Film 2018: Local Hero

Local Hero was Bill Forsyth’s third film as writer and director and his first to move beyond working with the Scottish Youth Theatre (though the connection is not entirely forgotten, with John Gordon Sinclair and Caroline Guthrie having minor but amusing roles). It stars Burt Lancaster, in a typically graceful role, though the film actually belongs to the unlikely duo of Peter Reigert and Denis Lawson, the latter of whom doesn’t even get billed as a star.

Like Forsyth’s first two films, the story is about, and largely takes part in Scotland, in the fictional fishing village of Ferness on the West coast. Knox Oil, a big American company owned by Felix Happer (Lancaster), plans to build an oil refinery in the only suitable place, Ferness. ‘Mac’ Macintyre (Reigart), a skilled negotiator, is sent to buy the place, everything between both headlands and up to a mile inland.

Mac is your fish out of water, complaining from the outset at having to actually go to Scotland: he calls himself a telex man (seriously dating the film or what?) and that he could wrap up the deal in an afternoon by telex. In Aberdeen he finds local Know representative Danny Oldsen (a young and fresh-faced Peter Capaldi) wished upon him as an assistant. They also meet and admire, Oldsen especially, a marine biologist named Marina (Jenny Seagrove in a dark-blue swimsuit).

The pair drive westward to Ferness. Forsyth adds a Brigadoon touch, having the pair stuck in mist after hitting a rabbit with the car (Oldsen names it Harry, Mac Trudy, after his ex-, and whilst they think they’re nursing it back to health, they end up with it being served to them as Casserole de lapin). After a night in the car, in the mist, they wake to a beautiful coastline and clear air. The nod to the magical village, which is accessible only once a year, sets the tone for the externally idyllic village, set in a place of immense beauty, and gives us expectations that Forsyth will quickly puncture.

You see, this tine, enclosed village, this home to families whose roots in the land go back centuries, this backwater of peace and stillness, where people do all that’s needed and time ceases to be a concern, can’t wait for the Americans to buy them out and make them stinking rich.

That’s the central joke of the film, and one that negates the traditional tension that stories of this kind tend to portray. Mac and Oldsen book in to the hotel, run by Gordon (Lawson) and Stella Urquhart (Jennifer Black), a married couple with a healthy appetite for each other that, in keeping with Forsyth’s approach, is treated as a semi-comic, semi-admirable joke. Gordon also turns out to be the Chartered Accountant Mac’s here to negotiate with, playing things cool on behalf of the village, who all want the money: Gordon’s just doing everything he can to make sure that they squeeze out everything they realistically can, rather than undersell themselves.

But it all takes time, and that’s the point. Mac begins as the fish out of water, chafing at having to work to Scottish pace, with nothing realistically to do except to hang around and wait, and gradually let the atmosphere of Ferness seep into him. His problem becomes that Ferness is unspoiled, that he is there to spoil it irrecoverably, that he doesn’t want to see that happen, but that the villagers want it passionately.

Typically, Forsyth throws in a Russian fishing boat captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a regular and celebrated visitor, not to mention a closet capitalist whose portfolio Gordon manages, to remind Mac that the villagers lead a hard life, that the money he represents is a godsend to them, making life incredibly easy for them, and that at the end of the day they have the right to make decisions for themselves. Mac remains troubled however. He even offers to swap lives with Gordon: Gordon can have Houston, the Porsche, the salary and the stocks, Mac will have Ferness. And Stella, of course, don’t forget Stella.

I’ll come back to Stella, and Marina, and Caroline Guthrie’s part, but the story demands a twist. We’ve been expecting all along, because there’s always one in real life, and stories like this demand one to make them into stories as opposed to still pictures, but with everything going swimmingly, Gordon discovers the hitch; the beach itself, four miles of seafront, is owned by old Ben, the beachcomber, Ben Knox to give him his full name. Ben is played by Fulton Mackay, the third named star, in gently obtuse bucolic manner. And Ben won’t sell. There has to be one.

