Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Vital Spark (1959)
Remembering Hogmanays past
The stories of Neil Munro (written between 1905 and 1932) have been adapted for both the big and small screen several times. Fans should check out earlier adaptations and homages - the Ealing comedy "The Maggie" and the Scottish folk album "Highland Voyage", which are currently available on DVD and CD respectively.
The first TV series "Para Handy Master Mariner", starring Duncan Macrae, was broadcast in 1959 (with lots of location footage, apparently) but sadly - like a lot of BBC shows of that era - no film of these original six episodes exist today.
In 1965, "Para Handy", the second incarnation of Munro's tales, debuted as part of the "Comedy Playhouse" series of pilots - and two series (broadcast 1966) were commissioned. This time, Roddy MacMillan played the captain Para Handy (in the books, his real name is revealed as "Peter MacFarlane" - but he's never named that in this seres), with Alex McAvoy joining the cast as the (elderly looking) cabin boy "Sunny Jim". Again, all of these 1960s episodes have been wiped.
However, in 1973, "Para Handy" returned again - with an hour-long special remake of one of the older shows, featuring the 1966 cast now filmed in colour (to celebrate the BBC's 50th anniversary). This show proved popular, and so another six episodes (all colour remakes of older scripts) were made. Strangely, they were contemporary - based in the seventies - and filmed on a Clydeside that was visibly declining on-screen. Some of these episodes are still regularly shown as part of Hogmanay scheduling on BBC Scotland.
Earlier this year, a DVD was released on all five remaining "Para Handy" episodes from the seventies, along with a "promo" film for the "Highland Voyage" album. Couthy, cosy and kind - there's no denying, that with his crew of bitter, delusional and trapped puffer-men, Neil Munro had managed to create the perfect sit-com set-up a good fifty years before "Bilko" (whom Para Handy resembles at times).
The series was resurrected yet again in 1994, with Rab C. Nesbitt's Gregor Fisher in the role (arguably, the closest depiction of the Captain to the original stories). For more info see "The Tales of Para Handy".
The Tales of Para Handy (1994)
A quiet paddle on a Sunday
Broadcast between 1994 and 1995, with 6 episodes one year and 3 episode the next, "The Tales of Para Handy" was the third version to be televised of Neil Munro's hugely popular (in Scotland, at least) tales, originally written as newspaper columns in the Glasgow Herald between 1905 and the early 1930s. Previous series had starred Duncan Macrae (1959) and Roddy Macmillan (1963, 1974-5) as the Captain, and this time the "chust sublime" Gregor Fisher donned the authentic red beard and bowler hat for the role.
Rather than the previous sit-com format, 1994's version was a longer comedy drama, of a style that would later become popular Sunday night entertainment with shows like "Ballykissangel" and "Hamish Macbeth". Unlike these two contemporary shows, "Tales of Para Handy" takes place in the early 1930s (possibly 1934-5, just after the final stories were published) and makes a decent job of portraying the Scottish west coast at the time. The classic tales of the Glasgow "puffer" (steam vessels similar to barges, that ran goods and trade all over the West Coast between about 1860 and 1960) were sometimes adapted from the original Munro stories, and sometimes written from scratch (usually by Bob Black, writer of "Scotch and Wry" and "City Lights"). However, these stories were possibly a little too "couthy" and low-key for mass appeal, and the series never really took off. Possibly this is why they only made three episodes in series two (or possibly it was because Ricki Fulton's health was deteriorating).
The cast included Ricki Fulton as Dan the Engineer (the last major role by this Scottish comedy legend) and Andrew Fairlie as Davie "Sunny Jim" Green (Alex McAvoy, who played Jim in the 1960s and 1970s, had a cameo in the first episode of series one). Sean Scanlan played Dougie - but sometimes his acting, all jiggled shoulders and shouted lines in semi-exasperation, could irritate, and he's the main reason why I take one point off this show (the other is its occasional lack of pacing).
Incidentally, many Scottish comedy stars of the time played cameos in the show, and even a young David Tennant (Doctor Who) can be seen in the penultimate show of the second season.
This series has never been completely available to buy. The first six episodes were available on two BBC videos in 1995, but these now regularly go for around £25 each on Ebay. The last three episodes have never been made available anywhere - although a cassette of Neil Munro stories, released on the back of the series and read by Gregor Fisher, was also available through the BBC in 1995.
Hopefully, the recent DVD issue of the Roddy Macmillan era "The Vital Spark" series will soon see a DVD set of this excellent mid-1990s comedy drama.
Feel the Force (2006)
Why are Scottish sit-coms so suicidally unfunny?
