Suffolk’s World War I trenches star in new documentary

Over the top. . . the recreated World War I trenches just outside Ipswich provide a highly realistic setting for film and TV...

Over the top. . . the recreated World War I trenches just outside Ipswich provide a highly realistic setting for film and TV drama. Image: Tim Curtis - Credit: Tim Curtis

Film maker Tim Curtis goes behind the scenes at the Akenham trenches for a documentary called The War Just Outside Ipswich which will be released in local cinemas.

The trenches at Akenham. Image: Taff Gillingham

The trenches at Akenham. Image: Taff Gillingham - Credit: Taff Gillingham

The film Journey’s End is a stark reminder of the brutality of trench warfare. Claustrophobic living, physical deprivation and mental decline are all part of this epic drama, a portrayal of life on the Western Front which involved filming some of the most dramatic scenes on a patch of farmland just north of Ipswich.

The trenches at Akenham, have an impressive cast of film and television productions to their name. In addition to Journey’s End, the company which operates a network of replica World War I trenches on 10 acres of farmland, has also brought its own brand of battle scene realism to The Last Tommies, Boy Soldiers, Downtown Abbey and Private Peaceful, to name but a few.

Throw in a couple of visits from Blue Peter and a stollen-making trip down memory lane by the Great British Bake Off and you begin to get the flavour of one of Suffolk’s best kept secrets. Mud and explosions aplenty but also the poignancy of short films such as the 2014 Sainsbury’s Christmas TV commercial which depicted British and German soldiers shaking hands, playing football and exchanging gifts.

The Sainsbury’s commercial alone brought more than 250 extras to the site, says military historian Taff Gillingham who, with his business partner Kevin Smith, a former aircraft engineer, runs Khaki Devil which operates the trenches and related film services at Akenham and a First World War uniform and equipment hire business at Hawstead, near Bury St Edmunds where they are also building an army camp of the period and plan to open a Visitor Centre.

Taff Gillingham, film maker Tim Curtis and Kevin Smith. Image: Nick Cottam

Taff Gillingham, film maker Tim Curtis and Kevin Smith. Image: Nick Cottam - Credit: Nick Cottam

“We’ve built trenches all over the country for different film and TV jobs,” says Taff “and it seemed logical to look for somewhere more permanent closer to home. I drew an arbitrary line within a 10-mile radius of Ipswich and just went looking.”

What he eventually came across was a panoramic, somewhat isolated piece of Suffolk farmland, not quite Northern France but good enough for Taff and his team to painstakingly create the now much filmed Ipswich trenches.

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“It never ceases to amaze me that every time we see another production it looks different,” he says. “Films like Downton Abbey and Journey’s End have also brought a lot of money into the area, from booking hotel rooms to using local suppliers. Film companies quickly discover that it’s cheaper to bring everyone to Suffolk than to try and build their own First World War trenches.” Some of the bigger productions have boosted the local economy by over £2 million, he suggests, and even smaller productions will make that last-minute lunchtime call for takeaway pizzas.

Read: How my grandfather risked his life for Britain

Another Khaki Devil production, this time local through and through, was Stanley’s War which was made in 2018 as part of the Armistice centenary. The film from Suffolk film maker Tim Curtis tells the story of Stanley Banyard, a Ramsholt farm hand who went to war and stood out for his initiative and courage.

“Finding the trenches so close to home was a game changer,” says Tim who made Stanley’s War on behalf of the Bawdsey Peninsular Poppy Project and has followed this with a new documentary, The War Just Outside Ipswich, which goes behind the scenes to look at how films are made and supported at the Ipswich trenches.

“We wanted to show how these films get made in Suffolk using what is a pretty unique production facility,” says Tim. “We had a lot of extra material after shooting Stanley’s War and when I sat down during lockdown, I realised we could go ahead and make a film about the Ipswich trenches and some of the amazing stuff which has gone on there.”

Tim Curtis had a willing collaborator in Taff Gillingham who not only had a key location for the shooting of Stanley’s War but also provided extras, uniforms, weapons, historical advice and a whole host of other battle scene paraphernalia – even the smoke which wafted eerily up from no-man’s land during the fighting.

“We had three nights of filming in the trenches and used Taff for just about everything. For a small production like Stanley’s War, Khaki Devil can be a one stop shop. To build trenches like that and make them look dated and weathered would have been impossible on our timescale and budget.”

While the trenches are a fascinating and very realistic throwback to a pivotal moment in British history, Taff stresses that they are on private land and there is no public access. “It has been a bit of a nightmare during lockdown trying to keep people away,” he says.

The uniform and equipment hire part of the operation is impressive in its own right. From jackets and boots to Lee Enfield rifles and platoon bikes, it’s all there, stored, catalogued and ready for use, alongside Taff Gillingham’s seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the period. Did you know, for example, that the brading that identifies officer rankings was moved from cuffs to shoulders to make them less conspicuous targets going into battle? That officers would sometimes wear the same uniform as their men to blend in better, and that the dyeing of uniforms became a hit and miss business when the British had to take over from German suppliers at the start of the conflict? “To Dye for your Country?” ran a famous newspaper headline of the period.

Khaki Devil came about, says Taff, when he was working on a 2001 reality TV series called The Trench. “It was about the minutiae of life in the trenches. Khaki Devil trained all the participants as Great War soldiers and it was allowed to run in real time. We did a deal to source all the uniforms and kit for the series and Khaki Devil was born.” Row upon row of immaculate service uniforms, alongside weaponry, vehicles, even bars of period soap all stand testament to the company’s support for authentic trench warfare film making.

The War Just Outside Ipswich, which is being screened in Suffolk, and perhaps beyond, as a double bill with Stanley’s War, provides a fascinating insight into some of the big name films which have used the Akenham trenches. Amid the heat of battle, there’s a scene in which Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes is watching the action while a mud splattered Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley, recovers from another explosion. There is an interview with Anni Oldham, the film’s hair and make up designer, who describes how dirt from the trenches is matched with eye make-up to show the grim reality of this type of warfare.

While 2020 was a tough year for Taff and Kevin in the face of the virus, there appears to be plenty in the pipeline. Alongside the trenches and uniform/equipment business, there are plans for a First World War visitor centre at the Hawstead site.

“We’re collecting and restoring huts from the period,” adds Kevin Smith, “building what will be a very detailed and realistic section of a British army camp of that time.” Never mind Journey’s End. This particular voyage into the past has a long way to go.

An additonal screening of The War Just Outside Ipswich has been scheduled for The Riverside cinema in Woodbridge on 14 January, 7.30pm. To book tickets online go to theriverside.co.uk

It is expected the film will be screened at other Suffolk cinemas during 2021.

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