It’s fearsome Rob Roy, hiding from Redcoats in the Highlands. And he’s wearing plimsolls, as the dapper Victorian gentleman before us is quick to point out.
We’re in the Hippodrome in Bo’ness, Scotland’s oldest surviving purpose-built cinema. The strikingly elegant temple to the silver screen marked its centenary last year, and since 2011 it’s been celebrating those early years with the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.
And that’s why, standing before us, “film explainer” Andy Cannon is having fun with Fickle Fortune, a 1930 historical epic from Bearsden Film Club. Andy has revived the practice of early theatre managers who would interpret the action of silent movies for audiences whose literacy skills were lacking.
Taking us through four films from the Scottish Screen archive – there’s also a documentary on Edinburgh, a short on the joys of temperance and a dour adaptation of the poem Auld Robin Gray – Andy is insightful, charming and very funny.
It’s easy to overlook Bo’ness as a weekend destination, given its proximity to the fêted Linlithgow, but the delightful former mining town on the south bank of the Firth of Forth has lots to offer. As well as the Hippodrome, other places worth a visit include Kinneil House and Bo’ness Motor Museum.
The latter features a fantastic collection of 007 cars and memorabilia, thanks to the passion of owner Colin Anderson. And if Bond’s not your thing there are vehicles from Harry Potter, Only Fools and Horses, and the occasional flying visit from Chitty Chitty Bang Bag.
Formerly the principal seat of the Hamilton family in the east of Scotland, Kinneil House was saved from demolition in 1936 when 16th-century murals were discovered, and it’s now in the care of Historic Scotland. It’s located within the boundaries of a public park, which also incorporates a section of the Roman Antonine Wall.
Kinneil’s grounds also contain the ruins of Scottish inventor James Watt’s cottage – he was given a berth here while perfecting his steam engine. Kinneil House has free open days during the year, organised by Historic Scotland and the charity, The Friends of Kinneil. It was cold when we visited, but the welcome from the volunteers was as warm as you could wish for.
Hospitality was also on offer at the Richmond Park Hotel, a short walk from the town centre where Steve and I were booked into the Bridal Suite. After a good old giggle, we kicked back and enjoyed the well-appointed lodgings.
The three-star hotel doesn’t offer fine dining, which is OK by me. I’m not one for tiny portions of emulsions and reductions – give me the Richmond Grill’s hearty bistro fare any day, especially when served by the lovely staff. And the excellent breakfasts set us up for a day at the festival.
The Film Explainer Returns – Andy Cannon debuted his routine last year – was just one highlight of a five-day programme filled with gems. Organised by Falkirk Community Trust, the festival specialises in bringing little-known films before modern audiences, with the addition of new music. And thrillingly, the scores are played live. This year’s treats included composer Neil Brand at the piano for 1925 Gloria Swanson comedy Stage Struck, BBC film reviewer Mark Kermode’s skiffle band The Dodge Brothers with 1929 Soviet drama The Ghost That Never Returns and Jane Gardner, Su-a Lee and Hazel Morrison exuberantly accompanying superb 1925 melodrama The Goose Woman.
But it wasn’t all sitting back and being entertained, there was also the opportunity to learn a few screen-worthy skills, courtesy of dance teacher/human dynamo Kaye Finlay. Steve and I decamped to the grand Bo’ness Town Hall –two minutes from the hotel – to join a bunch of game festival punters for a Charleston workshop. Kaye patiently took us through enough jazz steps to build a routine but it’s safe to say I won’t be appearing on Strictly any time soon.
I will be going back to Bo’ness, though, perhaps as soon as next month for the annual Victorian Street Fair. Whatever the occasion, Bo’ness offers a great welcome, and a surprise around every corner.