Biking back to my rented cottage from CERN one autumn evening, having descended into the underworld of matter for a visit to the world’s largest high-energy particle collider, a sight stopped…
By Maria Popova
Biking back to my rented cottage from CERN one autumn evening, having descended into the underworld of matter for a visit to the world’s largest high-energy particle collider, a sight stopped me up short on the shore of Lake Geneva: In the orange sky over the orange water, myriad particles were swarming in unison without colliding. Except they were not particles — they were birds. Thousands of them. A murmuration of starlings — swarm intelligence at its most majestic, emergence incarnate, a living reminder that the universe is “nothing but a vast, self-organizing, complex system, the emergent properties of which are… everything.”
Two men stride through a quaint Cumbrian village on an overcast Saturday afternoon, long overcoats flapping behind them. Newly and unusually flush with cash, the pair have been gifted money from a relative. Said relative has ordered them to get better equipped for a weekend in the countryside by buying Wellington boots. The men, however, have other ideas. Specifically: pub. Here, they drink themselves drunk until closing time, and then decide belatedly to line their stomachs in a tea room next door.
Only… the quaint village is unused to bohemian types in advanced states of disrepair, and does not take kindly to their presence. They are asked to leave — but the pair prove resistant. They want cake, the taller one bellows, and — in a line that would go on to become immortal in the canon of British cinema — “the finest wines known to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now”.
This was Withnail and I— a small film largely overlooked upon its 1987 cinematic release but now widely considered among the most-loved British motion pictures of all time, and surely the funniest. It would prove an impressive calling card for its two leading men, Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, a film both of them could trade off forever. It wasn’t an instant, era-defining hit, but instead, took time to find its audience, becoming a cult hit before ultimately being bestowed with classic status.
“When it first came out, there was nothing else quite like it, and the distributors really didn’t know what to do with it,” says Murray Close, the film’s on-set photographer whose prints from it still sell regularly to collectors around the world. Close has shot many movies over his illustrious career — The Shining, Jurassic Park, Batman — but, he suggests, “People just want to talk to me about Withnail. It’s always Withnail.”
It is revered as one of the greatest Scottish films of all-time, which brought Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster to the Highlands, turned a fishing village and a little-known beach into tourist attractions, and gave Peter Capaldi his breakthrough acting role.
By Brian Ferguson
Forty years after writer-director Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero put Scotland on the global movie map, the full story of how it was made is set to be told.
A new book due to be published next month explains why the production was shot on the east and west coast of Scotland, recalls the impact made on and off screen by Lancaster, and reveals the scenes which did not make the final cut.
The book recalls how Lancaster struggled to perform his lines, the director’s insistence that the depiction of a mermaid in the film be toned down and how he was forced to change the ending of the film to keep its American funders happy.
Jonathan Melville’s book is drawn from new and archive interviews with key players in the Local Hero story, and a Q&A event he conducted with Forsyth in Mallaig when the film was shown to mark the 15th anniversary of Scotland’s mobile cinema The Screen Machine.
It recalls how Forsyth joined forces with producer David Puttnam to try to make Local Hero, despite the latter’s “very stupid decision” to turn down the director’s hit comedy Gregory’s Girl.
As the finishing touches were being made to both Puttnam’s new film, Chariots of Fire, and Gregory’s Girl, the producer invited Forsyth to a private screening of the classic Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!
Puttnam suggested to Forsyth that there could be a contemporary tale inspired by the Shetland oil boom in the early 1970s and the financial benefits that were negotiated for islanders.
Actors Denis Lawson and Peter Riegert with director Bill Forsyth during the filming of Local Hero. Picture: Enigma/Goldcrest/Kobal/Shutterstock
The director produced a two-page “treatment” of a story following a Texan oil executive sent to Scotland to seal a deal to acquire a small village and its beach for a new refinery.
Crucial finance from Goldcrest Films, who had also backed Chariots of Fire, was pledged at the BAFTAs, where the film won three awards, with Warner Brothers later coming on board.
Lancaster who was also at the BAFTAs ceremony, to collect an award for his role in Atlantic City, was handed Local Hero’s script. Forsyth had long had the actor in mind for the role of oil company boss Felix Happer.
Forsyth said: “When I was writing it, I imagined him saying the words, and I suppose once you get that locked in your head you start to write for that voice. I was kind of writing for him, but that was just for me.”
He recalled: “It was me and one of those tiny tape recorders. I’d start at 10am, when it was getting light and finish at 3pm when it wasn’t, find a pub and go and transcribe the notes I’d made, spend the rest of the evening in the bar, and start again the next day. It took about two weeks.”
Local Hero’s location manager David Brown, who would go on to produce Outlander more than 30 years later, said: “For many of us it was absurd, the notion that you can film on the east coast and West Coast and connect the two things. For a lot of the Scots, it was like ‘How can this even work?, but it works in the movie.”
Recalling filming in Pennan, Brown said: “I don’t remember any huge opposition to it. People were more accepting of it and also more prepared to get on with their lives without feeling a desperate need to photograph everything in a kind of an Instagram-type world.”
The production team had to create key locations for the film, including the church overlooking the beach and a shack which was home to beachcomber Ben, who resists Mac’s overtures to sell up.
Tasked with finding detritus washed ashore for Ben’s hut, property master Arthur Wicks had to recruit a local yachtsman for a week to find enough.
