MARCH 2021 saw Lyme Regis Museum celebrate its centenary. It was also by coincidence the month when ‘Ammonite’ Francis Lee’s 2020 film about Mary Anning is released.
The museum’s involvement with the film goes back to a torrential day in the winter of 2017-18 when museum geologist Paddy Howe took Francis Lee out on a fossil walk.
Francis grew up on a Yorkshire hill farm so was unlikely to be deterred by a drenching morning in Dorset. One conversation later we were aware of his ambition and had agreed to maintain secrecy.
In the summer and autumn of 2019, the museum’s team advised See Saw Films on life in Lyme in the mid-19th century, potential locations as well as the science.
We met Kate Winslet and saw at first hand the eye for detail needed to be a world-class actor. Kate even learned to write as Mary had.
Getting the Lyme accent right was crucial. Museum volunteer and Lyme girl Lizzie Wiscombe worked with the vocal coach and Kate to ensure its accuracy.
Who wants yet another of those roving, slightly piratical accents beloved of West Country costume dramas? You know, the ‘Oi be in Dorzet’ stuff.
Although the script was kept secret, Lizzie had the privilege of a private reading, just her and Kate.
The museum also helped out with props. Our life-sized model of the first great fossil discovered by Mary and Joseph Anning appears in the film as do some of Paddy Howe’s fossils.
Indeed, See Saw Films props team actually improved our model by slightly lightening it so it more resembled the local stone from which the original was extracted.
Our major contribution to ‘Ammonite’ was through the work of Paddy Howe. Paddy taught Kate how to rapidly break open a nodule with a geology hammer to uncover the fossil within. The key skill is that one needs to be able to do this rapidly to be convincing.
Lyme’s modern day fossil hunters wield a hammer as if they were Thor, and it’s certain that Mary Anning was equally proficient.
Paddy also explained to Kate that when she released a fossil from its rock that it’s best ‘not to leap around with joy’, this is, after all, what an expert expect to see.
For me at least, the most amusing consequence of our involvement is my film credit as ‘geological adviser’. I am nothing of the sort. I have an O level (C) in geology.
Paddy, who did all the intellectual heavy lifting, worked his socks off to obtain an Open University degree in geology and has 30 years’ experience of Lyme’s beaches – which he has reminded me of on more than one occasion.
From the very start we understood what the film’s romance was to be. Our view was simple, we know nothing about Mary Anning’s personal life and our sole interest was making sure the science was as accurate as it can be within the bounds of film-making.
We hope we’ve managed to achieve that. As we all know, there’s much more to get steamed up about than the contents of a movie.
Lyme Regis Museum Director