Going Down In the World - Croydon Caving Club Filming 1969-72 Part 1

The History of Croydon Caving Club Filming and the 2015 Restoration Attempt

The Croydon Caving Club's (CCC) excursion into amateur film making took place over the period 1969 to 72, starting when the club was barely
5 years old.  The film `Going Down In The World', first shown on 17th February 1971, achieved significant acclaim and was, at the time, a major       
(possibly unique) achievement for amateur filmmakers.  After years of deterioration an attempt has now been made to partially restore the film,
also confirming the relevant dates, etc. relating to it.  The film itself, which set out to show non-cavers what a typical caving weekend was like,        
is now, in many ways, obsolete but as a part of the club's history it will always be relevant.

This document attempts to preserve the story of this part of the club's history.  Of course, the story need not end here.  Assuming that this is intended to be a preservation of the original film then this probably precludes, for example, re-recording the soundtrack.  It may, however, become viable to use digital remastering techniques to recover more quality of both the sound and video as a future project.  Then, in addition, there's always the Merstham filming project that was never completed...

Part 1 - The History of Croydon Caving Club Filming

Conception

In 1969 Tony Giles was a serious caver and committee member of CCC (becoming chairman in 1970).  Tony had a friend named Alan Fry, not a caver but having a hobby of amateur film making.  Tony brought together Alan, with his filming expertise, and CCC, with the caving skills, to conceive the idea of making a film about caving.  The project was taken up and, led by Tony, resulted in the 3 years or so during which CCC became caving film makers.

Filming - 'Going Down in the World'

Tony and Alan were joined by Bob Reader, whose engineering background enabled him to contribute, both technically and physically, to many aspects of the filming, and Graham Denton, an Electrical Engineer.  This group formed the production team for 'Going Down in the World'.

After a great deal of thought and planning Bridge Cave was selected as the location for the film and the general principles were decided.  On Friday night, 31st October 1969 the first shots of the film were taken at the car park behind West Croydon station as the van was loaded for a weekend in Wales.  This was an experimental weekend to see how successful filming could be and very little footage taken that weekend was used in the final film.

There were, however, many lessons learnt and after this there were two further weekends, the first of these was dedicated to the underground shots, plus those around the cave entrances, all taken on Saturday 14th March 1970.  A separate weekend allowed the taking of those additional surface shots required and this is believed to have been 17-19th April 1970. The underground filming used 3 off 240V 375W (total 1125W) photoflood bulbs powered by a surface generator and 210 yards cable, though full technical details relating to underground filming were recorded in Pelobates No 12 (February 1971) and will not be repeated here.

Taking the film was, in some ways, the `easy' bit.  There followed a lengthy period of editing to put the video together and then writing the script.  This was done jointly by the production team, word- for-word (it was not made up as the narrator watched the film!) using Alan's expertise to get the right balance of technical information, casual comment, humour (a little), etc. that was needed, plus periods without commentary allowing the viewer to simply watch the film.  The commentary was then recorded by projecting the film (1970 technology, remember) whilst the narrator read the script into a tape recorder whilst trying to keep in time with the action. It was this technique of recording the commentary whilst projecting the film that gave rise to the characteristic clicking sound of a cine projector that can be heard in the background throughout the film.

Background sound next.  Alan and Tony provided the music but what about the sound effects?  A portable tape recorder was used during the experimental weekend but the results sounded unrealistic - the stream sounded like a bath running away!  A subsequent experiment banging boots and an ammunition can on Tony's outside step and then splashing water in his bath produced much more realistic sound effects and this is what was used in the film.

First Showing

Alan then combined the narration and various background sounds and recorded it all onto the film ready for its first showing at the CCC meeting on 17th February 1971.  There were a number of guests invited including members of other clubs and the various people that had helped, mostly by lending us equipment for use in the underground filming.  One guest of note came from The Croydon Advertiser.  CCC had kept the local press informed of the project and invited a representative to see the film.  One of their professional critics, Alex Noel Watson, came to see it and gave a glowing report in that week's edition.

Myths and Legends

There are some famous stories of errors in the film, though not all true.  It is, perhaps of interest to document some of the better known ones; The van appeared in the shots taken on the underground weekend and would appear again in the shots taken on the surface weekend.  When the van for the third (surface) weekend was hired, therefore, a request was made for a blue one.  Bowmans, the hire company, obliged and we had a blue van - pity that this was the time that the style of number plates was changing so the van not only had different numbers in various sections of the film but its plates also change from black and white to reflective!

Towards the end of the film the cavers return, in the van, from the caves to the village and the pub.  In reality these shots were taken on the third weekend.  It only needs a driver and photographer to take these shots, of course - and that is why the van is obviously empty as it drives back past The New Inn!