From the opening credit sequence, sung by the two female leads I think (Doon MacKichan, incidentally, is so far nowhere to be seen) this first episode of new Scottish sit-com "Feel the Force" was awful in every way. The two leads have the comic subtly and timing of a fatal school bus crash - and the script is full of bland, grey non-jokes performed with mugging repetitiveness (and two vaguely funny ones in the whole half hour; although the Chinese Madonna gag was driven into the ground and then stamped on until dead). There's no plot, or characters, and the only thing of real interest in the whole show was: HOW DOES AN ORDINARY POLICE OFFICER MANAGE TO AFFORD A FLAT IN EDINBURGH NEW TOWN? Really, this is bad. Scotland, hang our comic heads in shame. With England constantly churning out fine sit-coms and comics, BBC Wales riding high on the back of Russell T Davis, and the Irish geniuses of Linehan and Matthew still casting a long shadow over TV comedy in general - why is Scotland still trying to rewrite old "Naked Video" scripts? With a few exceptions (some, but by no means all, of the work of the Scotch & Wry and Chewing the Fat mafias) we never seem to be able to make people laugh. Rikki Fulton relied upon old Two Ronnies scripts, and Scotland's only true comic genius, Armando Iannucci, left after 18 months of making cups of tea for other people as a trainee at Radio Scotland.
Since the year 2000 we've had 'Caledonian MacBrains', 'The Karen Dunbar Show', 'Overnite Express', 'Meet the Magoons', 'Snoddy' (another police sit-com) and about eighteen thousand episodes of 'Still Game' (or 'Still Going, Oh Christ, When Will We Stop?' as it will soon be called). None of these have ever shook the world like Ricky Gervaise, Simon Pegg, or even Peter Kay (he's relatively crap now, but still better than Ford Kiernan - can't we sent a raiding party down to Bolton and steal him as a true Scot?) One day, we should have a sit-com to rank alongside 'Fawlty Towers' or 'Hancock'. And if you think that's unlikely, or we'll only ever appeal to people within 30 miles of the Clyde - ask yourself ... why?
The White Room (1989)
Plot less in Trancentral
Unreleased in any form other than two promo videos (featuring slightly different soundtracks) "The White Room" movie has a long and complicated history, most of which would appear to be part of the UK techno act KLF's never ending quest for self-mythology. After the success of their Timelords single in 1988, Bill Drummond (the lanky one, wearing Martin Bormann's coat in the movie) and Jimmy Cauty (smaller, hairier, and the driver of their car) claimed they were sent a bizarre music contract by a shadowy organisation called "Eternity". Eternity stated that if Bill and Jimmy could document their travels to "The White Room" in some fictional way, then Eternity would give them the REAL keys to a "White Room". At no point was the actual contents or whereabouts of this real "White Room" divulged (or Eternity's identity), but the KLF (Drummond and Cauty, aka the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the JAMMs, the Timelords, the K Foundation, etc) signed the contract anyway (much to the horror of their lawyer David Franks, who was presumably a bit alarmed by their eccentricity).
Late 1988 saw Jimmy Cauty's "White Room" comic book abandoned at an early stage, and the KLF (as the duo were now permanently called) embarked upon their road movie version of "The White Room". At the same time, they also started to release their "Pure Trance" series of singles, which would eventually lead to the dance-floor hits "What Time is Love?" and "3 AM Eternal"; and released their only book, "The Manual (How To Have a Number One The Easy Way)" - documenting their experiences getting to number one with the hit single "Doctorin' The Tardis".
The money from the Timelords single went into several weeks' filming in Sierra Nevada in Spain. Filmed by Bill Butt (a friend of Drummond's from art college) and using a film crew that apparently went on to work on "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", rough footage was shot of the KLF driving around Anadalucia in Jimmy's "JAMMsmobile" (also sometimes called "Ford Timelord") a 1968 Ford Galaxy that would appear in many KLF videos and cover illustrations. Then a further section was filmed at Trancentral (Jimmy's flat/squat at 55 Jeffries Road, Stockwell, London, where the majority of the KLF's records were recorded). Here a variety of friends and fans (including Youth from Killing Joke, Alex Patterson from the Orb and Cressida, Jimmy's wife) were shot dancing in Trancentral's basement, the home of many a famous KLF party.
By summer 1989, this footage had been edited down to 45 minutes. Drummond and Cauty were apparently upset at the Spanish footage, which was filmed in a wintry November 1988, but some of the visuals are simply stunning. A rough plot was worked out: the film opens with shots of sunset over Battersea Power Station, then we flip to Trancentral, see the crowd grooving to "What Time is Love?" as Bill and Jimmy walk out into the street, meeting their lawyer David Franks in their Ford Galaxy car. There is some (muffled) dialogue as Bill and Jimmy sign the Contract from Eternity, and then some shots of Ford Timelord driving around the Thames Embankment area (to a soundtrack of "3 AM Eternal"). Then, they go down a tunnel - and reappear in Spain. For the rest of the film (half an hour) we see Bill and Jimmy drive, and drive, and drive ... they stop occasionally, build a fire (to the song of the same name), consult maps, fix the car and drive through the winding streets an amazing cave village. Bill wears plus-fours and visits a mysterious castle, Jimmy wanders around a scrap yard at night with a strange little boy, and they both eventually end up driving Ford Timelord into the snow capped mountains before finding the White Room itself (a mountain-top observatory) where David Franks shows them a Loophole in the Contract and Bill and Jimmy fly off to heaven ...
