Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas

October 1st, 2015 No comments


IMG_8640 2 Men and a Mule lo res.

I’ve known the writer and explorer Benedict Allen for some years, but until the BBC commissioned us to undertake an adventurous journey together, I had never travelled with him.

You can hear the results on BBC Radio Four – see the BBC website for Two Men And A Mule – a spanking new three-part series in which we introduce our co-star Washington to the world.


For the first two programmes we travel down from the Andes towards the Amazon and Espíritu Pampa, the very last city of the Incas, which they built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, almost in the jungle. It is still one of the last ruins left in Peru best reached by mule.

_DSC9324 Two Man and a Mule Prog 3 at Qoyllurit’i


Then for the last programme we go to the great festival of the Andes, Qoyllurit’i, and take the pilgrimage out through the night for a momentous dawn ceremony.


listen to the full shows at

BBC website for Two Men And A Mule

and have a listen to an exclusive bonus track:



Everest The Movie

September 23rd, 2015 No comments

everestEverest as a film has perhaps been unfairly criticised for having some of the messiness of  a real-life expedition – too many characters and an untidy ending –  faults (and strengths) it shares with the other adaptation made from a Jon Krakauer book, Into The Wild. And it’s true there are moments the only way you can tell the men with frozen beards apart is by the colour of their product placement North Face jackets.


The class British scriptwriters – William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy – have fashioned a story which ostensibly has no links with the Krakauer book, but given that it was his Into Thin Air which made the 1996 tragedy on Everest so famous, his shadow looms large over it. He also makes an appearance in the film as an embedded journalist in the team who accompanies them to the summit.

The film hits one nail hard on the head – that some of the dangers which arise are the consequence of the new phenomenon of commercial guided expeditions up Everest, so that less competent mountaineers are able to attempt a summit they should arguably not be on.  But they fail to bring out one crucial argument in Krakauer’s book:  whereas in the past all members of a team would look out for one another, now the guides look out for the clients but who is looking out for the guides?  Of those who die on screen in the film, three are guides and two clients.

There is one crucial moment when lead guide Rob Hall has an uncharacteristic failure of judgement and allows himself to escort a client up to the summit way past the cut-off point when they should already be returning; the sort of misjudgement that is easy to happen when people are hypoxic and under extraordinary stress.  But also one that occurs when you are no longer dealing with a band of brothers but rather of responsible uncles with their nephews.

Everest_poster highr res 2The filmmakers were lucky to have David Brashears on board, both because of his presence on Everest in 1996 at the time the tragedy unfolded (Brashears was making an IMAX film and his character is played by an actor in this one), and for his help on how on earth you make a movie at such challenging altitudes.  While some sections were shot on Everest itself – in mid January, so freezing temperatures – which cinematographer Salvatore Totino described as extraordinarily difficult in the Hollywood Reporter – the Hillary Step, where much of the most intense dramatic action occurs, was recreated at Pinewood.  As the second unit crew were shooting some remaining scenes of the film at Camp II on Everest, an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpa guides with other expeditions.

A facile criticism of the film is that this is such an exclusively male affair.  This just mirrors the actual expeditions which were almost exclusively male – although it is true that the two female climbers are given paper thin characterisation – but also is a reflection of how a tunnel-visioned imperative to get to the top of something, regardless of disruption to family, is a not very commendable part of the male psyche.  Scenes of the two wives back home – Rob Hall’s is played by Keira Knightley – and the way they react as events unfold on the mountain are handled deftly and movingly by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, an interesting choice, given his indie background.  The wives’ reactions are not nearly as forthright as those of the widows of some Everest fatalities, who have sometimes expressed bitterness in documentaries at the way their husbands put summits before family.

The movie succeeds in many ways – a particularly fine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as rival, maverick guide Scott Fischer, and a stunning recapturing of the landscape of Nepal.  See it in 3-D, so that, in the best traditions of filmmaking, the movie takes you there in a way which means you never, ever have to do it in real life – thank God. For one thing, the film amply demonstrates is that the death toll on Everest is not worth it.  Anyone who wants to experience a sublime mountain moment can do so elsewhere below the death zone without putting their own lives – and others – at risk.

Treasures of the Indus – Filming in Pakistan

September 8th, 2015 1 comment
CCCC5583 Pakistani selfie Lahore lors

Pakistani selfie (C) Hugh Thomson 2015



Before we went, Pakistan had always looked like it was going to be difficult. It took three months just to get the filming visas even though what we were making was not on a politically sensitive subject; we were there to explore the sometimes forgotten ancient history of the country.




