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24 September 2014

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Doreen Mantle and Joanna Lumley
Doreen Mantle and Joanna Lumley!

Not just Jam and Jerusalem...

By Laura Joint
The ladies of North Tawton WI have shown they're game for a laugh by appearing in the new BBC sitcom from Jennifer Saunders entitled Jam and Jerusalem.

They're a talented lot at the WI. In fact, there's not much the ladies of the Women's Institute can't turn their hands to...and we're not just talking about jam-making and sewing.

So when the phone went at Claire Weller's house, and she was asked if members of her North Tawton WI group were up for a bit of acting, she - and they - jumped at the chance.

Claire, who is President of North Tawton WI, quickly rustled up 10 members to take part in the new comedy by Jennifer Saunders, entitled Jam and Jerusalem.

The sitcom was initially going to be a pilot to be aired on BBC1 in Autumn 2006, but it has developed into a six part series which started on 24 November.

It stars some of the best loved comediennes in Britain including Saunders, Dawn French, Joanna Lumley, Doreen Mantle and Maggie Steed.

The story is about the death of a town's GP, whose widow seeks company by joining the local Ladies Guild group.

The ladies of North Tawton WI
The ladies of North Tawton WI

The streets of North Tawton were sealed off during 10 days of filming for the pilot in October 2005. Then, the stars of the show returned to Devon in autumn 2006 to film the series.

By then, the people of North Tawton knew what to expect! A year earlier, the actors and crew descended on the town, and the stars happily mingled with locals.

Jennifer Saunders watched everything like a hawk to make sure the scenes were just as she wanted them, and she said that the filming had gone well.

For most of the local WI group, their job was to be themselves...but it wasn't simply a case of tea and scones!

"We had to start at half past seven in the morning which was a bit of a shock," said Claire. "They cooked us breakfast, and the chef was excellent - everyone was very friendly.

"I don't think I've ever felt so Holy because we spent the whole day in church which was quite uncomfortable actually because the pews are hard."

Claire added: "I think they chose North Tawton because it wasn't a very pretty town. They wanted a real town where people were working, and which wasn't principally a tourist town.

"I understand Jennifer Saunders lives near Chagford and goes into the shops in Chagford quite a bit, so I suppose they ventured out to the surrounding areas and found North Tawton.

"We've really really enjoyed it. We've had a good laugh and it was very interesting watching them do it."

Jennifer Saunders and Sue Johnston
Jennifer Saunders and Sue Johnston

It was during the church scene - for the GP's funeral - that some members had to stifle the giggles.

Gill Cripps, vice president of North Tawton WI, explained: "One of the biggest laughs was when we were in the church and were doing the funeral scene, and we were supposed to look very, very serious. Joanna Lumley was playing the organ very badly, and acting as she does was hilarious.

"We all had to straighten our faces because we were supposed to be serious. It was very funny.

"I would say that everybody has been very, very nice to us and made us feel not just background but somebody who was very important.

"They've all been very polite, very nice - and lovely food. I put on two pounds last week. It's a good job we're not filming any more because I'd probably have to go to Weightwatchers again!"

The funeral giggling wasn't the only example of misplaced laughter. Gisela Banbury was an extra in a scene depicting a Ladies Guild meeting: "Their meeting took place in the same hall where our WI meetings are.

"I sat in the same chair. It was a very eerie meeting - we don't usually have Joanna Lumley and Dawn French at our meetings, but the President - she rang so true.

"It was just like another meeting in North Tawton town hall. I was told there was going to be a lot of hanging about. So I took my embroidery along, and there I was happily embroidering in my own little world.

"I felt at home and relaxed there and something funny happened and I laughed, and the director came up to me and told me 'show some concern. It's not meant to be funny.' I hadn't realised I was on camera.

Jennifer and Sue
Jennifer and Sue outside Gill's house

"The WI is very much a part of our community here. We look after each other. We have as much fun as they show in the film. It shows a lot of the true side of the WI but not every facet."

There's no doubt that Jam and Jerusalem is at the very least loosely based on the WI, but the North Tawton group didn't mind poking gentle fun at themselves.

Marion North has been a member of North Tawton WI for about 25 years. She said: "We've always laughed at Jam and Jerusalem and if we can't laugh at ourselves, then it's a great shame really - and I think that's half the fun of it.

"They are having an affectionate giggle at us, and I shall look forward to seeing it. I hope it shows us in some good light as well as laughing at us."

North Tawton WI prides itself in the work it does for the local community, and for the way the group reaches out to people.

Robina Colledge joined the group in 2005 after moving to the town: "I would advise anyone who moves perhaps to a new village or town to join the WI because you make friends immediately.

"I found all the ladies were so kind. I just can't say how much I've enjoyed my time in the WI. It's been wonderful."

last updated: 27/11/06
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