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Sea King adventure
Paul and his team battle mountain weather, downdraughts and equipment failure to tell a heroic story of the Lake District's mountain rescue teams.
The following took place in the early nineties when I was a documentary producer/Director at Border Television.
“You do realise how much our filming kit weighs?” These were the words of my friend and cameraman Eric Scott Parker. Today, with iPhone quality images and vast miniaturised memory it would be hard for today’s young film makers to imagine the challenges (and risks!) we faced in the 1990s. The stories were out there but capturing them was another thing altogether.
One of the first stories I covered when I started in television in the 1980s found me travelling to the Scottish English border to film a small item for the evening news. Training was not really a top priority then. It typically went something like this; I would meet a freelance cameraman who would film the item. I would then travel back with the footage, and it would be processed. I would then have to write words to go with it and deliver it all live on air.
I expected the cameraman to be equipped with a large film camera so you could imagine my surprise when he pulled a small package from his jacket pocket. It was a clockwork Bolex. Yes! Clockwork! He would wind it up and it would run for 30 seconds, enough for one shot, then he would wind it up again!
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Well, we had certainly moved on by the time I had become a director in the 1990s but sadly with progress came a lot of weight. I had this amazing idea (well I thought so) of making a documentary on one of the Lake District Mountain Rescue Teams–the teams that would pull stranded or lost walkers (and naive tourists) off the side of a mountain. The busiest was Langdale, right in the heart of the National Park and its leader Stuart Hulse was keen for the public to see their work, as it happened. I was lucky, one of the rescue team, Paul Alonby, was also a freelance cameraman and he agreed to shoot some of the more difficult rescues with me. I say lucky, because we couldn’t predict when the rescues would happen.
However, to fit in with the film unions at the time I needed a full crew of camera, sound and electrician for part of the programme. To be fair, my first-choice crew Eric and Alan were not against it and were willing to walk to the top of a mountain but the kit, now that was something else. “No problem, I’ll carry the bulk of it”, I said. To be honest, I was so pleased that a crew would follow me up a mountain I would have agreed to anything.
As usual my keenness also blinded me to the task ahead. And this is where another problem arose for an intrepid film maker. Our filming kit was brought by our engineers to base. They sat (or so we thought) day after day drooling over the latest equipment’s specification with no thought to the poor programme makers who would have to use it. I remember one heated discussion about the latest video camera. “It’s amazing” said the engineer, “the specification is outstanding!” “Yes” I said “but you’re missing the point, it stops working at the first sign of rain and I do country programmes, outside!” It made no difference, we worked with what we given.
So, there we were, facing a long hard climb with equipment weighing many kilos and camera’s that didn’t like moisture. (For those who have not visited the Lake District it has a lot of moisture!) Not only that, the steep incline was made worse still when the Sea King helicopter swooped in. The downdraught from its blades was unbelievable! I was lucky with my crew. When the chips were down, we had each others back, sometimes literally. Faced with high-winds, down drafts and mountain slopes, things got precarious…
I had totally underestimated how fast rescuers walk. The cameraman had equipped himself with a stout walking stick while I carried all the kit and nearly passed out. The camera stopped working on several occasions but always seemed to start up again. I had to explain to the chief engineer why my shoots had the highest kit losses. It wasn’t really my fault I would explain, all my programmes involved rain, the countryside or some form of dangerous ideas.
Despite the risks and the temperamental equipment, we got the shots and made the programme. Showing how the Lake District was protected by brave unpaid volunteers who put their lives at risk for others every day was worth the struggle. I loved being with the rescue team so much I joined Penrith Mountain Rescue and qualified as an emergency medic. Success all round!
Hopeful Traveller is a weekly newsletter and archive of stories about broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s. It is written by former-newsreader and programme maker Paul Baird. For new stories each week, subscribe.