Friday, 21 October 2016


Occasionally my filming work takes me far afield, and other times it can end up literally on my door step.

In 2006 in a community hall in Toronto, Canada, a group of enthusiasts created a "flashmob" dance routine to the music of Michael Jackson's Thriller, mainly as a fundraiser for charity. A flashmob is when a group of people, having choreographed a synchronised dance to music, appear suddenly at a large venue, say a railway station, or city square. Gradually the numbers grow in front of a surprised general public, until a large ensemble are dancing furiously. At the end they quietly disperse, and it was as if it never happened.

Encouraged by the popularity of this particular dance to this particular music, the original group decided to go for a world record attempt, to simultaneously perform the routine in as many different countries around the world as they could. They called the event Thrill The World. They achieved success in 2008, with 13 countries and 1500 people taking part. It is now an annual event with over 120 countries participating and approaching 10,000 people.

My Saturday film students have all been learning the dance routine over the past few weeks, and we are half way through shooting. In the edit all three age groups will be edited together to create one seamless piece, with all the students in homemade zombie costumes. But it has to have an opening and a closing section aside from the dancing, essentially the beginning and end of what the students know as beginning, middle and end of every movie ever made.

I knew I wanted a spooky looking sequence, and at first I was searching for a derelict mansion or the likes. Gradually I came round to searching for a castle, when it dawned on me that just a short distance from my house, is the ruin of Craigmillar Castle, an appropriate spooky-looking structure surrounded by woods, most of which were in their vibrant autumn colours.

The medieval castle is best known for its association with Mary Queen of Scots. She had fallen ill after giving birth to her son, the future James VI, and in late November 1566 she arrived at the castle to convalesce for a month. But it was while she was there that an evil pact was made, with or without her knowledge, to dispose of her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

It was fitting that almost exactly 450 years to the day, I found myself skirting its well preserved ramparts, looking for that evil-looking shot. Here's a still taken from the film:

On 29 October we will screen the finished Thriller video. Who knows, we may well appear somewhere with our own flashmob sometime soon.

Friday, 14 October 2016


As you probably know, I'm into film. The theatre has never drawn me very much, except for the big productions such as Les Miserable, Phantom of the Opera etc. But since the early part of this year I have been carrying out some freelance work for The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland's largest stage and soon to host Miss Saigon.

Good to have the connections and I always get a kick out of going in through the stage door. Because of my work for them I regularly get offered free tickets to current shows, with the compromise that I can't choose the performance or seating.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is running at the theatre at the moment, and who doesn't know the songs. As an aside I didn't know that it was originally a children's book written by none other than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Anyway, in familiar form free tickets were offered to me, albeit on a Friday afternoon. But this was a bit special, as two of the 10-year old girls who are members of the academy I teach at, had landed parts. As the show tours the country they bring in local children from wherever it is being staged, and these two girls were part of twelve chosen.

Very recently one of the films to win a Best Film in its category, Samantha Glamorous, had as its lead a girl called Stella. She has only been with the academy for a year and it was all new to her. Yet here she was, a little over 12 months later, on stage with comedian/actors Jason Manford and Phill Jupitus, together with singer/actress Claire Sweeney and Charlotte Wakefield.

I had to wait a while for the two girls Vaila and Stella to make an appearance, but not only did both girls do incredibly well for their first professional performance, but Stella had landed lines too!

It added a whole different dimension sitting there in the audience. And I had landed great seats, just three rows from the very front and bang in the middle!

At one point the show was stopped, not far from the end, and they brought the safety curtain down for a few minutes. I later found out that Chitty herself had overheated.

It was a packed theatre and I felt very proud of the girls performances. Maybe I had a little influence on their confidence over the past few months, but this experience will have been enormously beneficial for them.

Will they remember me when they're famous?

Friday, 7 October 2016


It's now just past one year exactly since I had to go through neurosurgery for a subdural haematoma, and though some would disagree, I'm back to being normal again. So much so that the past two to three months have seen me coming back up to the level of cycling I was at before.

On Sunday I was at a bit of a loose end, looking out of the window at a sunny day with calm winds. I had planned to do some work indoors but I couldn't waste this opportunity to get out on my bike, but where to go? Out came Google maps and I pondered the various options from my house. I decided on a trip east, to the town of Haddington and back, which is about 35 round trip, with a mixture of off-road cycle track along disused railroad tracks and quiet back roads.

