Lady Macbeth and the princess

“I’m living in a farmhouse with some friends who have nothing to do with the theatre. It’s what some people might call a commune, but it’s really a sort of artists’ colony.”                                      Helen Mirren

Nicol Williamson, playing Macbeth to Mirren’s Lady Macbeth
,Helen Mirren playing Lady Macbeth  to Nicol Williamson’s Macbeth

While she was playing Lady Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in the late 1960’s Helen Mirren spent her spare time relaxing at a house called Parsenn Sally on Ditchford Farm, at Holford, just outside Stratford. Here with other actors, artists and wealthy young aristocrats the young rising theatrical star would hang out, attending wild parties with guests dressed as Marvel comic characters. There was a recording studio that was hired out to bands. Simon Oldfield, brother of Tubular Bells Mike, was part of the set and used to bring his sound system down to the farm.

One of the main movers and shakers in the group was Sarah Ponsonby who in 1975 moved the commune to Surrendell Farm at Hullavington in Wiltshire, a sprawling Jacobean farmhouse set in 57 acres, which she had bought for £37,500 with two others. Here the group would continue its combination of artists’ colony and back to the land commune. The house was run as a collective, with all residents and visitors helping with renovations and the rearing of livestock. Regular visitors included Mirren’s then companion Prince George Galitzine (son of a Russian prince); record producer Simon Heyworth who worked on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; tabla player Sam Gopal; photographer Bob Whitaker, famous for his work with The Beatles and Salvador Dali; and Princess Margaret – who came to visit her then boyfriend Roddy Llewellyn who was the community’s head gardener. Llewellyn was often be found “stripped to the waist, swearing at the goats for eating all his strawberries, or moving his prize sow Mah-Jong from one part of the garden to another via an elaborate set-up of electric fences.” The Princess, who according to local villagers turned up wearing ‘old clothes’ and ‘looking like a farmer’s wife’ ,was expected to ‘muck in’ when she visited, doing housework, renovation jobs and looking after livestock. Sean Connery’s ex-wife Diane Cilento who lived nearby introduced the group to WWOOF and at weekends the bohemian crowd was joined by more ‘ordinary folk’ who came to dig ditches, paint walls or weed the garden.

Mirren plays piano with John Rendall, watched by Roddy LLewellyn . Parsenn Sally restaurant 1975
Helen Mirren plays piano with John Rendall, watched by Roddy LLewellyn . Parsenn Sally restaurant 1975

The group also set up and ran a restaurant in Bath, called Parsenn Sally after the original house. The restaurant ran as a co-operative venture, with Roddy Llewellyn providing vegetables from the gardens at Surrendell. The same artistic vein as the community carried over to the restaurant with ferns hung from the ceiling so it would resembled the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ and late after the customers had left, there were sing-songs round the piano where Princess Margaret would sing her party piece: Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo.

“Surrendell was a very innocent place. We had fun but it was quite naive and childish … My clearest memory of Helen is of her playing frisbee in the garden, and our most successful crop was horseradish.”
                                             John Rendall

A combination of the press attention that came along with the association with royalty and the discovery of 292 cannabis plants on the farm finally put paid to the commune’s days. The Parsenn Sally restaurant went into liquidation later the same year.

“After separating from Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret, 45, was having a sisterly chat with Queen Elizabeth when Her Majesty waxed curious about the commune near Bath where Meg has weekended with her 28-year-old beau, Roddy Llewellyn. “No one has any money — it’s all share and share alike,” replied Margaret, in painting a romantic picture of the ramshackle farm. “I should really do something for your commune,” declared her beguiled Majesty. “What would you suggest?” Margaret demurred – so the Queen dispatched a dozen brace of pheasants.”
             People Magazine April 26, 1976

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