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Under the Greenwood Tree
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Production Notes [imagemap with 6 links]

Production Notes

The Adaptation | Music | Locations

The Adaptation

Screenwriter Ashley Pharoah attended the National Film School at Beaconsfield. After a fast start out of the gate -- his graduation film was nominated for a BAFTA -- he wrote for EastEnders for three years. He has created several successful series for British television, including Where the Heart Is, Down to Earth, Paradise Heights and Wild at Heart. He's one of the creators and writers of the BBC's Life on Mars, a crime drama involving time travel.

Here, Pharoah discusses his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 19th-century romance...

In many ways Thomas Hardy is to blame for me being a writer. Growing up in Somerset I read his books voraciously, visited as many of his locations in Wessex as the patience of my parents would permit. So when Ecosse Films approached me to adapt Under the Greenwood Tree I was extremely excited and dusted down my old copy of the novel. It became clear very early on that some judicious realignment of the story was called for. I borrowed the narrative structure of Hardy's own Far from the Madding Crowd, where a young woman arrives in a small rural community and is wooed by three very different men. At a stroke it made Fancy Day the central protagonist and meant that every scene had tension and subtext. It also makes it feel rather modern, a strong-willed but confused young woman looking for happiness but not quite knowing where to find it.

When Ecosse asked me who I envisaged playing Fancy Day I immediately said Keeley Hawes. She has that bewitching mixture of prettiness and vulnerability that is so essential to the character. You have to believe that three very different but very rational men will become quickly besotted with her. At the start of the story she has nothing to declare except her beauty, as she takes up residence as the village schoolmistress in the modest, insular Dorset village of Mellstock. There is a wonderful moment at the start of the novel, before Fancy has arrived in the community, when some of the villagers sit around a tiny shoe and gossip and ponder on what the owner will be like: "The littler the maid, the bigger the riddle." Who will marry Fancy Day?

Farmer Shiner, nouveau riche Dorset farmer, offers financial stability and kindness, and is played by the brilliant Steve Pemberton. If she chooses him she will never have another money worry in her life.

Parson Maybold (the dashing Ben Miles) offers Fancy spiritual and intellectual escape from village life. He can be a crashing snob but when he finally realizes he is in love with Fancy he is articulate and powerful: "Let me take you away, my love, let me show you palaces and kings, oceans and cathedrals."

The final suitor is Dick Dewy (James Murray), handsome and lusty son of the soil, aiming far above his station in life. Fancy is falling for Dick until her father forbids her to marry him, describing a life of rural poverty and numbing boredom.

Those are Fancy's choices and the choosing is not helped by her flirty, vacillating character that bruises as many hearts as it delights.

In some ways Under the Greenwood Tree is a classic romantic comedy as the lovely Fancy Day is chased by these three contrasting suitors through the seasons of a rustic year. But being Hardy there is a gentle but melancholic undertone, a sense that these are the last days of this particular England. For not only does Fancy's arrival cause three disparate male hearts to flutter, but she becomes the unwitting cause of the destruction of the village's choir. For Parson Maybold has purchased a newfangled harmonium for the church and the choir's days are numbered. Although this element of the story is played with great humor and affection, it gives the film a russet, autumnal air as we watch a way of life start to disappear before our very eyes, before even the characters realize it.

It gives this production an almost mythic sense of a lost England, a place where the seasons matter, where life is wrapped up in the rhythm of nature, a place of apple-heavy trees and big skies, of cider and lust, laughter and melancholy. It was only on first viewing that I realized what a hymn to rural England our film had become. We move from the dark, snowy Christmas Eve woods and the cider-induced warmth of the crowded Dewy house; through a glorious spring and barefoot village girls dancing under a maypole; to finish in bee-tormented sunshine, the laborers bringing in the harvest under a hot sun before the leaves turn and the chill winds of winter arrive once more.

The village of Mellstock was actually recreated in the lush pastures of Jersey. The production was faced with the difficult task of starting on a snowy Christmas Eve and finishing under a blazing Harvest sun. It is to their enormous credit that on a roasting day in July, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt as the temperatures soared, I actually started to feel a chill amongst the false snow blizzards and the plastic icicles and the carol-singing, perspiring actors in enormous winter coats. It is at such moments that the practiced screenwriter beats an early retreat to an air-conditioned bar.

It was a pleasure and an honor to adapt Under the Greenwood Tree, to spend a year rummaging around the words and creations of my favorite writer. Even as I write this, Thomas Hardy's rather beady eyes are fixing me from his photograph on my study wall. I hope he enjoys it. I know I did.

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Composers James Lunn and Jim Williams wrote the original music for Under the Greenwood Tree. Other music heard in the program includes:

  • In Bethlehem He was Born, aka Remember, O Thou Man [Traditional, sung by choir]

    From Under the Greenwood Tree:
    "...Then passed forth into the quiet night an ancient and time-worn hymn, embodying a quaint Christianity in words orally transmitted from father to son through several generations down to the present characters, who sang them out right earnestly..."

  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear [Music, Richard S. Willis, 1850; Words, Edmund H. Sears, 1849. Hymn sung in church by cast members]

  • The Drummer's Stick [Traditional, sung by choir at May Day fair, played by choir in church]

  • Abide With Me [Music, William H. Monk, 1861; Words, Henry F. Lyte, 1847. Sung by cast members in church]

  • Lead Us Heavenly Father, Lead Us [Music, Friedrich Filitz, 1847; Words, James Edmeston, 1821. Hymn sung by cast in church]

  • One Night as I Lay on My Bed [Traditional, Fancy is serenaded by choir]

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Under the Greenwood Tree was filmed entirely on the picturesque Channel Island of Jersey, with locations including St. Ouen's Manor, St. Brelade's Church, and the Hamptonne Country Life Museum -- a National Trust for Jersey site with period buildings, restored agricultural equipment and authentic furniture.

Producer Jeremy Gwilt's original plan had been to shoot the majority of the production in London at Pinewood Studios with a week of filming on location in (Thomas) Hardy country, the southwest of England. He also considered Dorset, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man.

But Rowan O'Sullivan, an executive director of Channel Television suggested Jersey. And Jersey Tourism contributed to a £50,000 donation to the film's budget to bring the production team, cast, cameras and equipment to the island. Gwilt feels it was all worthwhile: "Jersey is one of the most beautiful corners of Britain... We received a warm welcome from the island and are proud to be featuring its heritage sites in our drama."

"Hamptonne was perfect," he continues. "Instead of building an expensive set, the basics were there to start with. We did a lot of construction and distressed the 'museum' feel, to take it right back to the mid-19th century. We even built the church -- actually, a façade only. But ultimately, the existing houses in the village were all in the right relationship. Fancy Day could walk out of her house, through the square and into the parsonage followed by the cameras. Jersey also offered fantastic countryside... small fields and lanes with hidden valleys and dramatic headlands with sweeping views."

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