Filmmaker’s memories of Christmases spent with his screen icon grandmother Deborah Kerr
PUBLISHED: 16:44 12 December 2017 | UPDATED: 16:44 12 December 2017
Mark Edwards talks award-winning Suffolk filmmaker Tom Shrapnel about family Christmases with his grandmother, screen legend Deborah Kerr.
Many people’s Christmases involve gathering around the TV and watching The King And I. But for Tom Shrapnel the occasion had a bit more significance to it as he was sharing the sofa with Deborah Kerr, the six-time Academy Award-nominated Scottish actress and star of the classic musical, and also his grandmother.
Tom, now a successful filmmaker himself, whose latest release, Knackerman, won best East Anglian Short Film at the Norwich Film Festival last month, says: “Every other Christmas we would go to see my grandmother. She had this amazing house in the Swiss Alps. We would spend a week or so there just watching films and going skiing.
“She didn’t have a lot of films in the house, but one she had and which she used to love watching over and over was The King And I. I used to marvel, sitting there with her watching a film that was such a huge part of her life and seeing the effect it had on her. It was my first realisation of the power of film and how it can transcend time.”
Deborah never got to see Tom’s career take off as a film director, writer and producer and it was only studying her films as part of his course in film photography at Suffolk College that he appreciated the versatility of his grandmother’s work - from the supernatural gothic horror of The Innocents, his personal favourite, to the illicit cavorting in the surf with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity - much of it far away from the glitzy mainstream appeal of The King And I.
He says: “I remember being at film school and having our tutor tell us we were going to look at Bonjour Tristesse (the 1958 Otto Preminger film in which Deborah plays the tragic heroine) and saying ‘Oh, my grandmother’s in that’. When I started looking at the directors she has worked with and films she has made I just think ‘wow’, what a career she had and the quality of her work throughout.
“She made risky, controversial films but she was brilliant in them. I think because people saw her as this English Rose type she could get away with it.”
Tom’s film and theatre lineage does not end there. Also in that Swiss house getting to know The King And I was Tom’s father, John Shrapnel, an actor who was a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare and has also appeared in big screen epics such as Gladiator and Troy. Then there was Tom’s two older brothers, Lex, also a member of the RSC and the star of the recent TV reboot of classic Eighties wheelin’ and dealin’ comedy Minder, and Joe, a film writer.
It is no wonder then that Shrapnel family get-togethers are so film-obsessed. Tom says there has always been a “solid dedication to film” within his family and he can remember a big part of the thrill of early Christmases was “going therough the Radio Times like it was The Bible to find the times for all the films I wanted to see and seeing how many we could record.
“I would start getting excited about Christmas as soon as school broke up and the build-up began.
“DVDs and videos were regular presents among our family and we would watch a huge amount over Christmas. I loved those epic films like Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr Zhivago, but, for me, Die Hard is my favourite Christmas film. We also always seemed to watch Casablanca at Christmas. I don’t know why, but it always seems to be on at that time and it’s my dad’s favourite.”
Watching films is still key to their Christmas, but the Shrapnel boys, all grown up and in the industry, are more likely to set up the projector and screen advanced copies of films in the running for this season’s awards after the Christmas dinner.
Though Tom is as similarly steeped in film as the rest of his family, he does distinguish himslf as the only true Suffolk country boy among them. While his brothers were born in London, Tom was welcomed to the world in Eye in 1981. His parents, despite moving to the country, they now live in Wattisfield, are, says Tom, inherently “cosmopolitan types” while he grew up with a love for the rural area he calls his “spiritual home”.
It is a love that ingrains his films. His short Aeolian, released in 2010, was shot in Knettishall Heath, where Tom used to explore as a child, not far from his parents’ home. This beautiful film, made in collaboration with Suffolk animator Cameron Lowe, charts the ephemeral life of an alien creature who wanders through wood and meadow absorbing nature and growing in size.
Such quiet isolation and search for meaning arises again in last year’s Kackerman and 2015’s Strange Weather, which stars brother Lex and award-winning film and TV actress Maxine Peake - “She was filming TV series The Village at the time and drove herself to Suffolk at the weekend just because she loved the script. She’s such a supporter of new filmmakers,” Tom says.
Both were shot just poutside of Sudbury, but while Strange Weather has the drowsy blush of summer, Knackerman, telling the story of an aging Knacker, responsible for the disposal of dying horses, facing his own mortality, is shot in crisp black and white to make the most of the “bleak and beautiful landscape”.
Tom says: “I see it as a love letter to the area - its landscapes and its endless horizons”.
Tom’s own horizons contain plans for a feature length film in collaboration with Lex, the pair run production company Loose Change Films, but they have been put on hold as Tom has a one-year-old son to look after.
“Last year was very busy bringing a new life into the world, but I do have some big projects taking shape.”
Tom’s son has some great family Christmases to look forward surrounded by his talented, film obsessed family and with memories shared of his garlanded great grandmother.
Tom Shrapnel’s Top Five Christmas Films
1 Die Hard
“You forget it’s a Christmas movie as there is so much going on. It’s such a quotable film.”
2. Lawrence Of Arabia
“There’s something about desert films when you’re in the deepest, darkest winter months. We would watch it on the big screen with the projector and you would just get lost in it.”
“It’s a retelling of a classic and I am huge Bill Murray fan. I watched everything he was in. Ghostbusters was my absolute favourite film for many years.”
4. It’s A Wonderful Life
“A timeless film about the true meaning of Christmas.”
“My mum was so desperate for me not to watch this film. In the end I went to a friend’s house to watch it. It had such an effect on me I wanted to tell people about it, but I had to keep quiet.”