crrev1.htmlTEXTMSIE#,ȵ,mBIN Crow Road Review Electronic Herald 1996

Flying high on The Crow Road



Crow Road cast

Made in Scotland: the cast of the hugely successful The Crow Road

By ALLAN LAING

Is The Crow Road just possibly the best contemporary drama series yet produced by BBC Scotland? The question is, in a sense, rhetorical. Because the answer, all things considered, is rather obvious. Yes, it is.

The four-part adaptation of Iain Banks's novel, which ended its run on BBC2 last night, was a brilliant, witty, delicious piece of work, skilfully and faithfully written by Brian Elsley and directed with enormous style by Gavin Millar.

The £2.7m ($4.6) production had a superb cast (wonderfully quirky performances from, among others, Bill Paterson, Peter Capaldi, Valerie Edmond, and Paul Young) and it surely set young Joseph McFadden, as the hero of the piece Prentice McHoan, on the road to greater things.

For BBC Scotland its success represents an important milestone in terms of its network output. For a start, it shows that there's more -- a lot more -- to its drama than Hamish Macbeth. Though previous quality series, like Donna Franceschild's Takin' Over The Asylum, have met with great critical acclaim (and a barrowload of industry awards), Queen Margaret Drive has never before produced something which has really made a significant (and consistant) impact on the all-important viewing figures for BBC2.

The Crow Road did. And, with regular audiences of up to five million (the combined viewing figure for the Monday night first screening and the Sunday night repeat), it did it rather spectacularly. Figures of that magnitude fall into the ''of these dreams are made'' category for all but a handful of BBC2 programmes. Indeed, at five million viewers an episode, you are fast approaching the ball park figure for The X Files when it was first shown on BBC2.

According to Andrea Calderwood, head of drama at BBC Scotland, The Crow Road benefited from a lesson which was learned from the experience of the aforementioned Takin' Over The Asylum. No-one was in any doubt that it was a classy piece of work, but its audience figures (which averaged around 1.5 to 2 million each episode) suffered because the series didn't get the network promotional and scheduling support it warranted.

The difference between then and now is the fact that the BBC in London at long last has real confidence in drama from Scotland. It is now prepared to promote a series like The Crow Road, without question, as a major item on the season's agenda.

So why was The Crow Road so successful? For what it's worth, my own theory is that, in addition to being a fine story well told, it was a drama whose transmission was timed to perfection (though possibly more by accident than design). A sweeping generalisation it may well be, but there appears to be only room for two kinds of drama on television this year. One is the shoot-em-up cop shows (like Sharman and Thieftakers) and the other is the adaptation of literary classics (like Pride and Prejudice and Emma).

For those of us who are perhaps a little fed-up with TV detectives and who have an aversion to the current trend for gentile period drama, an intelligent, contemporary series like The Crow Road stands out like a breath of fresh air on the schedules. It is television for grown-ups.

Gavin Millar, the Clydebank-born film-maker who directed the series, tends to agree. ''I wouldn't say there is a surfeit of heritage drama on television these days but I'd certainly say there is an abundance. People are ransacking the nineteenth century for texts which have been in some cases studiously neglected -- often for the best of reasons -- and are now being hauled out and dusted down and presented as classics -- with a bit of effort in some cases,'' he said.

''It is not necessarily a bad thing to look back 100 years and search for forgotten texts -- as long as you are continuing to do the same for contemporary writers. But it is a bit dangerous because you have a lot of people sitting in bedsits tearing their hair out and pouring blood, sweat and tears into writing modern work. And the risk is that it will be neglected.''

Millar was genuinely stunned by both the critical reaction to and the viewing figures for The Crow Road.

''It has all been slightly daunting, to be honest,'' he said. ''It is terribly gratifying to find that people have so enjoyed it and been so excited by it. I'm particularly delighted that it has gone over so well in Scotland because, apart from being Scottish myself, I'm pleased that it didn't set out to be kailyard or short-bread-and-sweeties.''

He continued: ''It was meant to be just a story which happened to be set in contemporary Scotland rather than in any other country. It had its own wit and its own substance and was not dependent on its Scottishness. It could carry its Scottishness without any sideways glancing.''

Millar believes that the series's appeal has much to do with the story it tells. It is a tale, told from an unapologetically middle-class standpoint, about different generations in which no character escapes criticism and yet, at the same time, none is left utterly abandoned.

''There is something in it for parents and children of different generations. For people between the ages of, say, 18 and 25, it's about the relationships they have with their mums and dads. But it also appeals to an older generation because it is saying something about their own families,'' he said. Modestly, writer Brian Elsley, who has just completed a feature film script on another Iain Banks adaptation (Complicity), puts the success of The Crow Road down to the fact that it was a wonderfully-written book.

''It is also the fact that it is a contemporary story and people are always looking for contemporary drama which doesn't necessarily fall in to the genres we all recognise. In the end, of course, it is a whodunnit, but it is much more than that,'' he said.

''One of the great things about it is that, although a lot of the people are essentially normal -- or close to normal -- they do lead slightly fantastic lives and live in these fantastic houses. It is about families and everyone is interested in families and what they get up to.

''Most drama these days has to be about lawyers, or doctors, or policemen and people seem to have difficulty with stuff that comes out of the left field. And Crow Road is like that.''

Though Elsley's version captures the spirit and the feel of the original novel, he describes it as ''a much more radical adaptation than it looks''.

He said: ''All the best screen adaptations are radical ones. But they should end up feeling like the book. My adaptation is actually very, very different from the book in many ways but the feel of the book is reflected in the context of television.''

For Andrea Calderwood, The Crow Road is the perfect example of the kind of network drama she wants to see coming from Scotland. It is a contemporary story which just happens to be set in Scotland.

''It not so much about Scotland as about the people. It shows that we can tell any kind of story in Scotland,'' she said.

On the strength of The Crow Road's success, BBC Scotland has now been commissioned to make another four-part contemporary series (details will be released soon) next year for BBC2. In addition, The Crow Road's producer, Bradley Adams, is in talks with Calderwood with a view to making another Iain Banks adaptation -- this time his latest novel, Whit.


Originally published in the Electronic Herald

| Culture Shock |

| News | Banks | Credits | Bibliography | subCulture | Consider this |