My youngest son, now in his early thirties, is a great forager of the internet and digger-up therefrom of nuggets of one sort or another. The other day he sent me a number of links to a few of his recent unearthings which he said he thought might interest me but which he did not identify. I followed them and was both stunned and flattered. Each one pointed to or referred to a very short television film I directed a long time ago, which I had thought little about from its completion up to today, but which has caused, and apparently still is causing, a considerable stir in certain circles.
The script for this film was sent to me one day during my time as a film director working for one of the many film companies which lived and lurked in almost every street and alleyway in London’s Soho at that time. It had been written by Christine Hermon, a Producer at what was then the Central Office of Information and for whom I had done quite a lot of television work. I was asked if I would read it with a view to directing it. It was to be a 90 second public information film for television. These short films – popularly known in the business as ‘fillers’ – were, unlike television commercials, transmitted for free and usually at times when there were vacant slots in the TV contractors’ commercials schedules. They have since acquired a rather unexpected popularity. Compilation DVD’s have been put together, reflecting the affectionate nostalgia with which they were often regarded, as indeed they apparently still are, especially – though by no means uniquely – by adults recalling them as part of their childhood.
Many of them were aimed specifically at children. This one was. It was designed to warn of the dangers of playing by stretches of water such as disused gravel pits etc. where there were likely to be underwater hazards. I read it and got a bit of a shock. Gone was the gentle cajoling of Rolf Harris who had recently appeared in a public information film aimed at persuading children to learn to swim. This one plumbed the darkness; it set out to scare. It featured an ominous, black-hooded figure – the ‘spirit of dark and lonely water’ – who, when children were playing by potentially dangerous water, appeared in the vicinity of, though unseen by, the playing youngsters as a harbinger of death and disaster. And sure enough, death and disaster follow.
I was intrigued and impressed. I had never seen a script for a ‘filler’ which in my opinion hit where it hurt in quite such an appropriate and powerful way. And it gave a lot of creative opportunities to me as director – something you more often than not had to fight for. It was the case then and is perhaps even more so today that those who commission films play safe when the chips go down. The Central Office of Information certainly weren’t playing this one safe. In fact, there were those who thought they were embarking on an irresponsible, even foolhardy enterprise. The film was nevertheless commissioned and cast. Locations were picked and we filmed for two days.
The first day was spent beside a rank and odorous stretch of water in a field a few miles north of London. Of the two problems we had that day that stand out in my memory, the first was the difficulties we had in constructing, putting in place and then stabilising a wooden platform for our hooded figure to stand on in the water. I wanted it set so that its top was just a millimetre or two below the surface. That way, when our man stood on it, it appeared from the camera’s point of view some distance away that he was actually standing on the surface of the water.
The second problem was more intractable. To give the thing some heightened atmosphere I wanted to drift smoke like swirling mist around this ominous, hooded figure who appeared to be walking on water. With tools designed for the purpose it’s easy enough for the technicians to blast smoke all over the place. What you have no control over however is the wind. A gentle breeze is enough to ruin the effect. Which it did many times. Everything would be set just right, I’d give the order to start filming. Then suddenly little more than a zephyr would spring up and the smoke was away across the fields. But – as happens most times – we got it in the end, and I think the result is pretty convincing.
The second day was spent at a flooded gravel pit not far from London’s Heathrow Airport. We’d brought in a truck-load of old cookers, fridges, a rusted car body etc. to illustrate the sort of hazards which can exist in such waters. It was a cold day, and the poor lad who actually played the drowning boy was genuinely pretty cold when we finally fished him out. The proximity to Heathrow can be heard on the sound-track – on the long tracking shot past the rusted cookers etc. you can just hear the engine of a jet on its final approach.
The shot film was edited, the soundtrack recorded using the wondrously creepy tones of Donald Pleasance, and the finished article delivered to the TV stations. None of us who worked on it had any idea the effect our efforts were going to have on so many people for so long.
‘Dark and Lonely Water’ is, even now, collecting comments almost by the day on YouTube where it has achieved virtual cult status. I am, naturally, flattered and pleased. As I’ve said here before – that’s what you make a film for – to connect. Not everyone is going to agree that scaring kids is the best way to get them to take certain life lessons seriously. And judging from at least one recent comment, it had the opposite effect – a man who remembered it from his childhood and said it so terrified him that it put him off swimming for the rest of his life! But most comments pay tribute to its scariness and the power of its message.
This incident has brought home to me in an unusual and graphic way how little we know at the time of the effect our actions may have on others. To me those two days way back in the seventies were just another two days’ filming – albeit enjoyable ones. But when they were done they were done and one moved on to the next and ‘Dark and Lonely Water’ sank into the background along with all the others one had made. But buried within the memories of people I had never met and never would, it lived on. And still does. I’m pleased about that.
For those who are interested, here are some of the links my son sent me. The film itself is viewable in the last two.