I first met Aidan Lithgow at the inaugural CTS Premier Sale at the CTICC in 2011. Over discussions about his project, Legends Of The Turf, and a few beers, we became firm friends and I’ve been following the project ever since. The scope of the project has evolved and expanded exponentially, as has the budget and the time it has taken to put it together but, after nearly five years of blood, sweat and tears, they are into the home stretch and have embarked on a three week epic of filming recreations of some of the greatest moments in our racing history. I spent a day on set to see how it was all going.
How it all started
Aidan is the son of the late Tellytrack supremo Jimmy Lithgow and Elaine Lithgow (nee Rathbone) and recounts that as a child, instead of being regaled with fairy tales at bedtime, grandfather Les Rathbone (who trained Summer Cup winner Casbah), used to send him to sleep with stories of the great horses and characters of the South African turf. Coming from such a dyed in the wool racing family as well as inheriting Jimmy’s prodigious talent for acting and broadcasting, the fuses of racing and storytelling were laid very early on. They just needed a tiny spark to kick them into life.
Growing up, Aidan wanted nothing more than to be a jockey. Unfortunately it was soon clear that he wasn’t going to stay small enough, but nonetheless he cut his teeth on the work gallops for the likes of June Casey, Willie Pieters and Michael Airey and he rode a horse called Galloping Granny for Mike Pappas in a work riders’ race. “Justin (Snaith) won it,” he grins. He did a stint with Judy Stegeman at Digteby Stud, breaking and pre-training some of her young horses and later spent a few months as a work rider on the World Cup show-jumping circuit in Europe. Aidan also spent a number of years working as a sky jockey and has helped transport the likes of Ipi Tombe, Eventuail and National Currency, to name but a few.
However, having seen a bit of what the horse world had to offer, Aidan decided to follow his other passion of film making and completed his studies at AFDA (The South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance).
If we fast forward a little from there to 2009, we find Aidan producing a Tellytrack talk show called You Be The Judge. The show featured a number of panellists who discussed topical or controversial issues each week. In the run up to Christmas, they decided to change tack and posed the question ‘who was South Africa’s greatest middle distance horse?’ They selected 20 horses and then assembled a panel of experts including Colin Buckham, Charles Faull, Garth Puller and Alec Laird to debate the subject. It was one of the most popular episodes they ever produced and so the flame met the fuse and lit the idea for a series of documentaries of our great horses.
Of course great ideas require capital, so in 2010 Aidan started canvassing for funding. Altus Joubert was the Chairman of the TBA at the time and with his avid interest in history and provenance, showed an immediate interest. “Like me, he also felt that our great champions of the past play a vital role in our future, simply by creating the dream and the desire for people to want to own a horse like them one day,” says Aidan. “We thought it would not only be a tribute to the past, but also a wonderful marketing tool for the breeding industry as well as racing as a whole.” And so the journey began.
After a great deal of research, hours of interviews, shooting, editing, reshooting in high definition, voice overs and re-editing each episode into commercial slices, the team are now into the home stretch, filming recreations of 83 key scenes.
They have called on all corners of the racing and horsey industry for help and people have responded in droves. Owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, racing fans, Thoroughbred owners – you name it – people have come from far and wide and contributed in the most incredible ways. People have spent hours recounting their versions of events, sharing treasured photographs and personal mementoes. Because many of the stories are set in the 60’s, the team have had to find silks, saddle cloths, riding kit and period clothing and again, the racing fraternity has generously loaned silks, breeches and riding equipment. As just one tiny example, Mark Sutherland lent not only his entire kit bag, still as neatly packed as the day he left the races, but his brother’s prized exercise saddle as well.
People have come from far and wide to fill the roles – amongst them are up and coming young rider Lyle Hewitson as David Payne, Emerald Cup hero Fransie Heroldt as Alec Laird snr, Chad Little plays Herman Brown and Clinton Binda is doing a fantastic turn as Sonny Chislett. And they’re not the only stars to look out for. Lucky Houdalakis’ charge Limbo plays Trocadero, Zorba’s Tale has done sterling service as In Full Flight, Summer Cup winner Rudra plays Numeral, Yvette Bremner’s Briar King will be Gatecrasher, Bhekinkosi plays Elevation and there are many more to look out for.
