So yesterday I did something that I haven’t done for a couple of years, something incredibly exciting… I picked up my camera and made a film.
At least, I shot a film, the more lengthy editing part is still to come, and goodness knows when I’ll fit that in!
In all honesty, it was the last distraction I needed: we’re super busy, I have so much paperwork to do and so many numbers to crunch (I’m not good at crunching numbers, which is probably why I procrastinate about it, and I’m here blogging not crunching numbers).
My camera has been well and truly parked for a little while now. I wrote more here about my career in television, but my last proper television job was back in 2015, when I was tasked with making a documentary series for Channel 5 about a vet. The commissioning editor wanted a series about a general vet who literally cared for all creatures great and small – basically he wanted a modern-day James Herriot – The Yorkshire Vet was born.
James Herriot’s old mixed practice in the delightful market town of Thirsk was the target. The vets Julian Norton and Peter Wright were keen but nervous, understandably. They knew the area was going quiet, the generation who loved the books of James Herriott (real name Alf Wight) were dying off and no one was replacing them. The World of James Herriot Museum was getting fewer visitors. The spotlight of a nationwide television show could do wonders for the local economy, as well as being a fun adventure for them.
But they had real fears of being stitched up, that we might have an alterior motive, that we would be a bunch of townies who wouldn’t understand them.
I drove off to Thirsk with the instructions to gain their trust, win them over and make the series happen. As a massive fan of the James Herriot books it was an incredibly emotional adventure for me, too. All those late nights spent hidden under my bedcovers, devouring by torchlight his stories of veterinary practice in the 1930s, gave me a great emotional connection to the happy innocence of my childhood. Walking into Skeldale Veterinary Practice, even if by 2015 it was in a modern business park on the outskirts of the town, was a highly-charged moment.
I did win them over, I got on immediately with both Peter and Julian, and Peter later told me his decision to go ahead was because of me. Which was incredibly flattering and satisfying, because it wasn’t easy, but it also carried huge responsibilities. If it didn’t go well for them, it would all be down to me. What a lot of pressure.
In the end, The Yorkshire Vet has been a massive hit, and continues to this day – I think they are now on the fourth series. Thirsk is busier than ever and the James Herriot Museum – well worth a visit – is busy again.
There were major issues behind the scenes of the production, and I really struggled with stress, ending up in hospital after one particularly exhausting week. Even despite this, if it had happened a few years earlier I would have considered staying on longer, because in so many ways it was a dream job.
But by 2015 I was needing to begin the next part of my life, and D and I had the opportunity to move and work together. So once I recovered we moved away to renovate the property that would eventually, unexpectedly, become our new home and the base for our new businesses. Life developing a property in a small village was a long way away from the hectic spin of filming, juggling all the different elements of stories all at different stages and outcomes. The Yorkshire Vet soon felt a very long way away.
In 2016, an environmental campaigner in the village heard I was a filmmaker and asked me to shoot three films about a village event. I did, collaborating with the event organiser, and they worked out really well, but shortly afterwards our property business and then bathroom businesses kicked off, and I had to make the decision to focus on one thing, firstly the property and then as it evolved, the bathrooms.
I had another request to film a village event in 2017 but had to turn it down, I just had too much on my plate. As ever, it’s not the filming that takes the time, it’s the editing. Plus the head space needed to make a film – you need to ensure you shoot what you need to make the film you want to end up with.
So my camera has been gathering dust – literally, given that we live in a renovation pit! – ever since. Until yesterday.
When I collaborated with the organiser of the 2016 events, I guess I planted a seed of an idea. She came round for the day several times and I could tell she enjoyed it. I even predicted that our little village would have a film studio at some point, with her involved. She is absolutely the most go-getter person imaginable, so I wasn’t surprised recently to see posters around the village for a film festival to be held in October. She left me a voicemail saying she would love me to be involved, if I’m not too busy.
I am really, but how could I not enter? I’m busy on the property/bathroom businesses now but I can’t just abandon my two decades working in television production – I can’t just waste the skills I have gained. It is entirely possible that I will be running a production company of some sort at some point in the not-too-far-distant future, and in that case I need people to know I am a filmmaker.
Every Wednesday a group of retired gents gather to tidy and tend to the ancient graveyard in the centre of the village. They’re a lovely, friendly bunch of nice blokes and I’ve often watched them enjoy their coffees after an hour or so spent mowing, strimming and raking. When I asked them if I could make a film about them they were delighted, to my delight, and so yesterday was filming day.
It’s almost two years since I filmed anything and picking up my camera was like hugging an old friend. My camera, a Canon XF-300 is probably quite dated now but it remains a fantastic, usable camera, great for general, content-driven filming, just like yesterday’s scenario. I went through the menu and remembered exactly what to do. I could have wept as all the old skills and habits came flooding back.
Filming people observationally is absolutely frickin magical!
To capture the beauty in life, the small moves, the frowns, the nuances of each person. To observe briefly how each person moves and does, and then to dawdle, luxuriously, over them with the lens, recording for posterity each move and each do, is breathtaking. Crashing in for details, actions, always aiming to be one step ahead of the edit. Lingering with long, slow shots that swallow the moment of their existence into a digital history. Recording the humour as they sit, sipping their coffees and sharing their memories of the friends they once knew who now lie in the ground beneath them.
What a fucking honour to be able to do so.
You can probably tell I enjoyed myself. For a morning I was back doing what I do well, and it was empowering and refreshing.
Don’t get me wrong, I am LIVING THE DREAM right now. I am so glad we took the opportunities that came our way and moved here, I am so glad we started the business. We are not in the clear yet, but we will be. I am SO GRATEFUL that I am not still working as a self shooting PD (producer director), whether on The Yorkshire Vet or another show, working myself into the ground making someone else rich. I am SO GRATEFUL I can choose to take a morning out to go filming.
To slip back, for one morning, was magical.
And now – because it will be October before we know it – I just need to find the time to edit it!!