The much anticipated but as yet unreleased UK film production ‘A Place to Stay’, which includes crop circles as part of its story, recently received another special showing at The Palace cinema, Devizes (and is showing again in a special run right now, between 20-24 June). ANDY THOMAS was there…
Advance word on the long-awaited but much-delayed movie ‘A Place to Stay’ had been very positive, promoted as a moving and heartfelt story of Wiltshire, gypsies and crop circles. Some of those who attended a special London showing a few months back spoke glowingly of it as the positive balance to the Hollywood darkness-fest that was Mel Gibson’s ‘Signs’.
Having attended a second special screening of ‘A Place to Stay’ at The Palace cinema, Devizes on 20 May, one can only assume that what the happy punters saw in London was a completely different movie to the spectacle shown in Devizes, which left the vast majority of attenders shaking their heads in despair at its sheer awfulness. This is sad to report, because all croppies would like nothing more than a good UK-made movie about crop circles to be worthy and successful, and put the spectre of Hollywood’s scare-tactic take on the phenomenon aside. But ‘A Place to Stay’ isn’t going to do it. That the director, Marcus Thompson, is now attending Cannes for the second year running, trying to get distribution for this film, speaks volumes. The version shown at Devizes was reportedly the ‘uncut’ print. 15 minutes has since been trimmed. Trimming another 90 minutes from it, at least, might be advisable.
For an unknown and still unreleased film, The Palace (with a bit of help from the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group, who helped get it shown) did fantastically well to literally pack the cinema wall-to-wall with 250 locals eager to see how their county would be depicted on-screen. From the long queue in the streets, one could have been forgiven for thinking ‘Matrix Reloaded’ had been released early. However, how these locals felt after seeing this debacle, which almost uniformly portrays Wiltshire folk as bigoted fascists and racist snobs, evicting, beating up or raping gypsies and New-Age travellers, is another matter. It’s a wonder lynch-mobs weren’t pursuing the cinematographer (who attended the screening) up the High Street.
The story revolves around a love affair which develops between a gypsy woman and a traveller lad. In a sort of Romeo and Juliet scenario, each group loathe the other and the relationship is frowned upon. Meanwhile, a Nazi-like local councillor loathes both gypsies AND travellers, and rallies rabid locals in the village hall to ‘sort them out’. Will the couple’s love survive? Go on, guess. Oh, and there are some crop circles around for the lovers to romp in. However, into this mix is thrown an entirely superfluous and embarrassing conspiracy subplot about US ‘Groom Lake’ government agents, which makes no sense whatsoever and goes absolutely nowhere, book-ended with ANOTHER entirely superfluous and embarrassing device about a retired and catatonic policeman remembering back to the events we see, which also goes absolutely nowhere.
All this might have been bearable if handled with reality and subtlety, but the God-awful English country folk stereotypes and some suspect acting (with a few exceptions) conspire to bring the whole thing crashing down into farce. Indeed, my accompanying friend actually remarked that it was like a spoof film deliberately developed to see how many contrived stereotypes and predictable plot developments could possibly be crammed into one film.
For those who have spent time in the Wiltshire countryside, how many gentle ‘bobbies’ (local policemen) on bicycles have we seen in recent years? How many classic seventeenth-century horse-drawn painted gypsy caravans do we see parked up with Romanys cavorting in big earrings, dangling dead hedgehogs ready for to be cooked for tea? How many local mayors wear their ceremonial robes for closed meetings in offices? Indeed, how many Wiltshire locals – including vicars, according to this film - are Not-In-My-Back-Yard fascist bastards? Hopefully, not many. And, however bad the odd ones may sometimes be, do policemen (the non-bobby variety) really use tear gas and riot gear to move on three caravans’-worth of travellers, setting fire to their sites in the process? Incidentally, even travellers must know that the best way to replace a bolt on a child’s leg caliper would be to pop into the local hospital for a free NHS replacement – not attempt to steal a totally unsuitable component from beneath the bonnet of a car parked at ‘The Barge’, for God’s sake.
