Research Notes: ‘Jessy’, a film about cerebral palsy

3 December 2017
Montage of images from the film 'Jessy'
Montage of images from the film 'Jessy'. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Image of Anthony McKay
Anthony McKay

The film 'Jessy' is more than an educational film about cerebral palsy. As my research shows, the story of how 'Jessy' was made for the Spastics Society (now called Scope) reveals some unexpected connections to the 1950s British film industry.

Jessy’ tells the story of a young girl with cerebral palsy. Her parents move to a new town so Jessy can attend a local special school. She makes friends with the neighbourhood children as soon as she arrives at her new house. They accept her and her need for a wheelchair, but conflict arises over misunderstandings about the nature and extent of Jessy’s disability. With the help of an understanding teacher from her school Jessy is able to reconcile with her friends and play an important part in a climactic battle against a rival gang of children.

A girl in a wheelchair talks to a man with his back to the camera
Still from the film 'Jessy'. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

A still from the film 'Jessy', 1959.

The film was the result of a collaboration between Ian Dawson-Shepherd, a founding member of the National Spastics Society (now known as Scope) and Margaret R Johns, an actor turned documentary and travelogue producer who was in the process of setting up her own company, Libertas Films.

Dawson-Shepherd wanted to make a commercial film about people with cerebral palsy that would appeal to a wider audience, beyond the purely educational films previously made by the Society. For Johns the opportunity to launch her new company with a commercially distributed film was an added incentive. After some negotiation and compromise a deal was struck with George Minter, Chairman of Renown Pictures who would act as distributors for the film. In his unpublished autobiography Dawson-Shepherd admitted the result of the negotiations was “a schmaltzy sentimental, icing-on-the-cake film” but a film with a goal, it “would break the Distributor's barrier against showing 'Spastics' on screen.”

Libertas Films logo

The Libertas Films logo at the start of 'Jessy'.

The film crew were all experienced technicians working as contractors in the British film industry at the time.

The screenplay, by Seth Holt, was based on ideas suggested by Ian Dawson-Shepherd’s daughter Rosemary who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy. Better known as a film editor and director, Holt had previously worked on the film ‘Mandy’ 1952 for Ealing Studios. That film dealt a girl who was born deaf and had never spoken, but after enrolling in a special school, overcame her struggles and succeeded in speaking her own name. Parallels with ‘Jessy’ are unmistakable.

Danger Man title film still

Title shot of the 1960s television programme 'Danger Man'.

Holt moved on from the project when he was commissioned to direct episodes of the television series ‘Danger Man’ which was just starting production. Ironically, just like a ‘Danger Man’ episode, ‘Jessy’ starts with a killing and is resolved by a fist fight.

Respected composer and pianist Franz Reizenstein composed the music for the film. He had only recently entered the film industry, having provided scores for a handful of films including Hammer’s 'The Mummy'. Muir Mathieson, Britain’s most prolific conductor and musical director, provided his services.

Wolf Rilla was responsible for turning the screenplay into a script which went into production during the long, dry summer of 1959. Wolf Rilla’s background was in small to medium scale films and television. He had experience with child actors, having worked on ‘The Scamp’ in 1957 - a story about a troubled boy neglected by his family and taken under the protective wing of a childless school teacher.

Katina Noble, 1959
Still from the film 'Jessy'. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Katina Noble plays the title role in the film 'Jessy', 1959.

The character of Jessy was played by eight-year-old Katina Noble, who also had a film background as the daughter of Peter Noble, a movie columnist often seen on BBC Television, and Marianne Stone, one of the most prolific character actresses ever to appear in British films. This was Katina Noble’s first film role and despite her strong, self-assured performance it was not until the 1970s as a member of the Spare Tyre feminist theatre group that she came to prominence as a performer.

Child actors from 'The Village of the Damned' directed by Rilla Wolf, 1960.

The child actors required for the film were drawn from several London acting schools and agencies. Many of the children appearing in this film would go on to appear in Wolf Rilla’s next project and best known film, ‘Village of the Damned’ a couple of months later. The scene where Jessy arrives at her house for the first time and is confronted by a group of gawping neighbourhood children is mirrored in a similar sequence in ‘Village of the Damned’ with a handful of the same actors.

Still from the film 'Jessy' 1959
Still from the film 'Jessy'. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Some of the child actors from 'Jessy' went on to star in the film 'Village of the Damned', 1960.

The adult actors who appeared in the film were associated with the Stars Organisation for Spastics, a body formed so celebrities could contribute to raising awareness of the condition as well as funds for specific projects. Welsh actor Donald Houston played the paternalistic teacher. He also provided the narration for the film ‘Spastics, Everybody's Children’ in 1975.

Although the film had budget limitations, particularly evident during the interior studio sequences, the extensive location shooting breathes life into it. The optical effects for the transitions during the dream sequence are also particularly effective. The name of Jessy’s school is Craig y Parc School, a real school outside Cardiff that still operates as a special school run by Scope. Footage of the school – shot on poorer quality film stock – was used to illustrate the therapies and range of activities available there. The film stopped short of casting a disabled actor in the title role, but using actual footage from Craig y Parc School showed real people with disability, which was unusual at the time.

The Scope website with information about Craig y Parc School
Scope website. Source: Scope. © Scope.

The special school Craig y Parc featured in 'Jessy' is still being run by Scope today.

The film was completed by December 1959 when it received a ‘U’ (Universal) classification from the Censor; the classification was necessary for the film to be shown in cinemas. The first public screening of the film was on August 4 1960 at the Odeon Leicester Square as a supporting film during the premiere of 'The Lost World'.

John Davis of Rank, a notoriously conservative accountant, arranged for ‘Jessy’ to go on general release around Britain through the Rank’s Odeon cinema chain starting August 15 as a supporting film for the Paul Newman, feature ‘From the Terrace.’ Renown waived their distribution fees and all profits from the film went to the National Spastics Society.

According to Ian Dawson-Shepherd “Many parents of spastic children and some executive members of the Society disliked it describing it as “Silly!" and "Untrue!". Dawson-Shepherd agreed that the film did not show the truth, but it did introduce a wider audience to the challenges facing children like Jessy.

Dick Richards, the film critic of the Daily Mirror present at the premiere of ‘The Lost World’, wrote of ‘Jessy,’ “The sad plight of spastic children is shown with warmth and affectionate sympathy”, and closes his review with “It is more than a documentary —it is a plea. Please do not miss it.”

Still from the film 'Jessy', 1959.
Still from the film 'Jessy'. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Ian Dawson-Shepherd recalls that the Controller of BBC Television, who had been invited to an earlier press screening of ‘Jessy’, was so impressed by the film that he asked if it could broadcast by the BBC. Because of the deal made with Renown this was not possible but an alternative was negotiated by Margaret Johns, a documentary film called ‘Every Eight Hours’.

‘Jessy’ was entered into the 1961 Boston Film Festival in the USA where it won four awards. The film was also available with a French soundtrack.

Dawson-Shepherd and Johns must have been delighted with their first venture into commercial film making. Not only did they create a prize-winning film, they also succeeded in their original aim of increasing the visibility of people with disability among a wider audience.

Image of Anthony McKay
Anthony McKay

Anthony McKay, is a New Zealand based researcher specialising the history of British film studios, with an emphasis on contextualising the output of British studios within prevailing economic and political conditions. He is currently researching the activities of  the American film company, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, within the United Kingdom.