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   Inside Out - North West: Friday January 12, 2007
Miss Potter photo gallery
Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter
Renee Zellweger stars as the very modern Miss Potter

Beatrix Potter

The Lake District is the star of a new Hollywood movie starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

Miss Potter follows the life of the best selling children's author who spent much of her life writing and running a farm in Cumbria.

Inside Out looks at how filming caused quite a bit of excitement in the Lake District, and reflects on Beatrix Potter's legacy.

Lakeland legacy

Beatrix Potter

Born 1866 in Kensington, London. Her parents were the nouveau riche with wealth built on the Lancashire cotton mills. Her father was a barrister.

As a child Beatrix visited the Lake District with her family. She developed a keen interest in natural history and painting.

Potter sent 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' to six publishers before it was eventually accepted by Warne and Co who published it in 1902.

Got engaged to published Norman Warne in 1905 but he died of leukemia before they could marry.

Popular Potter characters were Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, and Benjamin Bunny.

Married Cumbrian solicitor William Heelis in 1913.

Developed a new career as a sheep farmer and land conservationist in the lakes.

Died in 1943 aged 77 years.

Much of the appeal of Beatrix Potter for Hollywood is that she still sells around two million books world-wide every year.

She was also an independent woman, a free thinker who defied the conventions of her Victorian upbringing to create a lasting legacy.

Renee Zellweger says, "Beatrix Potter was a great naturalist and a brilliant woman.

"She was also a smart woman, so clever, multi-faceted. And yet, not many people know about her."

In fact Beatrix Potter wasn't just an author - she was also a committed conservationist who left 14 farms to the National Trust when she died in 1943.

Renee Zellweger did a great deal of research into Potter's character for the film.

For the Hollywood actress it was fascinating to follow Potter's voyage of self discovery.

"Quite apart from her extraordinary professional life, she went through so much privately," says Renee.

"I felt a strong kinship with her. In her younger years she tried to conform to the woman she was meant to be...

"Her journey made perfect sense to me."

Lakeside locations

The Lake District almost becomes another character in the film of Miss Potter.

Director Chris Noonan extols the virtues of the Lakes as a movie location:

"It is a film set. It is so pristine and perfect.

"And so much of it has been preserved as it was at the turn of the century that it is just a sitting duck to be used as a film set for a period drama like this."

Renee Zellweger enjoyed filming in the area:

"It's fantastic and so beautifully preserved... It was a lovely experience."

Much of the inspiration for Potter's books came from her first home - Hill Top in Ambleside in the Lakes.

Hill Top was just one of the many farms owned by Beatrix Potter, but the sheer volume of visitors made it difficult to film there, as Production Designer Martin Childs explains:

"Hill Top is fabulous but it's a very well known place attracting tourists from around the world.

"Not only is it full of tourists but the National Trust could not close it down for the length of time it would take to shoot scenes there."

Jacey Normand and Renee Zellweger
Miss Potter star Renee Zellweger with Inside Out's Jacey Normand

So nearby Yew Tree was transformed into Hill Top with the addition of a dry stone wall, an external make-over and a new porch.

The tenants at Yew Tree had to put up with the film crew being on their door step for several weeks, but decided to keep some of the building alterations after shooting finished.

Local farmer Jon Watson had to work around the stars:

"It was lambing time - there was no time for the glitz and glamour... It was like the Somme."

Although there was some local disruption, the film is a great showcase for the Lake District in its full glory.

The beauty of the area certainly won over its Hollywood star.

Renee Zellweger says that she enjoyed "Grasmere and gingerbread".

"It was a good thing we got out before that corset got much tighter!," says the pencil thin film actress.

An amazing adventure

In the great traditions of all Hollywood films, Miss Potter is also a love story.

Beatrix Potter c/o PA Images
The real Beatrix Potter.
c/o PA Images

Ewan McGregor plays Beatrix Potter's fiancé and publisher Norman Warne.

Warne helped to publish the timeless tales of Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddleduck and their furry friends.

McGregor is also a fan of Beatrix Potter's work:

"They are not just straightforward fluffy kids' stories.

"They are quite dark some of them - and often quite weird. They are somehow timeless."

McGregor even admits to having some Beatrix Potter memorabilia at home:

"Oh yes! Everyone does - the plates, the mugs... My parents sent down the complete works when my daughter, Clara, was born.

"Then I started noticing we had egg cups, and plates, stuff all over the house!"

Renee Zellweger says the most stimulating part of the experience of becoming Beatrix Potter was filming in the Lake District, the place that Beatrix loved.

"You can really sense the peace she found there, that she craved. The access to all the things she liked most, the things that inspired her, the colours she used in her paintings, the quiet that allows you to sit and take it in."

No doubt Miss Potter will stimulate a revival of interest in the Lakeland locations featured in the movie and in the author's work for a new generation of fans.

Follow the Beatrix Potter trail...

Hill Top is located near Sawrey, Hawkshead, Ambleside in Cumbria.

Lake District
The Lake District - Potter played an important conservation role

Telephone: 015394 36269 or email hilltop@nationaltrust.org.uk for more details.

The house is closed during the winter but reopens from 31 March for its 2007 season.

The Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria has an exhibition of original book illustrations by Beatrix Potter, plus information about her life.

Telephone: 015394 36355 or
email beatrixpottergallery@nationaltrust.org.uk

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