Film Night is currently taking an Easter break, but here is Chris Corner’s vivid account of the making of Ken Loach’s Black Jack in Whitby, originally published on his own blog.
It was August, towards the end of the summer holidays of 1978 and I was at my nana’s – a tall house half way up Blackburn’s Yard on the old East Side of Whitby. My seagull’s perch (an attic window) gave a view of all the steps leading downhill between the pantiled terraced cottages. A short, narrow tunnel-like passageway through the buildings led to Church Street. I’d look out across the town and harbour, watching the boats but on that cloudy day there was something interesting happening below in the yard itself.
A thin man with sandy hair and big glasses was peering intently through a hand-held lens. He was standing with a small group of people behind a camera attached to a sturdy tripod in a patch of weeds outside a whitewashed cottage across the yard. They stood there for quite some time. I didn’t know who the man was but remember being in no doubt that he was in charge of whatever they were doing – he was the one who was directing things and things were being directed. I later discovered it was Ken Loach.
He was filming an adaptation of Leon Garfield‘s novel, Black Jack. This particular scene involved three different shots. The sequence began after the giant Frenchman, Black Jack, had risen from his coffin and made his escape – taking young Tolly with him. They ran down the steps below my nana’s and onto a raised area that overlooks the lower part of the yard. Black Jack paused and saw some washing hanging out to dry. More steps were negotiated, Black Jack snatched the old rags before hurrying off towards Church Street via the passageway. The scene only lasts seconds in the finished film but seemed to take the best part of an afternoon to shoot. It was shot in daylight but the action was made to look like it took place at twilight.
A lot of filming was also done in the nearby old coaching inn, The White Horse and Griffin. This building was in a semi-derelict state, as were many in Blackburn’s Yard at the time. It was being used as a fisherman’s store, full of nets, buoys and crab pots. It is now a hotel and restaurant. The White Horse and Griffin had escaped the attentions of renovators in the 1950s and 60s and retained many of its 18th century features. The inn was used as the interior of the ‘madhouse’ as well as for some street scenes.
The crew went to great lengths to make the yards appear as they might have done in the 18th century. However, a lot of their work hardly made it into the final film. Most buildings in this part of Whitby date from exactly the right time period for the story. They were made dirty with pots of special filmmaker’s grime. They painted it on everything, doors, windows, walls. Even the Yorkshire flag stone paving was coated with what looked like compost. The interior of the White Horse didn’t need much fake muck. Carpenters hid anything anachronistic by removing it or boxing it in – they constructed substantial-looking timber frames, beams and angular buttresses. There were swinging shop and pub signs, baskets and old barrels.
Black Jack, Loach’s first costume drama, is one of my favourite films. Ken Loach seems to make things real by doing very little. Although, after watching him working that late summer afternoon on one short scene – it was obvious he was doing a lot. Chris Menges‘ evocative, grainy photography is excellent. Grass and trees are summer green, interiors are realistic, dark and dusty away from the occasional pools of natural light. Birds sing loudly thanks to sound recorder, Andrew Boulton. His floor boards creak under ancient footsteps, the walls echo, sounds fade in and out organically. The actors don’t overact. In fact, some barely act at all and this adds to the poignancy. There’s a soul and warmth that permeates the whole film. It’s enhanced by memories of seeing part of its creation in the late summer of 1978.
Black Jack won the Critics’ Award at Cannes in 1979. Ken Loach directed Kes in 1969 and won the 2006 Palme d’Or with The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I, Daniel Blake (2016) has just won Loach a second Palme d’Or at Cannes.