Ben’s attitude is that he needs to work the beach for its benefit, and it is his living. The idea that the money he could make by selling it would make him secure for the rest of his life doesn’t seem to penetrate. Not need to work: We  all have to work, he chides, gently.

We’ve already had the nod to Brigadoon, and without being in any way explicit we’re being invited to see Ben in a mythical light too, a protector of the beach, its guardian. He’s not the only figure we’re invited to see in such a subtle light: Marina keeps popping up out of the water, in ankle to neck wet suit, appearing to the faithful and besotted Danny. She’s proposed a marine biology study for the bay, and is convinced Mac and Danny are there to study its financial aspects. Even after Danny confesses about the refinery, she’s blithely convinced it won’t happen. And, like the water goddess we’re meant to see her as, she has webbed feet.

Everything’s being set up for a fairy-tale ending. Mac has a second task, direct from Felix Happer himself. Happer’s obsessed with astronomy and his legacy (which is played on in an unfortunately weak and unfunny strand in which his psychiatrist practices humiliation therapy). He wants a comet to name after himself and wants Mac studying the skies in Scotland. Mac starts off ignorant and bemused, but ends ignorant and enthused by the sight of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, the latter of which triggers the film’s denouement.

Again, there’s a gentle hint towards the mythical. Ben’s refusal to sell threatens the whole deal. The villagers start to converge on his beach hut at eve: give them pitchforks and flaming torches and the place could be Castle Frankenstein. Something bad could happen, but not in this film. Enter Happer, Burt Lancaster, arriving by helicopter, literally the deus ex machina, which means ‘the God in the machine’.

Happer’s here to see the skies Mac has raved over, and to talk to Ben, Ben Knox. We don’t get to hear that talk but when Happer emerges, the onshore refinery is dead. An astronomical institute instead. The gangling Oldsen seizes his chance to push Marina’s proposal, inverting the whole prospect: a happy ending. Ferness will remain unspoiled, there’ll still be money in it, though we sense that that will be less all round than for the refinery. Oldsen will stay on with Happer to plan things, Mac is sent back to Houston. That day. Danny, the non-swimmer, commits an act of propitiation, swimming out to greet his goddess with the glad tidings of her worship (though she promptly dives beneath the water).

The ending is deliberately downbeat, with a comic twist that is never more than wry. Mac, who’s come to love Ferness, is wrenched away. We sense it will be his Brigadoon: once gone, he can never return. Clean-shave, suit-and-tie, refusing a private farewell with Stella, helicopter, plane, return to his empty, modern, cold apartment in the Houston night: it’s overbearingly miserable which makes the last touch – the Ferness phone box ringing unanswered, impliedly Macs call – too slight to overcome the melancholy.

It’s not that the ending is bad: like the irony of the title, which makes the ultimate stranger Mac, who isn’t even of Scottish extraction despite his name, the ‘local’ hero to the villagers of Ferness, the ending is an ironic inversion of the theme: the village is not spoiled but Mac is. Completing the under-structure of myth, Brigadoon has been saved. Mac is the sacrifice that preserves the way things should be.

Watching Local Hero the first time, I eagerly expected more of the fun I’d had out of Gregory’s Girl, but these are two different films. Forsyth is dealing with adults and a much more adult situation, and whilst there’s a mild comic inflexion to much of the film, especially in the background, the humour aims more for irony than out and out laughs. The film’s deliberately slow, which sometimes, especially in its American sequences, drags. I’ve already mentioned the abusive psychiatrist, Moritz, which is a crashing mistake, and I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t find Peter Reigart convincing, especially in his voice: for an American, his American accent sounds like a bad attempt at faking it. Reigart’s lack of energy plays true to the overall feel of the film, but given what he is, it’s unconvincing, especially in the American segment, at the beginning. Reigart has no dynamics, which detracts from his absorption into the life of Ferness less impressive: he comes over as ready for a rest, making the village’s quasi-mythical conversion of him less impressive.