The whole film has a meandering mixed soundtrack of KLF songs, most unreleased in mid 1989. A CD soundtrack album was actually planned, but following the lack of success for the single "Kylie Said to Jason" (itself actually not heard in the film) the soundtrack album was postponed, and a compilation of "What Time is Love" cover versions was released in its place. The film's commercial release was also postponed ...
Eighteen months later, the "The White Room" album (or "Tunes from the White Room" as it was called in some countries) eventually saw the light of day, with all the original tracks drastically altered, and became a huge hit. (The 1989 soundtrack, like the raw footage, only slipped out briefly as a promo). In 1990, plans were announced to expand "The White Room" raw footage, with appearances from real actors like Paul McGann, but pretty much came to nothing bar a script re-write (which can be found quite easily as a text file on the Net). Another version of the raw footage, with the same visuals but a different soundtrack, featuring some songs from the new "White Room" album, was edited together in autumn 1991 - the KLF's commercial high water mark. It shown to a group of German investors (the KLF have always had a large cult following in Germany) who, sadly, decided not to fund ... Possibly because the "premier" was attended by a flock of sheep which the KLF let loose amongst the cinema!
Six months later, in 1992, the KLF officially "retired" from music, concentrating instead on art projects (including the 1994 movie "Watch the K-Foundation Burn a Million Quid") and one final, low-selling "comeback" single in 1997. "The White Room" project was never touched by either Jimmy Cauty or Bill Drummond again - and remains perpetually unfinished ...
Also, of course, it has NEVER been officially released, but occasionally, genuine promo videos and cassette appear on Ebay, but be prepared to pay up to £100 for either.
A really fruity Bastille!
I have not seen this show in a very long time, fifteen years probably, but I still remember it very well. I'm too young to remember "The Nation Theatre of Brent"'s TV appearances in the mid-80s (their hey-day) but after seeing "Revolution", I listened to Patrick Barlow's 1990 radio series "From Lemur to Cosmonaut" (Desmond "Olivier" Dingle with his faithful sidekick "Wallace", played by Jim Broadbent) and - ten years later - their Channel 4 millennial series (without Jim). The idea of a TV historian is probably even more topical now than it was in the 1980s (when Barlow's bad-suited Dingle seemed to be a hazy impersonation of Sir Alan Clarke circa 1969) and it's a shame we can't see Desmond amongst the Simon Schamas of the modern day. "Revolution!" lives long in the memory, straight from the beginning when the intrepid duo set sail to France on the Newhaven ferry to visit the land of Robespierre and The Terror. Always in a grey suit, but with an occasional powdered wig or dagger, Barlow reenacts scenes from the French Revolution as if they're bad am-dram educational plays for schools, with the long-suffering Wallace sometimes cajoled into being a humiliating second fiddle. The scene with Dingle in the bath, as Jean Paul Marat, still in his suit but with a bandaged head, trying to get Wallace to kill him by shouting "now!" is still stuck in my brain. Then there's the street scene with the two of them pathetically trying to reenact huge crowds without anyone else around, but with some dramatic camera angles and much shouting. And at the end there's even pathos, as Wallace rebels against Dingle by over-acting as the judge who executed Danton, and Dingle ends the show with a street-sweeping Napoleon, waiting patients to clean up the mess of La Revolution ...
Overnite Express (2003)
Possibly the worst sitcom ever made?
Even though this was only broadcast two years ago, a search of the internet shows very little discussion of it (maybe half a dozen sites mention this Scottish sitcom at all) ... and this is ALL FOR THE BEST. The wacky goings on of a long-haul passenger bus going between Buchanan Street bus station in Glasgow and Kings Cross bus station in London - actually Buchanan Street filmed at a different angle! - was possibly the worst waste of human collective energy since the sacking of Rome in the fifth century AD. A sitcom that is wrong is every conceivable way is in fact incredibly difficult to achieve - but "Overnite Express" managed it with aplomb: unlike other duds like "My Hero" or "My Family", it couldn't even be accused of being bland ... The two bus drivers and the "jolly hostess" were like bloated but animated corpses from the Great Glasgow Empire in the Sky, with wobbly "comedy" accents, and a tail-end-of-the-alternative-comedy-boom love of swearing and queasy sexuality. Each week, "funny passengers" came and went (and farted, and died, and puked, and swore) ... and twenty-four months later I cannot remember a single joke ... except for something about about a detachable eye being mistaken for a boiled egg. This sitcom was not so much a footnote on British comedy great big book, more a footstool covered in dog mess (which is crushing the book into a big stinky pulp). Sadly, though, in the Scottish comedy encyclopedia, "Overnite Express" probably features quite prominently because of all its connections (primarily to the Chewing the Fat Mob (and I mean "mob" in its mafia sense)). Funny Jocks? Thistle no' make ye laugh.