Security was to be paramount. The mosque where we filmed sufi musicians had been suicide bombed in 2010 by the Taliban with the death of 42 worshippers. A few weeks after we had planned to film the border crossing at Wagah, where Pakistani and Indian guards try to compete with each other for the most militaristic display, it too was suicide bombed. While filming at several remote old Buddhist monasteries, we were interrupted courteously but firmly by security questioning our right to film.

The key to filming in Pakistan was, as ever, finding a fixer who could deliver – in our case Khalid Waseem, based in Rawalpindi, who came recommended by several other productions. This meant that most of the cultural institutions where we wanted to film did not charge a fee. In Lahore, they let us light up some of the Mughal palaces at night for some spectacular sequences and turned on all the disused fountains in the pleasure gardens. We were able to use drone cameras and satellite phones and, with an immensely experienced cameraman, Spike Geilinger, the drone cameras proved invaluable for getting an overview of large archaeological remains like the ancient Indus city of Harappa.


For one memorable sequence, we took boats across a remote lake in the Buddhist heartland around Gandhara – a fascinating area, which still shows the influence of Alexander the Great and the Greeks when they arrived and took this new religion to their heart.  Sadly, many of the old Buddhist sites have now been mutilated, but some of the small remote ones still survive.


Our presenter, Sona Datta, who has worked as a curator at the British Museum, knows Pakistan well. The dramas played out by the vanished cultures of the Indus – the battle with climate change, the clash of civilisations – are still being played out today and Sona and I both wanted to ensure the series addressed this; so we interviewed political commentator Ahmed Rashid as well as contemporary artists like the Biennale–exhibiting star of Pakistani art, Rashid Rana.

CCCC5889 boys in Lahore Old City lores

boys in Lahore Old City by (c) Hugh Thomson 2015

Lahore is one of those cities of the subcontinent like Old Delhi or Varanasi where a shot presents itself almost in every direction – particularly after dark, when what Kipling called ‘the city of dreadful night’ comes alive in smoke-filled narrow alleyways lit up by the Badshahi Mosque beyond.  For Eid, we filmed from rickshaws down those alleys as camels and all the streetlife of Pakistani crowded around us, before eating goat’s brain curry washed down with iced drinks of mint, cumin and salt in the havelis of the walled city.


For the other important role of any good fixer is to know how to schedule the last shot of each day near a decent restaurant.

Hugh Thomson is the Series Producer and Director of Treasures of the Indus, a 3-part series beginning on Monday August 31st on BBC 4 at 9.00 pm.  Catch it on iPlayer


Letter from Iceland

August 20th, 2015 No comments

Letters-from-Iceland-TP_zpsb65ae8d4Difficult to be here without thinking of the travel book W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote in 1936 when they came.  Letters from Iceland is a curious and in some ways very lazy book, which they threw together for Fabers at a time when such golden boys they could pretty much do anything they wanted.

So in some ways it’s a mischievous anti-travel book that tweaks the tale of more serious contemporaries like Peter Fleming.  There’s quite a lot of ‘I can’t really be bothered to do this,’ with deliberately amateur black-and-white pictures.  At one point they just bundle in a whole anthology of clippings from previous visitors to bulk it up a bit.

But it also signals a sea change in their own writing – in Iceland, they can loosen up, free from the pressures of being ‘the voices of their generation’ back home, a particular pressure on Auden.  He had read Byron’s Don Juan on the boat over and the idea came to him (in a
bus when travelling across Iceland) that, for the first time, he could write some similar light verse, in the form of letters home to friends in England in which he could put ‘anything I could think of about Europe, literature, myself’ . And this lovely couplet about a place I’ve just visited as well:

‘In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.’

images (3)MacNeice contributes much less to the book – some eighty-one pages out of the first edition’s two hundred forty – but has some equally effective couplets in his own verse letter which prefigures the great wartime Autumn Journal: 


‘Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
stills from the film of life, the frozen fire’


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they rode on ponies around the glacier of Langjokull

There was a subtext to their visit as well.  Some Nazi anthropologist were also visiting the island in an attempt to prove that it displayed pure, isolationist Aryan characteristics.  The two poets tried to show in contrast that it was the model for a quiet, democratic nation, free from such shrill nationalistic yearnings.  And it was in Iceland that Auden first heard the news about the civil war in Spain, and everything changed….


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Talking Sheep

August 3rd, 2015 No comments

Jason Gathorne-Hardy, the master artist when it comes to sheep

Not often that an obvious stand-out classic arrives in the rather over populated world of nature history writing at the moment. Last year it was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

This year it is definitely The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks , who already has a large following from his Twitter account as ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’.