I said I’d return to the ladies, MesDames Seagrove, Black and Guthrie. Watching the film this time, I was struck at just how much a male-dominated film it it (and by extension Forsyth’s first two films are). Apart from a middle-aged shopkeeper with an implied relationship with Victor, these are the only female roles of any note in the film and Guthrie (who was Carol in Gregory’s Girl) has a minimal part as the village’s spiky-haired punk girl who tries to get off with Danny at the ceilidh.

So that leaves two women. Of the two, Seagrove gets the better deal, as the biologist-cum-water goddess. The lady was a beautiful young woman, long hair, clear blue eyes, a slim figure, but she’s out of the loop as far as the story is concerned. With the exception of a few seconds in a lab-coat, and a slightly longer scene in a beautiful gown, she’s only ever seen in swimsuit or wet-suit, in the water. Seagrove looks lovely, plays otherworldly, and after her introductory scene, interacts with  nobody but the gangly, inexperienced Danny (Capaldi makes him into a miracle of loose-limbed unco-ordinated movement, a gem of a performance).

And Jennifer Black gets even less. She’s ever better than a background figure, cool, composed, always fully in control, but she’s nothing to do with the story, despite a last minute attempt to portray her as the Boss. All Stella has to do is stand around, looking pretty, at which she excels, with a natural understated charm that shines through big cardigans and ankle-length practical skirts.

Whereas Seagrove’s Marina was always intended to be a slightly unrealistic character, the film does fall down in failing to capitalise upon Stella, or indeed offering any kind of substantial female role, even though it suspends itself between two very masculine cultures.

So: a film mostly of parts that, for me, never quite wholly coalesce. Still, I wouldn’t get rid of Local Hero, even despite its bloody soundtrack, lauded by many but not me because I mostly cannot stand Mark Knopfler. It was the third of four Scottish films by Forsyth, that led to David Puttnam taking him to Hollywood and basically crashing his career terminally. I think this film stands testament that, limited as it sounds, Forsyth was at his best as a Local Hero.


A Very Famous Cricket Match

Humour, with some glorious exceptions, tends to be of its time, prose humour more so than film or television. The best exception to this rule is the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, but for longevity, A.G. Macdonell’s England, Their England runs the old bean close.

The book, a comedy classic, was first published in 1933 and has remained in print ever since It’s a gently comic, affectionate, almost lovingly satirical portrait of England in the Twenties, adjusting to life after the Great War, from the point of view of that closest of outsiders, a Scot.

Macdonell’s book is semi-autobiographical in spirit if not actuality – the book is accepted as being a roman a clef whose multifarious characters can be traced back to real-life figures. He translates himself into Donald Cameron, a somewhat shy and naive young Scot, still feeling some of the after-effects of shell-shock, who is commissioned by a Welsh publisher to write a book about the English.

Overall, the book is a joy, which is obvious from its survival to this day whilst the rest of Macdonell’s output is the stuff of specialists, but it is especially worshiped by cricket enthusiasts for the classic chapter involving a cricket match between a Sussex village side and a team of literary folk: poets, novelists, publishers, and a professor of ballistics in which the decisive catch takes four pages to descend, without a wasted word!

In 1973, the book – or rather the cricket match chapter – was adapted for the BBC by Peter Draper as part of a six-part series of 50 minute programmes under the title Sporting Scenes. No information seems to have survived as to the other five episodes, and I have no recollection of even being aware of the series at the time.

But a decade after, I arrived at work, checked the paper, and mention of this episode being repeated in a 2.00pm slot. I phoned home to have it videoed. Fortunately, a new tape was in the machine so this went on at the start, because I loved it and have kept it ever since. It inspired me to go out and buy the book, and I have kept it and re-read it every few years with the same easy enjoyment.

In recent years, I have had a problem in that I still have a small number of videos, with various recordings that I want to keep, but no video-player on which to play them, nor television to hook it up to. However, I have finally stirred my stumps (that’s the Swallows and Amazons film still having an effect on me) and I have had two such items converted to DVD. And this morning, I watched The Cricket Match again, for the first time in over a decade.

