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Saucy tales of when the glamour of Hollywood came to Stonehaven for Mel Gibson’s Hamlet

Mel Gibson on the set of Hamlet that was filmed at Dunnottar Castle and Muchalls.
Mel Gibson on the set of Hamlet that was filmed at Dunnottar Castle and Muchalls.

HP or not HP?

That is the question Hollywood legend Glenn Close faced when she lost out on the last dollop of sauce while filming Hamlet with Mel Gibson at Dunnottar Castle.

Even today, 30 years on from Franco Zeffirelli filming his Shakespearean epic at the Stonehaven stronghold, Katrina Melsom vividly remembers the moment she, a humble extra, gazumped the superstar in the burger van queue.

Hollywood legend Glenn Close.

“Glenn Close was behind me and I asked for a burger and some tomato sauce. The lady said she only had a little bit left, so I covered my burger and emptied all the sauce. I stepped back and Glenn went up and said: ‘Could I have tomato sauce?’, but the lady said it was all finished.

“So I turned round and said: ‘I’m sorry I took the last bit…’, and Glenn said: ‘Oh, a woman after my own heart’.

“She was a very nice lady.”

Katrina, now an artist based at Auchenblae, was one of hundreds of people who were swept up in the glamour and excitement of Hollywood coming to Stonehaven, rubbing shoulders with movie royalty – like Close, Gibson, Alan Bates and Helena Bonham Carter.

The production, in 1990, created a massive buzz of excitement across the north-east. An open audition for extras saw more than 1,600 people flock to the town’s now-vanished Commodore Hotel, the queue of hopefuls snaking along the street, hoping for the chance to be in the spotlight.

I was a wench
going to market
carrying two dead
birds by their feet.”

All the while helicopters were whizzing overhead, carrying equipment and scenery to the rugged rocky outcrop or filming aerial tracking shots.

Dunnottar Castle transformed to Elsinore, with a graveyard for the Yorick scene beneath it, in this photo taken by Katrina Melsom.

Meanwhile, Dunnottar was being transformed into the troubled Danish prince’s haunted Elsinore Castle, complete with false walls to make it seem like a standing fortress and not the ruin it really is.

Katrina, who was McIntosh at the time of filming, still has a treasured photo album of snaps she took on set, many of which you can see on this page.

Katrina Melsom at Dunnottar Castle, where she was an extra 30 years ago.

She said: “I was a wench going to market and I had to carry two dead birds by their feet. I didn’t like it, but the atmosphere on set was good, quite relaxed and well-organised.”

As for her moment of screen glory… “You might see my shoulder behind a horse.”

Katrina Melsom, then McIntosh, in her wench costume for Hamlet.

“It was just very exciting at the time and it’s quite a privilege to be on a film with famous people in it.”

Also on set was Claire Petrie, then Duguid, who as a 13-year-old girl was invited to be an extra as her father farmed at Dunnottar Mains, next to the castle, and his fields were hired out by the film team.

Claire Petrie has fond memories of her time filming Hamlet.

Her most memorable moment was when she asked for a shot of Mel Gibson’s horse… and got it.

“I actually rode Mel’s horse, and once I got off he gave me a kiss and his autograph,” said Claire, now 43 and a nurse.

Mel Gibson prepares for filming on the ramparts.

“I had asked one of the girls if I would be allowed and they put me on. It was during a break and Mel was sitting on the grass eating out of a plastic plate, and so was Helen Bonham Carter. When I came off the horse he came over and spoke to me about my name and my school and about the film. Just simple stuff. He made my day.”

Claire said that at the time she didn’t realise how fortunate she was to be on a Hollywood film set.

“It was exciting with the helicopters coming in and setting up all the tents. But you didn’t realise the magnitude of it,” said Claire who, despite repeated viewings, has yet to see herself in the film.

Huge facades were built to transform Dunnottar Castle to Hamlet’s Elsinore.

“I was a peasant and I loved it. It was good fun but there was a lot of work involved in it. There were massive tents and you would go in and make-up artists would do your hair and skin to make you look dirty. Then they would get you all dressed up in rags and things and you would walk down into the castle and sit about until you were called. All my friends were jealous.”

For Lesley Hampton, being in Hamlet was a family affair. She and her mum Fredda both landed roles as peasants.

