10 signs of community in Local Hero and their message for us today

The movie Local Hero by Scottish director Bill Forsyth feels as relevant now as it did when it was first released more than 35 years ago.

Mac and Victor. Picture: REX
Mac and Victor. Picture: REX

Depicting a small Highland community’s battle with the will of a giant American oil company to buy over their village, Ferness, and build an oil refinery in its place.

It’s a special film about a special place and as the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh prepares to stage the world premiere of a major new stage musical based on the 1983 film, we take a look at 10 signs of community spirit played out in Local Hero - and the message they have for us today.

Local Hero at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh 14 March – 4 May 2019. To book tickets: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/local-hero

Picture: REX

1. Be trusting

The village pub in the fictional Ferness is closed when local Knox Oil and Gas representative Oldsen, played by Peter Capaldi, and American colleague Mac arrive in the early morning after being trapped in their car overnight. However, after a gentle standoff, landlord Gordon Urquhart is happy to accommodate the curious arrivals.

Urquhart invites the pair into the hotel kitchen to help themselves to coffee and toast while he disappears back up stairs to tend to some pressing personal business.

“We can take care of the formalities later,” says the landlord, before offering his guests some lettuce for the rabbit they picked up on the road.

2. Go the extra mile

When Mac walks into the packed pub to look for a phone to call his HQ back in Houston, the oilman is told of the now-famous red telephone box over the road.

“You can make a call anywhere in the world from there,” says barman Roddy.

The bar is heaving, drams are flowing, fags are smoking and conversation runs deep at the MacAskill Arms, but Roddy’s appeal for 10p pieces, so that Mac can make his “very important phone call”, has the whole pub clamouring to empty their pockets of what they have.

A customer even escorts Mac across the road to the public telephone - and cleans the mouthpiece for him. It is not long before villagers are talking of giving the telephone box a fresh lick of paint for Mac - and even asking what colour he would like it in.

3. Appoint a leader you trust

The stakes are high in Ferness as Knox negotiates to buy over the village in order to build its oil refinery.

As villagers gather in the church to get a measure of events, Gordon Urquhart is up there on the pulpit commandeering his people. “All I ask for is your patience and your trust,” the landlord turned community leader says.

Urquhart proves he is the man for the occasion, going on to deploy his natural charm, business head and ample stash of whisky in order to get a good deal for the village.

4. Do your bit

There is little room for airs, graces and ego in Ferness. On a break from work, Mac wanders down to the harbour where Roddy, the barman from the MacAskill Arms, is fixing a lobster creel, much to the American’s curiosity.

“We all muck in together, any job that needs doing,” says Roddy.

There is a raised eyebrow or two when the men at the harbour learn that oil industry executive Mac only has “one job”.

5. Pick your fights wisely

As negotiations get underway, Urquhart does his best to disarm Mac and charm him into appreciating the ways of the village.

After pouring the oilman a large 42-year-old malt, the landlord takes Mac for a walk by the beach. The American visitor can barely argue when Urquhart tells him: “It’s not a matter of buying up someone’s feelings, it’s not as crude as that. It’s a massive disturbance to a way of life”.

As the whisky works its magic, Urquhart proposes that Knox pays the villagers a lump sum of £20 million in addition to setting up a trust fund to share out profits from the refinery. Mac, disarmed by the big dram and the sheer beauty of the Highland evening, barely argues.

6. Show respect

There is a clash of cultures down at the beach when Urquhart and Mac drop in for a visit to local eccentric Ben’s ramshackle hut. The beachcomber has a rare fire going and is relaxing with a smoke when the two appear. Ben wants to offer them a cup of tea, but there is only one cup. Urquhart assures Ben that the pair can share a cup and begins to prepare the drink, at which point Mac jumps in to say: “No sugar though.”

Ben’s face falls to the sand at this jarring show of entitlement from the American - and the seeming disrespect for Highland hospitality. The encounter sets the tone for a somewhat tricky relationship between the highly decent Ben - who it transpires will have a pivotal role in whether Knox is successful - and the bullish American businessman.

7. Come together

As negotiations drag on in Ferness, all eyes are on the end of the week and the Friday night ceilidh. There is something special about these music-driven social gatherings that gives everyone a place to celebrate - whether young or old, rich or poor. In Ferness, even the local punk joins in as the community effortlessly gels and excels. The night is full of surprises with Urquhart regaling the throng with a waltz on the accordion and visiting Soviet fishing boat captain Viktor’s song setting the night on fire. Who wouldn’t want to be there?

8. Know your past

There is a lot of talk about the future in Ferness as locals grapple with the promise of great riches from the proposed oil refinery. But, is the future so different from the past? Beachcomber Ben, whose reluctance to sell his stretch of beach - which we learn has been in his family for 400 years - is told that dozens of people could make a living from his property if he sells to Knox. Ben deftly points out that history would then just be repeating itself, as the beach was once central to the village’s thriving kelp industry.

9. Look after your own

There is a baby in a buggy that keeps popping up as Local Hero unfolds. The only thing is that none of the villagers seem to know who the intermittently appearing infant belongs to. However, the sense of community in Ferness is so strong, there is no shortage of locals who are only too happy to look after the baby.

10. Money doesn't always talk

The value of money is questioned throughout the film, with community and the environment given a higher status than anything a dollar bill could acquire. Ben teases Mac for being “great at talking the big numbers”, and for the American wanting to “buy a comet”.

Eventually the whole refinery deal falls through when the billionaire oil baron boss of Knox - played by Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster - hears of the amazing astronomical spectacle of the night skies over Ferness and comes over to Scotland to see for himself.

Subsequently, when Mac gets ready to leave the village, he writes a personal cheque made out to Urquhart to cover his stay at the MacAskill Arms. The oilman does not want to put it on company expenses, but would rather foot the bill himself. It seems that it has been quite a journey for Mac.

Urquhart does not appear too worried over whether his bank will accept the American cheque, telling Mac: "It's been fun having you...we'll pin it on the wall as a souvenir."

Mac says “toodle-oo” to his friend and wishes him well. Urquhart says: “It’s always the same. The big boys always want the playground to themselves. We can handle them.”

There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Local Hero at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh 14 March – 4 May. To book tickets: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/local-hero