Early November 2017 and I am in Germany, Neumarkt to be precise. It's a trip to film sequences about surge protection devices (SPDs) for our 18th Edition course and also for our hosts, Dehn. We are made very welcome; the hotel is comfy, Dehn's hospitality is legendry and each evening we dine in a lovely local restaurant.
Our host, Robin Earl, is an old friend so this trip has been much anticipated by the team. We have four days to get a fair bit of filming done. Some is in the factory itself looking at the production process and installation examples, but everyone is really most excited about the third day. That's the day we are scheduled to be in Dehn's test laboratory. This is a world class place capable of generating eye-watering voltages and currents. They develop surge protection and HV gear. The lab carries out all manner of tests and certification so that when some line engineer holds a pole to move an HV line it's up to the job and won't spoil his or her day with an lively burst of a hundred thousand volts. They can also direct the output of their lightning generator into anything else that they choose: consumer units, phones, video presenters.
When producers set up filming, they often hatch plots that aren’t totally revealed to their ‘talent’ until quite late in the process. My mind wanders to a sequence we filmed many years ago at Felixstowe docks. I’m not a lover of heights and so when, on the morning of filming, I was shown a huge crane gantry and Terry, the director, explained that the shot he had in mind was to be right at the top, I confess it was not my happiest moment. He didn’t leave it quite so late to tell me that they had plans for a shot of me inside a car at Dehn which would then be subjected to a lightning strike. I knew the principle of the Faraday cage and how it was all very safe but, somehow, when I was sitting in the lovely old VW Beetle the concept started to lose its appeal. There was the usual black humour that surrounds anything potentially dangerous and lots of bravado and banter. We did the rehearsal without any volts and there was the usual fiddling with lights and microphones. All good fun. Then Terry said, “OK let’s go for a take.”
I sat in the seat surrounded by that ‘old car’ smell and looking at the 1960s controls in front of me. I heard someone say, “it’s a bit bright, shall we turn the lights off?”. Suddenly the lab was plunged into darkness and all I could see was the outline of the technicians behind their metal screen and Terry hunched over the camera silhouetted against the dim light of the control room. I felt very alone. Then I heard the ominous hum of the capacitors charging up to 150,000 volts. At that point, the bravado departed, and I didn’t want to be there. Then the klaxon sounded, the warning lights flashed, and we reached a point of no return. I heard the rising pitch and knew that any second all that energy, the equivalent of a lightning strike, would be fed to the cable dangling above my head and those impatient electrons would seek the easiest path to earth. Please be right Mr Faraday, please let them find their way around the shell of the old Beetle and not the seat or any part of me.
Of course, they did, every lovely one of them. I can tell you now that being in a car hit by lightning is no scarier that listening to rain patter on the roof. The current flowed as planned around the shell of the Beetle (and through the chunky earth conductor bolted to the floor). After a few seconds, silence descended, and I stepped out unharmed. When you see the shot in the video, you will notice that I seem to be screaming and totally terrified. Of course, this was pure performance for effect. Of course it was.