What happened to the child stars of Whistle Down the Wind?
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
For many film fans, ‘It isn’t Jesus. It’s just a fella,’ is a line that’s up there with, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat,’. It was seven-year-old Alan Barnes who uttered those immortal words in the classic British film, Whistle Down the Wind which was filmed around Downham 60 years ago.
Now Alan, a 67-year-old grandfather, who lives in Longridge, has shared his memories in a fascinating new book. Whistle Down the Wind: A 60th Anniversary Celebration, has been written by Lancashire author Neil Brandwood and is out this month.
‘The book is a biography of the film,’ he said. ‘It played such a significant part in British cinema and everyone is still so fond of it. I just knew I needed to document it before it was too late.
‘Everyone knows about Hayley Mills but for me the real fascination was finding out what it was like for all those Ribble Valley schoolchildren who played such a big part in the film’s success.
‘The juxtaposition of industry legends like Richard Attenborough, and the biggest child star on the planet at the time, with these little children who had only ever known life in a remote, rural working class Lancastrian village, intrigued me.’
Neil spent four years researching and writing the book, interviewing all the remaining “children” from the film. Bryan Forbes’ widow, Nanette Newman, provided a wealth of information, and Richard Attenborough’s son, Michael, allowed Neil access to his father’s personal archive.
Through writing the book, he has struck up a friendship with Alan, and Diane Poole, who played Hayley’s sister, Nan.
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Diane, who now lives in Downham, said: ‘Whistle was very special to us, but it was also an important part of British cinema history. Bryan Forbes pioneered a unique approach to filming using untrained children like us, and filming almost entirely on location.’
Alan, who grew up in Chatburn, recalled: ‘I only had little legs so that’s why I was trailing behind Diane and Hayley when we were filmed running up that hill during the opening credit sequence. I remember thinking “I’m going to get the sack on the first day”.’
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case and Alan emerged as the star of the film. Even Hayley Mills happily concedes that he stole the show, an opinion shared by Walt Disney.
‘It was fascinating meeting Diane and Alan and all the other children,’ Neil said. ‘Having watched the film countless times, it was surreal seeing those little children as pensioners. Their eyes lit up and they couldn’t help smiling whenever they recalled those special four months of their childhood. They were instantly transported back across the decades and all of them gave me a unique insight into the experience.’
It’s the film’s theme of innocence, and Bryan Forbes’ ability to show the world through a child’s eyes, that Neil believes makes it a timeless classic.
‘Thanks to television repeats, new audiences are always discovering it and it never loses its charm. When I taught in primary schools, I sometimes played the film to the children. Despite it being decades old, in black and white and without any special effects, they loved it.’
Walking around Downham today, it is easy to be transported back to 1961. This is because the manor of Downham has been in the Assheton family’s ownership since 1558 and there are strict rules about what is permitted. There are no satellite dishes on display and the main road does not even have a street sign.
In an interview with Lancashire Life in 2014, the current Lord Clitheroe Ralph Assheton, said: ‘It’s not so much a philosophy, more a wish to conserve nice things and avoid the ugly bits. As soon as you put up a sign for something, you need another sign to explain it.
One mile from the village is Worsaw Hill farmhouse used as the family home in the film. To the delight of fans, the all-important barn where many scenes were shot is still standing.
Worsaw Hill farm’s current tenant, Jonathan Rumboll, is often bemused by Whistle pilgrims knocking on his door.
‘They come from all over the place, I even had a family from China wanting to take photos at the barn,’ he says.
To mark the anniversary and to launch Neil’s book, a unique celebration will take place in Clitheroe on November 26. The cast will reunite for a party, a Q&A session and a screening of the film. Tickets, priced £10 are limited, but some are still available via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diane said: ‘We’re all really looking forward to it. Being involved in the film is a bond that we all share. It was such an unusual thing that happened to us and it is something that we will never forget.’
* Neil Brandwood’s book, Whistle Down the Wind: A 60th Anniversary Celebration is available on Amazon. All profits will go to Marie Curie.
What happened next?
This is what became of the child stars after the cameras stopped rolling and the film crew moved on
DIANE POOLE, Nan Bostock
After leaving Clitheroe Grammar School in 1967, Diane studied at Accrington College and went on to have a varied career.
She worked in banking, ran a pet shop, a snooker club and a fishing tackle shop before opening a B&B and a falconry centre, before a chance meeting with record producer Pete Waterman led to Diane and her then husband moving to his farm in Cheshire and establishing a horse livery yard.
She has two daughters and after her divorce in 1999, Diane went back into banking, specialising in agricultural finance, and moved back to Lancashire. She retired in 2015 and has become an energetic member of the local W.I. and often gives fundraising talks for Marie Curie about her memories of the film.
ALAN BARNES, Charles Bostock
In November 1962 Alan had a small role in the film, The Victors, a World War Two drama which starred Albert Finney. Richard Attenborough recommended Alan for the role to the film’s producer and director Carl Foreman.
‘It was all very quick,’ says Alan. ‘Richard Attenborough sent my parents a telegram asking them to phone him and the next day I was in London being interviewed by Mr Foreman.’
Alan attended Ribblesdale Secondary Modern School, where, Alan says, ‘some of the kids would shout ‘It’s isn’t Jesus. It’s just a feller’ at me but that only lasted for a couple of weeks’.
After leaving school at 15, Alan became an apprentice joiner and used his Whistle… earnings to buy his first car. Five years later, he and two friends moved to the south coast for the summer where Alan found work at a Bournemouth boatyard. After six months, he and his friends pooled their savings to buy a campervan in which they toured Europe.
On returning to Chatburn, Alan took a job building vehicles for the Milk Marketing Board. He stayed with the MMB for 11 years before launching a double glazing firm with a friend.
