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Tony Grist

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The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh [Nov. 9th, 2018|01:30 pm]
Tony Grist


Dr Syn is the Robin Hood of Romney Marsh- a mild-mannered rural clergyman, vicar of Dymchurch-under-Wall, who, by night, dresses up as a scarecrow to lead a ruthless band of smugglers in thrilling, swashbuckling exploits. Before "settling down" he did a spot of piracy under the name of Captain Clegg- but that's not the essential part of the legend. Pirates- real and fictional- are two a penny but men of the cloth who stand in the pulpit levelling flintlock pistols at the congregation? Well, there's only one.

Dymchurch-under-the wall is a real place but you wouldn't be surprised to learn (though Walt Disney apparently was) that Dr Syn isn't/wasn't a real person. He was invented by an actor-cum-writer called Russell Thorndike- brother of the more famous Dame Sybil. The first book in the series chronicles his unmasking and death- and was so popular it was followed by a considerable number of prequels. I don't believe anyone has ever claimed the Syn books are particularly good (think Scarlet Pimpernel and water)- and if they're still in print it's news to me. I tried reading one when I was midway through my teens and abandoned it because I got bored. But then the original Robin Hood ballads aren't much good either and neither is Harrison Ainsworth's huge gothic romance Rookwood which launched the legend of Dick Turpin. 

Syn is fictional but his world isn't. Clergymen may not have headed up smuggling gangs but they allowed their churches to be used to store contraband and they- and other local bigwigs- were happy to buy their luxury goods duty-free.  Romney Marsh in the 18th century was a bit like Chicago during Prohibition- remarkably relaxed to find itself in the grip of organised crime. Not everyone was a smuggler or related to a smuggler but people of all classes benefited from the underground economy. 

Smuggling gangs were ruthless. They fought with the revenue men- by sea and land,  terrorised the uncompliant, tortured and executed people who got on the wrong side of them.  The infamous Hawkhurst gang- who were seriously bad dudes- got a bit too swaggery and high-handed  and were finally broken in a pitched battle with an unofficial local militia in the pretty Wealden village of Goudhurst. 

There have been movies about Syn. The earliest starred George Arliss.  Another- produced by Hammer and starring Peter Cushing- changed the names to avoid infringing copyright. The best known is a Disney production with Patrick McGoohan. It isn't as good as it should be but it has its moments- and was actually filmed on Romney Marsh. The church at Dymchurch is one of the least photogenic on the Marsh and St Clement's Old Romney was used instead. The white box pews dazzled under the lights so the film people painted them pale pink- and the parishioners liked the new colour so much that they kept it- and the pews are still pink today. 

Syn is a great character.  He deserves a new iteration.  Someone out there should purchase the rights and do something with them.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2018-11-09 08:08 pm (UTC)
I always thing of him with Patrick McGoohan's face. I guess it's the Disney iteration that imprinted on me.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2018-11-10 07:47 am (UTC)
Disney may still hold the rights. They should make another movie. As the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has proved there's money to be made out of picturesque 18th century rascals.
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[User Picture]From: idahoswede
2018-11-10 06:33 am (UTC)
Disney, while miles away from any real historical significance, did impress on a great many of us the names of actual people, leaving the more interested among all of us to read further and get a little closer to the truth. For me, Disney introduced me to check out the real people like Elfego Baca, Texas John Slaughter, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett (of course), Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. And, as said before, Patrick McGoohan's Dr. Syn was highly memorable for me.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2018-11-10 07:53 am (UTC)
One of the first live action movies I ever saw was Disney's Johnny Tremain which dramatizes events around the beginning of the War of Independence. It left a considerable impression. Another was Westward Ho the Wagons- about the opening up of the West. Yes, Disney taught me a lot of early American history.
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[User Picture]From: idahoswede
2018-11-10 08:09 am (UTC)
Ah, I remember that one as well.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2018-11-10 08:15 am (UTC)
I can remember being inspired to sing a song about the trek west to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers- and my mother telling me- after enduring several verses- that I should stop blaspheming.
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[User Picture]From: heleninwales
2018-11-10 12:18 pm (UTC)
If we can't stop Brexit, smuggling will be right back in vogue. I don't know whether any parsons will be complicit though they did used to like their smuggled brandy in the past.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2018-11-10 12:31 pm (UTC)
Ah, the good old days!
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[User Picture]From: qos
2018-11-13 01:49 am (UTC)
What a great story!
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