Cinema icon’s letter of praise for William
I was delighted to receive a personal handwritten letter from Haley Mills in response to my previous Advertiser column on Walt Disney’s Pollyanna.
Hayley wrote: “Dear William, thank you very much for sending me a copy of your piece about Pollyanna.
“I especially enjoyed the story about your much younger self memorising the dialogue of the entire film (what a feat!) and performing it to your neighbours with satisfactory financial reward; what a shame no-one recorded it.
“Thank you also for the photographs you included, which was very kind of you.
“I hope you are keeping well up there in bonnie Scotland. Warmest best wishes, Hayley.”
“I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you I will come again” – John 13:1-3.
“If a movie isn’t entertaining don’t bother to watch it” – Richard Attenborough.
If ever a film was able to capture the innocence of children it must surely have been Whistle Down the Wind, produced in
1961 with a hand-picked cast including Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Elsie Wagstaff and a supporting cast of kids giving memorable performances in a movie now regarded as a classic of British cinema.
Adapted from an intriguing 1957 novella written by Hayley Mills’ mother Mary Hayley Bell, it
is a highly original story.
This is the synopsis of the film as it appeared in Sight And Sound in July 1961: “A wounded murderer on the run finds refuge in a disused barn on a remote farm.
“He is discovered by three children who, in their innocence, become convinced that he is Christ returned to us. Since he has nothing to lose by it, the murderer accepts the role thrust upon him.
“The children hide him from the police, provide for him and nurse him back to health. In the end, unwittingly, they are the cause of his betrayal.
“The police close in and the climax comes when he has to chose between his own conscience and their faith.”
When asked what attracted the producer Richard Attenborough, to the story he responded : “The moment in a child’s life when he or she is completely innocent; the quest of being able to capture that on film without mawkishness was what keyed the film for me.”
The movie was eventually directed by Bryan Forbes and its quality is evident in every department.
With superb wizardry of cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson, the interplay with light and shadow in the scenes in the cramped studio barn, contrast with shots of the children dwarfed on the rugged Lancashire landscape.
Another major part of the film’s charm lies in the score of brilliant composer Malcolm Arnold, which features a jaunty arrangement of the traditional carol We Three Kings which he humorously links to the three children.
The memorable theme tune has become a classic. It was whistled by Richard Attenborough, with the phrase Whistle Down the Wind dating to a 16th-century phrase whistle away, meaning dismiss or cast off.
The movie also introduced two talented children playing the younger siblings opposite Hayley Mills, Diane Holgate and Alan Barnes, who steals nearly every scene he is in.
The film is rich in Christian history and symbolism; the child ‘disciples’ total 12; the barn is a metaphor for the birth of Jesus; and the birthday party is the last supper where the murderer is betrayed by a child asking for a slice of birthday cake for Jesus.
Produced on a shoestring budget of £148,000, it made a profit of more than £240,000, making Whistle Down the Wind the most profitable film that Bryan Forbes had ever directed.
The producers did a great job in turning a classic little story into a great film.
One can only marvel at the vision and courage of Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes in overcoming the overwhelming task of competing with the American film industry.
Like Pollyanna, the role of Kathy in Whistle Down the Wind was a defining one for Hayley Mills.
Creative control Key players involved in Whistle Down the Wind, including producer Richard Attenburgh, left, and star Hayley Mills, centre
Christian symbolism Bringing bread and wine to “Jesus” in the hay
Kind words The letter William received from movie star, Haley Mills