StarChoice 24: The Shell Seekers

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“Life is so extraordinary. Wonderful surprises are just around t

he most unexpected corners.”

This quote appeared on the Facebook page of a friend just in time for Christmas of last year. The quote from Winter Solstice by British author Rosamunde Pilcher was familiar to me from one of the only two books by her I have read in early March 2001 while in Rome. The part-time Receptionist of my hotel, an American student in Rome, had just finished reading it and lent it to me to keep me “company”.

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Set in the north of Scotland, Winter Solstice tells the story of Elfrida Phipps. Single and in her 60s, she had retired with her canine companion “dog size” Horace to Dibton in pretty Hampshire, England after a long career on the stage. Though this delightful novel of people who converge to form an unlikely family; of loss and the healing power of love, was a best seller; unlike the 1989 TV movie adaptation of her 1987 novel The Shell Seekers, (the only other novel of Ms. Pilcher I have read), the TV movie adaptation of Winter Solstice (2003) starring Sinéad Cusack, Geraldine Chaplin and Jean Simmons did not conjure up much inspired reviews.

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Author Rosamunde Pilcher OBE (née Scott) was born to Helen and British commander Charles Scott on 22 September 1924 in Lelant, Cornwall, England. After World War II during which she was on active service as a member of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), she married Graham Hope Pilcher in 1946 and moved to Dundee, Scotland, where she raised two daughters and two sons. It was here she took up writing in order to earn a living. Setting off as an author of Mills and Boon romances, she wrote under the pseudonym Jane Fraser: (Half-Way To The Moon (1949), Dangerous Intruder (1951), A Day Like Spring (1953), A Family Affair (1958), The Keeper’s House (1963), A Long Way from Home (1963), Young Bar (1965), etc).

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Having switched her pseudonym to her married name Rosamunde Pilcher in 1955, her breakthrough into the more lucrative American fiction market in the 1970s gave a much needed transformation to her career and the birth of nearly 30 novels, the front sleeves of some of which are pictured here.

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While many of her stories are set in the land of her childhood and featured characters so very human, they also presented culinary recipes and tips for gardening. “The Shell Seekers”, Ms. Pilcher’s 13th novel and international breakthrough, had topped the New York Times best-seller list for 30 consecutive weeks and was nominated by the British public in 2003 as one of the top 100 novels in the BBC’s Big Read.

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In the Introduction to the Tenth-Anniversary Edition of “The Shell Seekers”, Ms. Pilcher wrote that the ideas for this “big fat novel for women” took shape when she saw a programme on television entitled “Painting the Warmth of the Sun” – about the painters of West Penwith, in Cornwall, some of whom she had known. Of the many Pilcher movie adaptations in my movie collection, viz., September (1996), Nancherrow (1999), Winter Solstice (2003), etc, the one I preferred most was her poignant family saga The Shell Seekers (1989).

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Filmed entirely on location on the beautiful island of Ibiza (Islas Baleares, Spain), Cornwall, Lee International Studios, Shepperton, England and the picturesque villages of the Cotswolds, “The Shell Seekers” is the story of Penelope Stern Keeling and “the disastrous effect that the prospect of an inheritance, worldly goods and money, can have on a perfectly normal family.”

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This typical English poignant family drama opens with Penelope, age 63, recuperating in a hospital bed from a mild heart attack. No sooner we take in the scene, she discharges herself from the hospital where she was supposed to stay at least a week and heads for her little cottage called Podmore’s Thatch in the village of Temple Pudley. Happy to be back home, she was absolutely determined to get down to make her garden into something special that year.

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However, Penelope’s departure from the hospital against the doctor’s wishes was nothing short of concern and displeasure to her children owing to their concern for her living alone at her little cottage.

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Progressively, the film moves ahead to reveal the passions, tragedies, and secrets, her bohemian childhood at Cornwall with her painter father and French mother years and years ago, her loveless marriage during the World War II with Ambrose Keeling; her forsaken love affair with Richard Lomax, an American friend of her father; down to the troubled relationship with her three children, Nancy, Noel and Olivia, she had failed to bring up a little better.

