In the winter of 1959, strange and ancient forces were stirring in the deep waters of Coliemore Harbour, Dalkey. Forces awoken by the destructive meddling of nasty old man. Forces that would soon kick (spectacular) ass while leaving the bubble-gum to one side. But…we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The story begins on November 8th of that year, as announced by The Irish Times the following morning:
“A film unit from King Bros Production Ltd arrived in Dublin yesterday to start location shots for the film ‘Gorgo’. The picture is about a monster which cuts a destructive path through the heart of London. Gorgo (35ft) and Mother Gorgo (200 ft) first appear off an island near the Irish coast”.
On November 10th, the same paper detailed how production supervisor George Mills had shot scenes in Dalkey the previous day (some featuring Dublin-born actor Barry Keegan), before pointing out that “Local extras are being hired – mostly to play the part of fishermen”. Two days later, the cast and crew packed their bags, dried themselves off (it had, predictably, been lashing rain for most of the shoot), and headed back to London. Their 5-day adventure? Soon forgotten. A mere rippling of the surface of Irish film history.
Around this time last year I decided to try and track down some of these local extras, if, indeed, any were left alive. Why? Well, firstly, because I hate the idea of stories being lost, or remaining untold. Secondly, because I bloody adore Gorgo.
The story is a simple one. A salvage vessel operated by the unscrupulous Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) witness an undersea earthquake off the shore of the fictional (and palindromic) “Nara Island” (actually, Dalkey). This releases a pissed-off Gorgo, who’s eventually captured and taken to London for public display. An academic realises that Gorgo, giant though he may be, is actually only a toddler. Cue the emergence of a ferociously maternal, 200-foot-tall Mama Gorgo. She stomps out of the sea, destroys Nara, and heads off to London, where she opens a gargantuan can of kick-ass. Baby Gorgo and Mama are reunited. We all learn something about human hubris, greed and puny attempts to tame nature. The end.
OK, it may not be the most sophisticated or original monster film ever made. It may not be the most technically accomplished. It may not even be the most entertaining. But it still remains unique in a number of ways. It is (to the best of my knowledge) the only Godzilla-style Kaiju (Giant Monster) film ever filmed (at least partly) in Ireland. It is certainly the only Kaiju film ever to feature actors speaking in Irish. Irish? Yes, more of that anon.
I contacted Gerard Coakley, editor of the Dalkey Newsletter (“delivered into every residence in Dalkey every month”), and asked him for help. Gerard suggested running my query as a “Letter to the Editor” in the August edition of the newsletter, to see what memories it might stir. It stirred quite a few, though some were a tad…confused. One gentleman called me to tell me that, yes, he had been an extra – charged with rowing Martin Sheen hither and yon. As I tried to think of a tactful way of raining on this false-memory parade I heard his wife bark: “Martin Sheen was never in that picture!”. Saved.
The garbled and partial recollections shared with me meant that investigations never yielded a feature (as was planned), but I did get to talk to local monster-inflater-in-chief Tony Lamb. Over to Tony:
“What we were pumping up was the actual monster than they were using, it was like pumping up a rubber dingy. There was a gang of us down there, and it was only about 12 feet in size, and we used to inflate it up for them. We used to get paid for it, you know what I mean? Just a few bob. Then we used to have to put it into my brother’s boat and bring it outside the harbour into Dalkey Sound. And you’d look at the camera and it was huge then, you know the way they make it into a monster and all that. When we went to see it we were all laughing because a friend of ours was in it. Jim Brown, ‘Coco’ Brown we called him, he’s since dead now he was an old man, you’d see him walking up the slip picking up driftwood. And the next minute he’s in fucking Germany or wherever! Ah we remember it well down in the harbour. We always made a few quid hiring out the boats to them. We used to have to throw old nets over the pier, and make it look like it was a real old place and all. They made loads of films down there, and they still do today. And we’ve been in most of them”.
I haven’t been able to positively identify “Coco”, but I’d like to think it’s this weathered-looking chap:
Or, it could be one of these cagey locals:
Note, you can just about make out the local Martello tower in the background. A better view of it here, squeezed between Bill Travers and William Sylvester:
I initially thought Tony’s memories of an inflatable Gorgo might be muddled, as Gorgo uses the old “Suitmation”, actor in a rubber monster suit, technique. But in a 5-second underwater scene, where Joe and Sam first see the monster, I think what we’re seeing (just about, the water is pretty damn murky) is Tony’s pumped-up pal:
Instead of using a studio-based tank (as you’d expect), the scenes of Joe and Sam diving were, I think, actually filmed on location in Dalkey. Hence the Stygian waters. Anyway, it’s nice to think of Tony’s breath literally making Gorgo come alive.
And what of the Irish/Gaeilge? Well, when Joe and Sam first come ashore on “Nara”, they ask the two sea-dogs pictured above, “Is there a harbour master we can talk to?”. The reply?
“Cad a dheanfaimid anois?”
That’s “What are we going to do now?”, for all you Sasanaigh. An, er, somewhat cryptic reply, and one favoured by the islanders in practically all situations. It’s multi-functional. When they go night-fishing in currachs…
…a local lad announces his intention to chuck a harpoon into the boiling waters with, yes, “Cad a dheanfaimid anois?”. Nara, clearly, is an island of anxious types, crippled by indecision.
In another exchange, Harry (played by Barry Keegan), asks a group of fishermen “Cad tá sibh a dhéanamh?” (“What are ye doing?”). The defensive answer: “Níl am againn caint a dhéanamh le Sasanaigh!”. Harry translates this for the foreign lads as “We don’t have time to talk to foreigners”, which is spot on. Then, when he sees the locals gazing into the waters and looking concerned, he asks, “Cad é?” (“What is it?”) and back comes (once again) good old, “Níl am againn caint a dhéanamh le Sasanaigh!”. This time Harry translates it as “Two of the divers didn’t come up, Joe. They think they’re gone.” Oh, Harry. You mis-translating eejit.
So is Gorgo ultimately just of local interest because of this (slightly Dada-ist) smattering of Gaeilge? Well, no. There’s also a (presumably accidental) “Republican” sub-text. This is, after all, the story of a young Irish monster who is captured, forcibly imprisoned, and taken (against its will) across the Irish sea to be gawked at by punters in Battersea Park. Objections to this dodgy expatriation are lodged by the Irish government (and the “University of Dublin”) and ignored. Bastards!
Seán, the little, apple-cheeked, moral centre of the film affectionately refers to the monster as Ógra, meaning “Youth”. Thus, the re-branding of the beastie as “Gorgo” not only suggests an arrogant contempt for local naming (and a desire to linguistically take ownership of the creature), but the failure to understand the significance of its Irish name leads directly to the flattening of London (by an understandably enraged mother). Big Ben is demolished. Tower Bridge is thrashed. The most iconic structures, of the centre of British power, laid waste – by a vengeance-seeking Paddy Godzilla. My post-colonial-o-meter is going off the fuppin’ scale, folks. And so, humbled Londoners gathered themselves, gazed upon the ruination, and asked: “Cad a dheanfaimid anois?”