Peter Harness's Answers to Questions
about his adaptation of A View from a Hill for BBC4 (Christmas 2005)

Why did you decide to update the story by a few decades (and when exactly was it set)?

The decision to update the time period was taken, really, for budgetary reasons - they didn't think they could afford to do it in the proper period. I think they costed the first draft of my script (which included trains and everything else), and it was about £100,000 over budget! So a lot of money-saving measures were introduced (although I don't think that showed on screen in the slightest). The idea was to set it post-war, and have Fanshawe as a grammar-school boy made good, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about class. However, it's in such an isolated spot, and the characters were all so old-fashioned that the period is pretty unclear in the actual production. Funnily enough, I think the designers did such a good job with the limited resources that they had available that we could quite easily have set it in the original period without any additional expense. This is also why there was less of the Baxter backstory than in the original tale - I had dramatised most of it, including him scalding himself and being spirited away in the middle of the night - and I was sad to see it go in many ways, but considering that I inflicted Baxter's fate on Fanshawe, it probably worked well for dramatic reasons.

Where was it filmed: and in particular which building was used for Fulnaker Abbey? Also would you have preferred (as I would) that the original setting in Herefordshire had been retained?

The filming was done in the grounds and buildings of an old manor house (now owned by the M.O.D.) in Chertsey, with a day or so of location work in the Thames Valley for the actual view from the hill and the interiors of Fulnaker Abbey. Again, like so much TV, the place was chosen for its proximity to Television Centre, so that nobody needed to be put up in a hotel. I didn't have much of an opinion either way about where it should be set - I didn't feel that the location was as crucial as it is in things like "A Warning to the Curious" and "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad". Also, I felt that the (necessarily) autumnal feel of it added a bit more to the atmosphere of the piece. It was filmed in November and it was extremely cold inside the house and out!

Why was the great "through a dead man's eyes" line from the original story omitted?

As far as the "dead men's eyes" line goes - I certainly remember it being in a couple of my drafts of the script, but we probably decided to let it go during one of our prolonged discussions about how much and how little to give away (and I also think that - love it or loathe it - the sense of the line was communicated by Baxter and his skull-mask). I think because ghost stories - pure ghost stories - are so rarely filmed and broadcast nowadays, that you have to learn a lot about how to do them from scratch. And the hardest part to balance is the exposition - the reason behind the hauntings. Sometimes you want to have the explanations voiced by a character, sometimes you want to have them suggested visually, and sometimes you don't want them at all. And what works on the page might not always work on the screen. The reason that so many of MRJ's most cherished lines were omitted (as well as Fanshawe seeing the hanged man on the gallows early on) is probably because we were trying to keep the explanations in proportion - as I said, it's a difficult balancing act, and you're probably never going to get it right for all of your audience. I think a lot of the criticism of the piece comes out of what was omitted in terms of dialogue and location - and as an MRJ enthusiast, I'm very aware of the vandalism that I'm perpetrating - but in a shorter piece like "A View from a Hill", which is more of an incident than a fully-structured drama (as compared to a piece like "A Warning to the Curious"), then, to make it dramatically interesting, you have to flesh out the characters and structure the tension and the flow of information differently, so it builds to a climax. Any scrapping of the source material was not done lightly - it was done with a lot of thought and discussion and it was done (aside from a few minor budgetary concessions) to make the piece work televisually and dramatically. My first draft of the script was very faithful to the original, in terms of characters and dialogue, but it wouldn't have worked so well on screen - it would have been entirely clear what was going on from about five minutes in, and there would have been no build up of tension or expectation.

Basically, I think, it's a learning curve. If you look at the first in the Lawrence Gordon Clark series - the "Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" - it's one of the weaker entries (in my humble opinion, at least). He didn't really hit his stride until the following year. As I said, doing a ghost story is very different to doing other drama - it's a whole new set of requirements. And I think that, if the BBC decide to continue making them (and I very much hope they do, purely from a fan's point of view), then a lot will have been learnt from "A View from a Hill", and they'll continue getting better. I think, though, that it's heartening that the Beeb was prepared to pay such faithful homage to the old seventies adaptations (and the similarities between "View" and Jonathan Miller's "Whistle" and Lawrence Gordon Clark's "Warning" were not wholly coincidental - both the director and I were big fans of both pieces) and willing to consider reviving the strand in the first place. On the whole, I thought "View" was a solid piece of storytelling, very well acted, designed and directed, and I'm proud to have contributed to it. And, to be bigheaded for a moment, I'm very proud of adding the scene where Fanshawe actually sees into Fulnaker Abbey as it used to be.

Questions asked by Rosemary Pardoe. Answers copyright (c) 2006 Peter Harness.

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Last altered: May 22, 2006