AN ICONIC film shot in the Lancashire countryside celebrates its half-centenary this year.

Whistle Down The Wind, which starred Hayley Mills and Alan Bates as well as a handful of local youngsters, is now recognised as one of the best British movies ever made.

Directed by Bryan Forbes, it tells the touching tale of three young children who discover a runaway fugitive in their barn and take him to be Jesus Christ.

Filming took place on the moors at Burnley and Bacup, and most famously at Worsaw End Farm, Downham, which provided the location of the Bostock family farm and the barn in which the fleeing prisoner hides.

But, it was almost purely by chance that the film ended up being set in Lancashire at all.

Mary Hayley Bell’s novel had originally based the action in Sussex, but producer Richard Attenborough asked screenplay writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse to ‘northernise it’.

A Pinewood Studios accountant from Burnley, John Hargreaves, tipped off the filmmakers that Downham would be ideal.

After being persuaded to visit, Attenborough said: “It fits the mood perfectly. Rugged countryside, which is grotesque, yet has beauty. Everything we want is here.”

Having decided on Lancashire, the search began for locals who would provide the bulk of the cast members.

Ten children were selected to play speaking parts, including the major roles of Charles and Nan, the brother and sister of Kathy, played by Mills.

One of those, Geoff Laycock, 61, of Clitheroe, recalls attending the casting which he said did not quite follow modern auditioning methods.

He said: “We stood in a line and Richard Attenborough pointed at people and said, ‘You, you and you’.

“The headmistress of Downham School, May Barton, was picked to appear in the film, so we got a week off school and they cast the children in the film too.

"It was all a bit more lax than it is today.”

Keith Clement, 56, of Withgill, said: “They wanted to see our cheeky grins.

"My mother told me I got a part because of the reaction on my face when someone was sick, but I’m not sure if that’s true.”

Both still retain connections to the film.

Mr Laycock said: “I’ve named my steam barge Whistle Down the Wind. A lot of people ask about the name and the film. It’s still well remembered in East Lancashire.”

Mr Clement said: “Just the other day a mother said to her child, ‘do you know who that man is? He was in the same film your auntie’s in.’ “People used to take the mickey a bit when I was younger, but now they don’t.”

The Clitheroe Tourist Information Centre also said it still had people enquiring about Downham and Whistle Down the Wind.

However, today the village has another claim to screen fame, having more recently provided the location for the nostalgic TV drama series Born and Bred.

The two experiences provide a contrast between the 1960s and the 21st century.

Downham historian Anne Musson, now 71, said: “In 1961 it was quite an invasion. We’d never seen anything like it.

“People were very tolerant, and 200 locals were used as extras for the crowd scenes, so most of the village was involved.

“We became friends and would chat with the crew. There were more problems with Born and Bred and people complained about the inconveniences, because they came in 2001 and filmed for four years.

"Whistle Down The Wind filming only lasted seven weeks.

“People got quite excited, but got used to it and settled down to life again.

"I certainly don’t remember hordes of people coming here, as they did for Born and Bred.

“Now we’ve got rather blasé, but then it was new and exciting.”

Those in the film agreed that the relationship between the locals and even the biggest stars of the film were very good.

Mr Clement said: “Bryan Forbes spent a lot of time with us explaining what he wanted and how to do things.

“He and Richard Attenborough were brilliant with the kids. They also sent Christmas cards to us all every year for about ten years afterwards.”

The film crews made an impression on the local children in other ways too.

Mr Laycock said: “The main thing that sticks in my mind about filming was the food, it was like having Sunday dinner every day.

"We’d never known anything like that before.”

The Lancashire location even made an impact on the young star of the film.

However, of the local children only Alan Barnes, who was plucked from Chatburn School to play Charles, went on to act afterwards.

Mr Clement said: “I just went back to normal life. I’m an auto-electrician, and have my own business in Chatburn.

“The two girls in the last scene, Julie Jackson and Anne Newby, still live in Downham.

“I can’t be one hundred per cent sure, but I don’t think any of the children went into films. Alan Barnes did another film or two afterwards, but that was it.”