As Aidan says, it’s proper ‘lights, camera, action’ stuff. Their wardrobe mistress has created magic with her mobile box of styling tricks and the make-up girls have extra moustaches, sideburns and all manner of make-up to ensure that no detail is missed. In the midst of it all, Production Manager extraordinaire Kathy Pienaar calmly oversees that the daily programme is (mostly!) adhered to and Elaine and friends have manned the canteen to keep everyone fed and watered. It is a truly heroic effort on all fronts.
On Location with the Legends
Last Wednesday, the entire team including Zorba’s Tale, trekked out to the Vaal for the day. It was my first experience of the Vaal and I found myself unexpectedly impressed. The Vaal track and interview area don’t seem to translate well onto TV, and my impression has always been of a hot, fairly characterless place. To my complete surprise, it was invitingly lush and green and the tracks walked as good as they looked. I loved the grandstands with the framed racing photographs and memorabilia lining the walls and the admin buildings with their quaint wood panelling exteriors. It was quite gorgeous. The course staff could not have been more accommodating and we had frequent visitors during the day curious to see what we were up to and how it all worked.
What I found most interesting from my vantage point as an observer, was the incredible team Aidan has put together to make this project happen. Aidan may be uniquely positioned to head up a project like this, but the love, passion and dedication he has poured into it has infected the whole cast and crew. Despite innumerable budget and logistical constraints, his production team are every bit as focussed and passionate as he is. The project has a very special magic and you cannot help being touched by its energy and passion – evidenced by the wardrobe mistress, the make-up artists and even the lunch ladies being glued to the filming process every bit as much as the actors and technical crew. Everyone goes above and beyond the call of duty, because this has become their project too and it was a truly humbling experience joining everyone last week and watching it all come together.
Lyle Hewitson was an absolute Trojan, working resolutely from 5am until the final wrap at 6pm, variously galloping horses to Aidan’s exacting specifications, being covered in glycerine for his sweat box scene, cleaned up and then doused in fake blood to re-enact In Full Flight’s final moments and doing it all with a smile on his face. Professional actor David Clatworthy played Norman Ferguson and patiently repeated his scenes to allow them to be filmed from various angles and he was remarkably calm about getting up close and personal with a decidedly wound up Zorba’s Tale (who is a lot bigger in the flesh, let me tell you!). In the middle of it all, folks dropped in and out for wardrobe fittings, locations were scouted, scenes planned, equipment set up and broken down, extras and actors sourced, food prepared, eaten and cleared up, horses tacked up, filmed, untacked, cleaned, fed, rested and readied for their next scene. Their Facebook diary does not do it justice. It was a thrilling, exhausting, non-stop day and has really given me renewed respect for the film industry.
Having stood behind the camera watching the day’s shooting, it was incredible to see how almost imperceptible nuances translated onto film when we sat back later to watch the day’s rushes and it hit home again just how lucky I am to get to spend time with such talented people.
Apart from the fun of being on a real, live movie set and seeing how stage make-up is applied, how the wardrobe is sourced and fitted (it’s surprisingly technical) and getting to talk to proper, serious actors, this is truly a staggering piece of work for a lot of reasons. I may not be a movie critic, but I know a good story when I see one and these are GREAT stories. They are funny and tragic and inspiring and dramatic and the importance of the project probably hit home most by the number of times Aidan and the crew had to explain them to the actors – in some cases people who have been in the industry for years and not heard them. These are our stories and this is our heritage and perhaps what makes it all the more special is that it is our people, and our horses, bringing them back to life for a whole new audience to enjoy.
I was fairly impressed with the original rough version I saw all those years ago at the CTICC. The last time I visited, I got to see some of the updated footage which had been re-edited, expanded and enhanced. Jimmy was hard at work on the casting list, explaining plans for the dramatisations and I was even more enthused. Having been on set last week and seeing how it’s all come together – quite frankly I’ve been blown away. One pundit described it as “probably the most exciting thing that’s being done in the industry right now” and I’d be hard pressed to disagree. It is a real credit to Aidan, his team and everyone who has had the courage to back them along the way.
Aidan adds, “One can’t tackle a project like this without a lot of help. I owe a huge debt of thanks to the TBA for getting the initial project off the ground, Graeme Hawkins and Gold Circle who have been wonderful, and a very special and heartfelt thank you to Mary and Jessica Slack whose help and support have been invaluable. And then of course to Phumelela and the TBA for the use of their facilities, the cast and supporting crew, everyone who has volunteered so generously, and lastly, my incredible team. My only regret is not having my dad with us on the journey. He has been such an integral part of the project and was so looking forward to filming – the drama is what he really loved. I so wish he was along for the ride.”