“Blencathra took over my life. It appeared to be an obsession. My family life and income was affected. It was all consuming. It wasn’t uncommon I’d be seen exhausted, almost ruined in appearance. Was it worth it? I think so. Folks will see soon I guess.”
At the beginning of March, award winning film-maker Terry Abraham’s latest adventure came to an end. When he finished filming his next documentary: Life of Mountain: Blencathra – the follow-up to 2014’s breakthrough film about Scafell Pike (which also features in my forthcoming book, An A-Z of Cumbria & the Lake District on Film). In the following interview he gives invaluable insights into his working methods along with some heartfelt advice for budding film-makers too. There is also a spoiler-free review of the film intermingled with Terry’s answers.
Coming in at two hours in length, it is the second in a trilogy about iconic Lake District mountains, with the prospect of his final film on Helvellyn bringing the curtain down on a remarkable series in 2018. Terry’s working methods are often solitary, as he spends days and nights out under the stars in order to capture extraordinary footage of mountain environments through the seasons. His first Scafell film showed events through a calendar year, whilst highlighting the work of National Trust Rangers, Wasdale Mountain Rescue and local farmers. Along with contributions from TV broadcasters and presenters, such as: Eric Robson, David Powell Thompson, mountaineer Alan Hinkes OBE and legendary fellrunner Joss Naylor MBE to name only a few. In the new film he has followed a similar format – but why did he choose Blencathra?
TA: I had planned on beginning Helvellyn this year, but broadcaster and friend Eric Robson co-erced me into considering Blencathra instead. His thoughts were it was a topical fell at the moment given it’s ongoing sale and that it’s a popular Lakeland peak. He also suggested I should strike while the iron was hot after the success of my Scafells documentary. I went out to camp on Souther Fell for a night to take stock and think about it and while out and about capturing scenes on camera I was bitten by the bug and decided I was physically and mentally ready to tackle another huge project featuring Blencathra.
When did you start filming and how long did it take?
TA: I essentially began filming while on my camp on Souther Fell! That was in February 2015. I completed all principal filming in March 2016 and I’ve been frantically editing the film since.
Does it follow the same formula (filming a calendar year) as in your previous Scafell film?
TA: Advance previews and press reviews describe the finished film as a feature of two halves. This was deliberately so on my part. I wanted a sense of continuation from the Scafell film (it is after all part of a trilogy I have in mind) to bring some familiarity for viewers. Equally, I was keen to make Blencathra a stand alone documentary, it is a different fell and area after all. I also had many ideas I never got round to executing in Scafell Pike which I implemented in the second half of Blencathra. Indeed it is once again a year in the life of a mountain, but I hope viewers will appreciate the more intimate and human touch to the film.
There is certainly an underlying melancholic atmosphere to some of the spectacular landscape shots, which appear almost as brooding vignettes, perhaps a forerunner to some of the events covered in the film’s latter stages. Terry’s familiar time-lapse sequences also return, adding a nice change of pace to contrast with the stories and contributions of local people living and working under the shadow of the mountain. This time around Terry has managed to incorporate some spectacular aerial footage, opening up the possibility to explore the vast lump of Ordovician rock from many different angles.
From the teaser trailers there is some spectacular aerial footage – how did you manage to get this?
TA: A local business who specialise in aerial filming for TV and film got in touch with me after watching Scafell Pike on the BBC. We got chatting and hence they’ve been involved with me ever since. They can capture aerial scenes with cameras I can only dream of. All said I used a much cheaper and smaller drone for some of the more inaccessible shots in the film. Overall I’ve been keen for such scenes not to dominate in the documentary. They’re another tool to a means and I wanted them to enhance as opposed to overwhelm everything else I filmed from ground level.
The Scafell film featured a number of well known people associated with the Lake District – do they all return this time around & who else is featured?
TA: Not all but some. Partly for creative reasons and also because I have ideas for Helvellyn. Indeed some crop up again and more than once because I wanted to create a sense of continuation from Scafell Pike but also to subtly get across the sense of community and family that exists within Cumbria. Everybody knows everybody! There’s some new faces too for example Stuart Maconie and Ed Byrne who are both keen hillwalkers. That aside there’s a much stronger female presence in Blencathra and a great deal many more locals too. Once again it’s a reflection of the area.
You must have been filming when the devastating floods hit Cumbria last December – how did that affect you & have you portrayed any of those scenes in the film?
TA: I was around when the floods occurred and it was absolutely awful. Heart breaking. I was dumbstruck in truth and devastated to see the horrible effects of the storm on many friends in the area. Initially I wasn’t out with my cameras because I thought it would be distasteful to capture such scenes. But the locals all screamed at me to get it on video and include in Blencathra hoping it helps to prolong the memory with the wider public and realise the long term after effects of the storm. Instead of focusing on the wider area I chose to concentrate on one family. Hopefully the scenes will speak a thousand words for viewers and enable them to consider the many other people in the area who were overwhelmed by the floods.
Your have become well-known for using time-lapse footage in your films – have you used any new or special pieces of equipment to create a different look/atmosphere in this film?
TA: Nope. All the same kit I used before. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The only new kit I’ve used are two main video cameras which are in another league to what I used before. They’ve been fantastic and really do capture the fells brilliantly and vividly on video. Bar that, I’m in the same clothes, using the same kit as before except I’ve had more time to work on Blencathra than I did Scafell Pike. And I think that shows in the end result. Of course the experiences over the past three years and confidence has grown too!
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
TA: Just get out there and do it! Stop fannying about producing stylistic shorts trying to compete with peers. Content is king! Don’t be deterred. Chase the dream, make clear goals and go out and do it for yourself. No one else can help, no one else will wave a magic wand for you. Be bloody-minded and crack on. Those who know me well, will reveal I’m very determined and blood-minded. I don’t suffer fools lightly. Not now at least. If I have a shot or idea or film in my head, that’s it – I go out and get on with it even if the weather, money or support suggests I shouldn’t. They say you make your own luck in this world, and to a point I think that’s true if you get off your arse and get cracking. Other than that, you’re only as good as your last job. So luck does come into it. But keep at it and good things will and do happen. That is a fact. It’s not easy I’ll admit. It never is.
I’m sure even more good things await for Terry after this excellent film is released in May. Having more time to spend putting together his latest Lakeland documentary, it is clear he is now bearing all the hallmarks of an artist honing his craft. However, it must be said one man’s legacy echoes throughout, as Alfred Wainwright shrouds the mountain in a ghost-like mist (he dedicated over 3o pages to it in his Pictorial Guides). Similarly, an orchestral score from returning Scafell composer Freddie Hangoler weaves in and out forming a subtle bridge to all the stories and interviews. Overall, the film has a nice balance of lighthearted moments to contrast with present day pressures and anxieties. It is a fascinating watch and undoubtedly a fitting tribute to an ancient mountain and its connection with the people and land…
The film is due to premiere on the massive screen at Rheged, near Penrith on the 15th May for two screenings at 11am and 3pm. The latter is almost sold out. Terry will be in attendance for a photography talk at the 11am screening. There are also outdoor screenings planned for Threlkeld cricket club, Brockhole Visitor Centre and the Holmfirth Picturedrome.