It was thought necessary to explain, briefly, how the calcite formations are formed.  The idea that part of the droplet of water evaporates is, of course, not true though the inclusion of this statement is not an error either.  There was much discussion as Alan reminded the production team of the object of the film, and its intended audience, and deleted the long and rambling chemical explanation from the script - just lie, he said!

There is one myth that is, simply, untrue.  It is said that Pete Baron enters bridge cave without a beard but comes out with one.  It is only necessary to view the film to see that this is not true.

Examination of unused footage from the experimental weekend, however, shows him without a beard at that time and this may be the origin of the myth.  Although relating to the making of the film, rather than the result, it is worth noting another untrue myth.  Electrical joints were made with great care (for obvious reasons!) and were covered with three separate layers, each providing electrical insulation as well as waterproofing.  In addition, mechanical strength was provided to prevent any pull on the cable being applied to the electrical joint.  The outer layer was heavy gauge polythene, sealed and held in place with PVC electrical tape so this appearance probably gave rise to the idea that the joints with only insulated with sticky tape!

Filming at Merstham

`Going Down in the World' was considered a great success, not only within CCC but externally as well.  This encouraged the same production team to attempt another film and it was decided that an interesting subject would be the subterranean quarries at Merstham.  It was also considered that such a film would be a potentially valuable historic record of the quarries, provided it was made as a true documentary, recording the more significant points of interest in the quarries.

Another ambitious aim was to attempt the reconstruction of cutting a block from a working face - this had never been done so it would be a useful archaeological experiment as well as providing the climax of the film.

Lighting was, clearly, going to be the problem and it was this that defeated the film.  Broadly, there were two aspects to this (bearing in mind that this was using early 1970s amateur and limited budget technology).  Power was to be provided by car batteries supplying headlight bulbs.  The first problem was transport, through the quarries, of the batteries.  Carrying was tried on the first day and `sledges' made for dragging on the second day (there were only two filming attempts made).  Neither was successful, though this may have been resolved by redesign of the sledges, but the other problem was less easily solved.  Car headlight bulbs are not bright (around 50W each compared with the 375W each photofloods used in bridge cave).  Use of complete headlight units resulted in a spotlight effect producing very uneven light but it would not have been viable to use bare bulbs because, without the reflector, they would have been too dim.  Using many (VERY many) more lights may have been a solution but this would have aggravated the battery transport problem as well as being, probably, impractical.  This lighting problem is clearly seen in the resulting film that was shot on those two days.  Although the end of the filming attempts coincided with Alan Fry's (photographer) departure to Australia, this is probably not the cause since it is unlikely that a solution to the lighting and associated problems would have been found.

At the time of writing (May 2015) it is interesting to speculate how modern technology would change all this.  To the best of the author's knowledge the quarries have still not been recorded on film so perhaps there is scope for someone to take up the challenge and finish the Merstham film?

Deterioration of `Going Down in the World'

The film was made using 8mm cine film - contemporary records list standard 8 whilst modern references cite super 8 but this is immaterial. This format was a cheap cine option for home users and mainly for `holiday films'.  Such films, in practice, only had a few screening before being consigned to the cupboard.  `Going Down in the World' was different, perhaps a victim of its own success.  It was shown many times to different groups and organisations.  The film was not adequate for this treatment and soon began to deteriorate.

The sound was first to go.  The sound track was on a magnetic strip attached, with adhesive, to the side of the film and after a number of showings the magnetic strip began to separate and parts were lost.

At this stage, it was realised that the film was deteriorating and a copy was made (still 8mm cine at this time) but it was silent, mainly for cost saving but it was also felt (perhaps incorrectly) that it was the video that needed preservation and that sound could be replaced.  Progressively the video deteriorated.  8mm cine only has one set of sprocket holes and so is very susceptible to sprocket damage, casing the frame slip seen in the film in later times.  It is also very narrow and, therefore, weak.  Breakages were common, resulting in discontinuity and loss of short sections.  Less understood, but probably simply due to the weak nature of the film, whole sections became damaged and were either deliberately cut out or just lost.

Another problem had also occurred, though it is not clear when, and this is that the remaining sound lost synchronisation to the video.  This was not a fixed amount but varied, it appeared randomly, through the film.  This was probable due to the effect of the various cuts and repairs that had been made since the sound did not physically align with the video - it was displaced by an amount equal to the distance between the projection lens and sound playback head. The other obvious occasion when this problem could have occurred is during digital conversion, though in reality it was probably a combination of all these and the exact timing is immaterial anyway.

Exactly when the film stopped being used and disappeared into someone's store cupboard will never be known but this was the condition when it was converted to digital format and shown at the CCC 50th anniversary celebrations on June 28th 2015.

 

Author: 
Graham Denton