Friday, 2 October 2015

The Making of 'The Bat and the Wicked'

Stills from the Bat and the Wicked: Climbers Brian Hall and Rab Carrington
Predictably the first drop of rain splattered the windscreen as we left the M6 and crossed the Scottish border. Ahead, the lowering clouds promised more rain. Not for the first time I questioned the wisdom of going ahead with a project that could prove to be an embarrassing waste of money. The Yorkshire Arts Association had given us a substantial grant to make a film reconstructing the first ascent of The Bat on Ben Nevis, a climb immortalised in Robin Smith's classic article The Bat and the Wicked - recently reprinted in Games Climbers Play. The five of us involved, Rab Carrington, Brian Hall, Paul Nunn, Tony Riley and myself, had only one week together in the whole of the summer in which to shoot the film, and that was the first week in August, notoriously one of the wettest times of the year.

I had first approached Rab at Easter and asked him if he would be interested in acting/climbing the part of Robin Smith. His enthusiasm for the project was tempered by two things: having to fall off in front of a camera, and the prospect of shaving his beard and having his hair cut in 1959 style, when the film was to be set. Rab voiced his misgivings the day before he went soloing at Froggatt. Visiting him in the Hallamshire Hospital the following evening as he nursed a broken wrist and knee, I couldn't help feeling that he had taken the audition a little too seriously.

But Rab is incredibly determined and by rigorous training he managed to get himself fit in time for Scotland. His second objection was conclusively overruled by Sue, whose desire to see her husband immortalised on the silver screen resulted in such a drastic change in his appearance that Keith Myhill talked to him for ten minutes in the Moon without recognising him! Brian Hall, who was to play the role of Dougal Heston, was shamed into sub-mission in Fort William where an equally ruthless transformation took place. Before we left for the Ben we visited Hamish MacInnes in Glencoe, ostensibly to ask the Old Fox for advice, but in reality to borrow as much rope as we could lay our hands on, for it was obvious that the project was an almost expedition-sized target and a lot of gear would be needed. He also supplied us with an antique pair of PAs that he had loaned Robin Smith for the original ascent. This seemed a good omen and driving back to Fort William it actually stopped raining.

Surveying the mountain of film and climbing gear to be carried up the Alit a'Mhuilinn, Rab observed caustically that it was more than the total taken to climb Jannu the previous year. The addition of camping gear made it even worse for we had been refused permission to use the CIC but on the grounds that film-making caused "gross inconvenience to the hut users". This was a strange point of view considering that we were trying to make a film about two of the most distinguished members of the SMC and that the hut was locked and empty on four out of the five nights we spent on the Ben. Presumably the "gross inconvenience" would have been to ourselves, but it was hard to accept that as we foundered up through the bogs with huge rucksacks twice in the same day. (For all those like me who find the walk to the hut gruelling in winter, I can offer the consolation that it is even worse in summer.

Tuesday morning saw us sorting out the shambles of film and climbing gear and carting it up to the foot of Carn Dearg Buttress to start work. Past experience had shown Tony and me that the early stages of a film are inevitably disjointed and contrived, but amazingly everything flowed from the start. With no previous filming experience Brian and Rab needed surprisingly little guidance.

 The major problem was the climb itself, still soaked from days of rain and drying much slower than our time would allow. Even the first straightforward pitch of Centurion needed some furtive "modern" protection inserted by Paul, whose job it was to supervise the climbing scenes and make sure that nobody killed themselves in a misplaced devotion to the cause of Art. Paul's efforts over the week in rigging stances removed the need to worry about anything except getting the shots right, and he put in a huge amount of unseen work in ensuring that everything ran smoothly. We came down in the evening delighted to have filmed the route as far as the bottom of the Hoodie Groove, a blank corner perched over the bottomless slabs and overhangs between Centurion and Sassenach. Rab and Brian had abseiled down a single rope over the huge roof of Sassenach.

