All That Glisters

For three hectic days, Reigate Tunnel Caves were turned into a busy film set. Members of Wealden Cave and Mine Society were there to witness all the action. Peter Burgess reveals (not quite) all!

For some years, Reigate and Banstead Borough Council has licensed various borough properties to film companies to use as sets for various productions, from low budget videos to mainstream drama. This year, the Tunnel Road West Caves have been added to the list of sites available for licensing from the council, and between 19th and 21st February this year, some scenes for a major TV drama were shot in the caves.

Whenever the caves are hired out for filming, members of Wealden Cave and Mine Society get involved to monitor the proper use of the caves and to provide help should any practical problems arise.

For the recent hiring, WCMS put together a team of its members to turn up and help out. The production company had licensed a full three days in the caves, and arranged a road closure notice for Tunnel Road so that they could be sure of no obstructions for their hectic comings and goings.

19th February

Our volunteers were scheduled to be on site from 8am, and I arrived early to find that security was already on site, but had failed to locate the entrance to the caves until we arrived. I had earlier spotted them walking over the top of the south portal as I drove into town. Stacey and Sol were lovely people and very easy to work with.

The first task was to run the normal site safety checks for the West Side Cave and make an entry in the inspection log.  Breakfast appeared courtesy of the production company – sausages in buns and yoghurts.

The props team appeared and after a brief safety talk, everyone went about their business. Our first job, even before the site inspection, was to set up a reception table just inside the entrance complete with the T-bar manual entry/exit system which we had been lent by South East Cave Rescue Organisation. It was a great relief to see the security and production team take charge of this, and it was clear they were going to be pretty diligent in making it work properly. We opened up the cave’s emergency exit through which the generator power feed was going to run.

The T-card entry system being put to good use

Deliveries came throughout the morning. A generator, many metres of heavy duty power cable, a large van apparently loaded with heavy baulks of rotten timber and rusty metal along with stacks of cardboard boxes, several wheelbarrows, hessian sandbags filled with something that wasn’t sand, half a dozen oil drums, rusty trolleys and so on. Anyone not aware of what was happening might have assumed there was some large-scale fly tipping going on!

We were promised a late lunch from the set canteen and sat back while the crew laid out all the cables, placed all the props in the right places, and checked with the director that they had put everything more or less where he wanted it. This seemed to be completed with exemplary efficiency and they were pretty much done soon after 1pm, and most of them left. Lunch was not forthcoming as the bulk of the clientele had gone but there is plenty of good food in Reigate so it was hardly the end of the world. Before we left for home, we had been advised that tomorrow would be manic!

The props team disguised a large brick buttress with a lot of fake timber and other junk.

Loads of stolen booty stacked up in the caves.

20th February

Today there was an early start – 7am. A site check revealed nothing of any concern and a large number of people descended on the caves in the next few hours. We were provided with another breakfast. Filming was scheduled to start at 10am, but was delayed by an hour due to some unscheduled late filming at the previous location.

The morning was largely given over to setting up lighting and adjusting the set. Some very large LED arrays were hoisted high in the passages on top of large tripods. The impressive level of bright light created was then largely screened by equally large black panels, resulting in an interesting low light level akin to twilight, allowing just enough illumination to be able to see what you were doing, and clearly enough for creating video footage. The aim was to record the actors performing in an old “tin mine” apparently using nothing more than their own torches to find their way.

Once the director and actors were on the set, time was of the essence, and each scene was rehearsed and played out until enough good footage was “in the can”. During the action, almost everyone was silent and frozen to the spot. With 60-odd people in the caves, this was surreal – the only sound being the movement of the actors and their dialogue, usually sprinkled with profanities as they seemingly struggled to push heavy loads of stolen plunder around in a wheelbarrow. As each actor moved through the set, they were followed by a lighting engineer with a big fat light wand on a pole, creating the illusion of a moving pool of light from a torch held by the actor. Very clever.

Portable lighting being checked

Between each shoot there was a hive of activity as people checked the results, adjusted the light, tried different angles, and so on. I suspect the sound-deadening effect of all the sand made the work easier for them as well, but I am no expert. One of the crew did tell me they had used large empty fuel bunkers at Dover for filming on another occasion and thought the acoustics there were incredible.

The subtle overall lighting created by clever use of screens

Those of us who tried to satisfy our curiosity and stand out of the way to see what was going on managed to get a glimpse of all the activity, but the director may have been a little nervous at our presence as on more than one occasion he asked for the “hi-vizzes” to move, even though we thought we were well hidden behind the large sand pillars. That said, he was always polite with us and I don’t think our presence was ever a serious issue. With the director clearly under pressure to get all his footage done in a timely manner, and each scene being repeated several times, I was happy to have witnessed the production work in full swing, and made a discrete withdrawal especially when a mug of tea back at base seemed like a good move.

The day was scheduled to end at 6pm, but with the late start an overrun was almost inevitable. Sure enough, the request came through – can we have another couple of hours please? This was not a problem, and everything was actually completed by 7pm. We cleared the cave, turned off the lights and locked up quickly, ready for the last day.

One highlight of the day was lunch. We each put in our order, and a bag of packed hot meals duly arrived and we all sat down around a table to enjoy either a spicy beef meal or a tuna steak with trimmings. The dessert choice was equally as appetising – a chocolate ginger flapjack or a fruity cobbler.

All the activity at the cave entrance

21st February

At 8am there were already a few people at the caves, and nobody lost any time in clearing up. All the props came out, the cables, lighting paraphernalia and so on, and stacked up in the tunnel waiting for the vans to arrive to collect it all.

There was something of an anti-climactic feel about today. While the props crew were waiting for their van to turn up, we gave them a tour of the East Side caves which was much appreciated. I think they also took the opportunity to size up East Side as a potential venue! The van arrived, was loaded and departed. There was some earlier drama when one the vans, the one with the lighting items I believe, snagged itself on a gate post at the top of the road as it was leaving, and pulled it out of vertical. No doubt an insurance company will be sorting it out as I write this.

The six-part drama series is expected to air in early 2025. Until then we are bound by a confidentiality clause in the filming licence not to disclose the title or publish any photos of the filming in progress. If you are not sure what the stolen plunder apparently being hidden in the caves is, consider the title of this report.

Report and photographs by Peter Burgess