, repeated tables and ate their ‘piece’ at lunchtime. Florence Mary McDowell was in her eighty-third year but often it was her energy and enthusiasm which kept us going. She took a keen interest in all aspects of the filming which began with her working in the garden in the summer sunshine.
We were well under way when I realised that the book was covered by copyright. Mrs McDowell deliberated for a short time and then pronounced that I should pay the sum of £1 for the film rights. When my usual Christmas card arrived from her that year, enclosed was my cheque neatly torn in two.
We were determined that wherever possible we would film in the actual locations described in the book and that our dramatised recreations would be historically accurate. The Harvest Home sequence found Mrs McDowell instructing a group of Young Farmers on how to dance and play the party games of times past. Iza and Joan supervised the provision of mountains of authentic food, including a dumpling, kept hot to steam on cue before the camera. When BBC screened the film a produced confided that they could not have afforded to stage such an elaborate sequence.
Among those around the table, appearing as a farm labourer, was Arthur Fowweather, former headmaster of Ballyclare Imtermediate School, which became Ballyclare High. He and Iza were married as we finished filming and were to enjoy many happy years together. Another outcome was that Mrs McDowell started writing again picking up where ‘Other Days Around Me’ left off. By the time I finished editing the film she had completed ‘Roses and Rainbows’ her account of her time as a monitress teacher at Cogry school.
On the night of the first screening of ‘Other Days Around Me’ a large audience, which included many who would have shared memories of the times recorded, received the film very warmly. I turned to Mrs McDowell as the lights went up and she was crying. I knew we had got it right.