Over the years, Sherborne School has provided the setting for a number of films, including Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969) starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark, A Murder of Quality (1991) starring Denholm Elliott and Glenda Jackson, The Browning Version (1994) starring Albert Finney and Greta Scacchi.  And, more recently, The Imitation Game (2014) starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley, and Far From the Madding Crowd (2015) starring Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen.

However, the first film made at Sherborne School was The Guinea Pig.  Directed by John and Roy Boulting, it was filmed at Sherborne during two weeks in May 1948.  The lead role of the teenage Jack Read was played by 24-year-old Richard Attenborough.  According to the film’s publicity, it told the story of Jack Read who had been ‘pitchforked from the local elementary school into the strange world of one of the great public schools… As the “guinea pig” hero of an educational experiment.’

Richard Attenborough had begun his film acting career in 1942 in the Noel Coward’s patriotic war film, In Which We Serve, and in 1947 he had starred as gang leader Pinkie Browne in Brighton Rock.  In 1945, he married Sheila Sim, who also appeared in The Guinea Pig.  Attenborough later commented how odd it had been to play the role of a schoolboy alongside his wife who played the housemaster’s daughter.

Warren Chetham-Strode, Sherborne School 1st XI (1913)

The film was based on a play written by Old Shirburnian Reginald Warren Chetham-Strode (1896-1974). The play was first performed in the West End at the Criterion Theatre, opening on 18 February 1946 it ran for 236 performances.  The play starred Cecil Trouncer, Rachel Gurney, Robert Flemyng, Denholm Elliott, Derek Blomfield, William Mervyn and Joan Hickson.  Cecil Trouncer, Robert Flemyng and Joan Hickson would also appear in the film version.

Warren Chetham-Strode (he never used the name Reginald) attended Sherborne School from September 1910 to July 1913 where he was a member of Abbey House.  In 1913, he was a member of the 1st XI cricket team where he was described as ‘A fair all-round performer. Has made several useful scores, but never looks safe.  His right foot is not steady, and he often overbalances and gets stumped.  A useful medium-pace bowler, who occasionally swings one from leg and turns them from the off.  His length and direction are various.  A sound field.’

In June 1947, the actor Bernard Miles visited Sherborne School.  Then best known for his role as Joe Gargery in David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations, Miles was working with Chetham-Strode on the screenplay of The Guinea Pig.  His visit made quite stir at the School where ‘He asked many questions and answered many, and he filled everyone to whom he spoke with a feeling of importance by the serious consideration he gave to each and every suggestion.’  It was added that Miles was hoping to write in a small part for himself in the film, which in fact resulted in him playing the part of Richard Attenborough’s father.

Jack Read (Richard Attenborough) says goodbye to his parents (Joan Hickson and Bernard Miles)

The School magazine reported in Winter 1947 that filming at Sherborne had been delayed on account of Richard Attenborough working on London Belongs to Me, but that the Boulting Brothers hoped to commence with studio work in January 1948 with exterior shots at Sherborne later in the year.  When the film crew did arrive in May 1948 the events were reported by a boy in his letter home:

‘There is terrific excitement this weekend.  The film people have at last come down to do the ‘Guinea Pig’. The vanguard arrived on Wednesday and started work yesterday.  They’ve booked about twenty rooms in the Eastbury for the next month and brought down lorry loads of paraphernalia.  There must be about thirty men down here all working on their separate jobs, besides the actors.  Richard Attenborough and half-a-dozen boy actors I’ve seen, and there’s Sheila Sim who is the housemaster’s daughter and several others, though not very well known people.  Roy Boulting of the Boulting Bros is down producing it, I think he’s rather nice.  Chief [Headmaster A.R. Wallace] gave a cocktail party last night on the lawn underneath the Chapel for the important people and to the sort of representative masters from the school.  It was great fun watching how things went, and they left a lot of food we ate up afterward… There is a lot of competition to get in the crowd scenes, but during the week I shall try and squeeze in so that I shall see myself on the screen when the film appears.  The people are rather sort of spivish, with gaudy ties and baggy trousers always with braces and in shirt-sleeves but on the whole, they are nice and don’t mind inquisitiveness…’

Not every member of the School community enjoyed the filming.  In 1968, Mr A.B. Gourlay, a long-standing member of the School’s teaching staff, was interviewed about the filming of Goodbye, Mr Chips.  When asked what his first reaction was to the news that MGM would be coming to film at the School he replied, ‘Dismay. I remembered The Guinea Pig in 1948 when a small company working on a budget of £180,000 managed for a fortnight to be fairly disruptive in the school (which incidentally neither asked for nor received a fee, so could easily call the tune).  It was obvious that a vastly larger affair, especially when money was changing hands, would mean a regular invasion with much extra irritation for many people.’

