The Continuity Girl

By Patrick Kincaid

A comic love story in which the discovery of a long-lost version of a cult movie sheds light on a 45-year-old love affair between a Hollywood filmmaker and a real-life Loch Ness monster hunter

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Lakes and Castles: on location with THE CONTINUITY GIRL. #1 – Loch Meiklie

The way to the bank is thick with birches. There’s hardly any space between the silvery trunks, and its worse nearer the water, where there are also alders to contend with. Then, when I’m within a few feet of the place I’m looking for, I’m stymied by the depth of Loch Meiklie. None of this—not the trees nor the high water—had been here when Holmes, Watson and Madame Valladon were enjoying their picnic in 1887. Or rather, in 1969.  

The scene Billy Wilder shot here for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) forms an interlude between two halves of a montage that shows the characters visiting various Highland castles. The three actors—Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely and Genevieve Page—are stylishly kitted out by Julie Harris, who had provided costumes for that other High-Victorian romp, The Wrong Box, in 1967, and who had won an Oscar for Darling in 1965. Now she has encased Holmes in a corduroy Norfolk jacket and tweed knee-breeches, disguised Watson as a valet in a black coat and a striped waistcoat, and tricked out Madame Valladon in numerous green-and-white flounces and an enormous hat. Their transportation—a tandem and a single-seat bone shaker—is within shot, and behind them the loch sparkles all the way to the spit of wooded promontory that gives the composition scale. We’re also shown a pretty stone bridge crossing the River Enrick just where it reaches the loch. A group of cowled monks file over it to the sound of their dirge-like theme, ignoring Watson when he calls out to them. Only a few whipped-up waves, some agitation in the greenery, and the flapping of Genevieve Page’s skirts tell us that this isn’t really a good day to be eating al fresco.

One thing hasn’t changed. The rock is still there, breaching the water a couple of meters from where I have to stop, seeing as I don’t have waders. From my angle of approach, it shows almost like a shark fin, just as it does in the movie. But it’s no longer jutting from a little grassy island. Likewise, when I look towards the bridge, the lively pebble-strewn riverbed in the movie is lost beneath the sombre flow of deeper waters.  

Heather joins me with the camera and I have to snap out of my reverie and start thinking practically. We are here to make a film of our own, after all, and there are other places we need to be. Heather intends to capture shots of the loch and of me doing what I’ve just been doing—losing myself in a Private-Life-of-Sherlock-Holmes-inspired ecstasy. For the next hour, I amble back and forth over the bridge and peer out across the loch. At one point, I ruin a take when I catch the blue lightning flash of a kingfisher and call out for Heather to turn the camera so that it points at the opposite bank. It’s too late, of course. Most of the time, she’s the one calling the shots. Usually, it’s just ‘Go!’, which apparently is what Billy Wilder used to shout at the start of a take. And in the moments when she’s fiddling with angles, I retreat inward again, and see the three-dimensional phantoms of Stephens, Blakely and Page reclined on the spot where the camera is being moved on its tripod.

It’s a bit of movie magic, that scene, but of the mild variety. There isn’t anywhere quite like this on Loch Ness itself. The bridge over the River Enrick is important inasmuch as by crossing it, the monks echo an earlier scene set at a railway station, where we see them crossing a bridge over the railway lines. More profound magic can be found elsewhere in the movie: there's a folly in Oxfordshire doing service as a Highland’s keep, a tank of water standing in for the largest volume of freshwater in the British Isles, and a whole snow-bound segment of Victorian London bristling with life on the edge of Swingin' Sixties London… And somebody had the job of making sure all these different locations matched up seamlessly.

That person deserves a blog post of her own, I think. 

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