‘Go back to a time before the invention of artificial light and experience a world petrified in the pitch of darkness…when fear ruled the night. Throughout the ages, real and imagined terror existed in the absence of light, and nightime was anything but relaxing. Our predecessors cowered in caves to keep from being eaten alive. During the Middle Ages, brutal bandits went on the prowl and roadside ditches became death traps.
Also in years past, the devil, werewolves and vampires were staunchly believed to stalk the night. With no artificial light, the black night sky of Galileo’s gaze could illuminate every star without a telescope.
This chilling special explores all the reasons why the dark was so feared throughout the eras. It takes you around the globe to places where real night still exits, and examines our modern-day fear factor when the lights go out during blackouts’.
The History Channel 2010
This little adventure began way back on the 12th of November 2008 when I received an email from somebody purporting to be a segment producer for the History Channel in Los Angeles. Basically he was asking for my contact number in order to chat over some Dartmoor legends which he wanted to use in a forthcoming documentary – yeah right! So to see how far this wind-up was going to go I replied to the request, about a week later the house phone rang and lo and behold there was this man explaining about his project and how he had found my website and what did I think about certain legends. The concept of this project was to explore what made people afraid of the dark and was to involve locations all around the world, in the UK this was to be Scotland and Dartmoor which would be the link back for this two part documentary.
Well over several subsequent telephone conversations we went through some of the legends, worked out the time schedule for visiting the related locations and basically the logistics of filming. There were also some locations where the Dartmoor National Park Authority did not want them to film for fear of attracting too many visitors. I did suggest to film there anyway as by the time the thing was screened they would all be back in the USA but that was kicked straight into touch.
Having done all that I was then asked if I would be prepared to be one of the narrators for the documentary and act as a local guide for the film crew, well it would have been rude not to – Hollywood here I come!
It was finally decided that the locations that I was to be initially involved with were; Wistman’s Wood, Postbridge, Buckfastleigh Church and Poundsgate. I did have one slight reservation, namely the time of year they wanted to shoot the documentary – like early January. I did point out that the weather on Dartmoor at that time of year would be decidedly ‘changeable’ to say the least but in true Hollywood style I was told, ‘we shoot whatever the weather’, well ok you were warned. I was told that a hotel room would be provided and all expenses paid so I suggested we stayed in a bit a luxury at the Two Bridges Hotel – very nice thank you very much. I duly arrived at the hotel on January the 12th 2009 and was promptly told that the hotel was overbooked and I was down at the Bedford Hotel in Tavistock but could I be back at Two Bridges early the next morning.
The following day I drove back up to the hotel and could not help noticing that the skies over Staple Tors were that unique Dartmoor smudgy grey with the mist beginning to roll across the moor. On reaching Two Bridges the mist was down and full of that fine, deep penetrating rain, perfect day for filming. The film crew were already at breakfast when I was introduced to the American delegation which comprised of Lisa Silver (executive producer), Brandy Angel, yes honest and no she hadn’t appeared in some dodgy films, (camera something or other) and a very nice cameraman whose name I can’t recall, sorry mate. Along with these came Jodie, Geoff and Kyle who were the Uk sound and lighting crew under the command of Tiggy Trethowen. These guys have worked on no end of familiar TV shows such as the Antique Road Show, Lark Rise to Candleford, Casualty, Bear Grylls etc, in other words they knew their stuff (and were a great laugh).
Having had breakfast the first bit of filming they wanted to do was that of a tor, however it had to be fairly near the road as the filming equipment was too heavy to carry which meant Fur Tor was out of the question. Luckily Combestone Tor wasn’t so off we trucked in convoy. Having guided them safely to the tor (wow) my job was done and so all I could do was find some shelter and watch the camera guy filming granite and the sound man recording the wind – for half an hour. I did suggest that with the mist etc an evocative shot might be that of the nearby Horn’s Cross but that was deemed too far away – hmm, ok. For a fleeting moment I did think of mentioning that just a few hundred yards down the road was the infamously haunted Hangman’s Pit but then again it was obvious that they were far too enthralled with the tor and the wind.