He married twice, both times to women with children from previous relationships. Now retired, Alan lives in Longridge and enjoys making wooden toys for his step-grandchildren.
DOREENA ROBERTS (nee Clark), Disciple
After filming Whistle..., Doreena and her family moved to a farm in nearby Sawley.
She trained as a primary schoolteacher and worked at a school in Blackburn for eight years.
She married in 1980 and moved to Devon shortly afterwards. In 1982, the couple moved to Lincolnshire and trained as antique porcelain restorers. This led to them establishing their own business, which they ran successfully until retirement in 2014.
‘I feel proud to have been involved in the film. It really was an experience,’ she says. ‘With some of my £50 fee, my mother bought me a gold charm of a camera and a silver beaver. I’ve still got them. They’re very precious to me.’
KEITH CLEMENT, Disciple
Keith, became an auto-electrician after school and the business he established near Clitheroe is still going strong and his three sons and second wife, Tracy, work alongside him.
He remembers how, at secondary school, he got a lot of ‘stick’ as a result of his appearance in the film. ‘People would shout, “Get out of that puddle boy!” which got on my nerves. But the film did make me feel special, especially when we went down to Pinewood. As a six-year-old it was all a big adventure for me.’
Like all the other local children involved in Whistle..., he had no desire to enter the world of acting. ‘It was just a one-off and I was never tempted to pursue it any further.’
JOHN BODEN, Disciple
Shortly after the filming, John took his 11 plus exam and went to Clitheroe Grammar school, where he excelled in sport.
He took up his first teaching role in 1974 and married in 1976, going on to have two sons. In 1989 he was appointed headteacher of Hyndburn Park Primary School in Accrington, a position he held until retiring in 2010 and moving to the south of France.
‘I have shown the film to my grandchildren and they sat and watched it and thoroughly enjoyed it, even without any special effects.’
PAM DYSON (nee Lonsdale), Disciple
‘When the film was released I felt really disappointed,’ says Pam. ‘All the different places had been mixed together so, geographically, it didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t actually watch it as a film because I knew it was wrong.’
The summer after Whistle Down the Wind was shown in local cinemas, Pam joined Ribblesdale Secondary Modern School in Clitheroe.
'All the girls were playing the theme tune on their recorders and every time I went round the corner these girls would start playing it. It was a pain.’
After leaving school, Pam worked at the Nat West Bank and married in 1974 at Downham church. A mother of three with two grand-daughters, she has lived in Sabden for almost 50 years.
Now working as a wages clerk, Pam enjoys the local music scene.
JUDY OLLERENSHAW, Disciple
Shortly after the film was completed, Judy’s parents divorced and she left the Ribble Valley to live with her mum in Bury.
She spent most of her working life in accounts and has been with her partner, a market trader, for 45 years and the pair have travelled the world together.
‘I always think how lucky I was to be one of the chosen children. I must have watched the film about 20 times. It’s lovely being able to see yourself all those years ago.’
JULIE HART (nee Jackson), Latecomer 1
After leaving school, Julie spent five years working for the family farm delivering milk to villages in the area.
When she was 18, she and a friend travelled to Greece and she ended up working as a deck hand on private and chartered yachts, first in Greece and later in the West Indies. Clients included Pink Floyd and Nana Mouskouri.
She has two sons and worked as a reflexologist having developed an interest in healing and alternative medicine during her yachting days.
‘I must have watched the film more than 20 times now but each time I see it, I always spot something new in it,’ she says. ‘Whenever I think of the film I always smile.’
ANNE CREIGHTON (nee Newby), Latecomer 2
Anne grew up in Downham and has lived there all her life.
After she left Ribblesdale Secondary Modern School she became a production control clerk at a clothing manufacturers.
She married at the age of 20, and has a son and three daughters. Now aged 63, she works as a pharmacy technician.
CHRISTINE LORD (nee Ashworth), Disciple
Christine was the oldest teenager in the cast and she wasn’t embarrassed about being recognised in the street.
‘It only happened in the weeks immediately after the film came out and it didn’t bother me,’ she says. ‘I was happy to acknowledge it.’
She married and had three sons, and she now has two granddaughters. She and her husband have lived in Wales, Nottingham and Cambridge and spend half the year living in Northumberland, and the other half at their bungalow in Cyprus.
‘A few years ago I went to see Hayley in a play in Newcastle,’ she says. ‘I thought about going round to see her afterwards but I didn’t fancy being in Newcastle city centre that late at night so I didn’t bother. It’s something that I’ve regretted ever since.
‘Making the film was a wonderful experience and I have nothing but happy memories of it. I grew in confidence and embraced life with enthusiasm, all of which has done me proud over the last 60 years.’
How many of these great films made in Lancashire and Lakeland have you seen?
Mrs Lowry and Son - Filmed at locations around Lancashire including a very moody looking St Annes beach
Miss Potter – The 2006 biopic starred Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Lakeland as itself
East is East – A poignant and touching look at life for a British-Asian family in 1970s Salford
Paddington 2 – In which everyone's favourite bear takes a ride on the East Lancs Railway
Dolittle – Kirkby Lonsdale was the location for much of this film
Withnail and I – Scenes for this cult film were shot around Penrith and Shap
24 Hour Party People – A celebration of Manchester’s iconic 1990s music scene
Swallows and Amazons – This family favourite was filmed on and around Coniston Water
Brief Encounter - The most romantic film ever made was filmed at Carnforth
The King’s Speech – Colin Firth stars as George VI with many scenes filmed at Queen Street Mill in Burnley
A Monster Calls – Parts of this 2016 fantasy film about a boy and his monster were filmed around Colne
Supernova: A touching drama starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci filmed around the Lake District