I have cycled most of this route before with Pauline, but today I was on my own. I'm not known for my perfect navigation, and I had left without a map, relying on the cycle signposts being abundant.

Virtually all the way to Haddington, apart from the last few miles, it is all off-road. At times the surface deteriorated into mud, but nothing that stopped the bike moving. My favourite surface is a fine ground quarry dust, and when it's dry it's a great surface to barrel along on. The first part of my route follows the River Esk as it twists its way out of the town of Musselburgh, then onto Whitecraig to join cycle route 196. Within a short distance it becomes the Pencaitland Railway Walk, littered with information boards of a time long since passed, when railways played a bigger role for communities. One even told of how easy it had become, thanks to the railways, for emigrating families to travel to Edinburgh to start their sea journey to Australia.

After about five miles I passed the little village of Ormiston. On it's derelict railway platform the local community had created a "recycled garden". They grew all manner of what you would expect, except that the raised beds, sheds and fences were all made from recycled materials that would otherwise have ended up in landfill.

Each of the many people who had created a small plot, proudly displayed their name on a little sign.

Within just a couple of hours I reached the southern edge of Haddington and the River Tyne. So far I felt as if I had been accompanied by a Robin all the way, such was the unbroken melody of song I had heard. This was the end of Route 196 and the start of route 76 back to Edinburgh. Though it showed a distance of 22 miles I knew that was to the centre and my return journey would fall five miles short of this.

The first four miles was on a paved cycle route of exceptional quality, called the Haddington Longniddry Railway Walk. On this route the information boards were in the style of old railway signals, and they swung up for you to read information about the wildlife and so on, that you could expect to encounter. I thought it was a clever creation, as it not only was a tip-of-the-hat to the past, but it also protected the signs from the elements, thereby making them last longer.

Once at Longniddry it was very straight forward to get home, though back onto main roads, down to the edge of the Firth of Forth and along the coast back to Portobello.

And I never once got lost.

Friday, 30 September 2016


If you've been reading my blog for a while you may recall last year at this time I came upon a secret stash of wild blackberries. I returned again this year only to find that the crop was not that great. Many of the blackberries had not ripened and had simply withered away. I can only assume it is because of this extended warm period we have been experiencing. However, there was almost enough to fill a pie!

On the way home I stopped by the local community orchard and picked half a dozen small apples to add to the quantity of blackberries.

Now I had enough for a pie!

I went for a gluten free option. 12oz of gluten-free flour and 6 ounces of Stork marj were added to a bowl and rubbed through my fingers until a fine breadcrumbs texture was achieved. Using a tiny amount of water at a time, I worked the mixture until it formed into one lump of dough. I let it chill for half an hour in the fridge before rolling it out and lining a pie tin. The tricky part was getting it into the tray, as gluten-free pastry just breaks up if you try to lift it. Third time lucky. Then I "baked it blind", by putting greaseproof paper over the base and placing the empty shell case in the oven for about 15 minutes.

Once cooled, in went the chopped apples, a little caster sugar, the blackberries, a little more sugar, then the lid went on. Back in the oven for another 30 minutes.

The orchard was started a few years ago by the same organisation that runs the local community market on the first Saturday of every month. The area used to be known locally as the donkey field, as a retired donkey used to live there. It had long since passed, and the field, which is on a slope down to Brunstane Burn, had become badly overgrown. Taking control of the field from the council, the area was cleared, and since 2010 around 90 fruiting trees have been planted, including apples, pears, plums and cherries, focusing on unusual and old varieties. Currant and gooseberries bushes have also been planted, and together with a little more landscaping a hive of bees was introduced three years ago.

They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Well, I can't share it with you, but trust me, it is yummy. Or should I say was, as it was consumed within hours of leaving the oven!

Friday, 23 September 2016


In the mid 1800s the 6th Duke of Atholl, George Murray, resident in Blair Castle in the village of Blair Atholl, attempted to close probably the best glen in Scotland, Glen Tilt, running for 14 miles in a south westerly direction from the Cairngorms.

But thanks to the Scottish Rights of Way Society at the time he was unsuccessful. Just as well, as last weekend Pauline and I set off for a couple of days in that very area.

