The Last Lighthouse: Bishop Rock on the BBC
The episode was noted in an issue of Flash magazine:
“Most of our readers probably saw the documentary shown on BBC1 on 6th February, 1974, called ‘The Last Lighthouse’ devoted solely to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse and her Keepers. The programme was extremely well-received, and many members of the public contacted the Public Relations Department to say how much they enjoyed the programme and how they hoped that it would be repeated. We understand that the B.B.C. were impressed by the interest and reception shown by everyone who watched the programme, and judging by the amount of mail delivered to the lighthouse, the 3 Keepers are now stars in their own right. They had better watch out if it’s shown overseas!
The programme also received many complimentary reviews in the press, and we are pleased to print a selection of these:-
Daily Mail: “Unexpected delight: The Last Lighthouse (BBC 1) which as a speck on the Radio Times chart, seemed certain to make eyelids heavy and yawns frequent.
A lighthouse, I find, is not boring if seen as a Victorian working man’s cottage, 30 miles out to sea. That was how playwright Tony Parker viewed the one on the Bishop Rock, off the Scillies, mounting a strong argument for more outsiders to make documentaries.
Parker watched the thing on his holiday horizon for years on end, becoming increasingly curious over what life was like out there in the tower. The best possible motive for any programme, far more compelling than topicality.
What its servants call, with fitting reverence. ‘The Bishop’, turns out to be a magic place. For it is the last, great, non-robot lighthouse, the conservationist’s dream; an antique which works beautifully and usefully.
Inside, it’s a feast for the eye. Henry Farrar’s camera kept discovering quaint details, recording machine-tending rituals all the more satisfying for being totally beneficial. Lighting-up time involves more than throwing a switch. First meths is decanted into a shining copper pot, to heat the paraffin. Twenty minutes later – none of that instant nonsense about Victorian technology – paraffin vapour is curling out of a giant gasmantle, ready for lighting. A cosy popping noise as the match is applied, and then the beam sends a warning for 18 miles.
Add logical yet unexpected aspects of living in a granite ship forever at anchor (taps aren’t for hot and cold but for fresh and rainwater all waste is thrown out of the nearest window) and it was evident that Parker was on a winner.
Just as interesting were the men, studied at leisure, compelling admiring wonder at the monastic trade of their choice. Principal Keeper George Williams, filling out his log with an old-fashioned dip-pen and inkwell, listening to ‘pop’ in bed. Assistant Keeper Roger Simmons, a romantic, still thrilled at tending a light seen by generations of mariners, and listening to changing voices in the sea. I’m sure they will forgive the thought, being manifestly happily married men – in spite or because of spending two thirds of every year away from their families – but the lighthouse hermits struck me as charmingly oldmaidish in their ways. Obviously sharing a sealed space for months on end, with a parlour which can be crossed in three paces, calls for more sensitivity than many men can command, let alone maintain for a working lifetime. Strain, while not admitted, was implied. Men were heavily hooked on the demon cigarette, at least one showing scars of savage nail-biting.
Technically, producer Paul Bonner, his cameraman, and sound-recordist Derek Medus captured seascapes and interiors with an unobtrusiveness which belied what must have been awkward conditions. Virtue is its own reward – and ours. They gave us a memorably enjoyable piece of television. And something for the archives if, as Parker suggested at the end of his programme, The Bishop is heading for remote control…”
The Daily Telegraph: “The Last Lighthouse (BBC1) was one of those programmes which ought to make the rest of us go rather quiet for a space about our present woes and consider the other man’s lot. I am very glad not to be hauled up the face of the Bishop Rock in what looked like a howling gale or to be separated from my nearest and dearest for two months in three by the raging Atlantic. For all this, the final impression left by Tony Parker’s offbeat and vastly watchable documentary was not hardship but dedication. His lighthouse keepers had chosen their calling, had come to terms with it and even in a curious way gloried in it.
Mr. Parker, a distinguished writer of plays about prison, was attracted to lighthouses because they seemed to offer the same theme. He chose The Bishop because it is Britain’s most isolated lighthouse, perched on a range of rock west of the Scillies; one of the oldest, with its original gear nearly in tact. As a subject for the camera it proved irresistable: a huge and awesome pillar arising Titanlike from boiling sea, a monument to nature’s anger and man’s ingenuity. Inside the granite tower the scene became almost cosily domestic. The lighthousemen cooked their meals, tended their huge paraffin-fed lights, listened to Radio 2 and plied an occasional needle. They waxed philosophic. “The sea sounds like angry voices talking to me. Sometimes they say: ‘I’m going to hammer you tonight’. “But I feel secure because I know this place has stood for 100 years and the sea can never knock it down.”
The men spend two months on the rock and a month in the Scillies with their families. They seem unaffected by the life. The programme, produced by Paul Bonner, had a slightly disorganised quality, as if more trouble could have been taken in the editing. But visually it was often startingly beautiful, while its content compelled fascinated admiration…”
Daily Express: “…Rolling in from the Atlantic in my Navy days we used to slightly distort Scott’s famous lines:-
Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
THANK GOD FOR THE BISHOP LIGHT.
“The Last Lighthouse” was the theme of B.B.C.1’s programme about the Bishop Rock off Land’s End. But it was the first lighthouse to us, the first stormwashed bastion of Britain with 3,000 miles of water behind.
Tony Parker and his film crew lifted the lid off the 100 year old lighthouse, and for me it was a fascinating experience – for as the beacon guided us to safety none of us considered the men who worked it; their two month shifts, hazards and acute sense of responsibility. To this day, a single match lights this mantle which keeps the ships in clear water, and there were George Williams, Roger Simmons, and Terry Johns. The lonely men, caring for their precious big bright ball of light, seem happy in their isolated domesticity, swinging 11 tons of glass around its mercury bearings with one finger, opening tins of food. You would think the keepers would be bored stiff, perched on their rock, almost in sight of home. But they looked suited to their tight little world, in between cooking, cleaning and tending the beacon.
This peep at a small and dying world was fascinating. As Tony Parker said: “We were only just in time to capture it”.
The Birmingham Post: “Beyond the Isles of Scilly, the Bishop Rock lighthouse stands at the edge of the Atlantic, with nothing between it and America. To mere landlovers it is an awesome thought that men will happily incarcerate themselves within its walls for two months at a stretch, prepared to live in its limited perpendicular world as seen in The Last Lighthouse (BBC 1). To those of us who know no different, there is something romantic about the life of a lighthouse keeper if we have read our fiction and imagined him out there bravely facing the elements. This film showed that it is hair raising enough in the act of reaching or leaving the rock, but that for the most part it is a life of routine, discipline and essentially of understanding between the three-man crew though I could have wished for more about the stresses of living together in those confines.
The Sun: “Men who keep a lone watch – There is nothing between Bishop Rock Lighthouse and America except 3,000 miles of Atlantic ocean, and an awful lot of loneliness. And that, discovered writer Tony Parker, makes for a very special breed of man to work the light, in tonight’s documentary, The Last Lighthouse (BBC 1) he explains just how special. Parker became fascinated with lighthouses when, on a holiday in the Isles of Scilly, he went on a boat trip around the lonely Bishop Rock Lighthouse.
“Unlike other lights”, he says, “Bishop Rock is just a tower in the seas. There are not even any little rocks around its foot for the men to exercise on. The men do two months on the light and a month ashore”. In the course of writing a book on lighthouses, Parker spent three weeks on the rock. “The lighthousemen’s world is in a series of circular rooms 12 feet across, and their only job is to tend the light”, he says.”