Hello. My name is Vee and for the past forty years or so – most of my adult life in fact – I have lived, part-time at least, in the village of Ferness.
For those who have never visited, Ferness is to be found simultaneously both on the east and the west coast of northern Scotland. It is a wee fishing community with one pub, one church and no school (there’s just the one baby…).
As a Fernessian, I love a ceilidh in the local drinking-hole. I have a weakness for red telephone boxes. Also for pimply biker boys named Ricky. I buy extra normal shampoo, occasionally have aspirations to mermaidhood and avoid menus which include rabbit.
Especially rabbits named Trudi.
Bill Forsyth’s extraordinary film Local Hero is forty years old and to celebrate this anniversary, author and journalist Jonathan Melville has written a book about its creation.
I appreciate after this interesting read that it could have been a very different film: it is only thanks to Forsyth’s genius in casting and then the subtleties of the process of editing that the nuanced scenes we love have been whittled into existence.
The book is structured by describing iconic scenes chronologically in each chapter (so impossible to avoid spoilers, but no-one who has not seen the film is likely to buy the book anyway). Each of these scenes is followed by a description of a different aspect of the making of the film, with many interesting crew and cast comments woven in.
Forsyth seems to feel he has said enough about Local Hero already, so was not interviewed for the book, although he did provide the author with some rare and wonderful photographs. Melville has done well to transcribe and blend 2013 directorial interviews with fresh material drawn from other members of the production team and cast.
And what a cast it is: Denis Lawson, Peter Riegert, Jenny Seagrove, Fulton Mackay, Jennifer Black, Peter Capaldi (then unknown) and the Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster among so many other familiar faces. The early discarded options for the casting of some of these key characters are hair-raising (I won’t spoil the discovery for you). Forsyth was particularly insistent on Riegert playing MacIntyre, saying that without him there would be no film.
Local Hero has a lot to answer for me personally. It evokes the oil boom cowboy Highlands of my 1970s//80s youth. And there was a turning point in my life 20 years ago when I faced a straight choice between moving from England to France or moving to back to the Scottish Highlands. By then I had seen the film so many times that I no longer needed to: Mark Knopfler’s seductive score – my desert island music for sure – wound itself into my subconscious to such a degree that the film played on a loop in my head whenever I heard it. I realised I was homesick down there, out of place in the brash England of the early noughties. I longed for Ferness – and I came home to the Black Isle (where I was brought up) to find it.
In a way, for the next few decades, I did.
I know this may sound a bitty pompous, but the thing about Ferness is the essential truth of the place. It is a decent representation of the less worldly Highlands I was raised in. Forty years on, there are still echoes of Ferness in Black Isle life. People who have never left (if they are not farmers or landowners) still manage somehow to exist, with good humour and with dignity, adapting to whatever it is life throws at them.
Scratch the surface however and both Ferness and the Black Isle are rather less Brigadoon and rather more Wicker Man. In Local Hero, the people of Ferness seem intent on becoming rich through an oil deal which they know, and yet do not understand, will destroy their homes and way of life: they will not let anyone, even one of their own, stand in the way.
The dark heart of my home became apparent during Lockdown as various toxic local grievances ignited (there is another screenplay there, Bill, if you’re reading this). While 2020 Black Islers sniped and snarled and vilified each other on Facebook until the pieces settled again into an altered normality, 1980s Ferness folk (when Felix Happer’s sanity, or possibly insanity prevails to ‘save’ their village) simply accept their change in community destiny with typical Highland fatalism.
Both communities emerge from their time of trial with everything and nothing changed: they can never go back, but not going forward is not an option either. Ach weel…
Much as I love Mark Knopfler’s music, I am not altogether sure about the wisdom of the musical version which opened before Lockdown and has not yet resurfaced. Perhaps Forsyth sensed the impending schmaltzification of his masterpiece and that was why he withdrew from further involvement.
Bill Forsyth is said now to be uncertain of his virtues as a director. What a shame, for the man is a genius. This could have been a rather different book had he been interviewed for it, but he seems now to have distanced himself from the film world, and for good reason. There is no place among the money- driven Hollywood-and-Netflix hot air for his special brand of quiet, clever creativity, more’s the pity.
To me Local Hero was, is and always will be the perfect film. It is tender and honest and steers clear of that saccharin twee-ness which is always the risk in film-making about northern Scotland.
Thank God there has never been any question of a remake…
An index for future film buffs would (in my view) have been the only useful addition to this very good tribute to a cherished piece of Scottish cinematography. Well done Mr Melville. It will enhance any Christmas stocking it happens to land in.
Vee Walker is an author and editor from the Black Isle. Her first novel Major Tom’s War was a prizewinner at the 2019 SAHR Military History Fiction Awards: it is available in paperback and audiobook from http://www.kashihouse.com and all good booksellers.
Why not join her this Christmas for an escapist hour of seasonal art, stories and readings: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/473483370507
Local Hero – Making a Scottish Classic by Jonathan Melville is available from Polaris Publishing at £16.99.