Doctor Watson I presume.....

28th Nov 2013

Some time ago we got asked to help by a Hollywood Film Studio to help with the filming of Sherlock Holmes.  I've finally got around to writing an account of the adventure that followed..

"Hi, my name is Rachel and I'm a Hollywood film producer.  We are filming in Wales and need some help".
Not the call we get every day but interesting none the less.  Rachel went on to explain they were filming a Sherlock Holmes film and one scene involved Dr Watson climbing down a rock face to investigate a shipwreck.  She also wanted help scouting a dramatic location and a team to help with safety rigging.  She also needed someone to climb down the cliff and, as she described it, 'fall off a few times'.
It didn't take more than a few moments for a plan to form in my head.  Sea cliff locations in Wales don't get more dramatic than the sweep of sea cliffs known as Gogarth that surround the tip of Anglesey.  So, 3 days after our conversation, I was driving into the car park at the South Stack cafe with Rachel and lead cameraman Brett to take a look.
We stood at the edge of the car park and looked down.  It was a beautiful autumn day but, although the views across to Snowdonia and the Anglesey coastline were stunning, I could sense Rachel and Brett's disappointment.  Clearly this wasn't the dramatic cliffs she wanted - but then she didn't yet know Gogarth.  From the car park the true drama of Gogath's red and yellow walls doesn't immediately reveal itself.
I asked them to follow me down the steps to the point where the edge of the cliffs start.  They were very chatty people, but not then.  They looked at the sweep of vertical rock, the tumbling waves, the beautiful coastline stretching away and they listened to the seagulls squawking excitedly. They looked around them, then looked at each other, then smiled. Task one complete.  We had a location.
I spoke to Rachel several times in the days in between.  We discussed everything from costume sizes to how to make the ropes look 'old fashioned'.  This was turning into a bigger job than I'd planned. The following Monday we returned to Anglesey for the filming and as we arrived we saw that the car park was transformed.  We squeezed between the large mobile location vehicles to find space amongst the equipment, catering facilities and swarms of people.  Since our meeting, arrangements had been made to rent the whole car park, cafe and various other rooms for the duration of the shoot.  Fortunately, the weather was set to be glorious again.
We got straight to work.  The first job was to meet with Rachel and the film team to identify the best filming angles.  If you know that part of Gogarth you'll know that in one direction you look towards South Stack lighthouse and the other way you get a stunning view along the Anglesey coastline.  This made the decision very easy as the story line didn't call for a lighthouse being visible!
Once we were set up it was time for me to get dressed ready to be dangled down the cliff. The period suit wasn't the usual clothing I wear for a climbing day on Gogarth but it would work well enough.  Climbing harnesses also weren't part of the script so I wore a harness under the trousers and had the rope exiting through the zip before I tied the rope around my waist to make it look like that was the connection point. All the climbing shots on the main cliff were going to be filmed from a distance so I wore a black beanie over my helmet to mimic the actors hair and brown rock shoes would look enough like brogues.
Once everyone was in place at the cliff Rachel asked me to do a safety briefing.  After sharing some essential points I asked for questions.  The only one was someone who asked what they should do if they fell off.  I resisted the temptation to say that anyone falling the full height of Yellow Walls probably wouldn't be in great shape to do anything!
I was linked to Rachel by 2 way radio and Adrian lowered me into position half way down the steepest part of the cliff.  It took a while for the camera team to be happy about various technical stuff I really didn't understand but fortunately, just as I was becoming conscious of losing the feeling in my legs, we were ready to roll.
The filming of this part took quite a while.  I climbed and I fell off.  I climbed and fell off some more.  Rachel kept asking me to fall further, more dramatically or with more flailing arms and legs.  I tried to oblige and eventually she was happy.
The afternoon scenes focussed on the actors lowering over the lip of the cliff and climbing back over the top - lots and lots of times.  I wasn't really aware just how many angles and takes are required when filming each scene but it was engrossing to watch the professionalism of the actors as they patiently went over each section and tweaked their performance.  Fortunately, as the sun set over a stunning Gogarth day, Rachel declared it a wrap.
We enjoyed some celebratory beers and discussed some of the footage. It had been a successful day.  Rachel now needed a venue for some close up filming of the Dr Watson character climbing down the cliff.  This was going to be filmed from below so Gogarth was too difficult to access.  I thought the Llanberis Pass would be great for accessibility but was concerned the setting looked nothing like Gogarth.  The camera team said it would be fine as the editing process would sort out colour differences and the close up shots would only show the background as a blur.  Llanberis Pass it was.
Fortunately the following day dawned bright and clear again.  While we set up the various ropes the team got to work.  The laybys along the pass were again lined with crew vehicles and, after a few 'interesting' minutes in the lead actors camper van fitting a harness under his trousers, we were ready to roll.
It was fascinating to see the team teasing out the best possible footage and their attention to detail was admirable.  Subtle tweaks to camera positions, changes to the way the actors said certain words, a close up on a slipping foot or a tumbling stone.  No detail was overlooked.
Sure enough, when I watched the finished film some months later, the strikingly different venues were very hard to spot, the rope looked aged and the hat covered helmet looked just like the lead actors hair.  I was really pleased with the results.
Some weeks later I got a call from Rachel to thank us for our help with the film and she said she'd loved working in Wales and the warmth of the Welsh people.  Hopefully her team will be back for more. Maybe next time we can have Sherlock goes winter climbing?