At the time, it seemed propitious. I was in the Lake District yesterday, for the first time in almost two years. I’ve been waiting for the third part of Terry Abrahams’ ‘Life of a Mountain’ series, this time on Lakeland’s third highest and most popular fell, Helvellyn for ages. I knew it was done, I knew it had been put off premiering due to the COVID situation. I didn’t know that BBC4 had broadcast its traditional precised to one hour version as far back as January. I just saw it in a shop window and the lady behind the heavily protected till said it had not long since come out. Perfect for a Sunday morning.
But it was so utterly disappointing.
The full version is a sprawling two hours twenty-nine minutes long, an open invitation to call it bloated and an unavoidable one. Helvellyn sprawls, and yet insofar as its portrait of a year in the life of the mountain is concerned, it’s paradoxically extrememely limited. This is an entirely Patterdale-Ullswater biased portrait, without even the shadow of a pretence that the mountain has a western flank, that it towers about Thirlmere and can be ascended from that side.
Instead, every facet of the film, every view of Helvellyn we see, whether this be from the constantly low-motion aerial shots to those from the lake steamer, are of the mountain between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, or they’te of Red Tarn between these two arms. Over and over again.
But then again such a small part of the film is about Helvellyn itself. This is a primarily polemic film, proclaiming the importance of conservation at every turn. It’s about things like the hill-farmers, the men on the steamers, poets, singers, one self-consciously eccentric writer is ridiculous clothing over-developing his every sentence. With very few exceptions, everyone talks modern day jargon, or bullshit. Environmentalists aren’t improving the landscape in any of the myriad ways they do, they’re upgrading it, the way I upgrade my customer’s ‘experience’ by selling them another package. Conservation, preservation, adaptation in a way in keeping with the natural life of the Lake District fells is very important but linguistically the battle is over and we lost.
Everybody’s out to push a viewpoint, but nobody had anything interesting to say about it. Those that are interested in their own personal fascinations cannot describe it as anything but a personal challenge that has emhanced their lives, which I’m sure it is and has. My own life, my walks in the hills, could be expressed in exactly the same fashion, but I hope that I have never sounded so pretentious when talking about them.
And endlessly we get another shot of Helvellyn’s face, between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. Or a rolling vista of ridges. The film plods on. It’s about living and working around a particular mountain but it spends most of its time in the valleys. It’s generically about life in the Lakes without any sense that any part of it is specific to Helvellyn, is especially shaped by it. People love Helvellyn, love Patterdale, but they say why. It’s ‘special’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘brilliant’. The crap they spout has robbed them of the ability to actually express themselves.
And whereas Abrahams’ first venture, Scafell Pike, was comprehensive, and briliant, and focussed and properly obsessive, Helvellyn is far m,ore professional and has lost all ability to focus or to engage itself realistically with what Helvellyn is as a mountain, as a destination. The nadir comes in a section on the Ski Club, and their base on Raise, when we get the utterly sterile cliche of the skier sliding to a halt in front of the camera and sending a spray of snow over it.
Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its merit. Some, but not enough, people talk with quiet authority and eloquent simplicity about their specialised subject, feeling no need to over sell it, and there was one poignant sequence with a woman who described her spine as having collapsed five years ago, an active fellwalker who thought all of that lost, for good but who, in a top of the range electric wheelchair, with her husband alongside her, with her walking boots on despite the fact they were never going to touch the ground, had gotten as high on Helvellyn as she physically could. Her eyes said it all, the wonderment, the recognition of things she thought gone for good, the wonderful acceptance of being still able to be who she had been.
And her husband, talking into the camera, explaining that this was five years to the day since the operation, that very serious operation that his wife might well never have survived. The little brush away of something near the corner of his eye, the laconic ‘the longest day of my life’ in the tones that only one who has been through such a day and seen it come out can speak. The camera dropping behind as the pair stood overlooking a view, their arms around each other, her shoulders shaking and him gripping her like he still can’t entirely believe that he still gets to.
Too little, not enough. In the end, the intrusive music, the high-speed photopgraphy of coils boiling across the sky or sweeping up and down valleys, the early hours of indistinguishability from tides rolling in and out, became tedious, were padding. There wasn’t even enough of the fells for me to simply gape at in silent admiration, nothing onto which I could project my own memories of climbing Helvellyn.
Terry Abrahams is a very talented man and I envy him his skills. He’s gone from a life in the throws of despair and destruction to intetnationl recognition doimg something I would love to have been capable of myself. But he’s over-reached himself here, tried to make a statement a big statement and he’s blown it, big-time.