Normally we use trains to get to our outdoor destinations, but the train company in Scotland is so out of tune that we are rarely able to get our bicycles on the trains due to a lack of available space. Undeterred, we loaded the bikes into my van and headed for Pitlochry, 13 miles south of Blair Atholl and the start of Glen Tilt.

There was the familiar smell of autumn in the air as we set out from Pitlochry, and the temperature was perfect with blue skies overhead. Surprisingly though for this time of year the trees were showing no sign of turning into their autumn hues. Having left the van in Pitlochry, we pootled along on quiet little back roads  the dozen or so miles north west to Blair Atholl. Halfway we passed by the site of the Battle of Killecrankie. In 1689 the Jacobites were victorious over government troops, albeit with great losses on both sides of around 2,000 men.

Soon we were entering Blair Atholl on its southern edge, past Blair Castle and out north east for Glen Tilt. The majority of the route is good quality track, and so the going is easy and fairly quick. The first few miles wind through woods, with the River Tilt always on our right, cascading its way down to join the River Garry.

By the time we stopped for lunch we were already passed the halfway point. The sun shone as we sat and enjoyed our snacks in its warmth beside a small burn, flanked by native Rowan trees, heavy with their bright red berries.

The good quality track now started to deteriorate as we reached the end of the V-shaped glen. A narrow path continues on to the Cairngorm, but we were leaving it here to turn due east.

Right at this point here is an ornate suspension bridge easing the crossing of a fast, wide river coming down off the hills. Though attractive it looks completely out of place, and is known as the Bedford Bridge.

In 1879 an 18 year old lad called Francis John Bedford drowned at this spot. Having fought off the Duke's attempt to close the glen, the Scottish Rights of Way, together with contributions from friends, paid for a bridge to be built to commemorate this boys life, and exactly 130 years ago since it was built, we now used this magnificent structure to safely cross the river.

It was only mid afternoon when we decided to camp. The second section of our route would take us over to the next glen, and as far as we could deduce from the map there would not be many places to camp.

Tents set up and supper on the stove, we were joined by several hundred unwelcome visitors. Midges! They can ruin a camp. By mid September they are usually gone, but the weather has been so unseasonably warm this year that they are still out in force. Unwillingly to allow them to feast on us, we retired to our tents to eat our supper, read and listen to the river bubbling past as the light slowly faded.

On a chilly morning with the moon still visible low in the sky, we were faced with a tough challenge to the start of our second days route. A small hill with a very steep path stood in our way, and with the bikes fully loaded with kit we struggled to push them up the narrow path, at times almost losing balance to teeter over the edge. Pauline of course is more sensible than me, and did the climb in two stages, first the bike, then the kit. I on the other hand took the lazy option, and did it altogether.

It was around 2km before we cycled again, once the narrow footpath reached Fealar Lodge, said to be the highest, permanently inhabited dwelling in Scotland. From here the track we joined was of good quality and the going was fast. Mostly it is downhill and a lot of fun to allow gravity to do its job, with my hands always ready on the brakes of course, as the road twists it's way following the natural course of a river.

It was a striking glen, with large areas of forest regeneration in progress. At one point the track climbs very steeply but you are rewarded with a long fast downhill after. We stopped briefly for snacks before heading down the last few miles of the 12 mile run to join the main road. Turning west it was only 10 miles back to our start point of Pitlochry, with the last half being all downhill. As if that wasn't reward enough there was coffee and cake too.

On the way home Pauline asked me what my favourite part was. It's always hard to pick one above all others, but it dawned on me that it was at that moment. Not because it was over and we were on our way home, but because of the great feeling the Scottish hills leave you with, refreshed and relaxed.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


If you are a regular reader of my blog then you'll know that almost every Saturday of the year I teach youngsters how to make movies. They range in age from 6 to 18 and so far there are 152 students in total. Quite a handful but great fun.

I pretty much judge myself how to teach them and  we have a very flexible remit, the bottom line being that I need to improve their ability to act on camera and increase their confidence in front of camera. Throughout the year we achieve this through practical projects, usually just a few weeks long, but last year we embarked on six, high production value short films which we then entered into a film festival.

