Morocco is a land steeped in a history as rich and as colourful as one of its most prized commodities - leather. We made our way to the ancient city of Fes (or Fez) where men have been tanning leather for over six centuries. This elaborate process has barely changed in those six hundred years and we were lucky enough to be guided through the many processes by Tammy, a young man already immersed in the art.
The Tannery itself is a collection of vats, dedicated to the different processes of tanning animal hides. There is a vast area of vats filled with liquid lime, in which the hides are immersed to soften them. This is an extremely dangerous process and the tanners go about their task with the barest of protection from the skin-burning lime. The crew survived unscathed except for the odd splash but this was enough to make us extremely wary.
From here the hides are washed in what can only be described as giant skin washing machines, whose constant drone supplies the tannery’s sound track. The next stage is the part we were especially interested in filming - the process of using pigeon poo to make the hides extremely supple. The droppings from wild pigeons are the only ones our character Tammy uses as they’re guaranteed to have a high level of ammonia, unlike their caged cousins. You see working for the BBC teaches you things you never knew you needed to know!
I have somehow managed to skip trying to describe the smell the Tannery emits… but here goes.. It’s like a thick mist, which is invisible to the eye but apparent to the skin, hair and especially nose of the unwary visitor. Our first day in and our Making Of cameraman, James Aldred, had a few close calls trying to keep his croissants down. All of us were totally taken aback by just how intense the smell was; it can only be described as smelling of rotting flesh with a tinge of sweetness. Oh yeah and add 40 degree heat to that recipe as well.
We shot some of the sequence in the Medina; this was a magical experience for me as it felt as if I was going back in time. The Medina in Fes is famous for its many winding narrow streets, the air filled with the smell of exotic spices and the sound of street sellers offering their wares to the haggling masses. Morocco has left a lasting impression on me and given me the urge to explore more foreign and ancient lands; a road trip across North Africa might be on the cards…Any takers?