As 'Son of Rambow' prepares to wow cinema audiences, Alex Hannaford examines the Plymouth Brethren, the movement whose stringent rules shape the life of the hero. Most of us can recall the thrill of seeing our first action-packed film. For Will Proudlock, the boy hero of the new Garth Jennings movie Son of Rambow, the effect is intensified, as his illicit viewing of a Sylvester Stallone film is his first sight of a moving picture.
Will belongs to a Plymouth Brethren family, and listening to music, watching television or seeing films are all forbidden to members of the reclusive religious sect. Seeing Rambo is therefore a life-changing experience for Will. The Brethren were not in Jennings's original script for the film, set in the 1980s and based on the director's own Essex childhood, and which proved a smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival. But both Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith knew something was missing.
"It's really hard to show the impact that movies can have on a kid," Jennings says, "but I lived next door to a Plymouth Brethren family for 25 years, and by moving the story next door it captured the qualities we were looking for."
Jennings has not set out to paint a bad picture of the Brethren. "No one is evil in the film, but religion is one of the things that holds this character back. "Although we'd found our plot, it also opened up a can of worms because the Plymouth Brethren is a very secret society. Although I lived next door to them, they kept to themselves and it took a lot of investigation to find out more."
The Plymouth Brethren was started by law student John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s after he broke away from the Anglican Church in Ireland. A gathering in Plymouth, Devon, in 1832, gave the sect its name, but 10 years later, the group itself split into 'Exclusive Brethren' and 'Open Brethren' - the former being much stricter.
A relative of Jennings's taught at an Exclusive Brethren school and the director used him to build a clearer picture of life behind closed Brethren doors. "I found out loads of little details," Jennings says. "The Exclusive Brethren shun pretty much everything that could be a distraction from serving God, including television, film, literature and pop music. They are not whacky, but they do take their beliefs very seriously and follow a strict moral code.
"When I was growing up in the 1980s, video and computers hadn't saturated our lives like they have now. It must be much harder to 'opt out' these days. You'd be constantly battling against the evils the rest of us indulge in.
"There are quite a lot of ex-Brethren, casualties I suppose, families that have been pulled apart. Once you've left that's it: if your family are still in the Brethren you're not allowed contact with them." One example is David (not his real name), 56, who left the Exclusive Brethren in the early 1970s after a new leader began introducing stricter rules. The leader's behaviour also raised alarm bells.
"In my first 10 years the Brethren were a happy group," David says. "Friends and relatives who were non-Brethren were allowed to stay with us and we could eat with them, but in the early 1960s an American named Jim Taylor forced his way to the top and began 'separation'." Separation meant sect members must keep away from anyone who didn't follow the Exclusive teaching.
They weren't allowed to make friends or eat ("break bread") with anyone outside the church. "Suddenly, we had to cut off any contact with our cousins," David continues. "They were dead to us. There was no cinema, no joining in with prayers at regular schools, no going round to friends' houses. It was all to do with the orders of Jim Taylor.
"In 1970, Taylor started sleeping with another sect wife. He claimed he was a pure man, but there was an Exclusive Brethren gathering in Aberdeen and he appeared on stage obviously drunk. After that there was a split in the group." In the following two years, about 8,000 Exclusives left, but a large number remained.
"My wife and I left, but my eldest brother and some uncles and aunts stayed and cut off contact with us," says David. "Taylor effectively radicalised the Brethren. It was always strict, but he made it worse. "My eldest brother rarely talks to me, though we live in the same town. At my father's funeral, last year, he stood 100 yards away from everyone else. If I see him in the street and he's on his own, he'll raise his hand. If his wife is with him, he'll ignore me. I'm just sad for them. They're missing out on so much."
Today, the leader of the Exclusive Brethren is an Australian, Bruce Hales, who inherited the job from his father, John. There are now about 46,000 Exclusive members worldwide. In the early 1990s, questionnaires were sent to 300 former Exclusives around the world, 200 of which were returned completed. Of these, 76 per cent felt a sense of loss in leaving close friends behind. Half were plagued by upsetting memories of their days in the Exclusives.
A spokesperson for Peebs.net - an information website set up to 'investigate and report the truth behind the Exclusive Brethren' - says: "We've been following Son of Rambow since it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival? shame no active Exclusive Brethren will be allowed to see the movie." That's one of the reasons why Jennings isn't worried about a potential Brethren backlash. "I don't feel conniving about it, but it is a point. They'll never see it.
"Besides, you could see our film as a statement on the corrupting power of television. I see it as something completely different - that by shutting people off from certain things, you're not really educating them. "While it may be right for some people, it can't be right for everyone and it certainly isn't right for the boy in the film."