If you enjoyed Countryfile’s aerial shots of our town, you’ll love ‘Shaftesbury Abbey – The Movie’. The Arts Centre will screen the story of the recent archaeological digs in a film that features stunning drone footage and captures the most exciting local discovery in decades.
“When something comes out of the ground, those are wonderful moments in archaeology,” said Shaftesbury Abbey’s archaeology expert, Julian Richards. Julian is confident talking to TV cameras. He presented seven series of BBC TV’s ‘Meet the Ancestors’. He has teamed up with a TV professional to produce this new documentary, which goes into greater detail about Shaftesbury Abbey’s investigations than a recent BBC4 programme, ‘Digging for Britain’ could.
“We had a short segment on that,” said Julian. “But we wanted to make our own film because you can always tell a better story if you make it yourself. A friend of mine, Steve Shearn, is a professional cameraman and drone pilot. We’ve worked together before and we decided to make this film.”
The men have condensed two years of the SAVED archaeology project, and centuries of Shaftesbury history, into a glossy, thirty-minute production. “There’s the dissolution, the history of the excavations here and then the processes that we’ve gone through from the geophysical survey with the Austrian team and Bournemouth University, through to the involvement of the schoolchildren. We show what we understand of the Abbey and what we know better than before we started the project,” said Julian.
Dozens of local people of all ages rolled up their sleeves and grabbed trowels to assist with the latest Abbey excavations. But there are also many residents who are unaware of what has happened within the Abbey’s walls and around the immediate area over the last two summers, or throughout one-thousand years of history. Julian would particularly like those people to come and watch the movie.
“What we’re trying to do is to bring the past of this place alive and also the people that were involved in it,” explained Julian. “There has been a tendency to look at everything as stones and objects. But this is a human story of everybody from King Alfred through to the schoolchildren who have been excavating the site and who will have a connection with it in a way that they might not have done. We have a mission to explain and explore Shaftesbury Abbey and make people aware of what an incredible treasure they have in the middle of town.”
Even if you’re really not interested in the significant history on our doorstep, the film’s footage is impressive. Many locals enjoyed the BBC’s dramatic bird’s eye views of the town which were mixed into their coverage of the Shaftesbury snowdrop season. “We have much better aerial shots than Countryfile,” Julian laughed. “We have got some stunning aerial views because we came up here very early one morning, on a beautiful sunny day and flew over the Abbey and looked out over Castle Hill. It just brings it to life because you see the layout of the place you are familiar with from the air and there is a different aspect to it.”
Julian says that the drone shots will help the Arts Centre audience appreciate the imposing scale of the long-gone Abbey. “When you’re hovering above the Abbey and you look down on Gold Hill, the wall on the side of the hill was the Abbey’s precinct wall. When you see it snaking down to the park below, which was also part of the precinct, you understand how extensive the Abbey holdings were and how important to the town it was. Looking back towards the town, you see the relationship of the Abbey to the town and what a devastating blow must have been to have this monastic heart ripped out of Shaftesbury in 1539.”
As this movie will feature people and places known to many members of the audience, it’s likely that viewers might react differently to the archaeologists and academics while watching the report. Julian doesn’t mind if viewers laugh or nudge each other when they spot friends or family on screen. “I was the same watching Countryfile. It was ‘Oh look there’s Des, there’s Jonathan or Matthew’,” laughed Julian.
He says there will be a chance to ask the experts to explain processes or their discoveries. “We will probably pull up some of the still drone photography, so we can look at it on the screen. Then, there will be an opportunity for questions and answers and an update on what we have been doing here. Claire (Ryley) and her team in the museum have done an amazing job and Jonathan Foyle, the architectural historian who appears in the film, was here a couple of weeks ago. It was astonishing what he has managed to piece together from fragments in the museum. We now have a much better idea of what parts of the church looked like. It’ll be nice to share that information. There will be quite a lot of updating,” said Julian.
Spoiler alert! The most exciting part of the film is where the cameras capture the moment when the head of a 14th-century statue of a royal was uncovered by volunteer archaeologist Alan Dedden. Julian was aware that something unusual had been located. Before the mysterious object was completely unearthed, he contacted Jonathan Foyle, who rushed up to the Abbey. Dr Foyle’s reaction, and the rest of the volunteers’ responses, were filmed as the head was brought out of the ground. “To see those moments of discovery, to me that’s what archaeology is all about. Those ‘eureka’ moments where something comes out of the ground and changes your whole idea,” said Julian.
Julian says producing this movie has been time-consuming. ‘It’s quite a lot of work. It’s a half-hour film but there were days of work involved, not just in the shooting but also in the editing,” he said. And having invested so much energy into this project, Julian says that people who can’t make the screening or who live outside of our area will soon be able to watch the movie online. “It will be available on the Abbey website,” he said. “And there will be an opportunity for people to download it through YouTube, Vimeo or one of those platforms. We’re not just making it for this one evening.”
‘Shaftesbury Abbey – The Movie’ will be screened at 7.30pm on Thursday, 19th March at Shaftesbury Arts Centre. Tickets are £12 for adults with a £2 reduction for Friends of Shaftesbury Abbey and students.