Chagford's Faerie Queen
PUBLISHED: 13:18 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:35 20 February 2013
Helen Stiles meets a woman whose passion for harp music, fairies and film-making has created an enchanted life.
Elizabeth-Jane is holding court in the kitchen of her tiny granite cottage in Chagford. Like a faerie queen she sits, while clustered around her are a dozen or so youngsters chatting and laughing. Come and join us, have some tea and cake, she says. Elizabeth-Jane Baldry is the founder of the Chagford Filmmaking Group, and talented concert harpist and composer.
From a very early age I was begging my parents to let me learn to play the harp, she tells me as we sit in her music room surrounded by five harps. Eventually her wish was granted when her mother inherited a sum of money. I must have been about 14, and bless her, she used it to buy a harp for me, Lancelot, she indicates to a handsome 1912 Erhard in the corner of the music room. My dad didnt speak to her for a week. He was so cross because there were buckets on the landing catching the rain and she had just spent the money on a harp!
Fortunately she proved to have great natural flair for the harp and blossomed under the tutelage of Ann Hughes-Chamberlain at the Hindhead School of Music. There was something about the sound of the harp that spoke to my soul. As an adolescent, Elizabeth-Jane would lose herself in her own fantasy world, her parents even built a hut at the bottom of the garden for her to escape from her three siblings. Every evening I would flit down the garden path in my white Victorian nightdress to my hut. I would also host fairy-themed tea parties there for my friends, she giggles with obvious delight.
The talented harpist went to Exeter to read music. Fairies were soon left behind at university, where she fell in love and got married and soon became mother to Edmund and Alexander. However, when the relationship broke down, she found herself as a young single mum with a 3 and 4 year old to support. I had to be more practical. Suddenly I was raising the boys on my own with little financial support. I moved back to Chagford, where I had lived as a student, and rented a tiny cottage from a friend. Even though I was really poor the first thing I decided was that I was not going to go on welfare and that I would survive and manage by my wits and my art. We were living on root vegetables, cabbage and love! My harp, resplendent amongst the Lego, Id practise with the kids playing at my feet.
Soon she was playing at weddings and concerts and even began to have a following. With her life on the up, Elizabeth-Jane put a deposit down on a new concert harp to further her career. Lancelot is a sweet harp but the trouble with old harps is they are like vintage cars, they go when they want to. Her new Lyon and Healey harp, christened Oberon, marked a new chapter for her performance.
I have always had a love of the Pre-Raphaelites and the whole Victorian fairy movement. Knowing how obsessed the Victorians were with fairies, and how central the harp was to young ladies musical education, I knew there would be harpists cashing in. So she made a list of every 19th-century harpist she could think of and went to the British Library and discovered a huge pile of fairy-themed harp music, with titles such as Fairy Legend and Dream of the Elves. I love this one written by Charles Oberthr, who was a professor of harp and a virtuoso, For his pupil, Mrs Lushington, isnt that just divine? Its music that takes you into the very heart of the Victorian drawing room.
I have always had a love of the Pre-Raphaelites and the whole Victorian fairy movement."
Sadly, by the end of the First World War, it was all but forgotten. What appeal does a diaphanous fairy have when faced with the reality of the trenches? she asks. Determined to share her precious find she presented a documentary on her discovery for BBC Radio 4 and also made a recording of some of the pieces at Buckland House, at Holsworthy. The father of one of my pupils was caretaker there and I was given access to record in its beautiful domed ballroom, where the space gave it a really magical, ethereal quality. The album, Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain, brought this lost musical genre to a new and appreciative audience.
Summer holidays for Elizabeth-Janes two boys, now age 13 and 14, were proving somewhat trying out in the sticks. One day, in the summer of 2004, the boys and their friends were complaining about how there was nothing to do. So I said lets film a fairy tale. After doing a one-day course in camera skills at the Exeter Phoenix she recruited friends to help with her first film, Woodwose, a Grimms fairy tale about a wood spirit.
With a large number of creatives from the film industry living in the Chagford area, Elizabeth-Jane was able to call on some extraordinary local talent. Alan Lee, who lives a few doors away, helped with the design. He won an Oscar for his designs for Lord of the Rings. Then other friends of mine, Brian Froud (who designed Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal) and his wife, Wendy, a puppet-maker (she made Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back), made all the Woodwose masks.
When Elizabeth-Jane held a private screening of the film at the Picture House in Exeter, a huge crowd turned up. There were themes in that first film that still run through our films today like the love of nature; the Devon landscape is almost another character, a sentient landscape alive with spirits. Its a landscape thats multilayered, that carries a story that stretches back through time.
On the strength of the film she got a 500 bursary from Exeter Phoenix for the next film, A Pottle oBrains, and subsequently established the Chagford Filmmaking Group. Its a non-profit making community group, and because its cross-generational older people benefit from being around the energy of the youngsters and the youngsters realise that older people are just ex-teenagers. Its so touching to see these fragile teenage girls transformed into beautiful fairies. Then they see themselves on the screen in a cinema can you imagine what a thrill that must be? And they all talk about it on Facebook.
With each new film more people became involved, until well over 100 people were working both in front of and behind the camera. This year, things stepped up a gear with an international project. Claudine Glot, a scholar in Arthurian legend, had contacted Elizabeth-Jane a few years earlier to get permission to use her harp album at an exhibition on Victorian fairy paintings in Brittany. She floated the idea of bringing artists together from both sides of the Channel to explore a shared legend.
The result was the filming of the fairytale Sir Lanval, written by Marie de France, who worked in the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquataine. Its about the clash of celebrity values and living authentically from ones heart; something I really believe in, she tells me.
I dont think it matters whether or not fairies are real, what matters is how a belief affects your life and if it enhances it.
Elizabeth-Jane was given the choice of five chateaux to film at in Brittany, while back in Devon, Gidleigh Mill, Bickleigh Castle, St Nicholas Priory in Exeter and the orchard at Cotehele in Cornwall provided the other locations. The story is about a knight who falls in love with a fairy, so Alan Lee designed the beautiful fairy pavilion where the knight and the fairy consummate their relationship.
Before I leave I cant resist asking if she believes in fairies. She laughs loudly: I dont think it matters whether or not fairies are real, what matters is how a belief affects your life and if it enhances it.
Discover more about the Chagford Filmmaking Group at fairytalefilms.co.uk