Pam Weaver's Farm Animals
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Tracy spiers meets Pam Weaver, the woman from moreton Valence whose film career was launched by her herd of 'cows with horns'Photography by Anna Lythgoe
stars of the screen
"I consider myself one of the luckiest people around for what's happened to me," exclaims a bright-eyed Pam Weaver. And few can argue. She's on first name terms with Sir Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley darling.
Pam's just completed filming the BBC's new four-part adaption of Thomas Hardy's tragic novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, starring Bond girl Gemma Arterton as Tess and a top cast including Anna Massey.
And she's currently working with Dawn French, Julia Sawalha and Olivia Hallinan in the second series of Lark Rise to Candleford, which is being filmed around Bath, Chippenham and Yate. Chavenage House made a stunning Candleford Manor in the first series and film crews have also shot a couple of scenes there for Tess, due out in the Autumn.
But it's not Pam's own acting prowess which has etched her name on the credits of all the latest period drama films and television productions, but her farm animals. The performing dexterity of her Dexter cattle, if you pardon the pun, launched her filming career, 20 years ago.
Pam, a Gloucestershire Dexter cattle expert - who held the title "top breed" in Great Britain for 10 years - was showing her animals at Cheshire Show when she was spotted by the makers of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
"They came round looking for cows with horns and asked me if they could be used in the film. I just thought it would be a lovely experience so I said yes," recalls Pam. Well who wouldn't when you get to see dishy Kevin Costner in his Robin Hood gear? But a virgin to this new world, Pam had no idea who he was.
"It was the first day of filming and we were all dressed as peasants and he was dressed a lot better than us. So I said "Excuse me, are you Robin Hood? And he said, "I guess so," and I said, "Oh, so you must be Kevin.....and I couldn't pronounce his last name. I realised what I was really saying was that I hadn't got a clue who he was. I wished the earth would swallow me up, but this big beaming smile came back at me and said, "And who are you?""
"The next morning, he said "Hi Pam, how are the animals?" and from then on we were the best of friends. He's just a lovely fella and I've probably not met anyone like him since. He was really special. I really didn't want to return to the humdrum of farm life after filming finished," admits Pam, then a full-time farmer.
But the late Fred the ram and Gertie the goat - who, along with Pam's pigs and poultry also made their camera debut - had won the hearts of film-makers. They wanted them back, this time to star alongside Richard Gere and Sir Sean Connery on the blockbuster First Knight.
Pam's filming career as an animal handler was underway. Television requests followed for period dramas Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, A Respectable Trade, Oliver Twist, Far From the Madding Crowd and the series Down to Earth, originally starring Pauline Quirke and Warren Beatty. Interestingly Pam provided animals for Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1998.
"I think I'm the only one of the film crew who worked on the last Tess 11 years ago," states Pam. Much of the latest production has been filmed in picturesque Gloucestershire and Avon, including the Forest of Dean, Chippenham, Bath, Uley and Osleworth. Some shots were also taken near Poole in Dorset at Corfe Castle.
"It's a very demanding film. The milk maids and Angel (Eddie Redmayne) have to learn how to milk. That hasn't been easy. They've been really good but I don't think they've looked forward to it," explains Pam, who ensures they fulfil the task.
"They have to start off by milking a goat and then go to another farm and get introduced to a cow and sit on a little three-legged stool. When you milk a cow you have to get really into the job, you either put your forehead into them or the side of your face. You lean in to let the cow know you are there. The actors have to get very close to the cow to do it, which they haven't found easy, but they've been brilliant," she declares, proud of her trainees.
Building up a bond between actors and animals is all part of her role. But this can take time.
"Actors automatically think that animals are dirty, which I suppose they are to a certain degree. They think everything pecks, bites or kicks. But they don't. Animals are fine as long as you give them confidence. If you're frightened of them, they know it. Whatever you're doing, you've got to like them and tell them you like them. Once that's established, animals are lovely," says Pam, who has also helped Gemma Arterton make friends with chickens and cockerels.
With two decades on set as a recognised animal handler who constantly rubs shoulders with the rich and famous, Pam is as much as home there as on her farm in Moreton Valence.
