At the GFF in 2010 I decided to catch “A Congregation of Ghosts” only because it was the last film role of Edward Woodward. I didn’t know anything about the film or its director Mark Collicott. I didn’t have any expectations and I certainly didn’t know that I was going to see a film that would leave me absolutely breathless by its end. What I saw was a beautiful, tender, moving and brilliantly crafted ghost story that wasn’t a ghost story...a film that in a perfect world would have catapulted director Mark Collicott into the public conscious. The fact that we are a year on and very few people have seen the film is a comment only on a world that continues to mistake a big budget and special effects for art. Make no mistake “A Congregation of Ghosts” is a genuinely brilliant film and is one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
“It’s a thoughtful and thought provoking story” is how Collicott describes his films and he is right. Telling the true story of Reverend Frederick Densham, a pious minister who took up post in the small Cornish village of Warleggan in 1932 and proceeded to upset and alienate the bulk of his congregation and who ultimately preached his sermons, faithfully, to rows and rows of empty pews which, in the film, he fills with haunting scarecrow figures. Ostracised by his community Densham died a lonely and tortured figure in 1953. The film intertwines the life of Densham with the lives of a young couple who move into his home and who slowly fall under the spell of the old minister. Thoughtful and thought provoking is exactly what this is.
“It’s not a blood and guts movie, Danny Dyer doesn’t pop up in a gunfight at any point. It’s an intelligent British film, driven by a great story and featuring some great acting. It’s also a serious film which isn’t all that common...when you look at something like “Sherlock Holmes” or “Burke and Hare” they’re played for laughs but “A Congregation of Ghosts” isn’t.”
It is sad that a British film driven by story can’t find distribution or an audience and yet something like “Pimp” can get a cinema release and, no doubt, pride of place in the DVD section of HMV. What’s wrong with the film industry in Britain? “There is interest from various European countries, which may seem strange, but I think that’s because of where it is set...the picturesque background, the Englishness of it may well be attractive to a foreign audience” says Collicott. What struck me most about the film was that it bore a striking resemblance to the work of Powell and Pressburger, particularly to “A Matter of Life and Death”. “You’re exactly right, I think that this film, while it may not be on that level, is certainly very true to the likes of “Black Narcissus”, “A Matter of Life and Death” and maybe even “Peeping Tom”. The film captures the period really well I think and that may be why there is a similarity to the feel of Powell and Pressburger.”
Collicott himself has a background in photography including a spell working on the New Musical Express. Looking at the film it would appear that that has influenced your style as a film-maker. There are several moments when what is on screen could pass for a photographic image. Has your background influenced your approach or am I reading too much into things? “I also worked in advertising at Saatchi and Saatchi and I do think that I try to work in a very visual way. Because of my background I think I try to direct the actors and not the action which is what helped Edward to give the performance he did. I guess that my background aids the process of making a film.”
“Despite coming from the area where Densham lived I wasn’t aware of his story until a few years ago when a friend of mine who lived on Bodmin Moor told me about it. I thought it was an amazing story. The idea that this man, Densham, could live the life he did; working as a missionary in India, being inspired by Gandhi, then ending his life completely alone and ignored by his congregation and having met people like John Betjeman and Daphne du Maurier, who wrote about him, it was just incredible to me.”
The film features an incredible performance from Edward Woodward, a fine actor who never really got the roles he deserved. Best known for “The Wicker Man” in which he plays another pious, God-fearing man cast adrift in a community who have anything but his best interests at heart this performance acts as a fitting tribute to his talent.
“Edward had a memorial service after his passing and at that the last clip they showed was from “A Congregation of Ghosts” and that was very emotional for me. With the British film industry in the doldrums Edward went to the States where he was very successful...he won Golden Globes and Emmys. The workload, I think, began to take its toll on his health and that might be why he never became a “big” name in movies. He is a brilliant actor and I think that this performance will remind people of that.”
What Mark Collicott has crafted is a very beautiful film and yet distribution remains elusive. If it were me I would throw my toys out of the pram and head off to a dark room to cry about it. Thankfully he has other projects already underway and with a little luck other people will see “A Congregation of Ghosts” and other people will understand that in Mark Collicott the British film industry has a director who wants to deliver films and stories not “product”.
“It’s very hard to get distribution in cinemas but I stand by the film. Maybe we should have had Danny Dyer and blood and guts but that isn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a film that would mean something to people but it seems that people are frightened to take a risk. I’m not downhearted and it hasn’t put me off in anyway.” That’s something we should all be grateful for.