With the BBC’s new Land Girls series set to air, Roz Laws looks at how the wartime story was made in the Midlands.
A group of girls stand in a field in the rolling Warwickshire countryside, wearing thick jumpers, overcoats and old-fashioned jodhpurs.
It is clear there is something not quite right about this picture.
It’s not just that they’re wearing 1940s outfits. What is also obvious is their discomfort under such heavy clothes, as the temperature is soaring.
Anyone with any knowledge of farming may also be surprised to see them standing in a freshly-ploughed field in July.
For a nerve-racking few weeks, it looked like the makers of Land Girls, a new drama to mark the outbreak of the Second World War, might not be able to film this scene at all.
Producer Erika Hossington takes up the story: “Our biggest challenge was finding a farmer prepared to plough a field for us at the end of June, for the episode set in the depths of winter,” she says.
“It went right to the wire and we only found one a couple of days before filming. Farms are governed by so many rules and subsidies and have to be very careful about what land they use.
“We’re shooting the girls picking swedes and beets, trying to look as cold as possible despite the sweltering heat.”
Land Girls, shown every weekday teatime on BBC1 next week then repeated on Sunday nights, is produced by the same people who make 234 episodes a year of Doctors at BBC Birmingham’s Drama Village in Selly Oak.
It follows a year in the lives of four young girls away from home, doing their bit for Britain in the Women’s Land Army.
They are played by West End star Summer Strallen, who replaced Connie Fisher in The Sound Of Music, Hope Springs star Christine Bottomley, Jo Woodcock and Becci Gemmell.
They are sent to the Hoxley estate, working on run-down Pasture Farm – in real-life a farm near Henley-in-Arden, in Warwickshire.
The opulent Hoxley Manor, home of Lord Lawrence Hoxley (Inspector Lynley star Nathaniel Parker) and his wife Lady Ellen (Sophie Ward), has been recreated using Arbury Hall in Nuneaton.
Other locations used in the seven-week shoot include the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, Stoneleigh Abbey, the Elizabethan Fleece Inn in the Worcestershire village of Bretforton, and Toddington station on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire steam railway.
“The last period drama produced at BBC Birmingham was Martin Chuzzlewit, back in 1994,” says executive producer Will Trotter as he watches filming on the farm.
“I’ve been wanting to do another one for a while, but they are very expensive to make. The award-winning Doctors team can do it on a smaller budget because they are so efficient and highly skilled.
“I wanted to give them an opportunity to do something bigger, and the chance came when we were asked to make a drama to commemorate the outbreak of war.
“The land girls idea fitted, especially as we have such wonderful countryside around Birmingham.
“The ambition of this series is far greater than the budget would suggest. For example, it features a real Messerschmitt fighter plane!
“I investigated doing it with CGI, but that never looks that good. So we found a real plane in the UK and a guy willing to fly it up here for a gripping scene where the Germans fire at the land girls, and it worked out cheaper than trying to create it with special effects.
“That’s an example of the ‘can do’ attitude we have here. There’s something about the Midlands and Birmingham, the city of a thousand trades, that makes things happen.
“One of the best things about the series is the awesome cast we’ve been able to assemble.”
As he says that, Nathaniel Parker walks past on his way to the makeshift green room-come-make-up room, set up in a wooden hut.
He makes himself a coffee and peruses the Racing Post while Summer Strallen, his love interest, sits in curlers while her lipstick is applied.
“I spend most of the summer covering myself in sun cream,” confesses Nat. “My character is out in the fields a lot, but I’m not allowed to get tanned.
“The continuity of my freckles is tricky, they can come up really big!
“I love the 40s period, and they’ve captured it so well in Land Girls. I have these suits made from 17oz tweed, with huge great coats and hats.
“War brought people together from all walks of life and all classes, they all put themselves on the line. Land Girls is commemorating that time and a group of people who made a huge sacrifice and should be recognised.”
Taking viewers back 70 years created a series of problems for production staff, from disguising satellite dishes and double glazing to making sure they have no electricity pylons in view, or trees bearing leaves in winter scenes.
The costumes are all authentic 40s clothes and uniforms, hired from London.
“We have GIs, the RAF, the Army, the Home Guard – and the land girls have a uniform too,” says Alice. “All the details have to be right.”
Then there are the pigs, dogs, chickens, cows and horses brought in to the farm. There was a hairy moment when a horse attached to a cart bolted, but he was swiftly brought under control.
But there’s one thing they have absolutely no control over – the good old British weather, which decides to have a mini heatwave in the middle of filming.
“We’ve had to stock up on sun cream, insect repellent and antihistamines,” says Alice.
“We shade the actors with umbrellas and fans when they’re under the sun, and keep powdering their faces to stop them perspiring.”
Aptly-named Summer, aged 24, reveals: “It’s Sod’s Law, I guess. For the first couple of weeks, the weather was a bit chilly, which is when we were shooting the spring and summer scenes. We had to wear shorts and thin blouses in gusty winds.
“Now we’re shooting the winter scenes and it’s blazing hot sunshine. It’s a bit hard to keep in good spirits when wearing ghastly jodhpurs twice the width of you with a very high waistband, with woollen socks pulled up, a shirt, tie, thick green jumpers and big overcoats.
“It’s been hard work, digging potatoes and tossing hay on to a tractor. We weren’t very good at milking the cows, who looked at us with the whites of their eyes as we pulled on their udders.
“There was one day when I had tonsillitis, when I had to milk a cow and be sprayed by milk, then be covered in the mud and fall in a cow pat.
“I preferred the scenes where we get to dress up for a dance at the hall, wearing stockings and gorgeous frocks.
“I loved those 1940s clothes. They celebrated the female form then. They didn’t have size zero girls who looked like 12-year-olds. They were real women with child-bearing hips and I’m a lot more that shape!
“I arrive on the farm wearing a beautiful hat and coat. It’s such a shame they get ruined in a Messerschmitt attack.”