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Issue 17 - Scotland is the star of the screen

Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004

 

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Scotland is the star of the screen

On the face of it Scotland would seem to provide the perfect backdrop for many Hollywood films. But as David Gordon discovers, it's not that straight forward

For many people, the only sight or image they have of Scotland is that which is portrayed on the big screen. Normally, it has been a land of heather-clad glens and misty mountains.

Sadly, the stars of a number of the biggest films based in the country never actually made it onto Scottish soil. In many early films, Scotland was recreated on huge soundstages in Southern England or the United States, and film-goers didn’t realise that the Scotland on screen wasn’t the real thing.

Of course, many producers did bring their stars to Scottish shores and also, as much as Scotland has been imitated in other places, Scotland has represented other landscapes as well.

Whilst there has been a thriving Scottish film and television industry for many years, it was not until the success of Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart in 1995 that the Government set up ‘Scottish Screen’ to ensure the future and development of the industry. Braveheart set up base in the Glen Nevis, Glen Coe and Kinlochleven areas of the Highlands.

One of the early films was the musical Brigadoon. Made in 1954 it is one of the most famous films about Scotland. Sadly, it is also one of the infamous films whose crew never set foot in the country.

Whilst Arthur Freed, the producer, did visit many towns and villages he could not find anywhere quite ‘Scottish’ enough and proceeded to build the entire set in California. However, the film did promote Scotland and fill viewer’s minds with romantic and wistful thoughts of the country.

While The Wicker Man was not well received when it was released in 1974, nowadays it has a cult following and is classed as one of the best British films. The areas used as the locations, such as Kircudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet, Creetown and Portlogan still host visitors annually who visit the sites where the film was created.

It would be remiss not to look at the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Oscar winning film owes much to the Edinburgh locations. While the interior shots were created in studios, most areas of the city were used, to some degree, in the outdoor location selection.

To the delight of many film fans, the locations still exist today. Brodie’s screen home was in Admiral Place and Marcia Blaines’ school can be found in Henderson Row.

In one of the stranger occurrences in Scotland’s film history, it was the location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The production was based around Doune Castle situated near Stirling. However, the film was actually set in Medieval England. With the film being one of those with a cult following, Doune Castle still welcomes fans of the film.

The staff even has a set of coconut shells available should any die-hard fans wish to recreate the films famous and amusing opening scene.

The advent of satellite television has also allowed many Scottish television series’ to have a worldwide audience.

Many readers will know of the gritty Glasgow realism offered by Chief Inspector Taggart and his team in the series Taggart.

The series started in 1983 and is still in production today, despite the real-life death, in 1994, of the actor Mark McManus, who played the Taggart character so well. The series is set in Maryhill in Glasgow but centres itself on the long and winding River Clyde, where many of the ‘bad guys’ have met their demise in one way or another over the years.

In much the same vein, Rebus did for Edinburgh what Taggart did for Glasgow. The gritty detective series, based on Ian Rankin’s books was filmed in the city. The main character’s apartment overlooked Arthur’s Seat and the Castle and Port of Leith were used in many of the episodes.

In a move away from police-based dramas, the producers of the drama Monarch of the Glen have found it to be a runaway success. Filmed around the village of Laggan, in the Grampian highlands, the series has spawned a huge tourist industry to the extent that the whole Strathspey area is marketed internationally as ‘Monarch Country’.

Whilst ‘talking television’ Scots the world over have lamented the demise of the unique Scottish soap opera Take the High Road.

Filmed on location around (and in) the village of Luss on the shores of Loch Lomond, the long running serial espoused the virtues of Scottish country life.

With the local village busybody making sure she knew everyone’s business and the local squire living in the ‘Big Hoose’ the goings-on in fictional Glendarroch drew audiences in their millions.

Of all the films to be based in Scotland, the master of them all must be The 39 Steps.

Filmed in 1935, 1959 and 1978, the original film did not stick too closely to the original novel. Critics would say the 1959 version followed the original nearly shot-for-shot and it is only the 1978 version which portrays the original novel.

Whilst the early films moved the base of the film into the Highlands, the 1978 version based itself, correctly, in the south west, around Lockerbie, Durisdeer and Thornhill.

Whilst Scotland has been imitated in studios and locations all over the world, it has also done its fair share of imitating!

For example Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey features the peat bogs of the Outer Hebrides and the rocks on the Isle of Harris as a rather convincing planet Jupiter. Back on planet Earth, Glasgow’s City Chambers stood in for the Vatican in the film Heavenly Pursuits.

The most surprising element of Scotland’s film career must be the rise in the country’s popularity in the eyes of ‘Bollywood’ producers. Filmmakers from India have been arriving in Scotland in droves.

Perhaps not au fait with traditional ways of obtaining permission to film, one Bollywood film crew brought central Glasgow to a standstill with an unauthorised song and dance routine in Sauchiehall Street.

Whilst United States and the United Kingdom based filmmakers use the castles, glens and scenery, their counterparts from India are happy to use shopping centres, airports and obscure town and city locations to produce their films.

Next time you are in Scotland, just be careful you don’t wander onto a film set – you may become the star of the show!