Grapevine Three: Glastonbury

On location filming Grapevine Three

Every video shoot leaves some indelible memories on the mind. No one who worked on Grapevine Two will ever forget filming on the Mendip Hills on a freezing foggy December night for ‘Survival’. Grapevine One brings to mind the sub-zero temperatures in the car park in ‘Lambert and Stacey’. It had been thoughtfully sprayed with water to enhance the reflections from the film lights and after a few hours I was convinced that I would never feel my feet again. I was wearing about four layers of clothing. The actors weren’t. How they managed to avoid shivering or chattering teeth on camera remains a miracle. Grapevine Three will always be remembered by the crew for ‘A Glastonbury Tale’.

We had had the idea of using Glastonbury Tor as a setting for some time. Karen and I took two trips to Glastonbury during the writing stages. The first time we wandered around the shops in the town admiring the displays of crystals, essential oils for aromatherapy, astrology books and ambient ‘New Age’ compact discs. We marvelled at the flared trousers, kaftans and Indian print dresses still on sale, more than twenty years after they had gone out of fashion. We climbed the Tor in brilliant sunshine. Glastonbury does have a special magic to it. We felt it was an ideal location for our story. We wanted to write a comic sketch that would also reflect on what tourism does to such special places. A year earlier we had wandered glumly around the Forum in Rome, surrounded by school parties who were carrying blaring stereos and throwing bits of the ancient rock at cola cans. It was hard to feel the magic! Glastonbury (on a quiet day) has something of the feeling of The Forum (on a quiet day) and fitted our purposes admirably.

We worked on a rough script outline, then went back to Glastonbury armed with a home video camera and our three kids. We wanted to walk the route of the story and get a record of what could be used at various points. Our kids are essential camouflage for such an operation. I always feel a complete idiot wandering round with a camcorder, muttering into the microphone, filming odd things like barbed wire fences, patches of mud and park benches. If you’ve got kids with you, it’s all right. A casual observer imagines that you’re taking pictures of the kids, while in reality you’re filming warning notices and farm gates which might be useful access for the camera car. We also made discrete enquiries in the local shops. We had originally intended to start the story in a shop in the town centre, and move via Glastonbury Abbey Ruins to the Tor itself. The shops were (to say the least) unfriendly. They were fed up with film crews coming to make documentaries about the local hippies. They told us that every film crew that had ever been there had tried to ‘make fun’ of the local inhabitants (well, those weren’t their actual words). They weren’t prepared to co-operate with another one. In vain we tried to explain that there was nothing at all about the hippies or the annual rock festival in our script. Then one lady wearing a headshawl and twenty rows of beads warned us darkly that it was bad luck to try to film on the Tor and that no good would come of it. Her assistant nodded sagely. We went home and finished our script.

The next expedition to the Tor was by our producers, Rob Maidment and Dale Overton. They returned with the news that while we could film silently in the Abbey Ruins, we would not be permitted to perform acted dialogue in the ruins. Glastonbury Abbey has considerable religious significance – it’s supposed to be the site of the first church in England, and the place where the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere are buried.  Rob also pointed out that wind noise on the top of the Tor was going to be a major problem for the microphones. The Tor is a steep hill in the middle of surrounding flat countryside. It can be calm and still at the foot of the Tor, but can seem to be blowing half a gale at the top. We wrote yet another version of the story, reducing the amount of dialogue which took place at the top. We all felt that the story had benefitted from tightening up on the number of locations.

A few weeks later I was in the lane at the bottom of the Tor at seven o’clock in the morning, waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive from Bristol. The first location vehicle was a flat bed truck carrying a lone Portaloo (portable toilet) which was to be set up in a layby. The nearest public toilets were over a mile away, and you can hardly stop filming to drive actors to the toilet. To my surprise I found that, like me, the Portaloo had come from Bournemouth that morning. The driver proudly informed me that Bournemouth was the Portaloo capital of Southern England. Well, you learn something every day. The Portaloo had a single key which was given to the production manager. It was there for the use of the crew, not for the general public. Not that the crew used it much. It was a difficult fifteen minute journey from the top of the hill to the Portaloo. We gained mild amusement during the day by watching baffled members of the public trying to open the door. A short queue even formed at one point in the morning.

