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"This energy could be most useful"

How schoolboy Stephen Weeks campaigned to save historic buildings, directed mainstream films starring Christopher Lee and Sean Connery, went on to save castles in Eastern Europe, and write novels.
Stephen Weeks, film director
Stephen Weeks, film director

As a sixteen year old Portsmouth Grammar School boy and Gosport resident, Stephen Weeks (OP 1966) was a formidable opponent. Perhaps the lively exchanges in the Debating Society helped. Or the fact that he did his homework, in all senses of the word.

The Hall on Trinity Green in Gosport was scheduled as a building of historic or architectural merit. Built around the time of the Battle of Waterloo, it had a curved staircase and a lookout on the roof giving a panoramic view of Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent, a vista enjoyed by Ben Nicholson (the head of boatbuilders Camper and Nicholson’s) and his family in the nineteenth century. The Hall had once served as Holy Trinity vicarage, but by 1965 was abandoned amid the Council’s new high-rise waterfront development. The stunning rooftop view was gone, but the shabby Regency splendour remained in the shadow of the surrounding characterless blocks of flats.

When workmen from Gosport Borough Council began removing slates from the scheduled Hall one Sunday in January 1965, young Weeks acted. He was aware that the Council had demolished 56 listed buildings since 1947 and so went directly to the Ministry of Housing in London the next day, skipping school, and explained the situation. The Gosport Borough Engineer was contacted immediately and ordered to stop demolition.

At a time of widespread concern about young people’s attitudes and behaviour, the fact that a schoolboy was doing all he could to prevent an act of wanton vandalism, rather than commit one, gave the newspapers some unusual headlines. “YOUTH BLOCKS DEMOLITION BY COUNCIL”, reported the Times.

Within a few days, Weeks was showing the Ministry’s chief investigator of ancient monuments around the Hall. The Council’s neglect and vandalism was clear as they toured the building with glass underfoot, but its value as a historic building of interest, one of few remaining after war-time bombing and redevelopment, was also evident to those who wished to see it. Weeks showed the official around other local historic buildings, who declared, “I have never known a lad as young as this with such detailed knowledge.”

Three months later the outcome of the Ministry of Housing’s investigations was announced. The Times headline summed it up, “SCHOOLBOY LOSES FIGHT TO PRESERVE HOUSE”. The cost of restoring the building after the aborted start of demolition, it was argued, was too great.

By 1965, the new Headmaster, Coll MacDonald, quickly recognised Weeks’ intelligence, creative ability, originality and force of personality. “Properly channelled this energy could be most useful,” he wrote with some prescience.

Undaunted by the eventual demolition of the Hall, Weeks continued with his passionate defence of what remained of old Gosport. He appeared on television in scruffy jeans alongside a robed and ill-briefed Gosport Mayor, knocking him out in round one. He appeared again in a BBC programme about industrial archaeology, talking authoritatively about Henry Cort’s pioneering forge, edited notes on Hampshire for the Pelican Buildings of England series and wrote for the Architectural Review. As a result of a survey he conducted for the Ministry of Housing, 25 buildings were listed for preservation. His passion, knowledge and prominence prompted Southern Television to commission him to make a twelve-part series on threatened buildings. Two films on the First World War army camp at Browndown and the deserted Wickham railway station for the BBC followed.

This did not prevent Weeks from taking an active part in school life, though there was concern about the impact it was all having on his academic studies. His interest in film continued, and in 1966, his last year at PGS, he made “Owen’s War”, featuring fellow pupils playing Tommies in the First World War. The credits for this film (which was made with photography student Jon Kenchenten) include I. Murray, R.J. Knott, D.N. Palmer, “Gas” Lynch, C.J. Lambert, A.D. Thomas, M.J. Maunder, G.J. Moss, M.M. Croucher, J.M. Morrison and I.R. Ventham.

Weeks skipped university, figuring rightly that his new passion for film making was best learned on the job. He moved to London and was soon working in the advertising industry and making his own films. He directed his film cinema film ‘1917’ in 1968 – aged only 20. In 1970, at the age of just 22, Weeks was directing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in ‘I, Monster’, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. This was followed by ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ which was produced by Carlo Ponti. In 1973 he produced and directed ‘Ghost Story’, a challenging project that was filmed almost totally in India on a tight budget, which starred Marianne Faithfull, then at the peak of her heroin addiction, and Vivian MacKerrell, who was the real life Withnail. The rest of the cast, which included Penelope Keith, were stricken with diahorrea. The resulting film has cult status, and was described by The Guardian on its DVD release as “an effective, thoroughly creditable M.R. James-esque tale of a stately home haunting”.

Meanwhile, Weeks’ home had become his castle. He moved from a Fulham house to the derelict Penhow Castle, a 12th century castle in Gwent, and began an ambitious programme of restoration that took seven years. Penhow Castle was eventually opened to the public for 25 years and, during this time, Weeks developed an expertise in presenting and marketing privately owned historic houses. Penhow won many conservation awards and Weeks’ innovations included: stereo audio-tours, nocturnal candle-lit tours (during which visitors hoped to catch site of the resident ghost), special educational programmes and job creation and training projects for disadvantaged young people.

In between directing and producing films (including ‘Sword of the Valiant’, starring Sean Connery), Weeks continued his campaigning to restore and reuse historic buildings and to protect the countryside, the despoliation of which took priority in his campaigning. He set up a trust to preserve eight disused railway viaducts by finding them new uses. In 1980, The Times described him as “a militant conservationist in the best sense of the word”. “It should not be necessary, in a civilized society, to argue the case for conservation. It should be automatic,” argued Weeks. “Perhaps I tend to overreact. But I look at how the countryside used to look and compare that with today. It is all horribly depressing.”

In 2003, Weeks sold Penhow and emigrated to the Czech Republic to restore Skvorec Castle which had fallen into disuse when the Communist regime ended. In the same year he published his acclaimed novel, Daniela, a “compelling story of sexual obsession and betrayal as Nazi Prague falls”. He has just completed his latest novel, the fourth in the Countess of Prague mystery series, "Night in Alexandria".  That remarkable schoolboy energy, which so impressed his old Headmaster, shows no sign of abating.

John Sadden

The Times 7 Jan 1965, 3 March 1965, 15/9/80, 6/8/81, 8/8/90, 6/1/01, 20/9/02

Sunday Times 28/12/03

The Guardian (Guide) 7-13 November 2009

Gosport from Old Photographs by John Sadden (2012)

Ghost Story DVD notes (the extras include Stephen’s films made while at PGS)

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