Counting sheep will never send people to sleep again. It’s an extraordinary authentic account of what it actually is like to live and breathe sheep.  Tersely written as well.

He pays tribute both in his title and in his text to WH Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, which was based on a series of interviews with a shepherd in Dorset and which I quoted in The Green Road into the Trees when walking through that part of the world:

The naturalist WH Hudson, noted how the local plants had adapted by growing as low as possible to avoid the attentions of the sheep.  I was a great admirer of Hudson and had visited the house where he was born in Argentina, overshadowed by an enormous ombu tree:  a strange tree which is more like a giant shrub, and needs to have its branches supported on crutches across the ground, so that it resembles a giant spider.

He brought to his studies of England, in particular A Shepherd’s Life about these Dorset and Wiltshire Downs, a sense that England was just as strange and exotic as the pampas;  also a sense of how short rural memories are.  He told an odd story of how a farmer he had met had puzzled over finding a disused well full of sheep heads with horns, when none of the local breeds were horned;  and that Hudson had had to tell him about the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, with horns, which had only died out a generation or so before.

Enjoyably daft new theory about Stonehenge

March 16th, 2015 No comments

stonehengeEnjoyably daft new theory about Stonehenge from Julian Spalding, which has prompted a classic archaeologist putdown from Sir Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, “He could be right, but I know of no evidence to support it.”

The idea that Stonehenge might have been built as the base for a higher structure is initially attractive, but doesn’t bear much thinking about.


If you want to construct a high building, everyone from Egypt to Mesoamerica did so by creating a wide and stable mass – like a pyramid – so that you could erect upper storries.

Having a thin wide circle as the base for a higher walkway or superstructure seems deeply illogical, as the late Leonard Nimoy would say.

That there was an element of procession, both to and around Stonehenge, seems very probable, not least because of the evidence provided by the nearby oval Cursus, the Avenue to Stonehenge, and from what we know of prehistoric man’s instincts around the world.  But the idea that they walked around on top of the stones may be seductive, but is highly unlikely.

More consistent is the idea of a concealed place, like Bronze Age mortuary circles:  that the outer ring  delineated a private space within, which may have been only accessible to the privileged or theocratic, as discussed in The Green Road into the Trees when talking about Seahenge.

The Young Dude:  Ryan Adams

March 1st, 2015 No comments

To see Ryan Adams at the Hammersmith Apollo, scene of many a great concert in the past when it was the Odeon.  When I first went in 1974 (the year Adams was born), there was a new support band called Queen who no one had ever heard of and we thought a bit much, while we waited for the main band – Mott the Hoople and ‘All the Young Dudes’…  Years later I interviewed Mick Ronson there just before he died, for my Dancing in the Street series, and he reminisced about Bowie’s ‘Ziggy retirement concert’, and played solo for us.

Ryan Adams has turned into a singer of real stature (although not in actual height – he looks like a shaggier version of Frodo) – after many a wayward twist and turn since the days of Gold and ‘New York, New York’ which first brought him fame.  His new album, just called Ryan Adams, although about his 14th (give or take a record company reject), feels like he’s found his voice – and guitar – again.

In the past, his very facility for writing songs – he turns the heckles of one punter into an instant song, a neat party trick I’ve heard him play before but one that exemplifies this weakness – means that he produces too much;  but these song feel heartfelt.  I suspect he’s this generation’s Neil Young – prolific, occasionally brilliant, sometimes infuriating and veering between acoustic and electric to great effect.

He’s joined by his support act Natalie Prass for a couple of well matched duets, including a showstopping ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, and gets even the most jaded of London’s spoilt-for-choice rock audience singing along to ‘When the Stars Go Blue’.  Oh, and he keeps talking about ‘dudes’ on stage.  Which no one else has done since Ian Hunter.


NB – The footage of Mick Ronson playing solo for us in the stalls at Hammersmith Odeon was played back at the memorial concert held at the Odeon for him when he died in 1993, shortly after the interview was recorded:  a strange and ghostly moment.  Ronson was a charming and honest man, and still undervalued.  Quite apart from his transformative work with Bowie and Lou Reed, he had also just reinvigorated Morrissey’s career with the excellent Your Arsenal album that for the first time made the petulant one a star in the States.

Paris after Charlie Hebdo

February 12th, 2015 No comments

SAMSUNGStruck on a visit to Paris by the changes that have taken place in recent years – and also going in the shadow of the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy which has had the effect – a little like the July bombings in London did a decade ago – of reminding citizens what a multicultural city they now find themselves in.


