Ellie Harrison: The hazards of filming in extreme weather
Ellie Harrison recounts the challenge of filming in the eye of last year’s Beast from the East
There are companies that will take your money to forecast the weather on your wedding day, even if it’s next year. Our newspapers seem to have distant meteorological insights, too, if their headlines about “scorchers” and “big freeze chaos” are to be feared.
Others think we’re forewarned by which bud breaks first: the oak or the ash. But when I consulted kindly sage and Countryfile weatherman John Hammond, he shook his head: “Weather forecasting is about seeing where molecules in the atmosphere are at any one time and trying to predict where those molecules will be a minute, and hours, later”. Therefore, consider yourself lucky the Countryfile weather forecast (often described by viewers as “my favourite bit of the programme”; to which the team thinks, “thank you, it’s the only bit we don’t make”) stretches out all the way to next weekend.
So, as I write this a few weeks ahead, I want to caveat the theme by saying I have no idea what the weather will be doing in February. Yet our recollection is good enough, and the event big enough for me to dedicate this to the memory of the Beast from the East, but one short year ago. And to the treat of filming in snow.
In the eye of the storm
There were a couple more phone calls than normal from the Countryfile office to preempt the challenge of getting to west Wales and into the storm, for what was optimistically going to be a RIB-boat ride to Skomer Island followed by a light aircraft trip to survey the coastline. Within 24 hours of being on location, every carefully researched and folder-full-of-paperwork story had fallen down. On the morning of the shoot we woke up to snow, ice and a day full of winging it. With luck, we were warmly received by a goat-farming family who allowed us to film in their barns, and we were confident enough we had enough time to snatch some short phone-filmed pieces for Twitter.
The next day, the weather had deteriorated: it took an hour to get everyone’s car out of the hotel car park and the roads were treacherous. Nobody in the crew wanted to seem faint-hearted and cry off; we’re freelancers and it isn’t in our culture. The decision was made to film the final piece to camera so at least the cornerstones of the story would be in place. Normally, it’s a two-hander with Matt, who, the previous night on The One Show, had a live video link-up with a Russian meteorologist that went: “D’you know, in the UK we’re calling it the ‘Beast from the East’”. To which she protested, “But we are not beasts”, in her soft Russian accent. He was snowed in at home so we filmed a goodbye via video call, my hands going blue holding the device.
Finally, the keystone piece: that “all-important weather link”. We stood at the edge of the waves and on “action”, marvelled at the sea wall that had been smashed up the previous night, before continuing... “But if you’re thinking of getting out and about this week, you’ll want to know what the weather has in store…” just as the Search and Rescue team pulled up to point out that masonry from the wall was still being hurled around at head height, had just dented the bonnet of our car, and didn’t we think we ought to move out of the way? The director finally called it.
Trying to ensure we’d get hired again, the crew all agreed that we would definitely film in any weather conditions, but we wouldn’t drive in them. Of the many pages of risk assessment written each week, driving is still the most dangerous thing we do.
I crawled along the M4 at 35mph, attempted to drive up my steep valley before sliding back down again, parking by a café and walking the last three miles home. The producers bought me flowers to say thank you, which was kind but premature, having not yet seen the rushes and how little we actually filmed.
Sure enough, when I came to add the voice-over on the edited film two weeks later, ready for prime-time viewing on a Sunday night, there was the bright new future of TV production: the raw piece to camera filmed on the researcher’s smartphone. It’s a forecast that most agree on, the democratisation of storytelling to a world audience. And I look forward to hearing yours.