A year after I first started climbing somebody produced a copy of Stone Monkey on video. I was gob-smacked. For those who’ve never heard of this legendary title it begins with a dream sequence featuring a schoolboy Johnny Dawes leaping around on an early indoor wall, before moving out to some serious messing around on many of his gritstone masterpieces of the eighties – Gaia, Braille Trail & Parthian Shot, before showing an out there ascent of Quarryman in the Llanberis slate quarries.
Alun Hughes, maker of Stone Monkey and Jim Jewell’s Total Control, has decided to re-release both titles on DVD. Stone Monkey is the first available – Total Control is due later this year. It’s a dangerous game churning out old classics. I recently watched Top Gun and was dismayed – it has seriously dated. I sat down to watch Stone Monkey with a mix of excitement (I’d not seen it since 1993) and dread (that it would not meet my expectations).
I wasn’t disappointed.
Firstly I was amazed by how young he was when the film was made. Personally I look back to my formative years and it is clear that I am now a far better climber. Back then I was on a very steep learning curve, keen, but no stamina and poor foot work. I suspect that most of us can tell a similar story. Not so with masters like Johnny. I had no idea he had climbed so many significant routes whilst so young. Granted, he’d been climbing for seven years or so before the big names started to fall, but he was just 21 when he climbed Gaia!
The film is dated; there is no getting away from the fact that the music sounds very different to your average thumping dance tunes in today’s equivalents, and most of the climbing is done on a top rope – Hard Grit blew that practice out of the water. But that’s all part of the charm. We are talking about a historic film, way ahead of its time in both content and originality. Sure you can download far hairier films from the internet in a matter of minutes, but they won’t feature arguably the world’s best climber on some of the UK’s finest and most famous routes. Check out his shoes – would you want to repeat the hardest routes of the day for the camera in insensitive, hard rubber relics? As an aside this seriously makes you consider the relevance and accuracy of the grades over the years. The climbing of Quarryman will always be etched into my subconscious. The effort being expended to bridge up the groove becomes clear as the camera pans out to reveal Johnny in a completely horizontal span, hands on one wall, feet on the other. He then takes off one foot and reaches it out in the splits, composes himself, and takes off both feet, swings a little for momentum, and throws his foot up onto a higher hold. Twenty feet or so from his last runner. Inspirational.
Initially I was surprised that the DVD costs £24.99. For a 25 minute film this is pretty steep. I quickly realised why: it is packed full of extras. The big addition is a previously unseen 30 minute film on The Story Of Indian Face. This fascinating and well filmed mini documentary shows Johnny repeating sections (but alas not the whole thing) of Indian Face, with narration by Jim Perrin, and commentary from Johnny himself, John Redhead and Nick Dixon (a shame Neil Gresham wasn’t roped in). John Redhead ‘justifies’ his actions (placing a bolt, painting a picture etc), and denies (as he has always done) enlarging an RP placement. This really is essential viewing for anybody who is into their climbing.
In addition you can watch Johnny’s Rants. Renowned for his seemingly random philosophical musings and monologues Johnny sits amongst the bracken, Cloggy in the background lit by a setting sun, and gives his views on himself and the state of British climbing. “I’m much better than people can understand. You know. I am much better than they realise…”
Lastly there is an alternative commentary by Johnny himself, and an interesting featurette on how and why the film was made in the first place – did you know it had gone out on Channel four 4 times, including at 1pm on Boxing Day to an audience of over a million people?
The menu is easy to navigate. Also features Bob Drury and Paul Pritchard (with a serious mullet!). All in all a very well put together package. An absolute must for anybody into their climbing, capturing the essence of the master at work in the eighties.
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