Also struck by the wealth of modern art – the shows at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (a museum often ignored in favour of the more grandstanding Pompidou Centre) are superb –  retrospectives of veteran Sonia Delaunay, whose work spanned the 20th century, and of Canadian newcomer David Altmejd, whose fecund world of fur and crystal covered giants, and Perspex mazes, was new to me but endlessly exciting.


Sonia Delaunay


David Altmejd

Seeing the best out of 2014

December 31st, 2014 No comments

At the end of a year with even more travel than usual – Hawaii to Tahiti, out down the mouth of the Amazon, round the Mediterranean with my son Leo, and films on India and Pakistan in the autumn, let alone a great deal of time spent in Glasgow and Scotland – good to catch up on myself and the best things I came across that sustained me on the journeys:

ida-2013-003-praying-by-roadsideBest films:  In June, I stumbled into a small art-house cinema in New England on the off chance and saw the only movie that looked promising, although I’d never heard of it – Ida, by some way my film of the year for its unflinching honesty, beauty and rigour, despite what seems the unpromising scenario:  Polish girl in a 1950s convent has to decide whether she stays or she goes, not necessarily helped by her hard-drinking, hard-living aunt. A luminous film in the spirit of Bresson, and the first Paweł Pawlikowski has made in Poland rather than Britain.

It’s been a great year for strong female performances.  The best things about Mr Turner and The Theory Of Everything were not the technically accomplished portraits of their heroes by Timothy Spall and Eddie Redmayne, but the life given to the films by their screen wives, Marion Welsh and Felicity Jones, who were both superb.  Likewise, Scarlett Johansson pulled off some bold strokes in first the very enjoyable and slightly bonkers Lucy, and then the less enjoyable, but equally bonkers Under The Skin, ludicrously overrated by the Guardian as their #1 film of the year.

Both Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan produced fine films in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Interstellar, even if neither was their best, and the less said about the execrable Wolf on Wall Street the better – Scorsese been running on empty so long, the car should surely just be left in the garage.

But along with Ida, the other knockout film of the year was Boyhood, for letting us feel the director’s surprise at how lives unfold and people age.

Best books were Arundhati Roy’s rage against caste, The Doctor And The Saint;  Adam Nicolson’s passionate advocacy of Homer and the Bronze Age in The Mighty Dead;  and two work of popular history told with verve and flair – Charles Spencer on how The Killers Of The King (Charles I) were hunted down after the Restoration, and Boris Johnson on The Churchill Factor without the boring 3-volume life bits or indeed bothering with much chronology at all.

In my own field of travel books, amongst some increasingly austere and dull nature writing, one book shone out for its unaffected simplicity and grace:  Meadowland: The Private Life Of An English Field by John Lewis-Stempel.

Best exhibitions:  the British Museum’s ‘Mummy: The Inside Story’,  where they revealed the faces of those inside the mummies by using CT Scans;  ‘Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at the Tate which proved that a big blockbuster show can still be thoughtful.

Best albums were the eponymous Ryan Adams, his best for many years and all the better for being guitar driven;  and Mark Kozalek’s remarkable Benji, in which his talent for long narrative songs about the American mid-west made him a sort of aural equivalent of Boyhood.  Kozalek (aka ‘Sun Kil Moon’) also gave the most audacious concert I saw in which he had to hire a drummer from the audience as his own had failed to turn up (and paid the replacement in cash on stage), and then asked if any women in the audience would come up and sing a duet with him on ‘I’ve Got You Babe’, at which the audience collectively sucked in their teeth at the humiliation to come, but Joanne from Glasgow gave a knockout performance.

The Riches Of The European Bronze Age

December 3rd, 2014 No comments

Dea MadreAnother reminder this year of the riches of the European Bronze Age which we still underestimate so much – this time in the form of an artefact allegedly looted from Sardinia and now up for sale in New York, magnificent in its stark simplicity.

Adam Nicolson’s superb study of Homer and the Bronze Age, The Mighty Dead, and my own travels through Bronze Age Britain in The Green Road into the Trees have whetted my appetite for more.  And a chance to go to Athens recently and see some of Schliemann’s findings from Mycenae, like the so-called Mask of Agememnon, in the flesh – or rather metal – only confirmed that.

A chance to see something closer to home is at the British Museum: The Mold Gold Cape, discovered in Wales and the most spectacular of British Bronze Age findings, which should have crowds diverting from the Egyptian rooms, but few know about.