It was hard not to stifle a laugh – indeed, many didn’t - as yet another facile characterisation with marginally less wit and reality than the puppets in ‘Trumpton’ and ‘Postman Pat’ (UK kid’s TV series) was paraded. If set in 1951, perhaps the stereotypes might have worked, but as a reflection of modern English life, all it needed was Dick Van Dyke with his celebrated ‘mockney’ accent and flat cap to crown the experience. This might be forgiveable in a US-made film, but being a UK production, it’s almost as if it was made with an eye on capturing a US market based on what some people across the pond might THINK we are like. Note to our US friends: don’t believe it.
Perhaps inevitably, the only characters who seem remotely genuine are the actual crop circle researchers, making their much-vaunted cameos, although Reg Presley comes across as far too enthusiastic about a phenomenon he normally dismisses as being “95%” hoaxing in the real world. Of all people, Busty Taylor probably gives the most convincing performance in the whole movie, whilst instructing a TV crew about dowsing. The hand of Colin Andrews as a consultant to the production is clearly visible, meanwhile, in the grand and pointed introduction (“world’s leading authority”, etc.) he is given by the TV reporters onscreen, provoking chuckles throughout the auditorium.
The crop circles themselves are pretty incidental to the plot, and though treated more authentically than in ‘Signs’, they somehow come across rather casually and are thus more trivialised than the gravity given by the heavy awe shown in the Gibson film. There are no dodgy aliens, though, and a pleasing sense of mystery is left hanging over the phenomenon. The other saving graces of ‘A Place to Stay’ are the occasional nice Wiltshire landscapes and the grand aerial shots of crop formations like the 2001 Milk Hill stunner. After all the fuss made over Matthew Williams (seen here very fleetingly at the bar of ‘The Barge’) recreating the 1995 solar system glyph for the movie, it is onscreen for little more than a few seconds towards the end, and nothing is made of its symbolism at all – so what was the need for all the hard graft of recreating that particular pattern?
The movie climaxes - if one can say it has a climax with such a bitty and slow-moving narrative - with the aforementioned solar system formation appearing around the gypsy woman and a little girl. This is achieved with pretty cheap cross-fades of crop flowing around, and no fancy camera trickery. Perhaps this was an artistic decision, but a stunning piece of special effects showing it in full reveal, spreading out around them, would have enhanced the sequence substantially. Well, some might say, this is only a low-budget film. But look how many sceptics have scoffed by saying how easy and quick it would have been to have faked the infamous Oliver’s Castle video (in which a formation is seen to appear) on inexpensive equipment. Yet why was such a sequence too much for a bunch of professional film-makers to go to the bother of doing (indeed, no-one else has done it since)? An interesting point.
The little pin-pricks of hope given by the reasonable look of the film cannot save what is otherwise an overlong, turgid and, excuse the pun, deeply corny two hours. Yes, the film is low-budget, but that’s not always a problem – look at ‘The Blair Witch Project’. However, the largest budget in the world couldn’t save this script. By the end of the long, long two hours, people in my row were almost begging for it to end and the children in front of me were soundly asleep (having been rather unwisely exposed to some pretty foul language throughout the film, but that’s what comes of going to see an uncertified film – the language alone will surely make this a ‘15’ if, God help us, it ever finds distribution). Just when you think the film can’t get any worse, even the relief of the rolling end credits is broken by the voice of Colin Andrews inexplicably lecturing us on the need for ecological conservation, picking up on no theme touched on in the plot at all.
For those who have gone on the record with their warm and welcoming love for this film (see Peter Sorensen’s comments in our story ‘ANOTHER CROP CIRCLE MOVIE IN THE OFFING?’, October 2002 archives, for a balancing positive review), I can give nothing but apologies. However, what I can say is that NOT ONE of the croppies we spoke to as the screening finished had a good word to say about the film, even those from the WSCCG who had helped get the thing shown, now looking crestfallen. The overwhelming response was that not only was it not good as a crop circle film, but it was actually one of the worst films anyone had EVER paid to see, period, and, sadly, that’s hard to disagree with. If any of these people later change their minds, they are either big fibbers or just being very, very kind to what might have been good intentions on the part of the filmmakers.
A disappointing lost opportunity. Now, where’s that copy of ‘Signs’..?
Filming 'A Place to Stay' (photo: ANDY THOMAS)