Brian Ferguson: Too few Scottish historical dramas on screen

It is a mystery why Scottish filmmakers failed to build on the momentum of the mid-1990s when Braveheart and Rob Roy were released within months of each other, writes Brian.
It is a mystery why Scottish filmmakers failed to build on the momentum of the mid-1990s when Braveheart and Rob Roy were released within months of each other, writes Brian.
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It is Saturday night at the Royal Lyceum Theatre and an expectant audience is squeezing into every available seat. They have seized the chance to be the first to see one of the year’s most anticipated theatrical events in Scotland – a new play exploring the relationship between John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Written by Linda McLean, Glory on Earth is the first work directed by David Greig since he took over the helm of the theatre last year and the grand finale of his first season in charge.

The show marks the return to the stage of Edinburgh-born actor Jamie Sives, whose last big stage role in Scotland was as James III in The James Plays trilogy. Penned by Rona Munro, those shows about the Stuart Kings who ruled Scotland in the 15th century were the runaway box office smash of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, before going on to the National Theatre in London and touring overseas.

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One of Greig’s previous major successes as a playwright was Dunsinane, a sequel to Macbeth, which was loosely based on an 11th-century Scottish king. As well as staging Dunsinane, the National Theatre of Scotland has revived Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart in the last decade.

Dundee Rep had nationwide success with its revival of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, which charts events as far back as the Highland Clearances.

Theatres, writers and directors seem increasingly drawn back to Scottish history and the characters, legends and myths they have inspired. Yet I cannot be the only one to notice that few Scottish historical dramas make it on to the big or small screens. There is one notable exception in Outlander, whose author Diana Gabaldon told me last week that negotiations had broken down with UK broadcasters over requests to cut the show to suit their schedules.

There has been no shortage of British-set period dramas in recent years, with audience demand seeming to grow with each year thanks to the success of Downton Abbey, The Crown, Wolf Hall, Victoria and Poldark. But if there is one consistent thing about the drama series that are drawing in millions of viewers, it is how they are of little relevance to Scotland.

One of the few ITV series set in Scotland in recent years, In Plain Sight, charted the pursuit of serial killer Peter Manuel – and Scotland seems to specialise in gritty modern-day crime dramas like Taggart, Case Histories and Shetland. One of the few historic dramas BBC Scotland has been involved in over the last few years was Terence Davies’ 2015 film adaptation of Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

It is a mystery why Scottish filmmakers failed to build on the momentum of the mid-1990s when Braveheart and Rob Roy were released within months of each other. It is telling that one of the few other episodes from Scottish history to make it on to the big screen in recent years was a new version of Whisky Galore!

With STV relying on an old Irish soap opera and repeats of Take the High Road to pad out the schedules of its new channel, it may be down to BBC Scotland to embrace period drama in time for its own new station launching next year. Extra money has been promised for home-grown drama series and there is no reason why these all need to be set in the present day.

Some of those involved in Scottish theatre may be able to help with a few ideas.