As told to
I was in the navy for nine years, and between 1969-71 I was posted out in the Far East. One time in Penang we went ashore for the night, and as we were going back on board we passed a lighthouse. There was a bloke in there hanging up curtains in the lantern – you do that so the sunlight doesn’t come in and damage the equipment during the day – and I thought, ‘What a steady little job he’s got there.’ A few weeks later we were coming out of Hong Kong and passed a little island and there was a lighthouse on there, and the fog signal was grunting away just as it does in the film. That really made an impact on me. When I got home I came out of the navy and applied for a job as a lighthouse keeper.
In 25-and-a-half years I was posted to 32 different locations around Britain, different lighthouses. Blinking brilliant it was. To begin with you did two months on, then you got a month off; then it became month on, month off. So you were getting six months holiday a year. And if you got the right sort of posting it was great, because a lot of the lighthouses were out on islands like Bardsey, which is at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula, and if you’re off-duty you can walk around the island. The best one for me was South Stack in Holyhead: we called it the Holyhead Hilton, you had your own bedroom and everything.
Then there was the Smalls Lighthouse, which is 25 miles off the coat of Pembrokeshire in Wales. In the early 1800s there were two keepers on the previous lighthouse, which was a structure on wooden posts – the remains of it are still there – and one of them died. So the other hung the corpse out on the gallery rail, but nobody got to him for ages. He’d gone out of his skull by the time they rescued him. You’d hear these old sea stories from time to time. Another was South Bishop, again off the Pembrokeshire coast. In the ’60s there was a keeper there who was gathering some old wire, and a bit of it took off over the cliff – it had wrapped around his leg, so away he went. They never did find him.
There’s a lot of things in the film that are relevant to my experiences. One bloke over on Amble Pier Lighthouse off the North East coast – “Fat Fred” we called him – he had a piss pot in his bedroom and the dirty bugger wouldn’t empty it on a regular basis. You’d hold your nose whenever you had to go and fetch him. And blokes on the Smalls were famous for making their own hooch, mucking about with potatoes trying to make vodka.
But the film doesn’t get everything right. When the two fellas first come ashore and they pass the outgoing keepers, there’s no way you’d get keepers not acknowledging each other like that. They’ve got information to pass over, and they’d also be landing with coal and oil and all sorts of things. And, even though it’s set in the 1890s, so it’s hard to say how things might have been, no lighthouse authority would let a station be in such shit order as that. A lot of the keepers would be ex-seafarers, they’d be very tidy, meticulous people. The engine was unrealistic, too: if you had a big coal-fired engine like that for running the fog signal, you’d need three men working shifts to keep that going for several days at a time.
Of course, you have to allow for some artistic license, and a lot of it added something to the film. I thought the uniforms were brilliant, and the black-and-white monochrome was a fantastic idea – far more dramatic than colour. Also the actors themselves, the two keepers, they really understood the characteristics and psychology of being a lighthouse keeper, especially the isolation. And when they get on to the booze and start going a bit silly, that was very convincing.
I thought the camerawork was fantastic, the close-ups of their faces and how it created the atmospheric feel of these dingy rooms. And then there’s the incidents with the seagull. I remember this one keeper who came back one day and a gull had drawn blood diving at him. Scoured his scalp. Other birds like terns could be nasty, but seagulls would dive-bomb you and crap on you and all sorts. But we used to collect seagulls’ eggs and make omelettes. They were a bit of a delicacy.
I’d definitely give the film a high score, probably five out of five. The storyline is okay, but the acting and the photography, that’ll always be with me. If you’re interested in psychology, the workings of the human mind, it’s just brilliant. I was so relieved it wasn’t a Hollywood-y sort of thing where you’ve got zombies coming out the ground and so on. Because you’d see people with cabin fever hallucinating and imagining all sorts of things. I knew blokes who went a bit psycho, or they used to play mind games. You had to watch how you handled them.
The Lighthouse is in cinemas now. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 4 Feb 2020
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