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Murder in the belfry

 Feelings can run high around the time of a striking competition, but not normally this high! Happily this is fiction not fact – the ringing and the gruesome deeds are in a Midsomer Murders TV drama, in which we had a small hand. Here is the background before you watch the film.


Can you train six actors to ring? That was May, with the actors' contracts starting at the beginning of June, and filming due at the end of the month. Where? The film company chose Bray for its large ringing chamber and easy access – to get their equipment in. The story features a six bell tower but Bray is a heavy eight. We could hide two ropes, and for novices, we decided to use the front six (12cwt) rather than the back six (24cwt). All filming used tied bells with sound added afterwards. The sound was recorded at Monk's Risborough, a six bell tower, where the bell chamber and some general scenes were filmed. Scenes outside the church were filmed at Bray and Watlington with North Stoke used for the Village Hall. It seems that such hybrids of different locations are common place in films.

 We agreed an initial training session in early June, after which we would decide how much more training the actors needed. We intended to get as many hours training in a day as possible, but despite working 12 hour days when filming, the actors' endurance proved limited when it came to bell handling, so we kept sessions to a couple of hours each. Overall, the actors progressed well, having spent only a couple of hours each on a rope. Actors learn to do things for a living, but like any bunch of people, some learnt less quickly than others.

 John Wells ran most of the training sessions, teaching mostly on the bells each actor would ring in the film. David Argue, David Cornwall and John Harrison did some early training.

 How well did they do?

 Remember that we were not training them to be ringers, only to handle a bell well enough to act the part of ringers. This they achieved, looking confident on the end of a rope, though it was an effort for one of them. Miracles can be done in the editing room, so it is as well that we did not need sustained periods of perfect ringing! The actors managed one reasonable looking round, but most material filmed will be used in small shots, a lot of individual ringers, edited together to create the illusion of ringing.

 Without giving away too much of the story, some ringers get killed and at one critical point, the remainder resort to ringing double handed – a major achievement for most experienced ringers, let alone people with a couple of hours training! We warned the director that she would have to do a lot of faking to pull this scene off, which she accepted. Even so, when it came to filming, one of the actors did manage to ring two bells passably (one of the others might have managed it too, had the 5th and 6th ropes at Bray not been too far apart for him to manage). The rest was faked.

 Some of the actors learnt things we had not taught them. They had done quite well during the training, but seemed to develop handling faults when being filmed. One, a small woman, rang with short backstrokes like a nervous learner, the other a tall strong man, rang with extreme bent arms and poor bell control like a typical laddish know-all. In fact these were the characters they were playing. Somehow, they had picked up from what we taught them, not just how to get it right, but credible ways to get it wrong! (This might be worth recording to illustrate 'How not to do it' for your learners!)

 One day, to the amazement of the others, one actor announced that he had been ringing at another tower. At a family wedding in Cheshire the previous weekend he mentioned that he had been learning to ring. Before he knew it he was on the tenor ringing rounds. Sensibly he had an experienced ringer standing nearby.


 The idea of taking over the tower at Bray for filming was not favoured by some of the Bray ringers. Things got worse when the location people announced that they had decided to paint the walls of the ringing chamber brown, install a new door and take all the furniture out. The horrified ringers had recently won the ODG's ‘best kept tower competition’ and had visions of things never looking the same again. They need not have worried – true to their word the company reinstated everything as it had been, with a fresh coat of paint for the walls.

 The company made up several fake peal boards for the walls, many copied from existing boards at Bray. They were beautifully made but had some amusing blunders. One recorded a peal of minor with eight ringers, and another a conductor who was not ringing in the band. The prize exhibit was for a ‘Quarter Muffled Peal Peal’. Graham added to these inaccuracies by creating a blue line of ‘Midsomer Surprise Minor’ on the tower blackboard!

 The only real mishap was from poor workmanship. Bray only had one clapper bar but we needed six. The film company made them, but failed to copy the original. Their version fitted at first but soon moved and let the bell strike. We had some rope, so we tied the clappers and carried on. The following week's 'fix' did not work either, but this time one bar caught and broke a slider. Whitechapel did a very rapid repair job so the schedule was not affected – but we stuck to the rope from then on!


 This was an interesting experience, but we would not wish to repeat it regularly. Days are long, with much time waiting for things to happen. We were on site from 7am to 7pm on the main 'ringing' day, to produce about two minutes of broadcast material! In contrast, filming 'the other band' (of real ringers) was over in a few minutes, with a single take (but we had been there for three hours!)

 Organisation was impressive – lots of people with different jobs to do, the church yard full of vans and equipment, and a nearby car park full of service vehicles including a mobile canteen – which served excellent lunches. Safety while filming in the ringing chamber needed careful management, with typically 20 people, lighting, camera tripods, microphone booms etc. as well as the bell ropes. We briefed the crews about the risk and everything went smoothly.

 The double handed ringing was faked mainly by getting the actors to ring one bell with one hand and to wave the other arm around in the air as if ringing with both arms. The director, saw the take on her monitor, and opted for close up shots that avoided showing the hand without a rope. In one scene Graham’s left arm doubled for that of actress Gwen Taylor, by wearing her watch and keeping his face out of shot!

 Perhaps the most difficult shot involved blood dripping down a rope – a sight Bray ringing chamber is unlikely to see again. With protective covering over the floor, the crew and the camera, the ‘special effects’ people went to work. One lay in the pit under the Treble ready to poor ‘blood’ down through the ceiling boss. Another stood on a box with a syringe and a long rubber tube held above the actress's head. Starting to pull the bell up was the signal to pour blood onto the poor girl. Despite the precautions taken, the carpet in the ringing chamber now has some dark red patches!

 The film company wanted shots of ‘real’ ringers and asked for a band to appear in front of the camera as ‘extras’. John Wells, John Harrison, Graham Firman, Derek and Wenda Fowles and Ann Bethell obliged. As well as ringing at Bray, we had a day of filming in North Stoke where the film company took over the village hall for the presentation of the results of the ‘ringing competition’ – a key part of the plot. About 30 other ‘ringers’, recruited as extras, joined our band. All wore colourful sashes to show to which band they belonged.

 The sound of ringing was recorded at Monks Risborough where David Argue, David Cornwell, Barry Cowper, Colin Walter, John Wells and Val Willard had a very detailed list of what was required – ringing only 5 bells at one stage is intentional. Different standards of ringing were needed and in one touch the 4th was to be late virtually every time, to fit in with the dialogue. If the sound track is synchronised properly, there should be no doubt who won the striking competition! But, who knows?

 Is it authentic?

 Show a bunch of ringers something about ringing and they are sure to find faults in it. As well as the blunders on the peal boards, fault-finders will spot strange turns of phrase and other incongruities. The director and actors were keen to heed our advice, and corrected several things, but we were only involved some of the time. Some things were 'in the can' when we spotted them, and some were not practical to change. Doubtless there will be more in the scenes we did not see. Also, apart from a few words of advice; we had no role in the fitting of the sound track to the ringing scenes.

 Fortunately, the story is not a documentary about ringers, so some artistic licence is in order. When viewing this programme it will be well to remember that the First Principle of Television Film Production appears to be: “Artistic and Dramatic effect take precedence over details of technical accuracy”!

 John Harrison, Autumn 2001

 Copyright © 2001 John Harrison.

 This article was first published in The Ringing World, a few months after filming in 2001.  Ring out your dead was in the fifth series of Midsomer Murders, and has been shown many times since 2001, in UK and abroad. It inspired one person to contact me and ask to be taught to ring. Here is the shot of me in tthe film.

 For more information about Midsomer Murders, see: midsomermurders.org 

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