We started back in September 2015 on a blank sheet of paper. By Christmas they had developed scripts, cast parts and shot a few minutes of screen time. When we returned after the Christmas holidays it was full on production time. Normally I only get 50 minutes with each group, which isn't a lot of time to set up, rehearse, shoot and put everything away, so in January and into February we allocate a 3 hour slot to each group, morning and afternoon, over a three week period, to shoot extensive scenes. The scheduling is a headache, which I do for them in between weeks. By the start of March we were rerecording dialogue, ADR, and at the start of May we had the finished, polished films. It was my responsibility to edit the films, and to ease the pressure I edited the footage each week so that toward then end it was polishing and creating sound effects etc.

Well, we entered the films by the deadline at the start of June and heard nothing else. Until last week.

Astonishingly 252 films had been entered into the festival from the whole of the UK. There were three categories with three age groups and a total of 24 prizes in total. We knew we had produced the very best we could, but that was a big field to compete against.

Out of the six films we submitted, we won best film in three age groups, one in each category! Over 90 academies are operating in the UK, and the academy in Edinburgh won the most prizes. Needless to say I am very pleased and also very proud of the kids.

Here's a link (click on the picture) to one of the kids films on Vimeo, made by one of our teenage groups, called The Door:

Now we are faced with a new challenge. How to get almost 80 kids to London on a Sunday in November for the red carpet event at the Odeon Leicester Square.

Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

Thursday, 8 September 2016


It's great living where I do, right by the sea on the outskirts of Scotland's capital city. Strangely not everyone realises that Edinburgh has a seaside beach. On every hot, sunny summers day the mile-long beach is packed with visitors. But it's not just candy floss, slot machines and coffee shops that are available to entertain the hordes.

There's usually a special event of some description going on every month, and even though the Edinburgh International Festival & Fringe has now passed, Portobello continues to entertain. A couple of weeks ago it was the outdoor venue for The Big Busk, where musicians for all over descended on the promenade to entertain all day long. This past weekend was another gloriously warm and sunny one, and again Portobello played host.

It is well known there is a large creative contingent living in the area, including a great many artists. Almost 50 of these artists ran an open door event over the whole weekend called The Art Walk, where their works were either displayed in their homes, in coffee shops or out in the open along the promenade. I love this sort of event, but especially the outdoor element. As I wandered along, event map in hand, I sought out the different pieces. Some, it has to be said, demanded quite an open mind and imagination, but at the end of the day, even if you shrugged your shoulders and thought, "I could have done that", the fact remains that, maybe so, yes, but you had to have thought of it first.

My favourite was a series drawings on transparencies inside a white frame, presumably mimicking a porthole, nailed to a sea groyne. The best view was to position yourself so the sun was behind each frame. Each one had a scene associated with Portobello, either now or from history, and the one below shows a dredger at work some 35 years ago when the brought sand back onto the beach from offshore. At each different installation along the prom the artists have a description of what it represents, but I think it is in the eye of the beholder to judge for themselves.

An installation that has appeared a number of times is one called the Tidal Octopus. Made of steel and very colourful, it is attached three-quarters of the way up the marker pole at the end of one of the groyns. As the tide comes in the octopus disappears below the water, only to emerge again when the tide recedes.

At one point there was a sea monster made from recycled bits and pieces and further on coloured nylon ropes wrapped around posts depicting the "roads of the sea". But this was definitely one of those works where I couldn't quite agree with the artist in what it was representing, but it was pleasing nonetheless.

At the far end of the prom where two concrete bays look out to sea, a chalk design had been created called The 12 bakers. Based on the race in 1661 from Portobello to the top of Arthur's Seat by 12 bakers wives. Not sure how this represented that race, but back then the prize for the winner was "a hundredweight of cheese along with whisky and rum, which must have been well worth winning in those days.

Having wandered for an hour or so, and refreshed myself with a good coffee, I brought out my bicycle and cycled up to the local Rosefield Park. On this weekend every year the community holds The Village Show, a celebration of all things local, including foods and entertainment. There are games for the kids, prizes to be won and residents can hire a small table to sell off their own home baking, plants from their garden or artworks. Thanks to the sunny warm weather, Portobello was out in force, but I was still surprised to see such a huge gathering. Despite the large numbers it was great to walk around and realise that, if not by name, by sight at least, I knew just about everyone there, partly due to my time as a local business owner 'til 2006.

In a good mood, and as a tip-of-the-hat to the 12 Bakers Race, I rounded off my day with a cycle around that local hill that sits smack in the centre of the city, and the finish line of their race, Arthur's Seat. On my way home I paid one final visit to The Village Show, just to marvel once again at the community of Portobello out in force.