With the credits barely faded from our television screens, Warner Home Video has issued a two-disk DVD of the Mountain series in which former Not the Nine O’Clock News comedian Griff Rhys Jones explores Britain’s high ground.
There are two types who would fork out for the set: the mountain aficionado who can shout ‘been up that one, fallen down that crag’ at the family and the genuine ingénue who may be tempted to don boots for the first time and start to explore the magical mountain world which some of us have jealously coveted for years.
The programmes certainly do the job for the latter. There is some stunning photography, both from the ground and from the air, of our surprisingly varied upland landscape. Tourist authorities should be giving Griff and his production team a hearty slap on the back for opening the eyes of viewers to the sheer beauty of the third of the country occupied by our highlands.
There is also plenty for the seasoned fellwalker and, if you listen carefully, you may even learn some things about the hills and mountains you’ve ascended.
Of course, it’s easy to pick holes in aspects of the five one-hour shows when you know what’s what in the hills, and there are constant reminders that this is a piece of television entertainment and not a mountain-leader training video: the smoke emanating from the chimney of the darkened bothy Griff is supposed to chance across; the snow hole with an entrance big enough to drive a snow-mobile into. On the other hand, the sometimes oppressive seriousness some outdoors types exude is lightened by Griff’s mischievous wit and quizzical frown. I particularly liked the Location, Location description of the white interior décor of the snow-hole and its knick-knack shelves.
There are outsider’s insights into a world we often take for granted. Walking through the Gore-Tex clad throngs in Keswick, Griff exclaims: “Sometimes I get the impression the great outdoors is just one huge marketing opportunity.” Amen to that.
The ploy of using a mountain innocent works well. There are enough experts on hand and on camera to help and guide Griff as he progresses on his highland odyssey, wild-eyed in wonderment like a child on Christmas morning. We’ve all seen enough dry, ponderous, oh-so-serious mountain monologues to appreciate the Godsend of having an outsider puncture any potential preciousness.
The order on the two disks follows, for me at least, a more logical progression than the broadcast schedule, starting in north Wales, moving through the Lakes, central Highlands, the Pennines and culminating in the magnificent finale of north-west Scotland in winter, a magical world looking, as Griff says, more like Antarctica than Britain. Of course, you can choose to watch the programmes in any order you like, but I would advise saving the best till last.
Cameron McNeish, guiding Mr Jones up the country’s most northerly Munro, Ben Hope, tells him: this is no soft, Alp-like terrain; these mountains are arctic. The series is rounded off with an ascent of Bruach na Frithe, on arguably Britain’s hardest mountain challenge, the Cuillin ridge on Skye.
Mountain is more than a travelogue, and the researchers managed to find enough eccentrics to fill the hours. It’s plain that the mountain environment attracts, and seemingly always has, people with odd ideas and strange ways of doing things, one of the pioneers being Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who undertook a madcap, nine-day, 100-mile journey through the Lakeland fells, throwing himself down crags in a search for some kind of enlightenment.
And they’re still with us. George Band, one of the team on the first successful Everest expedition, half way up Tryfan pulls out the anorak worn on his 1953 climb and confesses he now uses it when he’s decorating his house. Chris Jesty, the reviser of Alfred Wainwright’s pictorial guides, gets up every day at 5am and walks the Lakeland fells with three GPS units just to be on the safe side.
Rob the Rubbish greets the presenter on Snowdon and puts on him a yellow vest emblazoned with Griff the Garbage. Not so far away, a couple have built a house modelled on a Celtic roundhouse but which actually looks like a giant shrub, complete with grapevine in the roof, which was erected without planning permission and only spotted when its glinting solar panels caught the sun as a plane was flying over.
In Cumbria, former helicopter pilot Mark Weir risked all, and grew to hate the mountain, as he slaved for years to reinstate the Honister slate mines which now produce 10,000 tons of the stuff every year. His plan is to create an underground amphitheatre to celebrate the lives of the old miners who toiled for centuries in this harsh and dangerous environment.
As with all recent outdoors programmes, Griff proves he’s a have-a-go-hero and, for a non-climber born in the flatlands of Essex and living in London, spends an awful lot of time on the end of a rope.
Our action hero on Napes Needle, Great Gable
But it has to be pointed out, he has a tendency to do half a job: half a climb up Napes Needle; half a Ben Nevis race; and a third of the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge. And he fails completely to find a hat that doesn’t make him look like a pillock.
For amusement, try counting how many different pronunciations of Tryfan Griff attempts; or ask yourself why he’s wasting his head-torch batteries in daylight on a foggy Cross Fell. There are some cringeworthy moments, such as the Dru yoga enthusiasts who at least have the grace to look embarrassed when the presenter joins them for a lakeside workout. Low-point of the whole series has to be the pointless interjection of champion yodeller Greta Elkin whose caterwauling fills the bowl of Malham Cove. It’s enough to put the peregrine falcons off sex for life.
The mountains of Britain are far from peaceful sometimes and have been ravaged by mankind for centuries. Stepping off the Snowdon mountain railway, we are assailed by the pneumatic drills of the workers demolishing the old summit café in preparation for the new Hafod Eryri. Hordes of farmers saddle up their quads to herd the wild ponies of Snowdonia for their annual health check. Then, of course there’s the damned helicopters filming footage for outdoor programmes.
The fells were far from peaceful 75 years ago when the Kinder Scout trespassers took on the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers to press for access to the uplands.
On Kinder Scout: Griff in a scene from the DVD
Looking at the archive footage of Benny Rothman’s posse reminds us that rambling was then a pursuit followed by young, working-class men and women from Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. Today, there’s an overwhelming middle-aged, middle-class look to the faces on the fells.
So, what do you get for your money if you buy the DVDs? There’s a paucity of extras: there are no out-takes of Griff falling over or fluffing his lines; no behind the scenes glances at the production of the series, just a set of stills taken directly from the high-definition films. You do, however, have the chance to watch the programmes at your leisure, rewind, fast-forward and take in the snippets you may have watched but missed on first viewing.
Or perhaps you could save it for those dark, winter nights when even Ben Nevis’s Number Four Gully is too avalanche-prone to venture on to. As Griff discovered, sometimes the mountains are just too dangerous even for the experts.
Mountain; Exploring Britain’s High Places, with Griff Rhys Jones
Warner Home Video