Scotland on Film

Monday, March 25, 2002 by

Seems such a simple equation doesn’t it? Take some black and white archive footage and throw in some old dears to wistfully reminisce on their childhood.

Yet somehow, this strand of programming from BBC Scotland stands head and shoulders above anything else from their miserable output. Whilst the comedy department flog the dead horse that is Chewin’ the Fat and inveigle us to watch the alleged hotel oscar oscar tango that is Snoddy, and weightier (and disproportionate) time and resources are given to the stunningly average Monarch of the Glen and the middlingly mediocreRockface it is always – always – the factual output of BBC Scotland that is the cream of the crop.

The Ex-S series in recent times has given Scottish viewers some wonderful shows. The programme on the Orpheus Choir and the one on the psychic barber stand out as two of the best half-hour slices of factual TV that I’ve watched in recent years. The presentation style is imbued with an innate sense of love and affection, the subject matter is elegantly explored and the end result, for the viewer, is a sense of deep, deep satisfaction. This current series, in which archive footage is displayed on the screen and the talking heads are pensioners recollecting memories from their long ago childhoods, is a perfect marriage of film and interviewees and a stunning example of the medium working to full effect.

The BBC has always excelled at history but it is pleasing to see living history so lovingly cherished and presented. Last night’s 30 minutes concentrated on childhood and it was a fascinating insight into a world that I was partially a participator in and have fond memories of but one which my parents knew far better. Regaling us with tales from an age where children were sent out first thing in the morning and returned home at dusk, we entered a world where child safety was a given, a world where unflinching poverty existed also as a given and a world where the spirit of community positively lived and breathed. This may have been a stream of positive, warm and happy memories but almost always each little piece to camera was underlined with a nod to the reality of life as it was.

Tales of stunning beauty were told; children of the isles playing for what seemed their entire summer in the cool waters of the Atlantic (this backed by some quite beautiful footage of children at play on one of the Western Isles). This was counterbalanced by a man recalling how his father worked on the mainland and he only saw him when he returned to the island on his solitary break of the year – a two-week sojourn. Memories of doors being tied together and chapped were recollected, stories of playing in back court sewage ponds were surprisingly elegiac and the poverty (and relative wealth) of Christmas presents was recounted with a warmth and tenderness that was quite, quite captivating. One woman fondly relived the memory of her rich uncle from America returning home and, on hearing of how she had never been in a car before, promptly hired a Rolls Royce the following the day. Her admission that this was still the happiest day of her life was a moment that touched the soul and set the seal on a magnificent show.

Given the propensity for the bombastic from BBC Scotland, this was a simple, plain segment of television that delivered a sense of wonderment and awe to the viewer. Watching with my daughter she was fascinated by stories of children being barefoot until October, clothes being passed on from neighbour to neighbour and many other tales that never became homilies but always remained colourful, personal memories that you were privileged to share. The footage of the ABC Saturday Morning Club from the ’50s was bliss. This produced the wonderful observation from an old boy that the movies he watched as a mesmerised youngster was pretty much what was still on TV today! The soundtrack of songs to complement the images of children playing with things such as skipping ropes, balls and a cleek and girdle served only to further enhance the texture of the show. What chance a child today playing peever?

This was gentle, unassuming and utterly beguiling. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone else who thrills at the sight of snottery street urchins wolfing down jeely pieces and raggedy siblings belting lumps out of each other. It is important that we recognise where we come from, what moulded us and how our parents and grandparents spent their halcyon days. This is especially true in an age when the last embers of the dying fire of socialism are being brutally stamped out by New Labour and in an era when gated housing developments underline the them and us mentality that has destroyed any sense of community and worth that we once had. This was not merely television but a valuable social document that gently, and poignantly, reminded us that perhaps in securing a better future there are many things our past can teach us.


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