And it’s still gentle, lovely and very funny.

Only a couple of the names involved are familiar. Fulton MacKay, who, only the same year, would achieve national recognition as Chief Warder MacKay in Porridge provides voiceover as the voice of A G Macdonell, whilst the minor part of the characbanc driver Perkins – a lovely, low-key lugubrious role – is played by Paul Shane, who would achieve fame on David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s Hi-de-Hi. Brian Pettifer, who would go on to play supporting roles to the present day, has a non-speaking role as a sixteen year old batsman surrounded by a ring of faces.

Draper’s adaptation adopts the structure of the book, starting (in black and white) in the trenches with Donald Cameron’s meeting with his future publisher, whilst Macdonell’s voiceover (taken in every instance directly from the book) assures us that this is not a war story.

From there, it cuts to London (and a gentle, washed out, friendly colour) to Cameron’s introduction to poet and literary editor Bill Hodge, and to his acceptance into London’s literary circles on the grounds that he can play cricket and is available on Saturday for a game against a Sussex village!

The first part of the story sets the style and tempo. The nervous, almost detached Cameron turns up at the appointed place at 10.15am, complete with cable enjoining him not to be late. He is alone. It is nearly half an hour before the first team-mate arrives, and promptly treats Cameron as baggage-master whilst he goes to have a shave. Everybody leaves their bags with Cameron, especially after it is discovered that the pubs in this part of London open at 11.00, at which point there is a general, indeed rapid exodus.

By the time Hodge arrives, it’s 11.30, the time the match should start, fifty miles away. Even his sense of urgency doesn’t change everything, especially when the charabanc journey suffers multiple halts – outside pubs, coincidentally. It’s well after two when the idyllic Sussex village, with its idyllic cricket pitch, hoves into sight.

The visitors’ first stop is the village pub, the Barley Mow. The already late start of the match is delayed further, not merely by drinks, but by the fact that Hodge’s side has only nine men. But not for long. Two locals take unfavourably to fielding for both sides and batting for neither and go home, just as Hoge’s ranks shoot up to thirteen. There is an eventual compromise on 12-a-side.

And the game rolls out exactly as described in the book. You might say that Peter Draper has had an easy job as adapter, given that there isn’t a line of dialogue, nor voiceover, that doesn’t directly come from England, Their England, but that confirms all the more the credit he deserves for recognising the quality of the England, and the humility he possesses in not presuming he can add something of equal and greater value.

The beauty of the game is that it is played out for real, on a real village pitch that has been chosen to match the specifications of Macdonell’s story. Indeed, given that the book is recognised as an amused roman a clef (Hodge’s team is based on an amateur club that exists to this day), it would not surprise me to learn that the pitch was based on a real village, and that the programme was filmed on the actual pitch intended by Macdonell. If this is so, what wonderful authenticity!

I’m not going to go over the incidents of the game, but to the cricket lover each and every one is a gem, starting with the opening ball, delivered by the Village blacksmith at great speed off a run-up that starts so far down a slanting slope that the batsman is only aware the bowler is running up when he breasts the hill about three paces from the popping crease!

Not all the cast can be actual competent cricketers, and they’d be out of character if they were, but the programme indulges in very little camera trickery – tight focus, clever angles – to disguise competence among the ranks. And John Moffat, who plays the impeccably neat, gentle and finicky boy-novelist, Bobby Southcott, was quite clearly a genuine batsman!

Though the series was called Sporting Scenes and is directly about the famous match, Draper sensibly broke up the story at the tea interval, by having a house party arrive to greet the team. This imported some splendid lines and characters from another chapter of the novel, to no harm whatsoever, rounding out the episode and extending its picture of the world and its times.

The literary men having batted first, it is the village team who have to chase an eminently gettable 69 runs: eminently gettable that is before the redoubtable Major Hawker reduces them to 10 for six wickets, and one stump broke. Unfortunately, a break in play allows the Major into the back door of the Barley Mow and, a quart and a half later, his bowling has lost something of its ferocity.

