I was like a kid at Christmas the other morning, when I finally got my paws on a copy of Weir’s Way: The Essential Collection – a monumental DVD box set containing 52 episodes of Tom Weir’s long-running TV show about Scotland’s great outdoors.
I was too young to appreciate the subtleties of the show when it originally aired on STV from 1976-1987 (Children’s BBC was more my bag back then) and I had no idea that STV ran late-night repeats through the late 90s and early Noughties. For several years, though, I’ve been aware that my first Weir encounter was long-overdue.
Rather than start at the start, I decided to pick my first episode at random, and ended up watching a fantastic travelogue about Mingulay and Berneray from 1977, the year before I was born. From the very first frame, in which Weir is rowed ashore in a rubber dinghy after sailing to the island aboard an elegant green yacht, it’s abundantly clear that the production values of the late 1970s were somewhat primitive compared to today’s, yet somehow the complete lack of technological bells and whistles makes the whole experience feel more real. At one point, for example, while yomping across the grassy interior of Berneray, Weir stops dead in his tracks, points to the sky and exclaims “Look! A golden eagle!” If this were a contemporary nature doc, there would then have been a super high-definition close-up of the eagle soaring majestically over the island. We’d have been able to see the wrinkly skin on his talons, scrutinise the patterns on each individual feather. In 1977, though, the best the cameraman could do was a slightly shaky image of a tiny black dot with wings, silhouetted against a bright blue background. My first reaction was to laugh, but then I caught myself and thought, hold on, this is reality, right? To a real person walking through a real field, that’s what a golden eagle flying a couple of hundred feet overhead looks like.
There’s another area in which Weir’s Way is unexpectedly more true to life than anything currently on the telly, and that’s the way in which Weir’s interviews with the people he meets on his travels are edited. Or, rather, the way in which they’re not edited. When Weir gets to Barra Head and talks to Donald the lighthouse keeper about the fact that this is his last summer manning the lighthouse before it becomes automatic, the answers aren’t chopped up into snappy little soundbites that help move the story along, as they would be today, Instead, we get a couple of, looooooong takes, in which Donald ums and aahs a bit, just like real people do, mumbles a bit, just like real people do, and flicks his tongue nervously around his mouth a bit, just like real people sometimes do when they’re really nervous. Again, I found myself chuckling away at all this, but then realised I was laughing because I was watching something too real for today’s TV. There’s such a huge gulf between the untidiness of real life and the heavily edited “reality” we now consume unthinkingly on the box every night that, when we’re confronted with something that looks really real, it seems hilariously anachronistic.
Of course, the best thing about these shows is Weir himself, and in particular his relaxed, apparently unscripted delivery style. Once or twice he stumbles over his words during pieces to camera, but that’s fine – no need to do 40 more takes until he nails it – after all, that’s how people talk in real life.
Later this year, to mark what would have been Weir’s 100th birthday, STV are screening a tribute entitled On Weir’s Way. David Hayman will travel to many of the locations visited by Weir during the original series and see how they’ve changed over the last three decades. I know real-world commercial pressures will mean the production team will have to deliver something that meets the expectations of contemporary viewers – slickly scripted and edited, no doubt, and shot in ravishing HD – but there’s a part of me that would love to see them create some sort of homage to the style of the original. Failing that, if the next generation of documentary makers could learn a thing or two from Weir’s example, that would be something.
Weir’s Way: The Essential Collection, is out now on Delta, £39.99