A high-profile film set on Guernsey has opened up the island’s charms to a new audience, finds Holly Kirkwood.
From enchanting clifftops and white sandy bays to the pretty cobbled streets of St Peter Port, Guernsey is a wonderful place to potter around. The pace of life is unhurried; a positively serene speed limit of 35mph means even drivers take their time as the bees buzz lazily and families play cricket on the beach.
These old-world charms have been attracting tourists for years, and rightly so, but, this spring, the release of a high-profile new film shone a light onto a little-known chapter of the island’s history.
Directed by the acclaimed director Mike Newell, of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, and starring Downton Abbey’s Lily James, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was released in April, introducing the island to a whole new audience.
The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Mary Ann Shaffer and co-authored by her niece, Annie Barrows. Set during the Second World War and its aftermath, the story centres around a small rural community in Guernsey and how it dealt with four years of Nazi occupation.
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Published in 2008, the novel quickly became a word-of-mouth hit and, despite its unknown author (who died the year it was published), unusual subject matter and completely eccentric title, readers worldwide fell in love with it. To date, it’s sold more than 7.5 million copies.
The genesis of the book was as unlikely as its success: Shaffer wasn’t an author – she was a librarian and editor from West Virginia – but she happened across a history of the Occupation on a visit to Guernsey in 1976, which made her want to know more.
The Nazis occupied the Channel Islands from June 1940 until May 1945, by which time these microscopic dots in the English Channel had become the most heavily defended location along the whole Atlantic Wall.
What interested Shaffer, however, was not the historical detail, but rather the moving story of what happened to the communities. It wasn’t until 30 years after her initial visit that she was persuaded to put pen to paper by her book group, and she used real-life stories from survivors to bring the manuscript to life.
The result is a charming epistolary novel written with verve and wit, featuring a cast of characters you wish would jump off the page and take you to lunch. And despite being written by an American, it’s also somehow a quintessentially English book: the prose evokes Wodehouse and Wilde and effortlessly conjures postwar life in London.
It also tackles some pretty serious issues. When the protagonist, Juliet Ashton, visits Guernsey, she discovers a rich tapestry of light and dark; the island is populated by glorious characters who make us laugh, but, as the story develops, we learn the extent to which they suffer.
The film remains faithful to the story and Mr Newell easily translates the vivacious energy of the book onto the screen, adding luscious landscapes and pleasing period detail. Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay and Penelope Wilton all join Lily James – it’s almost a full-on Downton Abbey reunion – and the cast does a brilliant job in bringing Shaffer’s characters to life.
Although much of the filming took place in north Devon, the film is, as is the book, an unabashed love letter to Guernsey and its people, as well as a tribute to the joy of reading.
The island is no stranger to hosting fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. ‘It’s been a real driver for tourism through the interest in activities such as guided walks, tours and exhibitions that are linked to the novel,’ says Mike Hopkins of VisitGuernsey. ‘We hope the film will have a similar effect on our tourist numbers, with an expected 6%–9% uplift in the next two years.’
As the film retells the enchanting story on the big screen, islanders welcome those who wish to experience this very special place for themselves. Let’s just hope none of them bring their Lamborghinis.
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