Surely it is time for another showing of the TV series of Elspeth Huxley’s book, The Flame Trees of Thika? Filming took place in Kenya in eighteen weeks before Christmas, 1980, with Hayley Mills playing Tilly, Elspeth’s mother, and Holly Aird as Elspeth. The filming was done at Lukenya, with Kajiado station standing in as the early Nairobi station. Old rolling stock from Nairobi Railway Museum was used, and track was specially laid. No animals were killed – when a dead creature was needed, animal skins were brought from London and stuffed in Nairobi. Twinkle, Elspeth’s pet duiker, grew so quickly that eventually three young ones were used in succession. A rain sequence for the rainy season caused problems when rain refused to fall. The solution was to appeal to the Nairobi Fire Brigade. It helpfully hosed away for twelve minutes at a time with water fetched from tanks in Nairobi. The African spectators thought the filmers were mad. And what about the flame trees? They seem to flower whenever they like, so spies were sent far and wide to report when one was in flower. A full 4000 miles were covered to film the temperamental trees. The film crew then rushed to the location.
The adult Elspeth Huxley came out to Kenya to have a look at what was going on, and thoroughly approved of the proceedings, to everyone’s relief. The stone farmhouse of Elspeth’s childhood still existed at Kitimuru, lived in by a colonel. Some of the coffee bushes her parents had planted were still there, now part of a big French-owned plantation. She described her visit to her childhood dwelling: ‘Our stone house scarcely changed, with its curly Dutch gables, its bow windows (a novelty then) and its veranda which Margaret the mule (Kongoni in the film) had climbed up steps to take a lump of sugar while we sat at breakfast. Here was the coarse lawn my mother had sown and tended …The avenue of flame trees had long since been cut down …There were ghosts around. The small white community that had cleared bush and planted the first coffee here had been young and hopeful, laughing off their troubles, charged with optimism, believing in themselves and in the worth of their task. All are dead.’