There is no official record of Nelson ever visiting Dartmouth but in 1971 he stepped ashore at Bayards Cove in the seafaring Devon town, when Universal Films arrived to make Bequest to the Nation, or The Nelson Affair as it was known in America.
A lavish, bigbudget production it was centred around Nelson’s affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, with Peter Finch in the starring role and Glenda Jackson as his mistress. Directed by James Cellan Jones it was produced by Hal B. Wallis.
I was fortunate enough to join the cast and crew on the same day the legendary Hollywood producer visited the set with his second wife, actress Martha Hyer. Other famous films produced by Wallis included The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938) with Errol Flynn, The Maltese Falcon ( 1941) and Casablanca ( 1942), both with Humphrey Bogart, and Yankee Doodle Dandy ( 1942) with James Cagney. He also produced the 1957 cowboy classic Gunfight at the OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster as Marshall Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. Later in life he guided Elvis Presley’s film career. Wallis also made some big budget historical films in Britain including Becket ( 1964) with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, Anne of a Thousand Days ( 1969) also with Burton who played Henry VIII,
and Mary, Queen of Scots ( 1971) with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson.
Bequest to the Nation was released in 1973 and, despite some inevitable mixed reviews from the critics, it was a box office success, although many of the battle scenes were filmed inside the studio.
Adapted by Terence Rattigan from his play based on Nelson’s final days in England, it tells the story of how the great man wrestled with his feelings and sense of duty as he planned the destruction of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. He initially intended that someone else should take command but Lady Hamilton gave him up so he could fulfil his duty to his country. The result was a spectacular victory which is still celebrated today.
Peter Finch gave a fine performance as Nelson and recalled some time later that he actually thought he had touched the enigmatic admiral’s real character.
During the location shoot at Dartmouth he was charming on set and also took time to chat with members of the public as well as joking with fellow actor Anthony Quayle, who played Lord Minto. They had already appeared together in The Battle of the River Plate ( 1956) but on opposite sides as Finch played the captain of the German battleship Graf Spee which, after a stand- off with British ships ashore, was scuttled in the estuary outside Montevideo in Uruguay watched by Commodore Harwood played by Quayle.
In his early days Laurence Olivier was a mentor to Finch who, for the Rank Organisation, in addition to The Battle of the River Plate, also starred in A Town Like Alice, again in 1956. During his long career Finch made more than 60 feature films and was posthumously awarded Best Actor Oscar for his roll in Network ( 1976) in which he played a television anchorman called Howard Beale.
After a well- publicised life as a hell raiser, he suffered a fatal heart attack in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel and died on 14th January 1977 aged just 60. Despite three wives and various well- known liaisons resulting in several children, he is still regarded by many as one of the finest actors of his generation.
Lord Nelson never graced its portals because the Britannia Royal Naval College’s current buildings only opened in 1905. However, Senior Service Officer training in the town goes back to the mid- 19th century.
Peter Finch as Nelson, being transported to his ship.
Anthony Quayle as Lord Minto ( left), chats to Hollywood producer, Hal B. Wallis.