That afternoon was my screen debut at Wistman’s Wood except by then it was lashing down and blowing a gale. I was asked to do a risk assessment for the journey to the wood and after mentioning, getting lost in the mist, turning ankles on slippy rocks, getting bitten by the numerous adders that infested the wood, slipping into a bottomless bog (yes I know there are no bogs on the way to Wistman’s but it all added to the fun) etc etc the crew were told to stick very closely to me.
Having lugged, cameras, sound recording equipment, a huge first aid kit and numerous flasks of coffee up to Wistman’s Wood it was time to start filming. I was instructed to describe what it would have been like centuries ago when a traveller walked through the wood at night and what perils they faced. ‘Actually, nobody would have walked through the wood they walked around it’, I explained. They were having none of it, I was to say about the devil, ghostly monks, the Wisht Hounds and every other supernatural horror known to man. I then tried to explain that although those things did strike dread into some people they didn’t actually exist and were not physical perils – apparently according to Wholly Cow Productions they did – ok, consider myself told. Then followed retake after retake after retake – ‘there is a brand logo showing on his jacket, this angle isn’t right, that angle isn’t right, maybe if he stood by that boulder, no the mossy boulder is better’, etc etc. Then followed another hour of close-ups of moss, boulders, oak trees, sound recording of the wind blowing through the trees, the raindrops dripping off the branches etc etc. By this time everyone was cold, wet, miserable and ready to deck the fastidious cameraman.
The next location required a rowan tree with berries on it, sorry love not In January so we settled for the next best thing, a rowan tree with easy access – cue Postbridge visitor’s centre car park. This time a local botanist was telling the tales stood infront of a rowan tree behind which was a field of cows. All went well for the first few seconds but then being a cold winter’s afternoon the farmer began to feed his cows who became quite vocal to say the least. Take one, bellow, bellow, bellow …., take thirty five, bellow, bellow, bellow, by now said executive producer had dispatched the assistant producer to ‘shut the cows up’. Ever tried to mute 20 odd hungry South Devon cows – no chance. Next direction, could I go to the farm and get the farmer to shut them up – no I couldn’t!
The night shoot was again at Postbridge which involved tales of night travel on the moor. However, a monk’s habit was produced, along with a lantern and the idea was to film this figure crossing the old clapper bridge in what was virtually pitch blackness. The request then went out for a volunteer to dress up as the monk and it soon became clear why everyone was looking at me. Ever tried crossing Postbridge clapper in the dark? not easy, especially when you apparently have to do it in a certain way. Luckily after the first take it was decided the habit was too short for me and my jeans were showing out of the bottom so the task went to another unfortunate soul who spent the next hour skidding across the slippery granite slabs. Oh and there was an incident when a driver nearly ploughed into the road bridge because the filming spotlights had dazzled him as he came over the hump – all in all a very arduous night.
The next day’s shooting schedule was to be a visit to a Dartmoor Longhouse followed be me narrating the story of the Devil’s visit to the Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate finishing up with Buckfastleigh church and the vicar telling the story of the devil worshippers (hmm not a good idea), ending with a night shoot of the lane running beside the church. We all arrived at the Dartmoor longhouse much to the surprise of a very irate owner who knew nothing about our visit. Luckily the farmer did, so another hour was spent filming various aspects here. I then led the convoy over to the Tavistock Arms only to be greeted by the barmaid who knew nothing of our plans and an absent landlord. The idea here was to portray the story of how the Devil visited the inn on his way to demolish Widecombe Church, he ordered some ale and paid for it in gold coins but having drunk his fill the locals noticed his cloven hooves as he left. Once he had closed the door the gold coins turned to dead leaves or things to that effect. Anyway firstly the bar had to be correct and according to Hollywood he would have drunk out of a tankard, no tankard, oh there’s one on the wall, great, perfect. ‘Uh, hang on’, I ventured, three hundred years ago they did not have beer engines, the ale would have been served in a jug or straight from the barrel’. It then took about five minutes to convince them that in fact the beer pumps were fixed and couldn’t be taken down. Ok, improvise with the shot, we now need a man behind the bar (barmaid not authentic and too busy) who can collect the coins put down the tankard then in another shot replace the coins with dead leaves. Fine, I was sent behind the bar to play the bit part (literally, just a hand shot), now the unfortunate thing was that the only place in the bar where the correct shot could be taken was at a table where a couple had just began to tuck into their pie and chips – no problem, move them. Take one, no good I had not taken off my rings, Take two, picked the coins up too quickly, Take Ninety two replaced the leaves before the shot of the door closing etc, etc. Next came the highlight of the day, a sandwich and beer on expenses in the bar – whoo hoo.