The Village eventually level the score at 69 for 8, but a splendid burst of improbable but entirely believable wickets means that it all rests on the blacksmith, laid up with a severely sprained ankle and batting with the captain as a runner, hitting the ball directly into the air.

The majesty of the shot, the comprehensive slapstick of the runners and the fielders, takes four pages in the book. The programme cannot match that but it does a sterling job. The Match is tied. peace and silence descends upon an archetypal English scene. The viewer, tickled to death, reaches for the rewind button, and starts again.

And it must also be stated that, just as with The Beiderbecke Trilogy, the casting is a thing of perfection and every one of the actors sinks into their parts as into a comfy chair, serene and irreplaceable.

I wish that there was some means of you being able to see this programme for yourself. Like the book, it deserves to be preserved indefinitely, an unshaded window into a summertime long since gone, but which lives in our hearts as an ideal of cricket that all of us who love the summer game aspire to, no matter how different our experiences have been. I am so glad to have access to it again.

Porridge Regurgitated

As it ought to be

On a scale of Still Open All Hours to 10, the one-off Porridge revival rated about a 3. That was based on one point for making me laugh, softly, half way through the episode, and two for not being anything like as dire as Still Open All Hours. That still doesn’t mean it was in any way a good idea, nor that the show worked, and it certainly doesn’t mean that time or energy should be expended on making any more.

I picked out Porridge as being the only one of this mercifully short season of sitcom revivals with the potential to work because it was the only one to acknowledge the passage of time since its primary’s heyday. Also, it had Dick Clement and Ian la Fresnais going for it. This showed in the scripting, which was easily recognisable as the duo’s work.

It just wasn’t funny enough, though.

Some of it has to be put down to the actors. Kevin Bishop inherits the Fletch role as grandson of the original (sad to say, his grandad has also passed away, even in fiction, five years before, but he never went back inside, and Uncle Lennie was inspired by him and eventually set Fletch up with a North London pub, a real pub). I’ve not watched Bishop before. He’s not Ronnie Barker, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but on this showing he’s no more than a stereotypical, cheeky chappie Cockney, and he’s considerably younger than the old Fletch.

Clement and la Fresnais are to be applauded for not slavishly following their original, especially when the cell-mates set-up is reversed by having Fletch squared away with an old lag (Joe Lotterby, 77 years old, knew Fletch Senior in Slade, inspired the only real laugh I had when he related the true circumstances of his conviction for murder).

But that exposes a serious weakness in the revival. The point of Porridge was that Fletch was an old lag, a wily old lag, experienced in doing his bird, fly and far ahead of the screws. Nigel Fletch is a smartarse cyber-criminal, doing his first sentence. He’s too young and inexperienced to be a convincing wily old lag, yet that’s what he’s got to be.

As for the rest of the show, Clement and la Fresnais have been wise enough to go for recreating the atmosphere rather than slavishly duplicating the cast. There are recognisable figures: Mancunian gang boss Richie Weeks (Ralph Ineson) is the Harry Grout du nos jours, whilst Dominic Coleman as Senior Warder Braithwaite and Mark Bonnar as Chief Warder Meekie, are obvious replacements for Barrowclough and Mackay.

As for the rest of the lags, we do not have direct substitutes for Warren, McLaren, Godber, Lukewarm, etc., which is good in one way, but none of the new characters are as neatly drawn, nor so deftly played, as a result of which they make little impression.  The only one who succeeds is Bonnar, as Warder Meekie, and he is the one who most shamelessly channels his original, Fulton Mackay.

So there you have it. The show fails to be as distinctive and promising as its original because, in a clearly applaudable decision not to duplicate the original, it fails to set a clear enough tone of its own. Nobody is really sure how to play their characters without coming over as plagiarising the first cast, and the only one who says, soddit, I’m going for it, is the most convincing character of all, mainly be reminding us how much better the Seventies Porridge was. And still is.

Let common sense and ordinary decency prevail. Do not order a series. Please.