The Mad Vicar

 Edward Woodward takes on the haunting role of one of Cornwall’s most infamous character

 

The village of Warleggan sits in rural isolation. Tucked away on the edge of Bodmin Moor, it was described by Pevsner in his seminal county-to-county guide as “…the loneliest village on the moor” The narrow lane up to the 14th century granite church lies in the shadow of the overhanging trees and is surrounded by a graveyard where tombstones are hidden by tall grass. The church door is open, as if someone is there, but inside it is empty and the dank, musty smell of the ancient walls hangs heavy in the air. To the left of the heavy wooden door is a faded photograph, a picture of a group of people from the 1940s. In the centre of the photograph is the imposing figure of the Reverend Frederick Densham. Dressed in black he gazes out from under a stovepipe hat. Gloomy daylight illuminates the pulpit in the middle of the church and there is a chill in the air

The reverend Densham was vicar of the parish of Warleggan from 1931 to 1953. At the end of his life he became a recluse and barricaded himself in the rectory, refusing to see anyone. He was found more than a week after his death at the age of 83, lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs in the rectory, allegedly there was an expression of ghastly horror on his face and some say they have seen his ghost pacing the lawns of the rectory in melancholic contemplation

Rumours abound about the Reverend Densham’s eccentric habits while he was incumbent at Warleggan. After studying at Divinity College Oxford, he became a missionary, travelling to Africa and to what was then Ceylon. He came to Cornwall to take up the post at Warleggan and immediately started to alienate his parishioners with his radical ideas. He banned traditional whist drives because he believed the game was an amusement and in his words “...amusements come from hell." He refused to conduct a Sunday school, because he said that Sunday schools were not mentioned in the Bible and despite the church organ being dedicated to those who died in World War 1, he wanted rid of it, stating that he disliked organ music calling it a ‘gabbled profanity’. Some people considered him mad and certainly as the years went by, and despite protests from parishioners, the Reverend Densham’s behaviour became more and more bizarre. He painted the rectory in garish colours, surrounded the garden with barbed wire and had a pack of snarling dogs guarding the grounds to ward off any uninvited visitor. Four years after he arrived in the village none of the reverend’s new innovations had gone down well and parishioners boycotted the church. Although no one came to his Sunday services anymore, he continued to preach to an empty church, sometimes placing cut out images of people in the pews to substitute the missing congregation.

 

The reverend’s bizarre character, said to be the inspiration for the sinister vicar in Daphne Du Maurier’s novel ‘Jamaica Inn’, is the subject of a new film scheduled to be released next year with award winning actor Edward Woodward taking on the lead role of Reverend Densham. Edward, who starred in the cult film ‘The Wicker Man’ and received a Golden Globe for his role in the American TV series  ‘The Equalizer’, says “The film tells the story of two people who come to live at the former rectory where their lives are touched by the ghost of the reverend. As his presence become stronger, his life is seen in flashbacks throughout the film. I’m very interested in the occult and ghost stories so I was really intrigued by the story and was drawn to this film because of the fantastic script. As an older actor, taking on the role of a complex character in a very emotional storyline really interested me”

Filming took place on location in Cornwall in early summer and Edward says it was great to be working in the county where he and his wife, the actress Michelle Dortrice, have a home. “I absolutely Love Cornwall. We have had a house near the North Coast for 15 years. It’s the most wonderful place. I really wish I had been born Cornish!”

 

When Edward was a young boy he was sent to Cornwall during the London blitz and remembers spending childhood summers in the county. “I made great friends with the local children and we would go swimming even though it was forbidden at the time to go on the beaches. He recalls, “We would secretly crawl under the barbed wire at night just so we could have a quick dip!"

 

Although Edward had heard various stories about Reverend Densham he says that he didn’t let that influence his performance in the film and believes the reverend wasn’t mad at all, just a very misunderstood man.

 

“When you play a role you have to be true to the script and not be influenced by hearsay. Densham was a man who lacked charisma, was somewhat boring and certainly pig headed, but not insane. He was a missionary in India where he was influenced by Ghandi’s style of leadership and thought of him as a saint. He wanted to bring a new approach to religion in Cornwall and for me, the attitude of the parishioners is one of the most interesting aspects of the story as they were shocked by his actions and turned against him. But you know, the last thing you can do is to impose something on Cornish people"

 

The time frame of the film spans over 70 years and supplying authentic props for the film was the remit of Cornish company A-Prop-a-Job. Almost a million items from household items to costumes and war memorabilia from the 18th to the 21st centuries are stored at their massive warehouses in Stithians

 

Emma Mason, property artist, made the 40 cutout figures that feature in one of the films most dramatic scenes. “They took me about two weeks to make and are made of wood and hessian with quite primitive expressions so they do look a bit scary”

 

The film’s director Mark Collicott, whose family come from Wadebridge, revealed that he had wanted to make the film for a long time. “I specifically wanted to tell a real Cornish story. So many TV series and films made in the county are superficial with artificial accents and dubious Cornish characterizations. I am Cornish myself and feel they give a false impression of the county. I was determined to use actors who could give authenticity to the characters and whilst I was co writing the script with Tom Wnek and Martyn Wade, I had Edward Woodward in mind as the reverend. He is a phenomenal actor and gives a breathtaking performance in the film. That great Cornish actor David Shaw also appears in the film and most of the 40-strong crew of actors and technicians are local"

 

Mark attended Bodmin 6th Form, initially started working as a Rock music photographer and then became an art director at Saatchi and Saatchi; Congregation of Ghosts is his first full-length feature film.

Although the film has a ghostly slant, Mark emphasises it is not a horror story. “There are no blood and guts and certainly no zombies wandering about! ‘Essentially, it’s the story of a well-travelled man, influenced by his experiences abroad, who ends up in what was then a very remote parish and consequently there was a lot of conflict with the local people who were very set in their ways - it’s a cracking good story”

Although the reverend Densham ended his days as a lonely old man, rebuked by his parishioners and mocked in the local press, he wasn’t always so intimidating. Some of the extras who appear in the film knew the reverend and remember him with fondness for the more compassionate side to his character. During the war he feared there would be an influx of evacuees so he had a playground constructed in the village for the children, He tried to raise money for a parish sports program by selling off the church’s cherished 13th century chalice but the parishioners refused permission and he always sent his tea and chocolate rations to needy people in the village. Ironically, upon his death, the reverend’s brother donated £1,500 to the diocese, which, the bishop at the time - considering the dangers of solitude in remote parishes- donated to a fund to help rural clergy purchase cars.

Sometimes, during his lonely sermons, which would continue for hours, Reverend Densham would place cards in the first six pews of the church on which he had written the names of the former rectors of the parish dating back to the 13th century. He used to say wearily, “I am not sure I do not prefer my congregation of ghosts. They cannot at least object to any innovation I make."

This article first appeared in Cornwall Today Magazine in July 2009. Edward Woodward died a few months later aged 79.

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