Past Dover Pageants inspired Mike to stage similar events in the town © Dover Museum Archives

Profile: Mike McFarnell

Former Olympic hopeful and Honorary Freeman of Dover, Mike McFarnell has been a passionate champion of Dover and its history since he moved to the town with his family in the late 1970s. He has organised many large public events over the years and become a familiar sight around town where he films Dover’s life and times to create the Dover Film. The annual Dover Film Festival has been running since 1971 showing the films of Ray Warner, previous creator of these films, and although it’s less of a festival these days, it’s still a charming and popular event in the town’s social calendar.

From Kenya via London and Birmingham to Dover

Mike spent the first 18 years of his life in Kenya – happy days of outdoors living and sports – where his father worked for the overseas civil service. The family returned to England in 1963 and settled in Bromley. Mike had planned to become a doctor but discovered a passion for athletics and started work for a bank which allowed him to train at Blackheath Harriers. He travelled all over Europe running 400m – the first time he came to Dover was in 1966 for the Kent Championships at Duke of York’s School, which he won. Meanwhile, Mike married Anne, continued working in banking and was excelling at 400m hurdles, training with David Hemery, who won the 400m hurdles gold medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics, which ignited Mike's Olympic ambitions. These sadly came to an abrupt halt during a training session at Crystal Palace where he hit the side of the running track, breaking several tendons in his ankle ending his athletics career.

A disheartened Mike decided that doing ‘probably the most boring job I’ve ever encountered’ wasn’t for him, so he took a job at Birmingham University managing student sports. His wife stopped work after their first child arrived and they moved back to London where Mike managed Finsbury Leisure Centre. His parents had since retired to Dover and on a family visit, while feeling disillusioned with his demanding job, Mike suggested to his wife that they move to the seaside town and open a B&B which would allow him to enjoy more of family life. A local bank manager recommended the Amanda Guesthouse in Harold Street, which they bought in 1978 and ran successfully for 37 years ‘having a great quality of life and time’, before finally selling it in 2015 and retiring to nearby River.

© Mike McFarnell

The Dover Pageant

As a B&B owner, Mike was keen to promote tourism – ‘One of the things that I thought, running a guesthouse, was the way to sell the town was through its history.’ So, with his energy and drive, Mike decided to put on a grand historic event.

During a short period before the First World War, historical pageants caught the public imagination. The celebrated English dramatist and composer Louis N Parker staged huge productions involving hundreds of people and his famous pageants inspired a wave of ‘Pageant fever’ across the country and led to over 40 public pageants being staged in Britain between 1905 and 1914 in an outpouring of national patriotism and local pride. Mr Parker was Pageant Master of the 1908 Dover Pageant, held at Dover College, which was one of the most successful events ever held in the area.

A Pageant is a Festival of Thanksgiving, in which a great city or a little hamlet celebrates its glorious past, its prosperous present and its hopes and aspirations for the future.’ Louis Napoleon Parker (1928) Several of My Lives

This was Mike’s blueprint. His first pageant staged in 1983 went reasonably well, but the second in 1985 (involving local schools and the fire brigade running chariot races on the hour in Connaught Park) had an audience of over 10,000! Mike went on to organise 10 pageants in total – the final one in 2008.

The hugely successful 1985 Dover Pageant © Mike McFarnell

The Dover Film

After the war, photographer Ray Warner started to create an annual film of life in Dover. His films, from 1947 to 1971, captured all aspects of the town and are a fascinating and priceless record of social history reflecting the many changes, as well as celebrating the town’s history. When Ray died in 1989, the film archive was bequeathed to Dover Museum and Phil Heath took over in 1991 creating an annual Dover film for 10 years. Mike began filming in 2003 to keep this important historical record going.

There is never a dull moment while filming the life and times of Dover and Mike has many stories to tell. His most unusual and memorable incident was in August 2019 when he set off to film the landing of French inventor Franky Zapata, who was aiming to fly over the English Channel on a jet powered hoverboard. Franky set off from Calais at 6.17am and landed in St Margaret’s Bay 22 minutes later. Mike wasn’t allowed to join the international press so he walked to the South Foreland Lighthouse where the landing area had been cordoned off. Franky missed the landing area and landed next to Mike who got an exclusive piece of film!

Other highlights were when the Archery World Cup came to Dover in 2007, which Mike had helped to facilitate, and Dover Military Tattoo at Connaught Barracks in 2012 which he had  organised.

© Dover Museum Archives

A team effort

Mike has a team of willing volunteers to edit, narrate and provide music for the films. Terry Sutton rewrote scripts and narrated for a number of years, Barry O’Brian and Melanie Knight now narrate the old Ray Warner films and Mike’s son Scott narrates the new films. Mike’s brother James also helps by creating any music needed.

Historically held in Dover Town Hall, the film is now shown in the Silver Screen Cinema on Gaol Lane, around the corner from Dover Museum. This year, there will be 20 showings of the new 2022 and old 1972 films, held over five days from Sunday 5 to Friday 10 March, giving audiences the chance to compare and contrast the town today with that of 50 years ago.

Whether you’re an avid follower or you’re curious to find out what the Dover Film is, it’s a wonderful opportunity to gain an insight into this fascinating town and its people. Tickets are available from the Visitor Information Centre at the Museum only (open from 9.30am to 5pm). Seats may be available on the day but do check the Dover Annual Film website because some showings may be sold out.

For anyone interested in reading more about the photographic chroniclers of Dover, there is more information here: Dover’s Photographers & the Film Festival | The Dover Historian.

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