The funniest climbing film in the world, if not Wales...
Watch a trailer of Upside Down Wales on UKC HERE
George Smith's TV career until now has been sporadic - you could almost say coolly esoteric. From grunting, upside-down man in a Welsh soccer programme to random bloke in the background of a 999 reconstruction. This must have annoyed film maker Al Hughes who has been trying for the last twenty years to convince the man to get in front of the camera.
Thankfully, he has finally managed to coax Smith out from under the crumbling cathedral roofs of Gogarth and into the limelight. The end result is a rather wonderfully British film about the daft obsession that is upside-down climbing.
Imagine touring Wales in an open-topped bus with shopping trolley wheels piloted by a slightly unhinged Alan Titchmarsh. Watching Upside Down Wales is a bit like this: a pleasant and entertaining mix of the sedate and the demonic.
George 'as I advance in years but sadly, not in ability' Smith is both host and subject as he beckons us with tongue firmly cammed in cheek and a twinkle in his eye to explore his love of roof climbing in North Wales. Through him we meet a cast of characters that hang out for days - sometimes years on end - underneath boulders. They are by and large mainly blokes (and Northern English ones at that) apart from a solo appearance from Jude Spanken. The film is probably worth watching if only to catch Smith's enlightened thoughts on this token female addition.
Films about climbing often come unstuck when they attempt to answer tricky questions like: Why? The last person you are likely to get any sense from is a climber. A case in point - check out the interview with Joe Brown that also features on the DVD. The living legend has this insight to offer us: 'You either do it and know it... Or you'll never know it cos you can't convey it really...'
Anyway, Upside Down Wales knows this all too well and doesn't try too hard to offer any explanations. What we get instead is a celebration, as Al Hughes explained to me, of these 'conquistadores of the useless'. It's enough to know Chris Davies has spent 12 years under one particular boulder. 'Nothing wrong with these guys,' Smith quips knowingly to the camera.
George Smith is guilty of his own brand of lunacy. He's put up some fearsome overhanging routes including Barfly at Gogarth and Swift Undercut at Tremadog. By his own admission he's the kind of guy to take a guide book, ignore the lines and look for the gaps between them. And in a way that's what this film has done. It's avoided the obvious.
What we get is a refreshing alternative to those chest-beating filmic equivalents of power grunts. Is it me, or is there something really Spinal Tap about the fact grades now go up to E11?
There are no screaming whippers or broken and bloody limbs in Upside Down Wales. That's not to say the film is not without high drama. At one point a child drags away a bouldering mat from beneath Smith as he hovers airily 3 or 4 inches above the ground. Luckily our frayed nerves are soothed with gorgeous time-lapse shots of the welsh landscape, courtesy of Paul Higginson and four-part harmonies from the Llanberis Male Voice choir.
George is engaging in front of the camera. Genuinely funny and affable. He's just a little too good at sending-up Sunday evening TV presenters. I closed my eyes at one point and could have sworn blind Titchmarsh was trying to persuade me Thomas Telford loved Gogarth so much he built the Menai bridge across to Anglesey.
There's some great creative use of archive too. Al Hughes has been filming with Smith over the years and his intention was to use the film as a vehicle to showcase his footage. There's a lovely touch when Smith returns to Tremadog, the venue for Swift Undercut. Standing at the bottom of the route he gazes up and we cut to the original footage of his first ascent ' Go on Youth!' the balding, appreciative Smith cries up at his wild-eyed, wild-haired younger self. See if you can spot little homage to Stone Monkey thrown in there too.
The film is very much a collaborative effort between Hughes, Smith and multi-tasking editor/composer/techy scouser Ray Saunders. They've all brought different qualities to the mix: Smith's wit and geniality, Saunders' energy and film-pro Hughes' pragmatism. And for the most part they work well together. When there's tension, the film twitches with the anarchic energy of a hyperactive child that has been told to behave. And that's part of the film's charm. One minute we're squatting with hushed awe in a dark cave listening to Smith's (frankly inspired ) recital of Robert Grave's A Welsh Incident, the next we're bumping into a random male voice choir on a hill before watching Smith calmly emerge fully clothed from a lake to inform us he'll look anywhere for new rock.
There are times when the film flirts a bit dangerously with self-indulgence. It's probably too long and some of the interview between Smith and Noel Crane felt a bit straightjacketed by the film not wanting to take itself too seriously. Which is a shame, because it's ok to be a bit serious every now and then. Which brings me to the final part of the film.
I thought it was a nice touch ending the film with an atmospheric and rousing piece of archive radio footage of the late great Frank Smythe in full poetic flow on how the summit is a throne for humble men and all that...Turns out the late great Frank Smythe was non other than George bloody Smith putting on his best Chumley Warner impression in his living room.
George Smith: Renaissance man, writer, presenter, human sloth and preternatural mimic. Lets hope we see and hear more of him.
The DVD also comes with a great ( and rare!) interview with Joe Brown. I was really intrigued to know what this would offer up, hoping for a nut of climbing wisdom that I could add to my rack of gear or perhaps some new insight into his relationship with Don Whillans. The interview is actually much more entertaining than that and worth watching for many reasons, not least in that you discover what 'favourable deceleration' actually means as well as learning how to get down off a mountain using a rock and some train tracks ' Its hard to say how fast you would go, but you certainly needed goggles...'
Upside Down Wales has a release date: October 6th. You can order it from Al Hughes' website www.alhughes.tv
Watch a trailer of Upside Down Wales on UKC HERE
Nicola Wilding won the DMM My First Lead writing competition with her superb essay Confessions of a Coward. She was the guest of UKClimbing.com at the Llanberis Mountain Film Festival, where she saw the première of George Smith's film, and had the honour of climbing in the slate quarries with Yorkshire new-router and all round UKC top-bloke Mick Ryan.
Nicola then re-watched Upside Down Wales on DVD and kindly produced this review. Nicola works "in tv as a documentary producer/director"