Actors Peter Riegert (Mac) and Chris Rozycki (Viktor) star in Bill Forsyth’s classic comedy Local Hero, which was partly shot in Pennan, in Aberdeenshire. Picture: Moviestore/Shutterstock
The rest of Local Hero’s cast were a mix of established Scottish actors such as Fulton Mackay and Rikki Fulton, familiar faces from previous Forsyth films, including Gregory’s Girl star John Gordon Sinclair, newcomers like Peter Capaldi, Jenny Seagrove and Tam Dean Burn, and Peter Riegert, who was cast to play ambitious oil executive Mac despite pressure on Forsyth to consider better-known actors including Henry Winkler and Michael Douglas.
Riegert said: “At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if I wasn’t working I was seeing them, and they had such interesting faces and distinctive voices. Not only were the beach and the sunsets interesting, but all the people were exotic.”
The book recalls the huge logistical challenges involved in making a film deploying key locations on either side of the country to depict the fictional fishing village and beach of Ferness.
Production designer Roger Murray-Leach travelled all over Scotland on a hunt that would eventually bring the cast and crew to the village of Pennan, in Aberdeenshire, and Camusdarach Beach, near Mallaig, in Lochaber.
He said: “We spent about a week scouring the west coast of Scotland and we didn’t find a matchstick on a beach. They were spotless all the way to Mallaig.”
Forsyth intended Local Hero to end with Mac returning to his flat in Houston and examining the beach shells he has kept in his pocket, but was forced to add an additional scene, which shows the red phone box in Ferness ringing, after the executives bankrolling the film insisted on a happier ending.
Riegert recalled: “‘Bill and I were in Los Angeles and we were meeting with one of the Warner Brothers executives. The executive said: ‘We love the movie, but the ending is so sad.’”And Bill said, “Oh, that’s great. Thanks so much, I really appreciate that. I had no idea you were gonna see it that way.’”
The village of Pennan, put on the map by Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay and Denis Lawson, some of which was filmed here.
The 70s folk singer who re-emerged in the early 00s recounts her extraordinary existence on the road – and the sexism of the hippy era – in this spare, riveting memoir
Vashti Bunyan is a singer whose times have always come slowly, as though in thrall to some kind of cosmic jet lag. Decades after her winsome, haunting debut album Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970 – sinking without trace – Bunyan went online and discovered that her abject failure, as she had understood it, was now a cult artefact changing hands for silly money.
So scarred had Bunyan been by the lack of validation at the time of Diamond Day’s release, she had put music away for an entire lifetime, never even singing to her three children in her otherworldly soprano. Unbeknown to her, she had since become a legend in alternative folk circles.
Upon her re-emergence in 2000, Bunyan shared with fawning journalists the extraordinary story of her flower child-era journey from London to Scotland by horse and cart that formed the basis of Just Another Diamond Day: a hippy dream that actually happened. Even better, Bunyan then embarked on a second musical career. The title of this riveting memoir is taken from a song on Bunyan’s second LP, 2005’s equally wonderful Lookaftering.
“I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots,” yearns the title track, “and a single silver earring and a suitcase full of notes.” That song – and Bunyan’s memoir – tells of a countercultural dream gone awry as disillusionment and traditional gender roles clamped down on her youthful waywardness.
Blossoming once again in her own time, it has taken another 20 years for Bunyan to write her story down in spare, often luminous prose. “Berneray [in Scotland, where Bunyan lived for a time] held its ancient history near to the surface. With no trees, the only verticals being the new electricity poles, Viking days hung in the air with nothing to absorb them.” And also: “We were two idiot dreamers who chose the wrong island to carry out those dreams upon.”
The bare bones of the story will be familiar from the Diamond Day myth: in 1968, in pursuit of a simpler life, Bunyan and her then-partner, an artist, set off for singer Donovan’s place in Scotland in a cart pulled by Bess the horse (“Jog along Bess,” Bunyan sang on the album) with Blue the dog, writing songs as she went. “Towards a Hebridean sun, to build a white tower”, as one song had it.
Naturally, their plans hit bumps in the road from the off. The horse they had bought as Betsy (the receipt is included here) turned out to be a decade older than advertised when she was re-shod and the blacksmith at Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, east London, recognised her. The fact that the now ex-brewery still had a stable full of dray horses feels extraordinary in itself – 60s London often feels like ancient times in this book. That sense of dislocation is redoubled by the pre-industrial, back-to-basics existence Bunyan and her other half-embraced.
They kept clean in rivers, ate little but lentils, pooped in holes in the ground and favoured flowing Victoriana in their dress. Encountering as much suspicion as they did curiosity, they came to depend on the kindness of strangers – and the Traveller community. Bunyan’s mother’s grandfather had been a Romany, a fact painstakingly suppressed by the family that, somehow, did not pass unnoticed in the byways of northern Britain.
Even before they set off, you boggle at some of their choices. In 1967, the pair lived inside a bush on Bromley Common for a time. Later, as the miles grew longer and heavier, the pair decided to get poor Bess pregnant. When they finally arrive at Donovan’s mythical redoubt nearly a year later, having overwintered in a house lent to them, there is nowhere for them, or Bess, to stay. They eventually end up on Berneray – the island they “carried out their dreams on” – where the God-fearing locals mostly spurned them, although some were kind.
Throughout, the sexism of the times is breathtaking. Bunyan’s boyfriend “offers her” to Donovan. Her fledgling music career was dictated to her by men; many of the arrangements on her album repelled her. When she gave birth out of wedlock, there was considerable pressure to have her children adopted.
Bunyan’s life has had numerous acts since then; she recounts these faraway exploits with an awareness ripened with time. The educated way she and her then-partner spoke, for instance, may well have helped keep the police off their backs and unlock some of the kindness they received. Ultimately, though, Bunyan’s story is riveting, and her eventual rebirth as an artist, a triumph of playing the long game.