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Comedy follows the search for the king of the skimmers; A childhood talent for skimming stones on the River Wear paved the way to a film that has been picking up prizes. DAVID WHETSTONE reports.

Byline: DAVID WHETSTONE

MANY short films sink without trace but that would have been a particularly sorry fate for one set at the annual World Stone Skimming Championships.

Happily for the pair behind it, which includes Newcastle-born Hugo Nicholson, Skim For England has been bouncing from success to success on the indie film circuit.

The film was named best comedy at the Portobello Film Festival in London and was judged 'best in festival' at the Grenada Afterglow Film Festival in Mississippi, beating entries from 45 countries.

It also made the official selection for the Winchester Film Festival and was shown last month at the Rome International Film Festival.

"Skim For England's reception has been amazing so far and we're incredibly proud of what we've created," says Hugo.

But if it's gratifying for Hugo, who wrote and produced the film with director Tom Oxenham, what might it do for a sport whose public profile might justifiably be described as low? Who, apart from the contestants and possibly the Scots, even knew there was a World Stone Skimming Championships? Apparently it has been taking place every year since 1997 on the small privately-owned Scottish island of Easdale, in the Inner Hebrides.

It has a population of about 60 and is accessible only by boat from the nearby Island of Seil, which is itself connected to the mainland by a 200-year-old bridge.

What makes Easdale perfect for stone skimming is that it was once at the heart of the slate industry.

A disued slate quarry, now filled with water, is where the competitors annually chance their arm and a legacy of the industry is an abundance of smooth and shiny stones that are perfect for skimming.

Hugo, who grew up in County Durham, has known all about this for a long time.

The film, he says, "comes from my own love of skimming.

"I spent a lot of time, and still do, skimming stones on the River Wear because at home it runs quite near our house.

"To be honest, I got quite good at it. "Years before we decided to make a film I Googled to see if there was a championship and sure enough there was. There always is with these things. But I thought: I might actually be able to win this."

Hugo, who is 26, studied drama at Manchester University.

"I knew I wanted to work in the industry," he says. "I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do but it was a good course and I met Tom there when we were auditioning for a show in Manchester.

"That was the beginning of our friendship which has now turned into a working partnership.

"We started with a theatre show which we took to Edinburgh in 2015. It was called Foxfinder and it did very well. When we started thinking about a follow-up project we both decided we'd like to make a film.

"We started talking about the World Stone Skimming Championships and it soon became clear that that was going to be our next production."

Hugo, Tom and their small crew shot their film last year at North East locations including the Durham Cathedral cloisters, the banks of the River Wear, Penshaw Hill and The Angel of the North, but also at the annual championships on Easdale, which regularly attracts some 300 competitors from around the world.

"The way we shot it was I ended up playing a character who is essentially an extension of myself," says Hugo.

"He's a guy from Durham who's going up to the championships but that's really the only fictional element of the film.

"We used him as the means of getting this real perspective on the sport. "The whole thing was a celebration of the sport and the reason it worked is because I'm quite good at skimming stones."

Hugo and Tom chose the name Frank for their stone-skimming hero.

"It's my dad's name," explains Hugo. Frank Nicholson is well known in the North East as a businessman and one-time managing director of Vaux Breweries.

In film and stone skimming circles, the name is now well known for quite different reasons.

Hugo says he enjoyed making the film, which also entailed entering the World Stone Skimming Championships, but it didn't begin well.

He recalls making the crossing to Easdale at night in an open-topped ferry in pouring rain. "We ended up lying on the floor of the boat on top of all the kit to keep it dry."

But things picked up. The people were welcoming and friendly and they got "hours and hours of footage" for their 30-minute film.

"The event takes quite a long time," says Hugo, explaining that each competitor aims to skim their stone towards an area at the back of the quarry marked by buoys. It has to hit the water at least three times along the way.

Weather conditions can affect the way the stones travel and really good competitors will manage to hit the back wall of the quarry.

Hugo says their film has been categorised in different ways.

The prize for best comedy was gratefully received but Hugo says any comedy in the film just happened naturally.

"We're aware that it defies definition in some ways but I'd say it's a mixture of documentary and mockumentary."

Hugo and Tom are now based in London with their company, Master of None (check www.masterofnone.productions), which they set up in 2015.

Following its success, the pair are now talking about turning Skim For England into a full-length feature film.

"But our next short will be a horror film set in the North East about an old legend involving a pub," says Hugo. "We're hoping to shoot that one early in 2018."

I spent a lot of time, and still do, skimming stones on the River Wear. To be honest, I got quite good at it. Hugo Nicholson

CAPTION(S):

Tom Oxenham and Hugo Nicholson, right, on location

Hugo Nicholson demonstrating his skimming prowess

Film-maker and stone skimmer Hugo Nicholson
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 26, 2017
Words:1005
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