“I nearly lost my job over it,” said Lesley, who was working with oil firm Santa Fe in 1990.

“We were signed up for a week and that was fine with my boss, but we got called back for a second week. My boss said we need you back at work.

Lesley Hampton, on the left, ready for her role in Hamlet.

“I just remember saying: ‘Sorry, but you’re not Mel Gibson. I’ll just take unpaid leave’.

“He just laughed. It was a bit of fun.”

Lesley remembers the day she and her mum auditioned for the film.

“The whole town turned out. There was a queue from the Commodore, right along the street to Cowie Park. We decided to go along for a hoot.

“On the questionnaire for becoming an extra, one of the questions was do you have any special talents. My mum and I found it hilarious that I put down I could play the recorder and she put down flower-arranging – like that was going to have any relevance whatsoever.”

Mel Gibson on the set of Hamlet, in this snap taken by Katrina Melsom.

She said that during filming she and her mum, who sadly passed away last year, would often say hello and good morning to stars like Gibson and Close and have a bit of general chit-chat.

“I remember being amazed at how tiny Mel Gibson was. I sort of expected him to be a bit taller,” said Lesley, who was McIntosh at the time of filming.

She enjoyed watching the actors at work. She particularly remembers Helena Bonham Carter, who starred as the doomed Ophelia, getting ready for a scene at the Muchalls set.

Helena Bonham Carter.

“She was psyching herself up for the role and she sat rocking, and twisting her hands around a piece of cloth. It looked like she was going insane, it was quite fascinating watching her getting into the part.”

Lesley said she and her mum made it into the finished film.

“You can very clearly see the back of my head and my mum’s knees,” she said, laughing.

“We knew it was us. Nobody else would.”

She said the most memorable aspect of the filming was the buzz around Stonehaven, with Hollywood stars in town.

The whole
town was at
the movies.”

“The whole town was at the movies and there was a feeling of excitement that something pretty big was happening in the town. Everybody was involved in some way, whether it was driving the stars around or being in it.”

And Lesley would have no hesitation about signing up again were another Hamlet to be filmed at Dunnottar Castle.

“I could play my mother’s part this time,” she joked.


I was Uncle Bongo to Mel’s kids

Kevin Boyne spent a week as the driver for Mel Gibson’s wife and children during the filming of Hamlet.

One local who got very up close and personal with Mel Gibson was Kevin Boyne… he ended up being Uncle Bongo to the superstar’s children.

As a part-time cabbie he was contracted to be a film set driver – and ended up driving Gibson’s wife and kids for the duration of the shoot in what he says was one of the best weeks of his life.

Kevin, known by his lifelong nickname of Bongo, originally thought he was going to be Gibson’s driver, ferrying him between Dunnottar Castle and the Treetops Hotel in Aberdeen for the scheduled week-long filming.

Mel Gibson outside the Treetops hotel in Aberdeen, while filming Hamlet.

“So, I turned up at Dyce with a shirt and tie on and was told his own chauffeur had decided at the last minute he would drive up to Scotland and have a wee holiday,” said Kevin, 53, and now a roofer.

“But a couple of days later his family decided they were going to come up so I was asked if I would drive his wife and the kids around.”

It meant he spent a week with Mel’s then wife Robyn and children, Hannah, twins Edward and Christian, and William, who were aged between nine and five back then, describing them as down-to-earth normal people.

Mel Gibson often had a yap with Kevin ‘Bongo’ Boyne.

“It was the most surreal week of my life. I was with them from picking them up at the Treetops at half eight in the morning and some nights not away from there until 12 hours later.

“We were just spinning all over the place. I was a film set driver, but I was hardly at the film set.

“We went to Hazlehead maze because they fancied going there. Willie had a hankering to go and see a hairy cow, so we went to Doonies Farm beside Cove and managed to track down two hairy cows. I’ve never seen a laddie so excited about something like that.”

Mel Gibson’s son wanted to see a “hairy cow”.

It was on a Deeside trip that Kevin became Uncle Bongo.

“I was standing with the kids at the back of a shop and one of the assistants came across and started speaking to them. They had heard their accents then heard me speaking. The kids just said: ‘This is our Uncle Bongo’, and started jumping about on top of me in the shop.

“They obviously had a plan to divert attention away from themselves,” said Kevin, adding Gibson was very protective of his kids.

