Flash Gordon: Actor Sam J Jones on the Skye connection
Flash Gordon actor Sam J Jones shot some scenes for the 1980s movie on the Scottish island of Skye. As islanders continue to campaign for its Ashaig airfield to be reopened to commercial flights, he recalls his visit and explains why he backs their calls.
For one week in 1979, the residents of the Misty Isle played host to a strange band of characters.
"They were very curious and friendly towards this blond Yankee," says Jones, reminiscing about what he regards as his too-short stay on Skye.
The actor and former US marine, along with actress Melody Anderson and a film crew, were in Scotland to shoot scenes for the 1930s comic book-inspired sci-fi film Flash Gordon.
Released in 1980, with a catchy title song performed by rockers Queen, the movie was directed by Bristol-born Mike Hodges.
Previously, he was in the director's chair for 1971's gangster flick Get Carter, starring Michael Caine.
Ashaig fact file
- Royal Engineers built the airfield in 1972.
- Commercial flights ended in 1988.
- The emergency services and a flying club use the airstrip today.
- Highland Council, which is responsible for the aerodrome, and other public bodies are considering whether a passenger service can be resurrected.
- Fly Skye is a campaign launched by businesspeople and residents on the island to promote the merits of commercial flights.
Flash Gordon has Jones in the title role as an American football player who is transported from Earth to an alien world where he battles the forces of Ming the Merciless.
It was filmed largely on stages at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire and Shepperton Studios in Surrey.
But Ashaig airfield, near Broadford in south east Skye, with its backdrop of hills and sea, offered something wild and different for the movie's opening scenes.
These scenes involve Flash and his love interest Dale Arden, played Anderson, boarding a small aircraft - operated by the fictional Mountain Airways - as a freak storm of Ming-controlled hot hail blows in.
Helping the pair on to their flight is Scots actor Robbie Coltrane. He is listed as Man at Airfield in the film's cast credits.'Elbow patches'
Jones describes his time on Skye as some of the most memorable of his life.
After arriving in Scotland the actor chose to drive to the shoot.
The road trip took him along the shores of Loch Ness and deep into the west Highlands to Lochalsh.
From Lochalsh, Jones took a ferry over the sea to Skye. In 1979 construction of the road bridge that crosses from the mainland to the island today was still 13 years away.
"I stayed in a 200-plus-year-old hotel. You had to give two days notice if you wanted to bathe," Jones recalled of his accommodation on Skye.
"I visited some of the pubs where the older farmers taught me darts."
When not filming Jones also managed to find time to update his wardrobe.
"I visited a sweater factory where the sheep entered at one end and at the other end I was able to purchase three beautiful thick wool sweaters.
"They were a natural beige colour with the brown elbow patches."
Jones added: "They were the best sweaters I ever owned, until someone accidentally put them in the dryer for many hours and they shrank to the size for a five-year-old. No kidding.
"I would love to buy those sweaters again."
Skye and its people made a big impression on the actor.
Where are they now?
- Melody Anderson, who played Dale Arden, left the film industry behind to pursue a career in social work. She is also a public speaker.
- Max von Sydow was Emperor Ming. He has since appeared in Minority Report, Shutter Island and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
- Topol, who starred as Dr Hans Zarkov, was in 1998's holocaust drama Left Luggage.
- Princess Aura's Ornella Muti, above, was cast in Woody Allen's To Rome With Love, which was released last year.
- Brian Blessed's famous booming vocals have been put to good use for Peppa Pig's Grampy Rabbit and for the Pirate King in The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists.
- Timothy Dalton, Prince Barin in Flash Gordon, went on to star as James Bond. More recently he voiced Mr Pricklepants in Toy Story 3 and its spin-off short films.
- And the Man at Airfield? Robbie Coltrane has gained worldwide fame as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films.
Describing its older residents as "tough, but warm-hearted", he added: "The crisp fresh air and the unending green rolling hills is something I always think of.
"In all of my global travels, I have never seen that particular shade of green It's a one-of-a-kind place in colour and character."Flash remake
Much has changed for Jones and Ashaig airfield since 1979.
After Flash Gordon, Jones appeared in several films including 1986's My Chauffeur and a long list of US TV series such as Hollywood Safari and Walker, Texas Ranger, which both aired in the 1990s.
In 2003, he took a break from film and TV to concentrate on managing a Californian-based international security business which he still runs.
But the movie business came calling again when he was approached by actor and director Seth MacFarlane to star as himself in the 2012-released comedy Ted.
MacFarlane had seen Flash Gordon as a boy and, later in his adult animated series Family Guy, has kept memories of the film alive by referencing some of its characters and scenes.
Hawkmen, flying warriors led by Brian Blessed in the film, appear in an episode of Family Guy called Road to Germany. And in Not All Dogs Go To Heaven, God appears dressed as Flash Gordon riding a rocket sled.
Ted features a scene where Mark Wahlberg, whose character is obsessed with the 1980's film, appear in a dream sequence with Jones as Flash.
In recent years there has also been chatter of a Flash Gordon remake, with Bradley Cooper, Sam Worthington and Ryan Reynolds linked with the lead role.Throwing stones
Ashaig, meanwhile, has had more mixed fortunes.
Eight years after Flash Gordon hit cinemas, commercial flights to Ashaig ended. Today it remains available to the emergency services and a flying club.
In 2011, vandals smashed the air strip's landing lights by throwing stones at them.
But like the planned movie remake, there is a proposal to breathe new life into the airfield.
Members of the island's business community are involved in Fly Skye, a campaign seeking the restoration of commercial flights.
Campaigners pointed out that other Scottish islands with smaller populations had airports, however, Skye is unusual in having a bridge to bring in tourists from the mainland.
Those in favour of commercial flights are not shooting for the stars, but aiming instead for a regular service between Skye and central Scotland.
Highland Council, which is responsible for the airfield, and transport body Hitrans and Highlands and Islands Enterprise commissioned research into what resurrecting the service would cost.
The results of the study were published in March and suggested the price could be between £9.7m and £15.3m.
The Scottish government has ruled out providing funding for the work needed because it would involve significant capital spending, but the campaign battles on.
Beyond the airfield's perimeter, the wider landscape of Skye has continued to capture the imagination of film-makers.
Stardust and Prometheus have used it as locations and there have been reports the new Star Wars could feature scenes shot on the isle.
Asked if he would back the islanders' campaign call, Jones said: "Based on my experience with the local people, if it is in their best interest, then I am for it."
He added that he would love to return to Scotland one day having not been able to get back since that week way back in 1979.
"I'm still waiting for an invite. Isn't there an annual Scotland pop culture convention I could come to?" he said.