Bonfire of the Humanities

“What shall we do with him then?” an announcer bellowed into the PA system.

 It was a particularly cold and wet November evening and I was perched atop a fifty-foot high mound of sticks and branches. Beneath me a few thousand people gathered, waving flaming torches and staring in my direction.The torch bearing crowd which gathered at the Cranleigh Bonfire. 

 “Shall we hang him?”

“No,” the crowd replied.

“Shall we drown him?” I thought this an odd question to ask people holding torches and staring at a pile of tinder the size of a small battleship.

“No,” the crowd yelled. At least they were practical.

“Shall we burn him?”

“Yes,” the crowd roared. Actually, they were British, so it wasn’t really much of a roar - more like a muffled, “if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

I suppose the story would be more accurate, though considerably less dramatic, if I mentioned that around this time, a representative of the local Lions Club, which had organized the event, politely informed me that this might be a good time for me and my camera equipment to come down from the top of the pile. However, as good storytelling has more to do with drama than with technical veracity, I shall omit that point for now.

A Guy selected earlier in the day for no quality save his looks was carried to the top of the mound and placed in a large throne-like chair a few feet from my vantage point. Members of the throng hurled their torches onto the pile where I had been standing. As loud music played and fireworks rent the sky, the inferno quickly consumed the wood, the chair and all traces of the Guy.

And what, you might ask, was I doing at such a barbaric ritual 4000 miles from home? The short answer is Bible study.

Exactly four centuries ago the King James Version of the Bible was completed, and although it was neither the first, nor the most technically accurate English translation, it is probably the most moving and the most significant. This is a substantial a paradox.  Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper, Shakespeare wrote all those plays, but it was a group of stuffy, mostly forgotten academics, that managed to craft the Bible by which all others are judged.

The KJV was the result of a seven year series of committee meetings and compromises. Forty-seven college professors met at length and debated the most minute permutations of every word and phrase. For example, there was an extensive debate over: “Let there be light,” verses “let light be.”   

“Sure,” I said, “we can make an interesting documentary about this project. No problem.” It’s the freelance filmmaker’s creed: Say yes now, figure out the details later.

About a year into the translation project a group of religious extremists decided God wanted them to blow up buildings and kill lots of innocent people. Even then it wasn’t the most original idea. Fortunately, the terrorists were unsuccessful. The most famous of the plotters, Guy Fawkes was captured beneath Parliament standing guard over a large quantity of gunpowder. The failure was proclaimed a miracle; God had saved the king and by extension the translation process. Today, throughout England children compete to build the best replica of Fawkes, an effigy known as a “Guy.” This Guy is then paraded through town before being publicly incinerated.

Of course we simply had to get footage of this. And so it was that on a very cold and rainy night I found myself, in the company of a small crew, in Cranleigh, an English village we hadn’t even heard of two weeks before.

What we found looked rather bleak on a rainy November afternoon. We met the winners of the “Make a Guy” contest in front of a local grocery store. Like everyone else, they were cold and wet.  Their winning entry was the only one smiling.  Perhaps he was looking forward to warming himself by the fire. I turned on the camera and tried to get a few comments from the winners. Interviewing kids is always difficult, interviewing reserved English children more so.

Three young English Artists and some Guy“So how long did it take you to make him?

“Three days.”

“What is he built from?”

“Papier-mâché and straw.”

“And what does Guy Fawkes Day mean to you?”


That interview did not make it into the film.

Suppose they gave a parade and nobody came. That thought kept running through my mind as we hiked the mile and a half from downtown to where we were told the parade was to start. There were no crowds, no bands practicing, no clowns selling balloon animals. Instead there was only empty road, pouring rain and mud splashed by a passing motorist. Perhaps it was all some joke on the stupid American film crew; send them out of town and tell them there’s a parade. That should keep them busy for hours.

At the top of a very long hill we encountered a few people standing under the shelter of an awning in front of a liquor store.  A few members of the Lions’ Club were selling torches - actually lengths of closet pole encased in candle wax.

The parade was scheduled to begin at 7:00 and by 6:55 there were perhaps 50 people huddled under the eaves.  A man drove up with a truck advertising “Plant Hire.” Strapped in the back was Guy Fawkes, looking just as cheery as he had at the contest a few hours ago.

I really wanted a dramatic shot of the torch lit parade, but it wasn’t going to happen with this crowd.  I began thinking about weird editing effects to make it look like there were more people. Then, at 7:00 a band and a few hundred marchers seemingly materialized around us. The band struck up a cadence, people lit their torches and all of us stepped out together into the pouring rain. As we rounded the corner, more people joined the procession until the street was ablaze. It was an impressive sight, thousands of tiny flames illuminating the streets and reflecting back in the puddles. No one watched the parade, everyone joined in on the long slow march toward the bonfire.

At last, I had my shot. Here was a strong visual of modern people celebrating a portion of our story. I grabbed the camera and ran to the front of the parade where I quickly set up the tripod and put the camera on it to shoot. The camera slipped off. Something was not adjusted correctly. I stopped to examine it, and the front of the parade passed me by. No time for precision; I would just have to fake it. I grabbed the camera and tripod and again ran to the front of the parade. The lens fogged up completely, I cleaned it and made another mad dash to the front.  I was glad for the long parade route.

This process is known as guerilla filmmaking, and I love it. The high speed rushing, quickly thinking of another angle, watching for something else that tells part of the story visually. Within seconds you have to find a shot, compose it, set up the camera and roll. In another ten seconds the opportunity will be gone. A young woman holds a torch so that the light flickers on the face of her young child – a wave of marchers together forms a line that looks like a snake slithering across the rain blackened pavement.  Hurry, in another second it will be gone.

I ran ahead of the parade to the site of the bonfire.  The rain had finally started to dissipate when I reached the edge of the fence surrounding the mass of logs, branches and pallets. Several members of the Lions Club chatted about how awful the weather was.   One gentleman noticed the camera, “So you’re looking for Ringo then?” he asked.  What on earth was he talking about? 

“Ringo Starr, he’s right over there.” He gestured toward a cluster of about ten people in raincoats. I assumed this was some sort of joke. What on earth would one of The Beatles be doing standing in a rainstorm in some tiny hamlet so far from anyplace? Probably just more laughs at the dumb Americans.

Just then the event organizer came over and offered to let me carry the camera to the top of the bonfire so I could see the crowd approaching. This could be a fantastic shot – looking down at the angry torch bearing mob.  On the other hand, how many people did I know who had actually met Ringo Starr?  I debated the matter for half a moment. Was I really prepared to say that I traveled 4000 miles to get footage of a parade, but missed it so that I got a chance to see a 68 year old rock star?

I climbed the rickety path up the wooden mountain to a spot just below Guy’s throne and waited as the crowd filled in around me. It was stirring and dramatic stuff. 

The announcer began his stirring reading of the traditional “Bonfire prayer,” as they call it.

Remember, remember the fifth of November
The Gunpowder treason and plot
I know of no reason . . .
And I can’t read the rest of this because the rain is on it.

The crowd burst into laughter, and the discomfort we all felt was lifted.  In the end, we filmed over two hours worth of material for a segment that takes up just over a minute in the final program.

When we returned home I looked up the local newspapers and read the following quote in The Surrey Advertiser: 

“How great is this? Year in, year out the Lions pull it together and we do have one of the most incredible bonfire and firework shows in England,” said Cranleigh resident Ringo Starr.

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