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Another world is possible

The bestselling novelist Marina Lewycka remembers the blood, sweat and tears of making a film about

When the authorities expelled Gerrard Winstanley and his pitiful band of Diggers from the common at St George's Hill, near Cobham in Surrey, in 1650, they can hardly have imagined that some three hundred years later this impoverished radical dreamer and mystical proto-communist would be the subject of such intense historical interest, let alone the eponymous hero of a film.

Yet it is no coincidence that there should have been a renewed surge of interest in Winstanley and the Diggers in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the spirit of revolution was out on the streets, and latter-day Diggers were occupying campuses and squatting houses and apartment blocks. I was a starry-eyed young PhD student in 1970, researching revolutionary thought in the 17th century. What drew me to Winstanley was not only his political radicalism, but that he seemed to have a "psychological" understanding of the biblical narrative, unusual at that time, as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil which took place in every human heart. When I read an item in the newspaper saying that a film was to be made by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo about Gerrard Winstanley, I had never seen Brownlow and Mollo's It Happened Here, but I knew of it by reputation. Naturally, I got in touch and offered my services.

In some ways, the making of the film Win­stanley mirrored the endeavour of the original Diggers. It was an enterprise held together by a shared belief that commitment was more important than money, a lack of hierarchy that occasionally bordered on the anarchic, the spirit of voluntarism, good humour, camaraderie, stoicism in the face of setbacks, and a willingness to submit to the rigours of English dirt and English weather in pursuit of a higher purpose. Like Winstanley, we had our priorities straight. We knew that fame, fortune and ambition were not what it was about; what mattered was doing it properly.

Doing it properly, in this context, meant the painstaking attention to period detail for which Brownlow and Mollo have become known. Not only did we have the correct suits of armour, as worn by Cromwell's soldiers, on loan from the Tower of London, and the correct breeds of cattle, on loan from the Rare Breeds Society, but someone even managed to rustle up a newborn (well, almost) baby for the birth scene.

My boyfriend at the time, Nick Rowling, who features in the camp scenes with gorgeously authentic unkempt blond curls, is also in the credits as a consultant advising about domestic interiors (he was an architectural historian). He advised the directors to keep conifers out of shot as much as possible (almost unknown south of Scotland at that time). I feature in the credits as script consultant - my job was to comb through it and weed out any words or phrases that would be inauthentic for the period, and occasionally I got to add a few of my own. But I was also in turn tea lady, film extra (a small walk-on part as a servant), wiper of tears and grazed knees (some of the eviction scenes got a bit rough) and general dogsbody.
All the other actors, apart from Jerome Willis who played General Fairfax, were amateurs like ourselves - one of the great successes of the film was that they managed to lose themselves so utterly in the action that there was never any sense of anyone trying to "act".

Also not "acting" was Sid Rawle, hippie, squatter and "New Digger", who played the leader of a band of Fifth Monarchists, travelling around England with their licentious philosophy that the elect could commit no sin - a recipe for nudity, fornication and other such 1960s-style conduct disapproved of by the more puritanical Diggers.

Even in these chaotic scenes, Kevin and Andrew were wonderfully laid-back as directors. They wandered around chatting, watching, letting some things just happen, suggesting other things, sometimes getting someone to repeat a sequence several times, but on the whole you might say "guiding" rather than "directing", so light was their touch.

The script was based on David Caute's 1961 novel Comrade Jacob, and earlier versions had drawn explicit parallels between events of 1651 on St George's Hill and the present day. (The Diggers called it George Hill, refusing to acknow­ledge what they saw as the popish idolatry of sainthood.) But by the time Nick and I got involved, anything that distracted from total immersion in the historic past had been excised. You are left with an image of 17th-century rural life as purely poor and precarious, unadulterated by soap or sophistication. Even the dirty, chewed-down fingernails of the Roundhead musketeer in the early battle scene speak of the vulnerability of those who are usually the pawns in history - now briefly, in this film, given their moment in the spotlight.

What those of us who worked down in the mud couldn't see, and didn't see until we finally crowded into the small cine theatre in Soho in 1975 to view the finished work, was the sheer beauty of the black-and-white footage captured by the cameraman, Ernest Vincze, the transient play of breeze, light and shadow across the landscape, the dignified stoicism in the faces of the Diggers, the moments of humour.

By then, I had abandoned my PhD and broken up with Nick, and was living in a squat in the East End of London. For in the end, despite our attempts to eradicate the present, Winstanley is very much a film of the early 1970s, a time when everything was in flux, and everything seemed possible - even making a great feature film on a budget of £24,000.

The British Film Institute releases the DVD and Blu-ray of "Winstanley" (certificate PG) on 3 August
Marina Lewycka's latest novel, "We Are All Made of Glue", is published by Fig Tree (£18.99 hardback)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right