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  1. Nancy Chamberlain: Penelope’s tiresome social-climbing first born, who liked to think that she was responsible for her mother. Brought up in London and indulged in fantasies nurtured by the romance novels of Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer which she devoured, she presently lived in an old Georgian vicarage at Bamworth, Gloucestershire, trapped in a miserable marriage with George, and overshadowed by Dolly Keeling, an unsolicited alley who is her father’s sister, the one who disliked Penelope and sought every opportunity to belittle her.
  2. Noel Keeling: The young and handsome, materialistic and self-centred son, obsessed with his desire to become a commodity broker.

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  1. Olivia Keeling: A cool-headed, compassionate woman in love and living in Ibiza with a divorced Italian called Cosmo Hamilton and his teenage daughter Antonia. She was desperate to secure a career as a Managing Editor of a magazine, a position for which she had worked for quite some years. Liked by matriarch Penelope, she is the only one of Penelope’s children truly concerned of her Mumma’s health and knew her closely down to the point that Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik” was her Mumma’s favourite.

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When Nancy and Noel learned that one of the landscape paintings of their long-dead grandfather Lawrence Stern (1870-1945) had fetched £200,000/- in an auction triggering a flurry of renewed popularity in his paintings, the event set Penelope’s life on a course of discoveries about the hidden sides to her children’s ugly personalities and family devotions.

15Nancy and Noel were quick to figure out the fortune that could be earned from the sale of Stern’s last painting “The Shell Seekers”, which their mother owned and considered her prized possession, although Noel had till then thought of it as old fashioned. Symbolizing Penelope’s unconventional life, Stern’s painting featured his wife Sophie Stern (1906-1943) and their child Penelope happily playing on the beach.

Nancy’s first ploy was to incite her mother to sell the masterpiece which hung on the wall of her little cottage and to use the money mainly for her mother’s well-being and care, She lauded about all the good things that the money could bring Penelope: she could have a gardener; a housekeeper; a nurse…. Simultaneously, Nancy and Noel’s necessities, which were also of a higher nature and could not be attained with their present financial resources, can be appropriately resolved.

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  1. For Nancy the simple has become obsolete and the complex more attractive. Nancy was prodded with monetary issues such as: money to pay the school fees of her two children Melanie (age 14) and Rupert (age 11) to attend expensive boarding schools; to purchase new clothes for Melanie; funds for George’s club fees which were already late, etc. Allowing that Penelope could unload some money from the painting on Nancy, all these could be dealt with to her satisfaction;
  2. Noel could use the money to keep up his extravagant lifestyle which he was now striving to achieve from a tiny apartment in a superior location of the town. It would still remain a distant dream for him unless he could obtain his share of inheritance which would enable him to leave his low-income job and become a commodity broker. He would also buy a bigger Flat from where he could work, break into certain highflying circles and entertain them.

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Like Penelope, Olivia was unmotivated to cash in on her inheritance. She loved her mother and admired her non-judgmental attitude. Penelope knew it all. For her, the painting and some sketches are mainly all that’s left of her father. If an occasion arises for her to sell the painting, she will only chose at her own choice. However, she cannot sit on the fence undecided. The emphasis on monetary affairs had left her bruised, but much wiser. She devised a scheme which she believed would not only be important to her but would also be best for her children and could pave way for peace amongst them. The first step toward creating an improved future is developing the ability to envision it. At the outset, she would go to Cornwall. You simply cannot do away with the past.

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A Central Film production for Central Television in association with Marian Rees Associates, Inc, The Shell Seekers was produced by Anne Hopkins and directed by the BAFTA Award-winning, Lucknow, (Uttar Pradesh, India) born Waris Hussein (“Henry VIII and His Six Wives” (1972), “Edward And Mrs Simpson” (1978)). It is adapted from the novel for the TV by John Pielmeir, the winner of the Humanitas Prize for “Choices Of the Heart”, and features the following:

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Production crew: James di Pasquale (Music), Fred A. Chulack (Editor), Jane Martin (Production Designer); Brian West (Director of Photography); Judy Moorcroft (Costume designer); Ann Brodie/Magdalen Gaffney (Make-up); Paul le Blac (Ms.Lansbury’s Hair & Wig Design).

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Many of Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels were made as long-running series of television adaptations (“Die andere Frau”, “Federn im Wind”) in Germany and were shot on location in Cornwall and other parts of England. It is an undeniable fact that her novels have given a much needed fillip to the tourism in Cornwall as tourists flock there to enjoy a first-hand experience of Ms. Pilcher’s world in Cornwall where good things happen to good people.