Having supped and dined the production then moved over to Buckfastleigh in order to film the church and tell the tale of the evil Squire Cabell. We arrived in the rain, set up in the rain and awaited the arrival of the vicar in the rain, half an hour later – no vicar. Eventually the vicar turned up to see that everything was running smoothly only to be told that he was expected to narrate the story of the evil squire – yeah right, that I really wanted to see. Slight problem, considering he was a man of the cloth and in light of the numerous attacks of vandalism to his church supposedly perpetrated by Devil worshipers he declined the offer and left the scene. I must admit I don’t blame him, after all this was a bit insensitive to say the least. To say the executive producer was none too pleased would be an understatement, somebody actually said the forbidden word .. NO! Again, I was volunteered for the part.
By the time it came to the night shoot the mist was down and the rain continued to fall, great, once again, cold wet and bored. The next tale I had to relate was how bandits and highway men would string ropes across the roads to trip travellers up and then mug them. Once again, a new one on me – don’t worry about it just tell the story I was told, so I did, about twenty times, Yes wrong lighting, angles etc, etc. Just imagine, pelting with rain, stumbling around a dark lane with a torrent pouring down the middle and a dazzling spotlight burning out your retinas. Finally I heard those magical words – it’s a wrap! By then everybody just wanted to get back to Two Bridges but unfortunately as I led the convoy up onto Holne Moor the visibility in the mist was down to about ten feet. Ironically, the other drivers actually did become ‘Afraid of the Dark’ and got a real taste of what travellers had to face when crossing the moor in such conditions. The only difference between then and now was that they probabaly got there quicker, these drivers were simply not going to go any faster than five miles an hour.
Eventually we returned to the hotel and having spent three wet, cold and boring days stood around doing very little it was time for the whole crew to get paid. One by one they were summoned into a small room to collect their rewards, one by one they came out until all had visited the cashier, all except one – me. Well apparently my rewards were to be a Wholly Cow baseball cap and being able to spend two nights in a hotel all expenses paid. Never mind the fact that I do that every week as part of my job and I look stupid in baseball caps and I had taken three days holiday to be there. Would I do it again? Definately not, it was nice to have had the experience which was one many people wouldn’t get and I got to strut around with a walkie talkie. But next time I want to get wet, cold and bored witless I will simply go a sit for three days at the nearest traffic lights in the rain and watch them change.
The next morning my final task was to escort the producers from Two Bridges back onto the A30, once again the mist was down which unfortunately gave another opportunity for some shots of the ‘swirling miasma’. I did suggest that if there had to be more filming perhaps some really atmospheric footage could be shot at the Merrivale stone rows but no the roadside was plenty good enough, yeah, but no, but yeah, the rows are virtually at the roadside – blank faces.
And do you want to know the real bummer, despite being promised faithfully that I would be told the date when the documentary was screened, I wasn’t and it went out in July 2010 and I missed it – bastards. However, I can by the DVD from the History Channel at a cost of $60 including postage and package, the P & P actually comes to more than the DVD? Oh and the reason I wasn’t allowed to write about this little fiasco any sooner was that I had to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t until it had been screened and even then I shouldn’t – yeah right.
Stills from the documentary
Medieval Expert ??
The Tavistock Inn
The Devil’s Ale
The Final Credits
I have now managed to get a downloaded copy of the documentary (thanks Kob!) and have watched the whole production which I suppose is quite entertaining. It does seem that the Americans have this obsession with medieval England which kind of distorts the legendary aspects of Dartmoor. It certainly brings home a few truths like too much Guinness and time for the Grecian 2000, it was also fascinating to learn that I am now a ‘medieval expert’, when did that happen?