Keith Partridge on working in the world's extreme environments
It's always a tough day at the office for cameraman Keith Partridge. Whether it's up Everest or down caves deep underground, there's nowhere he won't film, he tells Simon Usborne
Keith Partridge has just come back from a work trip. It was, if anything, average by his standards. "I spent a month in Venezuela, including a first ascent of the south-west face of one of these tepuis," he says. Tepuis? "They're a cross between a sombrero and a top hat, where the brim is dense rainforest then – woosh! –straight-up, vertical rock. Then we moved into caving and, just for kicks, we abseiled down the Angel Falls. As you do."
As you do if you are a top adventure cameramen, and need to film someone descending the world's highest waterfall (Angel Falls would drench the top of Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, if they could stand side by side).
Partridge was in South America with one of the dozens of naturalists, adventurers and presenters whose exploits he has captured, mostly without public credit, in the kinds of working environments that would give a risk assessor a heart attack. He is now stepping out from behind the lens to share his stories and some of his secrets in a new book. The Adventure Game is full of photos from the edge, and includes praise from some of his subjects. "Whether you are filming sunrise on the summit of Everest, Galician fishermen dancing with death in the Atlantic surf, or historical reconstructions on the Matterhorn, Keith is your man," says the mountaineer Stephen Venables.
His credits include the heart-stopping footage that turned Touching the Void, an already remarkable written account of disaster and survival in the Peruvian Andes, into one of the great British documentaries. He also worked on the 2011 mini-series Human Planet and filmed the scene in a 2005 episode of Top Gear in which British climber Leo Houlding raced a car up a mountain.
Keith Partridge filming Steve Backshall, the adventurer, in a glacier in Alaska
Standing on the relatively safe ground of his own garden, which looks out on to Largo Bay across the Forth Estuary to Edinburgh, Partridge, 49, says there is nowhere he would dare not step (or abseil, climb or swing) in pursuit of a story. "I was deep underground in a cave system in Papua New Guinea. It had a white-water river running through it, and I was crossing it, knowing that if I lost my footing and got swept away, I would not be coming back," he says. "It's dark, there's water everywhere, yet somehow I still have to film while holding on to wet stalactites with the other hand. When it gets really dangerous, the filming becomes almost like second nature."
Keith Partridge in Fife (Martin Hunter)
In 2012, Partridge filmed the 10th ascent of Everest by Kenton Cool, the British mountaineer. In an Olympic-themed expedition, Cool was fulfilling a pledge to take a 1924 Winter Olympics gold medal, awarded to the British mountaineers of their day, to the roof of the world. "I was beyond exhaustion," Partridge recalls. "I remember looking at footage and thinking, 'you idiot, you should have stayed with that shot longer'. But then I remembered I was filming, hand-held, at 8,000m with no oxygen. I was almost dead, technically."
Yet treading the same ground as his subject is only part of the challenge (often Partridge has to cover more ground; while he filmed Ian Wright, the former England footballer, on an expedition in Greenland, he had to ski around him in great circles to keep his tracks out of shot). At the limits of his exhaustion and his own considerable skill, he must also preserve mental and physical capacity to make good television. On Everest, that meant escaping the familiarity of summit footage. So rather than capture the predictable high-fives and the rising sun, Partridge turned his camera away from the mountain.
"You can't see the mountain from the peak, and you can't see it in the sunrise, but the shadow it casts on to clouds below as the sun broke over the horizon said so much more," he says. A still image from that sequence features in the book. A dark indigo pyramid rises above the white peaks of the Himalayan range. "Everyone I've shown that photo to, without fail, just says, 'wow'."
Abseiling in Gabon, West Africa
Partridge grew up in one of the flattest and arguably least adventure-filled places in the world: north Norfolk (he has no relation to Alan Partridge, of course…) "The highest discernible point was a hill called Beeston Bump but it's miniscule," he says. His mother sold fruit and vegetables and his father, a TV repairman, would take the family hiking up Ben Nevis – the first adventure Keith remembers. There were bike rides, too, but his first career, which he started aged only 13, was running a mobile disco with a friend. The Lighting Laser Roadshow made them rich by teenage standards, but Partridge flunked his A-levels and ended up working in a factory making shower pressure switches.
Weekend hikes and climbs kept him sane, and he soon got a job as a BBC technical operator and then cameraman in the North-east. In those days, drama was Ant and Dec turning up on set for their first day at Byker Grove. But weeks after he quit in 1990, a chance encounter in a car park led to a place on an expedition with the great mountaineer Chris Bonington. It set Partridge up for a career that has now covered 25 years.
When he's in Britain, Partridge lives in Fife with his wife, Andrea, and their children, Jamie and Erin, eight. Keith says Jamie, who is 11, is already a better climber than him. But there are no plans to quit the adventure game. "There are moments on some expeditions where you turn a corner and somehow the view just explodes in front of you and you suddenly think, this is really something very special. There's the landscape, the wildlife, and man in harmony with it. But it's also not about the adventure but the stories, and being able to peer around corners into places where nobody has ever looked. It's an extraordinary thing to be able to do."
'The Adventure Game' by Keith Partridge (SandStone Press, £24.99) is out now
1st July, 2015