Saturday 16 March 2013

On location by Sue Purkiss

Almost two years ago, Cheddar, that well-known metropolis and historical home of a moderately well-known cheese, was rocked with excitement. A film crew was coming to town! And this was not just any old film. I mean, we're not easily impressed round here. We've had Elizabeth the Golden Age just down the road on Brean Down, we've had Hot Fuzz and Johnny Depp's The Libertine just up the road in Wells - and in the gorge itself we've had endless heart-stopping episodes of Casualty. (Well, one or two.)

But this was an epic, really BIG film, starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewen McGregor, Bill Nighy and Ian McShane (Who I almost bumped into going into an exhibition at the Royal Academy last year. No, really. The life I lead, eh?) It came out this month. I haven't seen it yet, but when it comes to Wells, I'll be there, along with lots of other locals, cheering for the minute or so that Cheddar Gorge appears on the screen. (If we can recognise it, that is - apparently there's been a good deal of digital altering.)

The location site was just up the road from where I live, and the scene was to be shot on top of the cliffs overlooking Cheddar Gorge. The film company had rented a huge field. They put down a temporary surface, installed a new gate, and the buses, trucks and jeeps rumbled in - masses of them. My neighbour Jackie and I sauntered oh so casually past, and got chatting to the very large security man on the gate, who smiled very patiently if a little wearily at our efforts to winkle out of him whether Ewen was going to be rolling up any time soon.

Unfortunately, that week it was exceptionally windy - too windy for them to film. So they hung around for a couple of days, and then all trundled off to somewhere more sheltered. The next week, back they came. There is normally no vehicular access to where they wanted to get to; but old roads were opened, temporary ones were laid, Andrew the local farmer was employed to transport their incredibly expensive special effects camera n his tractor and trailer - and they were off. Jackie and I climbed up to watch. There was an encampment of square black tents to hold all the equipment, which, with their pyramid shaped roofs, looked rather like something from a medieval battleground.

The action for this one small scene was to take place on a built up platform, with, apparently, an imaginary giant. All we could see was the scaffolding, and a few actors in rather nattty black leather outfits trimmed with silver. It took several days before they'd got what they needed, and we began to see why films cost such an enormous amount of money to make - all this, for just a few seconds of screen time?

 I walked up there yesterday. Here's a picture of the site where the scene was filmed; the platform was just the other side of the wall from where the boys are sitting. In the background would be the cliffs of the gorge, which you can see further down. Apparently in the film, five fountains have been digitally added: I imagine these are the ones in the poster above.

I walked down afterwards through the woods to reach the bottom of the gorge. It's very hobbitty, isn't it? You can just imagine Frodo, Pippin and Sam slipping between the trees. And in fact JRR Tolkien apparently visited the gorge whilst on his honeymoon and later used it as the inspiration for Helm's Deep: On the far side of the Westfold Vale lay a green coomb, a great bay in the mountains, out of which a gorge opened in the hills. Men of that land called it Helm's Deep. 

But of course, apart from all these fictional histories, the gorge has its own very real history, stretching almost inconceivably far back in time. The limestone cliffs are riddled with caves, created by the same powerful torrents of water which created the gorge itself, and which still erupt out of the hills in times of torrential downpours - as they did after Christmas, washing away the road. People lived in these caves even in relatively recent times; thousands of years ago they were home to a community of hunter gatherers. The skeleton of one of them was found when the caves were explored at the beginning of the last century. He was buried apart, in mysterious circumstances, the victim of a violent death, and evidence of cannibalism has been found.

But that's one tiny snapshot of the life of these people, who must have lived in the caves for hundreds, if not thousands of years. What was life like for the people who lived in these caves? What did they do when they weren't out hunting and gathering? What did they talk about? How did they celebrate? What did they do for fun? What did they believe in? What did it feel like to live in a cave? In their innermost selves, how different were they from us?

Michelle Paver's are the only books I've read that deal with matters such as these, and I think she does it marvellously well. I wonder if anyone will make a film of The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness? If so, I may be able to suggest somewhere they can film it..


Joan Lennon said...

And folk say London is where it's all happening!

Thanks for this - so many things I didn't know about Cheddar and environs!

Susan Price said...

Sue, thanks for this - funny as well as interesting. I saw Cheddar last year - the gorge really is impressive.
You didn't mention that the paelolithic - ok, I can't spell, Old Stone Age - skeleton found in the Cheddar Caves was DNA tested and found to be a direct ancestor of a teacher and teenagers living just a few miles away. Which seems so amazing to me that I want to run up and down the streets, telling people about it.
It also puts paid, at a stroke, to all those tiresome theories of 'waves of invasion'. Every time there was a new pattern on on a pot, it was supposed to be proof of yet another invasion. Because those poor old bone-brained stone age Brits, they couldn't invent anything.
But nope, we Brits, we go wa-a-ay back.

Sue Purkiss said...

No - I didn't mention it, mostly because I did a post on exactly that a while back! (On 16 August last year) I taught with Adrian Targett - now affectionately known as Cheddar Man; that story was undoubtedly the last big thing to hit Cheddar - Adrian was on TV all over the world. It's funny - the Wikipedia article mentions the two teenagers, but at the time, the only person mentioned with a direct link to the skeleton was Adrian. And it was so nearly not discovered: Adrian only gave his DNA because someone from the class who were tested was absent that day, and they needed a certain number.

Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant! I remember that post of yours, Sue, and was most impressed by your ancient connections!

Susan Price said...

I must have missed Sue's Cheddar Man post - I'll have to look it up!

Penny Dolan said...

Ah, the clue to the film is in the label! Not in the Chinese (?) wording on the poster. Maybe I was just dim about the lad with the slaying stick - or my glasses need cleaning.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - I know it was a bit odd to use the Chinese/Japanese poster, but it was for the picture, which was the only one I could find that looked as if it might have been starring Cheddar Gorge!