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What a happy woman I am, living in a garden, with books, babies, birds and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them. Sometimes I feel as if I were blest above all my fellows in being able to find happiness so easily,” Ms Pilcher wrote in The Shell Seekers. Plain and simple – if you like happily ever after movies that warm the heart, The Shell Seekers is a gift for you. So long for now, Jo

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Notes:

  • To honour the 90th birthday (22 September 2014) of Rosamunde Pilcher, a Cornwall Art Exhibition titled “THE SHELL SEEKERS” was organised by Seventh Wave Gallery, UK featuring 30 Cornish Artists showcasing 60 pieces of original artwork at The Castle, Bude, Cornwall from 11 September to 4 October 2014.

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  • The Shell Seekers was adapted for the stage in 2006 by husband-wife team Terence Brady and Charlotte Mary Thérèse Bingham.
  • Another TV adaptation of The Shell Seekers directed by Piers Haggard appeared in 2006 starring Vanessa Redgrave, Prunella Scales and Victoria Hamilton.
  • Books/Audio books, DVD/Blu-ray of the books/movies referred to in this article are available with http://www.amazon.com, http://www.amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  • This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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The disease of indifference toward others arises when

each person thinks only of himself, and loses the sincerity

and warmth of personal relationships.” Papa Francesco

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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11 thoughts on “StarChoice 24: The Shell Seekers

  1. I so love this one – the book, the story, the characters, the film with its wonderful cast, especially Angela Lansbury and Patricia Hodge! And most of all – I happily would like to see the painting of “The Shell Seekers” above our fireplace.

  2. A wonderful post – interesting that it all began with Harlequin Romances. A reminder that in the end, all the we will remember is the love that we have given and received. Nothing else matters.

  3. Wonderfully written, Jo. I feel as though I’ve read the book and watched the movie.! You are a master with images, and so clever with words.
    I watched a film recently starring Angela Lansbury; an extraordinary wealth and legacy of work. That is a wonderful gift most good actors leave behind, I’ve always thought. Their best is concretised (so to speak) and available for those of us who love film. We can choose to watch them over and over again.
    Well done, Jo… xoxoxo

    • Thank you, Carolyn. Yes, stars like Angela Lansbury had superior skills that helped raise the quality of a movie. We could note that since the mid-1960s the length of leading actors’ careers has decreased significantly. With the breakdown of the studio system and end of long-term contracts, bringing together great creative talent has become difficult. With the influx of television movies and serials, the opportunities are more for anyone without much talent to become popular and occasionally twinkle as stars. Now, rather than improving their artistic reputation, the competition is on to seek roles in big-budget movies.

      • I agree, Jo. I can name a handful of really good current actors, and am sometimes surprised by their acting ability (which has improved as they’ve crafted their skill). However, they are few in comparison to the industry of times past. Some have taken to the ‘small screen’ and, I believe, have improved the overall watchability; though, as you’ve mentioned, the bit-budget movies (with slim plots) are now the rage for the mass of movie goers. And yet, I’m hopeful, Jo. Occasionally I watch a really good DVD (not screened in the movie houses) and am quite delighted with, not only the plot and direction, but also the acting of some ‘lessor known’ actors.
        I suppose all things change; even the way we view entertainment. One thing is for sure, Jo; we’ll always have ‘choice’…

      • Of course, as in old times, there are good and capable performers including lesser known ones. They were also part of the factors that had helped raise the quality of movies. In certain instances, performers have attributed their success to the brilliance of their directors or script, etc. Carolyn, I have in my collection over 6000 movies which range from 1916 to 2015 and I love them all except a few. The success of a movie is always the result of many factors: the usual measures for making a movie, high intention, sincere effort, intelligent execution, etc. Besides, in the movie industry, luck is also one of the criteria. As you wrote, we will always have our choice. What happens if our choice is misguided? Tough luck! In the end we have only ourselves to blame. Have a lovely day, Carolyn.

  4. I had never heard of Rosamund Pilcher or the Shell Seekers before I read this post. I must keep an eye out for them now. They sound like my kind of films/books. Thanks Jo. 🙂

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