Chatting between shots outside Sherborne Abbey.
Left to right: Robert Flemyng, Gilbert Taylor (lighting director), Roy Boulting, Warren Chetham-Strode (author) and Richard Attenborough.

Later that summer, after the film crew had left, the School magazine reported the impact of the filming on School life:

‘With the last studio shot safely in the can on Thursday, The Guinea Pig unit, under director Roy Boulting, packed up and left for location scenes at a distinguished West Country public school.’  Such was the press report which heralded the appearance in Sherborne of an entire film unit complete with cameras, arc lamps, reflectors, generators, microphones, recording apparatus and, most interesting of all, personnel.  These last would fill a whole volume with character sketches; never before have such “types” – I am sorry, it is the only word – invaded these scholastic precincts.  But so amiable and helpful were they that by the end of their visit even the most staid movie-loather could not resist the affectionate nickname.

Filming in Abbey Road, Sherborne

It was with some interest, during the first few days, that I watched the School divide itself into three distinct factions: the confirmed film-fans – I am afraid I cannot describe their behaviour because they left so little of themselves visible behind their enormous autograph books; the snobs, who disdained even to mention the word cinema (pronounced kinema, anyway); and the ordinary chap – a group far more numerous than the others, I am glad to say – who was interested without being thrilled and friendly without being superior.

There is always something slightly exciting about meeting in the flesh people whose names are pasted up all over the Underground and who even appear occasionally in bright capitals on the local cinema hoardings.  And when these two-dimensional black-and-white figures become solid friendly technicolour we get a slight kick from the reflected glory.  Form One say: “Gosh! D’you know what? I’ve just met Richard Attenborough.  Jolly nice he was, too! No! honestly, I did!” While the Classical Sixth: “Met Attenborough just now.  Yes, that film star bloke. Seems quite a nice type.”  But it is all the same emotion basically; there is something to put in next week’s letter.

There is one person I should like to mention here because in his way he created quite as much stir as any of the living stars.  I refer to King Henry VIII, who appeared one morning in the Abbey Close: a magnificent piece of work modelled in plaster, standing nearly six feet high and weighing two and a half hundredweight – any one of his wives would have been proud of him!

Jack Read (Richard Attenborough) undergoes the initiation ceremony of bowing to a statute of Henry VIII outside Sherborne Abbey. The extras in the scene were played by boys from the School.

I shall not attempt to describe the various scenes which were taken during the ten days of bright sunshine which marked the visit.  Several members of the School were called in at one stage or another to appear in yellow caps and ties (most irregular and a little infra dig.)  before the camera.  One or two masters were also prevailed upon to walk up and down the chapel steps under Mr Boulting’s rigid supervision.  Let those who may see the film in future months not imagine that the jovial schoolboys before them spent five minutes in a cinematographic paradise watching two film stars box.  The preparation was often long, and tedious Saintbury was not taken in a day!  However, refreshments were always provided free of charge and the budding film star usually dismissed replete and satisfied.

There was a sporting event which deserves a little mention: A cricket match.  The School House Agriculturalists, a team well known in the Sherborne neighbourhood, issued a challenge.  The resulting game has already reached the national press from which I take the following account:

‘Winning the toss the film team put their hosts in to bat and the school side amassed 81 for three wickets before declaring.  As each wicket fell the Guinea Pig fielders celebrated by standing on their heads, a custom always indulged in by the Agriculturalists and, apart from the gymnastic feats of Director Roy Boulting, who might easily have qualified for Presidency there and then, one which might easily be left to the school team.  When the Guinea Pigs batted wickets fell quickly, not so much by the skill of the school bowlers but rather through a seemingly determined effort by Bernard Miles to run his own side out.  It was, however, Bernard Miles, with the able assistance of photographer Reg Davis, sound recordist Jim Whiting and assistant director J. Hancock who won an exciting game with five minutes to spare.  The Guinea Pigs finished with 94 on the board and seven wickets down, three of which, it is alleged, were due to “sabotage” by Bernard Miles.’

That is how it was!  Ten days of interest and amusement during which the skirts of the local belles grew longer by inches at a time and the photographic dark room filled with portraits ready to be signed.  And now, as I thank the whole unit for being so kind and helpful to all us tiresome schoolboys, I hear a distant cry, which has so often meant a well-earned rest: “Right, gentlemen. Cut it!’

Richard Attenborough and Robert Flemyng outside ‘Saintbury School’ [School House]

The film was later viewed privately by the School at a local cinema, although it did not receive a very positive review in the School magazine, in which it was felt that there had been an ‘ exaggeration of the part played by the fagging, the beating and ritual in school life to the exclusion of any other side there’.  The film also caused some controversy at the time for the use of the word ‘arse’ in the script.

Mr Hartley (Cecil Trouncer) prepares to cane Jack Read (Richard Attenborough)

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