By Betsy Everett
There will be no traditional nativity play for two small Dales primary schools this year. Instead, in a unique and ambitious project, they are making a film of a classic Christmas tale.
A Wensleydale Christmas Carol, based on the original Charles Dickens’ story of forgiveness and redemption, is being filmed on location throughout upper Wensleydale and will involve every one of the 58 pupils from the two schools, aged from four to eleven.
Every aspect of the production, from costumes, make-up, and set design to filming, editing, and location sourcing, is being done by local people under the guidance and direction of teacher, Russell Billingham.
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Mr Billingham, 36, who entered teaching six years ago from a technical job with international telecommunications company, Orange, said his inspiration for making the film came from the interaction he saw between pupils, staff, parents and the local community.
When, with the children’s help, he put out a letter asking for help in late October, he was inundated with offers.
“When I first came I did the Christmas play last year, using some short film clips as an interlude between different scenes. The children like to see themselves on film so I thought I’d go the whole way this year.
“I knew it the project was ambitious, but we have a fantastic PTFA here, and there’s a strong feeling of the school being a vital part of the community. In fact since I came I have felt a sense of being embraced by that community. People take a pride and an interest in what the children do and that’s what encouraged me to approach local businesses and individuals to ask for support and help.
“In fact the children wrote their own letters so they were involved from the start,” says Mr Billingham.
Support came from many directions: from a former primary teacher and musician who has allowed use of songs she has written, from a news cameraman who is helping with filming and editing, from people sourcing props and offering locations. These have so far included the Dales Countryside Museum and The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, Yorebridge House Hotel in Bainbridge, and Bolton Castle in Redmire.
The costumes have all been made locally by women who are prolific designers and seamstresses. Other people and businesses have offered sponsorship.
The script, adapted by Mr Billingham for the screen, was provided by Musicline Publications, which specialises in musicals for children.
“They told me that in 30 years in the business they had never had a request for a script to be adapted for film so it’s quite unusual. It is hard work, but in some ways it can be less stressful for the children than a stage play because on film they get more than one chance to get it right,” she says.
His own interest in film came about through the technical nature of his work in telecomms.
“I do like drama, but I was really interested in working out how a film could be put together from a technical point of view. I like the idea of being backstage, directing the children, and working out how to put the story together,” he says.
There will be two showings of A Wensleydale Christmas Carol in Askrigg Village Hall on Wednesday, December 20, at 1.30pm – and 6pm, which, says Mr Billingham, will be a “dress up event” for children, parents, friends and the community.