A treasure trove of letters and photos chronicling the real people and events behind the major new British film Journey’s End is accessible to everyone through the Surrey History Centre.
The archive documents the life of RC Sherriff, who drew on his experiences serving in the First World War to write the renowned 1920s play and linked novel Journey’s End, now remade as a film starring Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge and Toby Jones. Key letters and photos in the collection are online and the whole archive is available to view in person at the Woking-based centre.
Sherriff (pictured right), who grew up in Hampton Wick and lived in Esher for many years, wrote more than 200 letters home from the trenches to his family and friends as well as a memoir of his time serving on the frontline with the East Surrey Regiment – all held in the archive along with a wealth of other documents and photos. Most of the papers have been placed in the history centre’s care by Kingston Grammar School, where Sherriff was a pupil.
There are links between soldiers who feature in Sherriff’s letters home and the characters he created in his play, now brought to life in a new film adaptation showing at cinemas around the country. Describing writing the play, Sheriff, who went on to become a celebrated Hollywood scriptwriter, penning classics such as The Dam Busters and Goodbye, Mr Chips, said in his memoirs: “The characters walked in without invitation. I had known them all so well in the trenches.”
The archive includes a sketch by Sherriff of his servant Private Morris who was the inspiration for the character of Mason, played by Toby Jones in the film. Private Morris cooked meals for Sherriff and other officers, keeping them as well fed as he could in the face of erratic food supplies and repeated rat infestations. Describing Morris in his memoirs, in an excerpt pictured above, Sherriff wrote: “He was a humourist and a humourist in France was worth a dozen Howitzer guns to England.”
Lieutenant Percy High, a pipe-smoking school teacher to whom Sherriff turned for advice, has parallels with Paul Bettany’s character Osborne, a pipe-smoking fatherly figure. There is also a link between Osborne and 2nd Lieutenant Archibald Douglass, who was nicknamed “Father” by Sherriff and his fellow soldiers. Osborne is known as “Uncle” in the play and film adaptation.
Denise Turner-Stewart, Surrey County Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities, said: “A century on from the so-called Spring Offensive portrayed so poignantly in RC Sherriff’s original play and now this film adaptation, our Surrey History Centre is helping to ensure that precious records chronicling a momentous time in our history are being preserved for current and future generations.”
Click here for the Surrey History Centre’s pages on RC Sherriff including an online index of everything held in the archive, created thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Sherriff biographer Roland Wales drew on the materials to produce a video on the links between the playwright’s life and Journey’s End. More information about the film, produced by Fluidity Films and released through Lionsgate, can be found here.