The filmmaker who shone a spotlight on Yorkshire

Geoff Kerr at work making a documentary about the Yorkshire Dales.
Geoff Kerr at work making a documentary about the Yorkshire Dales.
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Geoff Kerr made a series of films about the Dales, but having been diagnosed with cancer it was a race against time to finish his final documentary. Tony Earnshaw reports.

Three weeks before he died filmmaker Geoff Kerr invited the Yorkshire Post to review his latest documentary Enigma and Treasure, which details the county’s impressive number of sites of special scientific interest, or SSSIs.

“I know it’s not quite so straightforward as that, especially as you don’t know me from Adam,” he wrote. “I suspect that you don’t review every single film put in front of you or even those shot in Yorkshire.”

He added: “There could be a background story to go with this that could interest a reader or two.”

The background story he referred to was the world tour of his life that took him as a young electrician from Southport to New Zealand and thence to Australia and Fiji and back to Oz, where he would join the crew of sail training ship Leeuwin and finally the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour, sailing on her around the world and meeting wife Helen in the process.

But there was another background story, and one that was rather more pressing. Four years earlier Kerr had been diagnosed with cancer. Now the disease was in its final stages. His failing health made Kerr determined to finish his film and to meet the deadline of a premiere at the Grassington Festival.

“In all likelihood I will not be around to attend the preview,” he wrote. “However it is a sell-out and will be attended by many of my friends, family and members of the filmmaking, conservation and creative communities in Yorkshire.”

An interview was arranged. “I can do quick chats at the moment. If you catch me at a bad time my wife can perhaps talk on my behalf. It’s been a great journey to Threshfield and filmmaking via Captain James Cook and the Endeavour Replica. I was the Chief Officer onboard for its maiden world voyage,” wrote Kerr. His final comment was an exhortation about the interview: “I’d make it sooner rather than later!” He died three days later.

For a quarter of a century Geoff Kerr was a nomad. In the mid 1970s with his first wife Maureen and son Tony he emigrated to New Zealand and worked in an outdoor education programme with disadvantaged Maori youngsters. When his marriage ended he went canoeing, kayaking and caving in Australia, living the life of an adventurer.

Later he wound up in Fiji, working as the skipper of a yacht and as a dive master. Then came perhaps the most fulfilling period of his life: he joined the sail training ship Leeuwin. Among the crew was Chris Blake. And when the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour was commissioned Kerr was hired as First Mate, joining Captain Chris Blake and experiencing an extraordinary three-year voyage as the ship circumnavigated the world. For his last two years at sea Helen joined him.

“We met in 1997 when the ship was part way through its world voyage,” says Helen. “It wasn’t love at first sight but because you are so intensely put together with people in close confines after two weeks I thought, ‘I like this bloke. He’s got a bit about him’. After a couple of weeks it just blossomed. We never looked back.

“When I got to London I went back to work as an engineer. I didn’t want people to think that they’d employed me because of my relationship with Geoff. But I missed Geoff and I really wanted to be at sea sailing. Fortunately I was able to get a job on Endeavour and so we sailed together around the world for a couple of years. It was an absolute dream job. You couldn’t wish for anything better: to get paid to travel around the world.”

They made landfall in 2000 and settled in Threshfield, near Grassington in the Dales. Kerr returned to work as an electrician but always had a hankering to try his hand at filmmaking.

“Geoff wanted an outlet for his creativity,” said wife Helen the day after her husband’s funeral. “Creative ideas floated his boat. It provided an outlet.”

His first project was Down the Wharfe, a project that emerged from his fascination with the river and a yearning to get to grips with a new video camera. “But then, Geoff being Geoff, he got more excited,” remembers Helen. “The idea came into his head about how he could make a film about the source of the River Wharfe. He would follow the journey of the river and incorporate into that the places that the river travelled through on its way down as far as Bolton Abbey, where he finished the film.”

Down the Wharfe eventually sold 3,000 copies on DVD. “Not that much,” wrote Kerr, “but this is a small pond.”

All Kerr’s documentaries were shot with the aid of volunteers and helpers. Down the Wharfe was made with a crew of three, often shot on Mondays when he, his wife, and friend Tony Chamley, all self-employed, would take a day off work to film.

“When he was diagnosed with cancer he couldn’t work as an electrician and couldn’t commit to doing work for people because he was having chemotherapy,” says Helen. “But he needed something to do, a focus, and came up with a film that he could fit in around his treatment.”

That second film was 2014’s The Settlement, charting the different peoples that have lived in the Yorkshire Dales stretching back a millennium and more to 12,000BC, and which received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Then came Enigma and Treasure.

Says Helen: “This film is a lot better than the others, quality wise, but he wanted to mess about with a few bits and pieces. A month before he died he was out again with a camera reshooting because he wasn’t happy with some of the shots we’d got. Then he was busy a couple of weeks getting it onto Blu-ray. So he did only just finish it in time.

“I remember saying to him that if I could get him there in a wheelchair, would he want to go to the premiere? And he said he wouldn’t. He didn’t need that – to have people feeling sorry for him. He was that kind of guy.

“He was a man interested in the environment and history and who wanted to get some of that information out to people around here.” His legacy is three unique feature-length documentaries about the Dales.

“Geoff wasn’t particularly a nostalgic man. He was always looking forward. He was very inspirational to a lot of people because he did a lot of things in his life. He’d always been an outdoor man; he took to the Yorkshire Dales and the environment we live in and he wanted to share that.

“People think that the Dales are really beautiful but sometimes they don’t understand about the SSSIs. Geoff wanted to explain that there are places that are not too beautiful in the Yorkshire Dales but that are very significant, very special and have a beauty of their own. That’s why they’re designated as SSSIs. And that’s Enigma and Treasure.”

Enigma and Treasure receives its premiere at 8pm on June 24 at the Grassington Institute as part of the 2016 Grassington Festival.