1 9 8 6 (UK)
1 x 120 minute episode
In 1620, a collection of religious dissenters charter a ship – the Mayflower – from Devon in England to the east coast of America (the “New World”) in this two-hour film from BBC Wales.
For these separatists – later known as the Pilgrim Fathers – the new continent represents an escape from persecution by the official church and an opportunity to build paradise on earth, beginning society afresh.
To producer David Thompson, writer William Nicholson and director Norman Stone the story of the Pilgrim Fathers seemed, on first impressions, an uncomplicated tale of prayerful men and women setting out on an adventure which – as we now know – was to have a profound effect on the future.
But research into contemporary accounts unravelled a rich story of idealism and adventurism, of communal living and power struggles, of love and violence. The result is not so much an oil painting come to life as a drama of ideas – part cowboy movie, part pirate adventure, and part love story.
For the Mayflower was not the holy boat we imagine, jammed with praying po-faced puritans. Besides the Christian passengers, there were the “Strangers” – nearly fifty 17th-century wide-boys, adventurers and rogues simply looking to make a quick fortune. Some of them were on the run. Some were escaping domestic problems.
It doesn’t take long for trouble to brew in the new Garden of Eden. The Christians, led by William Bradford (James Fox), are the radicals. Bradford proposes that all property be held in common, all the fruits of labour be shared, and money be abolished (essentially a communist state).
He argues that if the native American Indians are well treated, they will live in harmony.
The Strangers, led by the tough-nosed John Billington (Bernard Hill, pictured), want everyone to be free to make their own fortunes, and he suggests that the best Indians would be dead Indians.
From the facts of Bradford’s leadership – the meeting with Squanto (played by real Californian Indian, Eloy Casados), the rival faction started by the disgraced priest John Lyford (Joss Ackland), the hanging of Billington, the death by drowning of Bradford’s first wife and his eventual marriage to Alice Southworth (Betsy Brantley) – William Nicholson wove a drama that used the two leaders to embody the opposing visions with Alice as their shared human interest, compressing ten years of actual events to two years for the film.
Most of the New England scenes were shot in wooded sand dunes just outside Bridgend in Wales. Here 140 participants braved the elements for seven weeks, building an Indian village among the trees and the Plymouth settlement in one of the hollows. Truckloads of black mud were brought in to add authenticity.
Newspaper adverts recruited Indians for the film, most of them Peruvians by way of Deptford, a south London suburb, although Casados, Don Shanks and Skeeter Vaughan were actual Native Americans. Vaughan, who played the Chief Massasoit, was a full-blooded Cherokee, reckoned to be the world’s finest knife and tomahawk thrower.
New World aired on BBC2 at 10 pm on Sunday 28 December 1986.
Rev. John Lyford