We could therefore jumar up it next day without having to repeat the long traversing pitches across from Centurion. This proved to be more awkward than we thought, for after only one ascent Paul found the rope fraying badly on the lip of an overhang. He fixed a three hundred foot top rope to protect subsequent ascents, but as the fixed rope hung almost completely free it was perpetually spinning itself around the top rope, causing wild de-spinning tactics before a few feet of height could be gained. As one gained height the close-up view of Sassenach one second, and the distant view out over the Cam Mor Dearg Arete the next, was enough, as Tony said, to persuade those who see jumaring as a soft option to stick to leading their E5s! There was no room for both Tony and me at the bottom of the Hoodie Groove, so Tony filmed from the ground while I squatted in a cocoon of rope filming Brian as he attempted to lead the groove in its original form — by lassoing a sling on a tiny spike on the left wall, which is probably harder than doing it free. I had visions of using vast quantities of film as he failed to loop the sling but luckily he managed it after only three or four attempts.

By the time he and Rab had climbed the groove we had taken all day to film a mere forty feet of climbing. Our euphoria of the previous day was further diminished by the appearance of the great corner above; the whole film depended on climbing the thing. It was still streaked with water and covered in brown fungus of indeterminate origin. That evening we had a rethink of tactics and decided that Brian and Rab should go up on their own and "ascend" the corner by fair means or foul, unencumbered by us filming. Tony and I would stay at the bottom and get whatever long shots were possible, while Paul would go down to Fort William to buy more food in case we needed to stay on another day or two, and a bottle or two of something which we needed anyway. The weather throughout our stay was behaving in a most peculiar manner.

It never actually rained on Cam Dearg but apparently was doing so almost everywhere else in sight. Every evening it would clear as if by magic to produce quite nauseatingly beautiful sunsets. Rab found the amount of still and movie film exposed quite hilarious and decided it was all a plot by Kodak to boost their profits. Thursday passed according to our new plan and Friday saw us assembled at the foot of the Buttress in varying degrees of tension. Brian and Rab had forced their way up the corner the previous day and knew what was in store for them. Paul went up the ropes first to the top of the corner to supervise the action and also take a camera to film downwards. It was Tony's turn to go up, while I would film from the ground using the big Arriflex camera. Brian and Rab were wearing full Troll body harnesses under their ancient and tatty anoraks and sweaters. With the old nylon ropes tied into them and then retied around their waists they looked suitably authentic, while at the same time minimising their chances of injury from what they were about to do.

 Unfortunately helmets were not used much in 1959, but we reckoned that the falls down the corner would be in space and head injuries were unlikely — we hoped. Before Tony set off he whispered_to me, "Would you throw yourself off up there —just to be in a film?" "No," I replied, trying not to sound long-winded. "Neither would I," he muttered as he launched off up the spinning ropes. Two hours later we were all set up. High above, Brian was at the point sixty feet up the corner where Haston had taken his famous fall: " a black and bat like shape came hurtling over the roof with legs splayed like webbed wings and hands hooked like a vampire "

"Everyone ready? Okay Brian, action!" For once the word meant what it said and after a moment's frantic scrabbling Brian parted company with the rock and hurtled down the corner — further than any of us had anticipated as he ended up only feet above Tony's lens. "Everything okay. God, that was impressive!" I felt sorry for Rab. Ever since his unplanned rehearsal at Froggatt I sensed he wasn't relishing the next few moments and Brian's fall couldn't have been too reassuring. Now he would have to go up and do it himself — twice! Another longer wait while belays and camera positions were sorted out before Rab, perched above the roof halfway up the corner, launched off into fresh air. 

Jimmy Marshall's classic shot of Robin Smith
His falls were shorter but seemed just as frightening, perhaps because they were over before the mind had time to register what was happening. I felt a huge weight off my mind; nobody hurt and all three falls on film. The rest was an anticlimax until Tony pulled off a stroke of genius by dropping a camera, suitably padded with foam rubber and polystyrene (unlike the climbers), down the corner to give a climber's eye view of the fall. The rest of the film was made in a haze of elation and shattered reaction to five days of non-stop and demanding work. On Saturday we finished, splashed down through the bogs for the last time and on Sunday awoke with hangovers to torrential rain sweeping the whole of Scotland. The gamble had paid off, but only just. 

Jim Curran: First Published in crags 24/April/May 1980.