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The Scrivener: Sheds, Skellig And Straw

…There were lots of sheds. Some might have been wooden sheds, but others were definitely built of brick. My mental picture shows half a dozen, but in reality there might have been only about three…

Brian Barratt reveals how the simple shed has worked wonders on the imaginations of authors, film makers and all those with an appetite for surprise and wonder.

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In the gloriously comical story, Cold Comfort Farm, written by Stella Gibbons in 1932 and filmed by John Schlesinger in 1996, there is a reclusive but dominating matriarch who added a wonderful and now well known phrase to our language. Aunt Ada Doom constantly declares, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed!"

What could be lurking in other old sheds and disused barns?


In the charming 1961 film "Whistle Down the Wind", Kathy, played by the beautiful young Hayley Mills, and her little sister find a dishevelled, bearded stranger in an old barn on their father's farm. They do not realise that he is annoyed to have been found. When they ask him who he is, he swears under his breath, "Jesus Christ!" and instructs them not to let anyone know he is there. They take him literally, believing him to be Jesus.

Various sub-plots emerge while the girls smuggle food and drink out of the house and do whatever they can for him, awaiting his next move as Jesus. Their little brother finds out, and is sworn to secrecy, but the secret leaks out. It isn't long before other children from the nearby town are coming to gaze at Jesus and await His word.

The stranger plays along with their belief. Towards the end, he takes advantage of Kathy's innocence and dedication in a potentially very dangerous way. We the viewers see a "Wanted" notice on a building in the town. We, but not the children, realise that what we suspected is true — he is an escaped criminal on the run.


In the challenging 1973 Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive, two little girls go to see a film being shown at the village hall. It is a grainy old black and white version of "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff playing the monster. That evening, at bedtime, Ana asks her older sister why the monster killed the girl and why he himself was killed. Isabel explains that it was only a film, it wasn't real. "Besides," she lies, "I saw him alive... in a place I know near the village". Questioned further by the inquisitive Ana, she explains that he isn't a ghost: "He's a spirit. Spirits don't have bodies. That's why you can't kill them."

As the plot unfolds, Ana believes that a fugitive soldier in a barn is the spirit of Frankenstein's monster which has taken on legs, arms, and a body. This is what Isabel has told her about the monster. Ana takes him food, drink and a warm jacket which belongs to her father. In a dramatic ending the fugitive is found by the local police and killed by a hail of gunfire in a night-time ambush.


Skellig is a 2009 British TV film drama based on the 1998 novel of the same name by David Almond. Michael, the young son of the family, played by the photogenic Bill Milner, has been banned from entering the decrepit old shed down the garden of the house they have moved into. Nevertheless, he ventures inside it and discovers, hidden in a dark and filthy corner, a strange and grumpy man who eats snails, cockroaches and spiders. But is he a man? It is revealed, before too long, that he has full size feathered wings. The boy befriends this creature, whose name is Skellig, and starts taking care of him, keeping his existence a secret. Only after their bond has become stronger, does Michael decide to introduce Skellig to his new friend Mina, a home-schooled girl who loves the mystical poetry of William Blake.

What exactly is Skellig? A deformed man? A man-bird? A creature from another world? An angel? As the plot mysteriously develops towards its visionary conclusion, we still do not really know for sure. But we feel a lot richer for having followed the story through the eyes of a young boy for whom it has all been both an escape and a door to astonishing new experiences.


In my childhood in the 1940s, the longest garden in the world ended at a rough wire fence which separated it from the woodland. Just inside the fence there was an ancient railway carriage. How it got there was a mystery. Why it was there was also a bit of a puzzle. There was lots of clean, dry, sweet-smelling straw inside it — enough for a children to play in.

No doubt Mr Green, whose garden it was, used the straw in the nesting boxes for his hens. Or on his vegetable beds. But, apart from the old carriage — or was it a tram? — there were other things to delight a small person. There were lots of sheds. Some might have been wooden sheds, but others were definitely built of brick. My mental picture shows half a dozen, but in reality there might have been only about three. One or two seemed to be little houses which in my mind's eye appeared to be invitingly habitable, perhaps even inhabited.

I didn't find Jesus, or Frankenstein's monster, or a bird-man, and there was no dramatic or visionary ending, but I reckon there's still room for exploration, adventure, surprise and revelation in those old sheds, barns and railway carriages of literature, film and childhood memory, with or without straw.

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