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On the On The Black Hill - Then and Now.


On the black hill crew photo

Shooting the scene with Bob and Mike Gwilym and the Gypsy Moth aircraft flown by Hamish Moffat on Bredwardine bridge. We had no radio, so Hamish circled until the Location manager, Laurie Borg, showed him a large fluorescent orange square. This was a B camera set up by Harriet Cox (centre with white check shirt.) Andrew Grieve (director) is looking through the camera with Thaddeus O'Sullivan (DOP) leaning on the parapet. Chris Hall (1st AD) and John Murphy (Grip) Look on.


On The Black Hill was a low budget film made for the BFI in 1987. I became involved through a Camera Rental Company I was co-managing at the time. We did mostly commercials and I thought that a movie would boost our credentials and give the company some movie experience. We gave production a good deal and I like to think that this enabled producer Jenny Howarth a better argument to shoot 35mm rather than Super 16mm, the obvious choice given the low budget. We shot on the all new Arriflex BL4 without video assist - the only person who saw what we were getting on the day was Thaddeus, who lit and operated. Union rules decreed we had a camera operator, which was Harriet - so she did 2nd camera and 2nd unit when required on the spare camera body.

The project was interesting for me, not least because I'd read and enjoyed the book, written by Bruce Chatwin, it was my first movie as a fully-fledged crew member - I was the clapper loader - and the locations were in an area I knew particulry well as I'd spent my childhood in and around the area. The production Team chose the eight weeks with the greatest range of weather as the film itself covered eighty-odd years, so we wanted to depict all the seasons, and did. We had everything from driving rain to snow to bright sunshine. We basically shot through the Spring of 1987, a magical time in Wales as much then as it is now.

They'll be more about this later on, I'm guessing, but I had my trusty Olympus XA camera on me at all times, so have about 350 stills of crew and cast. I live here still, so pass some of the locations on a daily basis (before lockdown, obviously) and even occasionally stumble across ones that I'd forgotten. Anyway, below are a few pictures, now divided by 33 years.


On the black hill crew photo

This is Hay on Wye, with the Butter Market on the right. We had several days shooting in the town, the most memorable being a crowd scene of epic proportions (for us) that in the morning was the celebration of the relief of Mafeking (1899) and in the afternoon was a victory march after the 1st World War.

The butter market was used twice in a single day, too. Firstly with this market shot, where Amos Jones arranges for his son to be employed on a nearby farm to avoid conscription. I think those animals are sheep.

L-R: Chris Hall with bullhorn, Thaddeus, Grieve in blue hat, June Prinz with boom, Bob Peck and Gwilyms dressed in black, David Appleby with the stills camera and Libbie Barr, continuity.

You will note that Libbie is sitting on the lens box, which reveals the high respect we held for her: Camera boxes were emphatically NOT handy seats for crew. The thing on the right covered with a sheet of plastic was the mixing desk for Moya Burns. As a low budget film, production needed as much good usable direct sound as possible. Dubbing dialogue later on is expensive.

On the black hill crew photo

The same scene 33 years later. The 'Playpen' toy and nursery shop is now an antiques dealership, and the butchers shop a bookshop. Astonishingly, the roadway tile pattern is still the same, and aside from the design of the street lamp and a lick of paint, it's pretty much unchanged.


On the black hill crew photo

This is the same day a little later, as we prepare to shoot a night scene in the snow. Only that's not snow, it's dendritic salt, shovelled in by the art department who were the unsung heroes of the production. 80 years of change in 90 minutes, and on only 1.2M.

They borrowed almost every prop they could, and I don't recall a single set; everything was on location. One building we used in Brecon was held up with acroprops so it didn't collapse while we were in it. The reason we used this location, I imagine, was firstly it looks good, but second, it's a pedestrian thoroughfare - no stopping traffic to hold up the proceedings.


On the black hill crew photo

You can see the relaxed air to the set on this morning - it was a pony day, and they take a while to wrangle. The lady in the red shoes on the right is Irene Thomas, who supplied the animals - riding horses, pony and traps, stuff like that.

I think we used this location twice, the second time set in the fifties when it was lived in by a brief amour of one of the Jones boys; they're about to ride past and this is what we're waiting for.

L-R: June, Moya, Thaddeus, Harriet, Graham Hazard, the 2nd focus puller we had after the first had a little trouble with the Zeiss lens at f1.4 (which gives a very narrow depth of field; challenging to keep in focus). Graham was strict old school, and wouldn't be fazed by the technical issues involved.

In the fawn puffa jacket is Andrew Grieve, pacing impatiently, as he often did. Money and time were short, and frustrations often ran high. In the blue is Cords Hardy, 3rd Assistant Director; she was always running about in an energetic manner, her bright and cheerful demeanour always welcome when morale started to ebb.


On the black hill crew photo

The same scene in 2020. This is on the hill out of Lowes, a couple of miles from Hay on Wye. The little house is still unlived in, and doesn't look as if it's had much maintenance in the 33 years. The building on the right in 1987 was a barn, but is now residential - they steepened the pitch when it was reroofed. I think I'm a little to the left on the modern picture - the tree on the horizon, just slightly larger, is in the wrong place, and I can't see the house in the background - where lives a friend of mine.


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