Paradise Lost and Found

Dierdre Macdonald reports

When the earth is as hard as iron and winds cut through you like sharpened stones, think back to the warm summer days when the hedgerows were bulging with greenery and peppered with the yellows, blues, purples and whites of wild flowers. Think back, in particular, to the frail, unruly red poppies shining like fairy lights for summer, unable ever to stand still even on the stillest of summer days.

If city concrete engulfs you, think of country places with meadows and pebble-dashed coastlines. This is Poppyland. Poppyland, like paradise, is a state of mind.

If 1985 daunts you, think back to 1883. In August of that year, Clement Scott was daunted by the age he lived in and wearied of city life. Clement Scott was a kind of Kenneth Tynan or Harold Hobson of his day - a celebrated theatre critic writing for the Daily Telegraph. He was also the author of two volumes of memoirs praising 19th century drama, a most worthy citizen with a solid reputation.

Perhaps because he was feeling stale, or jaded, or both, he found himself on the north Norfolk coast. Perhaps because he was feeling stale, or jaded, or both, he found Poppyland for himself.

But Poppyland is not only a state of mind. Poppyland is a stretch of the north Norfolk coast with its rough tides, shingle beaches, saltings, marshlands and poppy-filled meadows.

But more specifically for Clement Scott, it was a haven centred on the fishing villages of Sidestrand and Overstrand and the grey-skirted town of Cromer. Clement Scott walked from Cromer one afternoon in that summer of 1883 to Overstrand and there he came upon a pretty mill house and a miller’s pretty daughter who was called Louie Jermy.

Louie Jermy took him in. His bags and baggage were carted from Cromer to the Mill House and his imagination with them. Overstrand became in his mind Poppyland. Louie Jermy, a seemingly simple country girl with a flair for hospitality, harboured a passion for London theatre and was an avid reader of theatre magazines. Clement Scott made Poppyland famous, first in travel articles for the Telegraph (subsequently collected in an anthology published in 1886 as The Poppyland Papers) and then in a lyric, ‘The garden of sleep’, which set to music by Isidore de Lara, became a colossal music-hall and sheet-music hit of the day. Poppyland became an industry, tourism and the trappings of memorabilia abounding as profusely as the flowers themselves.

Clement Scott brought the famous to Poppyland, too - Swinburne, Theodore Watts-Dunton, George Sims and Wilson Barrett; poets, authors and actors alike were enchanted by Poppyland and by Louie Jermy.

The north Norfolk railway line had reached Cromer by 1877, but it did less, in a sense, to transform sober Cromer and its far-flung coastal villages than Clement Scott’s rushes of sentimental, lyrical prose and verse.

Scott was a married man with four children and a second wife. It was not perhaps only Poppyland that pulled him back, year after year, every summer and every New Year’s Eve, without ever involving his family. Even though these were strict and Victorian times the miller’s daughter had some strange hold on Scott and he on her. He even took her to London - with melancholy effect.

Alan Howard plays Clement Scott. ‘He’s a successful, moral, conventional Victorian city dweller who comes to a place on holiday and falls in love with it,’ he says. ‘Plainly, there is more to it than that but Scott never admits to it until the end and it’s all too late. He’s tied up in a particular kind of Victorian morality so a sort of tragedy ensues.

‘He arrives in Norfolk from the town, extraordinarily successful and influential, and here’s this young girl, Louie Jermy (played by Phoebe Nicholls), with her natural abilities as a hostess, fantasising about the world he has come from and wanting to swop her life for his. There he is, saying his is a phoney, awful world and wanting to get away from it into what he sees as a rural idyll. He talks a load of sentimental tosh, really, about how wonderful it is that these poor peasant people are eating proper bread - without ever thinking about how much they’ve had to sweat to get it.

‘Louie Jermy was, seemingly, a simple, perfect, incorruptible country girl. Clement Scott, I suspect, was a moral, suppressed, straight, father-figure who couldn’t admit that he wanted to corrupt her. The thing that makes any character interesting in a play is when they have a problem they can’t sort out for themselves. Scott is like that: he’s like a man who has locked himself in a cage and lost the key.’

The script for Poppyland, says Alan Howard, struck him on first reading as having ‘an extraordinary historical veracity as well as a powerful sense of drama and documentary’.

William Humble is the author who takes the strands of historical fact and the anecdotal memories of Clement Scott and Louie Jermy and meshed them with his own imagination into the script for this film. The idea for the film came from producer Richard Broke, whose sister owns Mill House, Louie Jermy’s former home.

Humble researched the facts in Cromer Library, combed Louie Jermy’s collection of theatre magazine clippings and talked to the oldest living residents of the area who had their own memories of the Poppyland era.

He found men and women, in their 80's now, who remembered Louie Jermy as an old lady; and from their reminiscences - ‘though much may be folklore’ - he took the threads to weave round the historical facts.

‘They were two extraordinary characters,’ says Humble. ‘There he was, the terribly famous theatre critic, and there she was, the terribly stage-struck country girl. What fascinated me about them both was that what they had in common was their separate and joint fantasies - fantasies that seemed to come true.’

Poppyland is the story of a man ruining the very things he sought to preserve - a place and a person. It’s the story of a girl who was herself Poppyland, one man’s paradise. They courted and won fame and notoriety in their day and they lost it; now they are to have it again, a hundred years later, in a television film they could not even have dreamed of.

Ref: Macdonald, D. 1985. Paradise Lost and Found. Radio Times. 12-18 January. 8-9

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