Plea for funds to complete biopic on the life of fossil hunter Mary Anning

Call The Midwife star Jenny Agutter is leading the cast of a new feature film on the life – and secret love – of Dorset fossil-hunting pioneer Mary Anning.

Jenny, who plays Sister Julienne in the hit BBC drama, is playing Mary Anning’s friend and mentor Elizabeth Philpot in the full-length film about the palaeontologist who became known around the world for the important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs at Lyme Regis.

But to complete filming of Mary Anning and The Dinosaur Hunters the film-makers are now appealing for emergency funding to finish telling the tragic story of the fossiling icon of Lyme, whose findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about the history of the Earth.

Producers need £110,000 to complete filming scenes that need to be shot this autumn.

Mary Anning

Most of the first film of the two-feature biopic has already been shot. It is set in and around Lyme Regis, where Mary Anning discovered, among other pivotal finds, the remains of an ichthyosaur which caused a global sensation by disproving the Old Testament version of creation that the world was only a few thousand years old.

Councillors in Lyme Regis and at Dorset County Council have been made aware of the film’s urgent need for funding and the authorities may now invest in the movie as it would bolster tourism in and around the area.

Recognition for Mary Anning

“We have filmed most of part one of this epic two-part story but we need to find the extra money as soon as possible because specific shots need to be done this autumn,” said the film’s producer and director Sharon Sheehan.

She added: “The story follows the life and loves of the eminent Mary navigating her career and research in a male-dominated society at a time when women’s research was largely unrecognised or plagiarised by men.

“To date she is still predominantly unknown despite her spectacular fossil finds and the fact that Darwin’s Origin of Species was highly influenced by her work.

“Our quest is to bring that work to light with the recognition she truly deserves for her contribution to science, geology and palaeontology and for her to become the most celebrated palaeontologists of all time.

“Mary’s story was inspired during my visits to Lyme Regis to fossil as a child. As a keen fossil-hunter, I began researching and writing her story around the year 2000.

“My daughter was aged four at the time and we were fossiling in Charmouth. She was on a cliff in a dress and I said ‘whoever fossils in a dress?’ to which she replied ‘Mary Anning!’ My daughter is now playing the young Mary in this production.

“Jenny Agutter has been incredibly kind not just by donating her brilliant performance and exquisite beauty to the film, but with her artistic input into the screen-play and the production.

“She is as good as the best directors out there and always gracious on set to run ideas by, or to keep me on track if I am about to inadvertently cross the line with a shot that may not edit.”

Mary Anning (Katy Hamilton) fossiling in the new film

Newcomer Katy Hamilton plays Mary in the film and Jonathan Moore, star of My Beautiful Laundrette, plays Sir Richard Owen, the founder of the Natural History Museum who was taken on fossil-hunting trips by Mary. Lyme Regis historian and Anning expert Natalie Manifold also features in the movie, as the stunt woman in riding scenes.

The film tells the story of the hard life of Mary Anning, who was born in Lyme in 1799, the daughter of a poor cabinet-maker. She was struck by lightning when she was 15 months old, in an incident that killed three local women, and grew up in poverty, supplementing her small income by selling fossils to wealthy visitors.

Although she made some of the most important fossil discoveries in history, she was never given the full credit she deserved as that was taken by rival male palaeontologists, and she died young, aged 47, of breast cancer.

“Mary’s life was one of huge deprivation and she was all but destroyed by certain people in the scientific community of the time, as was her contemporary Gideon Mantell, particularly by one Machiavellian character, the palaeontologist Richard Owen, who was awful to her and who is not shown in a good light in the film,” said Ms Sheehan.

“She also suffered in Lyme after she got cancer and began taking laudanum (an opium tincture) for the pain. Local people in the town misinterpreted the effects and she was mocked as people thought she had taken to drink.”

Although the film is predominantly based on fact, the story is in part a work of fictional interpretation in which conjecture reveals Mary Anning’s secret love and admirer who has never been hinted at before. Ms Sheehan’s research has discovered clues to a relationship that the fossil-hunter may have had.

“We have unearthed hints of a romance that was not known about, Mary may have been in love with an eminent man of the time – but who he was will not be revealed until the film is shown,” said Ms Sheehan, who is aiming to premiere the movie at a charity screening at the Lyme Regis cinema, which is due to be re-opened in 2018 after it burnt down last year.

Update: Unfortunately the Kickstarter appeal failed to meets its target

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.