“I died every day for three weeks.”

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Back in June 2009, I spent three glorious weeks working as an extra on Robin Hood. This was the movie version directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac.

It was one of those “reality check moments” that life throws at you once in a while. I had been made redundant from my radio job, and barely three weeks later I was standing on a west Wales beach dressed as a medieval French soldier, brandishing a rubber axe and covered in fake blood. Standing mere feet in front of me was the man who directed Blade Runner and Alien.

“How did this happen?” I thought. “Is it just some strange dream?”

No dream. Back then, I kept up to date with movie gossip and knew that two major films were coming to west Wales, Robin Hood and Harry Potter. A call went out for extras for a major battle scene (“That’ll be Robin Hood then,” I thought) and so I went along and auditioned. Well, I say ‘auditioned’, what actually happened was that you filled in a form and they took a photo of you. And that was it!

But anyway, I was selected and in the weeks prior to filming was required to head on up to Freshwater West on the Pembrokeshire Coast, where the sequence was being shot, for ‘training’. We were taught basic combat routines, archery and how to die convincingly on camera. This was handy as I was going to be doing a lot of dying. We were also fitted for our costumes.

The filming took place over three weeks and and involved hundreds of extras, about fifty horses, landing craft, a small army of stuntmen and lots of mayhem.

For the duration of this, I lived in a tent on a nearby campsite. It was pretty hard going, but I didn’t care. I was loving every minute of it. Luckily, it was a glorious summer, so in between takes I would prop my shield up on my axe, peel off my tabard and fall asleep in the shade.

But when Ridley shouted “action”, all hell would break loose. Soldiers would fight, horses would charge, boats would land and a helicopter would circle overhead filming it all. Then the siren would go off and everything would stop. It was no good shouting “cut” as it would never be heard above the din! There’d be peace for 30 or maybe even 60 minutes, and then it would all kick off again.

I spent a couple of days out at sea on one of the landing craft. We would storm the beach, charging off the boat with axes swinging, get back on and do it all again. The best thing about that was that they’d bus us to where the boats were docked and then sail us back to Freshwater West, so we would start the day with a very scenic cruise.

As I was a playing a French solider, one of the baddies, I found myself being slaughtered on a daily basis. In fact, I died every day for three weeks. Among the melee was The Clan, a band of historical battle reenactors from Scotland. They would march onto set every day chanting, “One king!”.

“Why are they shouting ‘wanking’?” someone asked.

There were also a whole lot of army boys in the mix. They would swim out to a sandbank, in full costume, where a drill sergeant would march them around until they fell back into the sea.

It was an incredible experience, like going on an adventure holiday but getting paid for the privilege. I will forever be grateful that I had the opportunity to see first hand a Hollywood movie being made, and play a small part in it. I have the film on Blu-ray now and can relive those three weeks any time I like, courtesy of the ‘making of’ documentary.

Oh, and they made me grow a beard, something that hasn’t happened before or since.

WRITING RUNS IN THE FAMILY

When my horror novel DEEP LEVEL comes out later this year, I’ll become the second published author in the family. My mother beat me to it with FREEDOM MUSIC.

FREEDOM MUSIC was released in 2019 by University of Wales Press. The blarb on the back reads…

This book reclaims for Wales the history and culture of a music that eventually emerged as jazz in the 1920s, its tendrils and roots extending back to slave songs and abolition campaign songs, and Swansea’s long-forgotten connection with Cincinnati, Ohio. The main themes of the book are to illustrate and emphasise the strong links between emerging African American music in the USA and the development of jazz in mainstream popular culture in Wales; the emancipation and contribution of Welsh women to the music and its social-cultural heritage; and an historical appraisal as the music journeyed towards the Second World War and into living memory. The jazz story is set amid the politics, socio-cultural and feminist history of the time from whence the music emerged – which begs the question `When Was Jazz?’ (to echo Gwyn A. Williams in 1985, who asked `When Was Wales?’). If jazz is described as `the music of protest and rebellion’, then there was certainly plenty going on during the jazz age in Wales.

So not a horror then?

The Wreckers of Worms Head

My first attempt at writing a novel, a lifetime ago, it seems, was all about the wreckers of Worms Head. Worms Head is a rocky outcrop on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, not too far from where I live.

In days of old, on stormy nights, unscrupulous men would lure passing ships onto the causeway that had been covered by the tide, and the ships would be ground to pieces on the rocks. The wreckers, led by a fearsome man called “Big” Bill Williams, would murder any survivors and recover whatever cargo that washed ashore.

The work my younger self did on this tale ended up forming the backstory for a character in my recently-completed Victorian vampire novel (which may, unlike its protagonist, one day see the light of day).

The Gower Peninsula is rich in history and stories or wreckers, smuggling, piracy and heroic struggle, and is a never ending source of inspiration.