Film review: Blackbird

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Who better for the young hero of a Highland film to look up to than piper, comic and star of Gaelic TV, Norman Maclean, asks Siobhan Synnot?

FOR monoglot Scottish TV viewers, nothing combined bemusement with jealousy quite as successfully as Tormod Air Telly. A 1980s BBC Scotland comedy series, airing around primetime, it appeared to poke fun at Highland archetypes, Benbecula-Lewis rivalries and Free Church ministers, provoking gales from its Gaelic studio audience. But if you didn’t have the Gaelic or Ceefax subtitles, you were stuffed.

Norman Maclean was already a Highland star by this point. He was a talented piper and singer, a writer, and stand-up comic. He became a presenter and producer of Gaelic programmes for both the BBC and independent TV, supplanting David Jason as the voice of Donnie Murdo, the Gaelic version of Danger Mouse. His film career has been more fitful. In 1989, he appeared in an enigmatic feature film called Play Me Something, about Scottish storytelling. Set in Barra airport where passengers wait for a delayed flight to Glasgow, Maclean appeared alongside Hamish Henderson, Tilda Swinton, Liz Lochhead and seems pleasantly baffled by a Europudding production, directed by Maclean’s friend Timothy Neat.

“The cinematographer was an old Russian guy, who didn’t even look through the camera lens, he just sat in a big chair and ordered his German minions to do the looking,” Maclean recalls. “He had only one word and that was nyet because nothing was ever good enough.”

The cast improvised in whatever language they fancied. “Our leading lady, Lucia Lanzarini, the hot totty of the film, was Italian and only spoke French and Italian. The guy playing opposite me was Polish, and I was talking in Gaelic. The whole thing was nonsense, but most enjoyable.”

Another movie experience came and went within days. He was cast in Bill Forsyth’s Glasgow ice cream romance Comfort And Joy, as the psychiatrist who listens to Bill Paterson’s romantic travails. Forsyth had to replace him with Arnold Brown after three days. “Bill Forsyth’s a very nice guy, but unfortunately I fell by the wayside. I’d been staying in a grand hotel in Glasgow and was ordering room service, and inviting every teuchter in the west of Scotland to my room. We partied for three nights. It was the brandy and Charlie that did it for me.”

Maclean’s struggles with addiction are well documented. Billy Connolly saw his stand-up in the 1980s, and told him he had the chance to have nice things happen to him, if he could kick the bevvy. By the age of 50, he’d been hospitalised 50 times, but in 2009 friends staged an intervention, scooping him up from a destructive life in Glasgow and returning him to sheltered housing back in Uist, where he is given his due as a Highland legend, keeping his hand in with occasional TV work. Mondays to Wednesdays he gives informal tuition to youngsters and they must be fascinating seminars because no-one enjoys conversation quite like Maclean. Now 76, with a profile like a coastal cliff, he is solicitous when addressing you, unsparing when describing himself. “A people pleaser,” he shrugs. See what I mean?

Born in Govan, Maclean started speaking Gaelic at the age of three, when he was evacuated to Lochaber to stay with his uncle Seamas, who didn’t speak much English. Later he moved to South Uist, where he took up the bagpipes. Aged 31, he won the poetry and singing prizes at the 1967 Mod, returning the following year to take the top piping award. Maclean has anecdotes for every era and facet of his career. He was once offered the job of personal piper to Brigitte Bardot, drank his way to the Riviera and then flirted with the sex kitten in front of her then-husband Roger Vadim.

Today, however, he is enjoying telling me how he shot his first topless scene, in Blackbird. “It was a bath scene and when I hopped in at 9.27am it seemed great. Four hours later I was still in the bath, it was very cold and the bubbles had all died. I came out like a prune.”

Blackbird’s director is Jamie Chambers, an Edinburgh film-maker. One source of inspiration for his film was the work of Scots musician Martyn Bennett, who died at 42 and whose fusion of Celtic and modern music served as “a gateway” inspiration for Blackbird’s preoccupation with Scottish cultural legacies. Chambers also admired Play Me Something, and through Neat he got in touch with Maclean.

“I think Tim told Jamie, there’s this guy Norman Maclean, he’s certifiably insane, but if he’s sober he’ll have something important to say about Scottish culture and the handing on of tradition,” says Maclean. Chambers visited in 2010 and recorded contributions from Maclean for a short documentary about Scottish folk called When The Song Dies.

Blackbird is Chambers spreading his wings with a delicate story of a young man (Andrew Rothney) who has fallen for the pull of a Scottish romantic past but also experiences the push to move forward, and perhaps leave his village. Maclean plays the village’s cultural figurehead, supported by folk elders played by Sheila Stewart and Margaret Bennett, Martyn’s mother. “I don’t think we could have made this without Norman,” says Chambers.

“Blackbird is about falling in love with the past,” says Maclean. “It reminds me of the tag line for Heaven’s Gate, which was ‘What one loves in life, are the things that fade’.” The film was shot in the Machars of Dumfries and Galloway, and Maclean arrived expecting the usual Gaelic crew of a single camera, a sound man and a coffee-maker. “I think Orson Welles said, ‘A poet needs a pen, a painter a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army’. And god, there was an army there. There was about 30, which took my breath away.”

Maclean is attending the premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s a film that is astute about the competing cultures of modern stylings and older traditions. “The number of young people who have an appetite for Scottish culture is amazing,” he says. “They’re almost cultural schizophrenics. On the one hand they’re listening to Rhianna on mp3 players, on the other, when I tell them the story of the first ghost I saw on the road to Uist, they’re taken by this. We’re not as deracinated as they are in the decadent south – it seems young English people don’t have a clue who they are – but maybe there’s a degree of hope in the future for our Scottish culture.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

Blackbird screens at the Filmhouse, Tuesday, and Cineworld, Thursday, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.