There's nothing pretentious about her. Wearing blue Crocs, sweatshirt and tartan trousers, Pam moves around her newly converted barn with ease. Yet at the same time she looks a bit lost. She's used to mothering - she's brought up four children, fostered many others and has nine grandchildren. Nowadays much of her time is spent encouraging geese, dogs, ducks, cows, pigs, frogs and the like, behave and deliver on cue. No easy task. If actors fluff their lines, they can start again. If an animal gets it wrong, it's chaos. But today she's only got herself to worry about - oh, and the fact there's no carpet in the lounge. The under-floor heating has leaked and there's nothing but cold, hard concrete underfoot. But this formidable, unassuming woman is used to discomfort.
She's still recovering from breaking her shoulder after falling over when off duty from filming Treasure Island. A week after leaving hospital, with her arm strapped up, she started filming Atonement, starring Keira Knightley.
"Three months later, I had another accident, fell off our tractor and broke my right wrist really badly. I ended up filming The Other Boleyn Girl with one arm in plaster and the other one strapped to me!"
Although Pam thrives on challenges, retrieving frogs from embarrassing places isn't something she ever anticipated. Producers for Vanity Fair, asked Pam to turn up at Stanton House near Swindon with a frog. A very young actress had to hold it and approach a dinner table where Reese Witherspoon, as Becky, was sitting.
"While they were having this meal, she was supposed to show Reese the frog. But she opened her hands up, and because the frog had seen daylight, it jumped on to the table, into a bowl of soup, which was luckily quite cold and from there straight into Reese Witherspoon's cleavage. I had to dive in there quickly and retrieve the frog and clean it up while the make-up crew cleaned her!" laughs Pam.
A romantic at heart, Pam says Pride and Prejudice has been her favourite film. She likes a beginning, bit of romance and a good ending. Born in Huntley in the same bed as her father, Pam met her own Darcy, farm labourer Danny when she was 15, married him at 18 and had four children by the age of 27.
Inheriting her grandfather and father's appreciation for farm life, the Weavers eventually bought a house with land and later started keeping Dexter cattle - Pam's ticket to Hollywood.
"Danny and I have changed roles. When I started showing, he had a full-time job and I was definitely the full-time farmer. But I was diagnosed with arthritis of the spine and could no longer do the heavy lifting and as the filming was taking over, he decided he'd pack up work and take over the farming. It's just as well because I'm never at home," explains Pam.
Her first animal stars, Fred and Gertie, will always have a special place in her heart. They both lived to a very respectable age of 18. However some of Pam's chickens and geese, who starred in Robin Hood, are still working 20 years on.
"I was the goose lady in Lark Rise to Candleford and some of those chickens will be with me again for the next series. I don't get seen very often though," she adds.
"On Robin Hood I did a thousand hours in costume, but when I went to see the film, I looked and looked for myself but I wasn't there. However, I did see a hand with two goats at the end of it. And I know it was mine!"
If a farm animal appears on the new Lark Rise to Candleford, you'll know Pam will be hovering nearby, ready to catch it. So in the words of postmistress Miss Lane, what is her one particular weakness?
"Probably dreaming of a lie in when it's shooting day because we do start really early. It's lovely on a sunny morning, but when I have to leave at 4am and its pitch dark and I need a torch to see the animals, it's not so fun. It's easy to load the animals then, especially as the chickens are usually asleep and don't put up any resistance! But it's horrible driving to and from work in pitch black when you've worked 12 hours on set," confesses Pam.
However as well as mixing with heartthrobs, there are other perks.
"It's the only place I know where you go to work an hour early for a slap-up breakfast. The food is absolutely wonderful. In the beginning I said I didn't need to be paid, because the food's so marvellous and I didn't have to cook it. The food is everything when you're on set, because we're outside for so long and we do get hungry."
Pam is clearly in her element. She's found her niche.
"I enjoyed having my children and bringing them up. Now I see they were really good training in coping with the animals on film sets. All their needs have to be seen before my own.
"Now I'm getting older, it's nice to be around people who appreciate what I do. It is a hard job. You need the patience of a saint, and I do get really tired.
"The only thing I'm letting down at the moment is probably my children who between them have produced nine grandchildren. I'm not around as much as they'd like, but the little ones do come with me sometimes," she says.
Not many grannies get their names on credits. And over the past two decades, the established animal handler does have an impressive list of films and television productions on her CV. Not that she needs one. At 65, Pam has no intention of retiring.
"Not as long as the phone keeps ringing. I'm not looking for work, but if that phone rings, I somehow find it very difficult to say no, because I just know I'm going to have a wonderful time."
And, if Kevin Costner appears again as the lead actor, she'll be in heaven.