Kevin also met and chatted with Gibson on an almost daily basis as he picked up and dropped off his family. “He would come out and chat. He would say: ‘How are you doing Bongo?’.

“I thought this is just nuts.

Dunnottar being transformed into Elsinore Castle for Hamlet.

“But I would yap to him every day. He was completely normal. If you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t have known. There was no ‘I’m more important than you’, he was just a nice bloke.

“He seemed to have time for everyone. When he was having a break he wouldn’t go away and hide, he would go about and speak to people.”

A commemorative booklet of Hamlet was produced, including a shot of Mel Gibson with Dunnottar Castle behind.

Kevin said one day in filming, Gibson had an afternoon off and had his chauffeur drop him in Aberdeen at Holburn junction and said he would make his own way back to the Treetops.

“He walked down one side of Union Street, sat on the benches at Markies and had a coffee, smoked two or three cigarettes and watched the world go by. No one looked near him, thousands of people walking past and no one even blinked at him. He thought this was the greatest thing ever.”

The penny did eventually drop, when he was walking back up Union Street and asked a girl for directions to the Treetops and she said she would show him where the taxi rank was.

She did a double take and
said: ‘Oh my God, you’re
not Mel Gibson?’

“It was as they were walking past the kirkyard she did a double take and said: ‘Oh my God, you’re not Mel Gibson?’

“But she didn’t make a big fuss, she took him up to the taxi rank hanging on to him for dear life, saying no one would ever believe her.

“That was the only person who clocked him.”


Gibson made a great Dane

Revered film director Franco Zeffirelli.

Mel Gibson was at the height of his Hollywood fame as a leading man and action hero when he took on the role of Hamlet.

It was an unusual step to go from Lethal Weapon to Shakespeare – but director Franco Zeffirelli said he knew Gibson was the man for the job after watching him playing Martin Riggs, the young detective with suicidal tendencies.

When I saw that,
I said: ‘This is Hamlet.
This boy is Hamlet!’”

“I began to wonder who could do it. To bring the people to very young people I wanted to find a very steamy, popular actor. And I landed on this extraordinary Gibson,” Zeffirelli said in an interview for a commemorative booklet about Hamlet.

“There was a scene (in Lethal Weapon) in which there’s a kind of ‘to be or not to be’ speech. Mel Gibson is sitting there with a gun in his mouth, but he can’t pull the trigger. When I saw that, I said: ‘This is Hamlet. This boy is Hamlet!’”

For his part, Gibson knew he was taking on a tough role following some of the heaviest hitters in the acting world, such as Laurence Olivier.

In an interview carried in the P&J just before Hamlet’s release he admitted he may have taken on more than he can chew – but refused to be overwhelmed by the part.

He said: “In picking your way through the minefields, it’s tough. There are things that don’t meet up and never will. I don’t think I pulled it off. I don’t think anyone’s pulled it off not even Olivier.”

However, his performance won over the critics. The Los Angeles Times described his performance as “the most unaffected and lucid Hamlet in memory” while the US magazine Film Critic said: “Against all odds Mel Gibson makes a great Dane.”

Empire film magazine said: “Once the killing gets under way, he really starts cooking and few Hamlets can have been more plausible when warning: ‘I have in me that which is dangerous.’”


Dunnottar’s starring roles

Dunnottar Castle as it is today.

With its stunning clifftop vista, Hamlet is not the only starring role which Dunnottar Castle has enjoyed.

It was also the backdrop to a film version of Frankenstein made in 2015. Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe and acclaimed Scottish actor James McAvoy spent two days filming various scenes at the ancient fortress.

They were spotted relaxing in Stonehaven in the evening after recording.

The film’s Scottish director Paul McGuigan posted on social media a picture of a camera soaring over the castle from the south cliffs. “It was beautiful to be shooting back in the homeland,” he said.

Away from the drama of Shakespeare and the horror of Frankenstein, Dunnottar Castle has a more family-friendly claim to fame. It was the basis for Merida’s family castle in the Disney Pixar film, Brave.

Initially, the DunBroch family castle was going to be set against a loch in the Highlands. But after the pre-production visited Dunnottar on a location scouting mission, they decided to draw inspiration from its staggering surrounds by making DunBroch an outpost by the sea.

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