The morning passed uneventfully. It was bright and sunny and Jim Sweeney and Cathryn Harrison were hilarious as Keith and Sandra, the couple who have forced their reluctant son to come and admire the historic charms of Glastonbury. As usual, they continued to improvise dialogue after the cameras stopped. Most of it was funnier than the official script (but was alas unprintable). There were a few harsh words from the Sound Recordist when a microphone cable got trailed through a particularly obnoxious cow pat. There was a mild disagreement about whether Keith was to be irritated because he had mud on his shoe (the script) or whether it might be funnier if he sank into a cow pat. The producers felt that a cow pat was unacceptable. Tony, the director, was all for the cow pat. Jim, who was playing Keith, stood waiting, clearly hoping for the producers to win the day. In the end we filmed it both ways, and production assistants were sent off to gather suitable cow pats. They found them and brought them back on pieces of cardboard. We filmed it. It looked disgusting. We didn’t use the sequence. Sorry, Jim.

In the story, Keith and Sandra are on the Tor at the same time as a school party escorted by Steve Steen, who plays a mild-mannered tour guide. Steve had to keep the group of real school kids amused between scenes by extending his description of the surrounding countryside interspersed with wildly speculative accounts of King Arthur’s  personal habits. Lunchtime came, and we all settled down on the grass for a picnic among the sheep droppings which unfortunately litter the Tor between the cow pats. The sun came out, and it was actually hot for a late April day. Everything seemed perfect.

After lunch we set everything up for a scene halfway up the hill. The sun was still shining. I don’t know who first noticed the black cloud. It was small, very black and rolling rapidly towards us out of an otherwise sunny sky. I just had time to remember the warning from the lady in the headscarf before the rain hit us. It was torrential and immediate. There’s a sequence that a film crew follows in this situation – there are three things which must be kept dry; the equipment, the actors’ hair and the actors’ clothes. We found ourselves standing between the actors and the sweeping rain, desperately trying to keep them covered. This is not altruistic concern for their welfare. It’s simple economics. If you have to wait for the actors to get dry, you lose filming time. No one was going to see the rest of us. We could get soaked to the skin, and we did. There was a clap of thunder. The production manager ran round forcing everyone to lie down on the wet grass. After all, we were on a naked hillside in a thunderstorm. As the rain seeped into the few bits of me that were still dry, I wondered if lying down was really necessary. I was looking straight up at the ruined church on the top of the Tor, about fifty metres from my head. At that moment it went bright blue as lightning struck it and played around the stones and the loudest clap of thunder I’ve ever heard seemed to shake the ground we were lying on.

Then the storm was gone, just like that. We got to our feet and surveyed the damage, The actors had kept their heads dry, but their trousers were soaked. And Jim was wearing light grey flannels. The school party had wet hair clinging to their faces. There had to be some sort of decision made. There are strict rules about using extras, and it was obvious that we couldn’t keep the school party outside with wet clothes. They would have to be taken home. We had already done most of the work with the school group, but the script called for them to be wandering around in the background during the scene at the top. Steve Steen came up with a suggestion. We were halfway up the hill. Why couldn’t the guide tell the party to wander around freely on their own for a few minutes? Then we could film the line, show the school group dispersing in different directions, then carry on without them. That’s why one of the writers needs to be present during an ELT video shoot – an instant rewrite was needed. The school party reluctantly went home. At that point, we discovered that one of the production cars had been robbed during the storm. The police told us that thieves regularly watched people go up the hill, then cheerfully smashed windows and robbed cars. Even if you saw them doing it, it would take you ten minutes to get anywhere near your car again.

The sun came out again, and although we had to film one scene from a different angle to the one we had planned (so as to conceal the dark patches on Jim’s trousers), the wind and sun soon dried everyone. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, even though Jim and Cathryn had to run straight down the very steep sides of the hill at one point. We were finished by about seven in the evening, and everyone was helping the crew to carry their equipment back down the hill. Then I noticed Cathryn, who was at the top holding a black bin liner and helping the production assistants to pick up the litter, which had been caused by the local sheep eating their way through the rubbish sacks we had used for snacks and plastic cups – as I said, it was a windy day. This is an unusual job for a principle well-known actor to do at the end of the day, but as she said afterwards, after the black cloud she had the feeling that we had better leave the Tor without any traces whatsoever of our presence!

Glastonbury Tale: Cathryn as Sandra, Jim as Keith

A Glastonbury Tale can be found on Grapevine Three Video by Peter Viney and Karen Viney (Oxford University Press).

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