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17 November 2017

Going It Alone: Documentary Director Jane Williams Shares the Story of Making Her Indie Documentary, Pilgrim Home

In this guest blog post, Birmingham-based director and WFTV member, Jane Williams describes her journey from BBC secretary to making her first independent documentary, Pilgrim Home – the untold story of an English Manor house where events over 400 years ago would come to define the spirit and ideals of the United States of America.

“Hello good Pilgrim.” Standing in a small village square high in the Polish Tatra Mountains, these words were as unexpected as they were unfamiliar. I was thousands of miles away from home and a world away from this warm, yet simple greeting. I was puzzled – why call me a Pilgrim?

Having heard my English accent, an American presumed my familiarity with the Pilgrim story and chose to address me as another well-met traveller. He was a historian and had an enthusiasm that has characterised many I have since met.
He explained to me about the journey of the Mayflower ship from England to North America in 1620.  Her passengers were a mix of religious radicals and merchant adventurers from across England; some seeking religious freedom and all a better way of life.

The group now known as the ‘Pilgrims’ are remembered each year in North America during Thanksgiving. Their story is a huge part of the country’s cultural heritage. A seed had been planted in me but it took many years to take root.

“Whilst searching for stories in the East Midlands for series such as Coast and Countryfile, the Pilgrims was frequently mentioned. Like many people, however, I dismissed them.”

On returning home, after much persistence, I secured a job as a secretary at BBC Birmingham. Gradually I worked my way into factual TV production. It was there that I learnt about the techniques of historical research: not just how to lift the thread of a story from a text but how to place yourself in that period of time.  There is something thrilling about touching an old photograph, letter or document. It is in these moments that you can reach out, touch the past and become a virtual time-traveller.

The Mayflower Compact

I have been fortunate enough to work on many award winning productions and have had privileged access to wonderful people and places. Whilst searching for stories in the East Midlands for series such as Coast and Countryfile, the Pilgrims was frequently mentioned. Like many people, however, I dismissed them.

Years later as a producer and director, on the wrong side of 30, I hoped to settle down and start a family. But as a director constantly ‘on the road’, I found this difficult.  Programme budgets were increasingly tight and hours long. If I was going to have to work so very hard to keep doing the job I love, I was going to do it on my own terms. I decided to go it alone.

It was at this time that my interest in the Pilgrims was reignited.  I met a lady calling herself ‘The Pilgrim Mother’ in honour of female pioneers. It is a peculiarity that in England we only refer to the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ yet the women formed the first families in New England.

Through her I was introduced to Sue Allan, a local author and historian. Sue told me about Scrooby and the wider East Midlands association with the people who sailed from England to the United States on the Mayflower.  Sue’s own story and enthusiasm for the Pilgrims was contagious. I was hooked.

Scrooby Manor

One of the most significant Pilgrims was a man by the name of William Brewster.  His early life was spent in Scrooby Manor in Nottinghamshire. Not only was Brewster a passenger on the Mayflower he is also the person most likely responsible for writing ‘The Mayflower Compact’, commonly sited as the forerunner of the United States Constitution.

It strikes me as incredible, given our close ties with America, that most people here only have a vague knowledge of this period in Anglo-American history. Today up to one in 12 living North Americans could be descended from just 102 Mayflower passengers.  Brewster descendants alone include Richard Gere, Ellen DeGeneres, Geena Davis and Seth MacFarlane.

Today, little remains of Scrooby Manor, now a humble farm lived in by three generations of the Dunstan family. What could this aged ruin tell us? What particularly interests me are the tales of ordinary people, amateur historians, house renovators and the army of volunteers who help maintain our heritage.

History is often presented as a series of events and facts. For me, history is alive. It surrounds and influences us daily. How we tell, interpret and learn from history will influence our own survival.  Moreover this important Pilgrim history is centered in the Midlands, my home.  Over five years ago I started the process of making my debut independent feature-length documentary, Pilgrim Home.

I did my research, identified potential markets, created a budget and wrote a seven-year business plan.  Then I began documenting life in Scrooby and at the Manor. The Manor’s current owners are the Dunstan’s. They are a very private family but have trusted me to discreetly film their home. It warms me that the Manor is still lived in by a family who cherish it and thus ensure its continuing story.

“This has been a very personal and challenging experience on all levels. At times the story has leapt into life by itself; at others it has remained stubbornly silent.”

It’s been a very slow process, not only due to lack of funding, but the time needed to investigate the history of Scrooby Manor properly. Sue, the historian, has un-earthed documents not seen for centuries. If I had been working to commercial and broadcast constraints, it quite simply couldn’t have been made.

Throughout the production I’ve continued to work in TV to finance much of Pilgrim Home. I’ve also raised funds through paid ‘work in progress’ screenings and talks. The people who I’ve met along the way have generously supplied donations, accommodation, food, emotional support and friendship.

Pilgrim Home is almost finished and includes everything that’s considered quintessentially British.  The documentary lends itself to distribution through digital platforms, branded content, sponsorship or event viewing – all of which I am pursuing.

Julie Dunstan and historian Sue Allan

This has been a very personal and challenging experience on all levels. At times the story has leapt into life by itself; at others it has remained stubbornly silent.  I’ve fought with the script, interweaving a complicated period in history with a modern human-interest story. I’ve made the two protagonists not academics but ‘ordinary’ women. This is history told from the heart of the home.

There’s a much bigger story though and that’s what continues to keep me motivated. Nearly 400 years later, how much has really changed? Today, in 2017 as in 1620, people are still making perilous journeys by boat in search of a better life. Some seek escape from persecution, others poverty, many both. It’s that continuum of history that fascinates me and the opportunity to reframe the current Pilgrim narrative to make it relevant now. By delving into the past, it is possible to shine a light on the present.

 

Find out more and attend a screening

Watch the trailer for Pilgrim Home here.

Visit the film’s website here and Facebook page here.

‘Director’s Cut’ preview screenings of Pilgrim Home are currently being arranged in November to coincide with American Thanksgiving (23 November).

Birmingham International Film Festival Screening
7.00pm, Monday 27th November
The Custard Factory, Gibb Street, Birmingham
Running Time: 1 hour
Book tickets here.

Pilgrim Home will be the first in a planned series.

If you would like to contact Jane about the film or its distribution, please e-mail: jane@fandangomedia.co.uk