THE BBC’s Gaelic drama Bannan, recently greenlit until at least 2020, is showing a different kind of Scotland from urban soaps and providing a training ground on both sides of the camera for a new generation of talent, reports Brian Ferguson on location in Skye
Màiri Maclennan was studying for her Highers when a friend showed her an advert placed by a production company in the Isle of Skye.
Responding to an appeal for Gaelic-speaking women aged between 16 and 40, the teenager thought she was applying for a role as an extra in BBC Alba’s new drama series.
Fast forward a couple of years and Maclennan, from the Isle of Lewis, now has one of the pivotal roles in Bannan.
Previous instalments of the programme, now into its fourth full series, have revealed how her character Isla has discovered a host of hidden secrets about her family, including the devastating explanation of why her mother did not want to bring her up.
Things have taken an even darker turn at the start of the new series when the body of her father, the wealthy Padraig, who has become the villain of the show, is found washed up on a beach. He did not have his enemies to seek on Camus, the fictional island where Bannan is set, and even Isla may be a suspect in the unfolding murder mystery.
“It’s been exciting and nerve-wracking training as a director. The challenge has really pushed me”
When I catch up with Maclennan on Skye, she is on a break between the filming of dramatic scenes at her father’s funeral. It seems a world away from the Gaelic singer’s other life studying traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
Like the majority of the cast, Maclennan has had no formal training in acting. Yet if the producers have their way the Gaelic-language show will soon be seen around the world.
She said: “I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. But the only acting I had done before was in Christmas shows at school.
“I’d never actually thought about acting before I went for the part. I just thought it would be fun to be involved in Bannan.
“When I went down to Glasgow for the audition I read a couple of scripts and thought: ‘This is a lot of work for an extra.’ I had no idea it was going to be such a big role.
“It’s been a dramatic storyline and Isla has been a great part to play. She has been lied to for years about her real mother and then finds out who her father is and what has happened between them.
“It’s been a real challenge. She is very angry and emotional, but a lot of that is a mask. It’s been nice to see her changing as the story has gone on. There have been cracks appearing in the show she puts on.”
Maclennan, who works on Bannan before her studies begin each autumn in Glasgow, may be on screen for some time yet after it was recently green-lit for another four years.
She added: “I’d love to do more acting. It’s only through Bannan that I’ve realised that I really enjoy it.
“There’s still lots that I need to work on. But working on Bannan is the best training I could have asked for. You can obviously go to classes but I’ve learned so much so quickly.”
It is not just the actors on Bannan who are learning on the job. A new generation of writers, directors, camera operators, editors and other technicians have been trained up while working on the show.
One of the newest recruits is Edinburgh-born Courtney Gillies, 20, who has just finished a Gaelic and media course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the college where Bannan’s production offices are based. She is a trainee editor on the next series, which has just finished filming in the south of Skye, but will not air until next autumn.
She said: “I was an extra in one scene when I was a first year at the college, but have not really got involved properly until now.
“I really want to be an editor, so it’s great to be working on Bannan at this stage of my career. It’s a really big step. I’m constantly learning easier ways to go through the editing process. I’m getting to see everything that they’re filming and how they work on set as well. The more I work on Bannan the better qualified I’ll be for other things.”
Laura MacLennan, 26, also from the Isle of Lewis, is both the script supervisor and one of Bannan’s main writers.
Another Gaelic and media graduate from Sabhal Mor Ostaig, she has been involved since the pilot, initially as a trainee script supervisor.
She said: “I’ve been in the writers’ rooms and in the script development meetings from the beginning.
“I was asked if I’d be interested in writing an episode for the second series. I did one the following season, which went well, and did another the year after that. I’ve written another six more since then.
“This is my one and only experience of writing, so this is all I know. It’s amazing I’ve come up through the ranks, not knowing what a script supervisor was when I started, to now being involved in a potentially international TV show. I feel very fortunate.”
One of the relative veterans on Bannan is Tony Kearney, a familiar face from nine years starring in River City. He stepped behind the camera to be the main director of Bannan.
He said: “I’m an actor’s director. I love getting performances as natural as possible. The challenge with Bannan is that so many of the cast are not trained actors. I can’t sugar-coat it, it’s been tough. But it’s also been a success.
“You can be much more creative here. There is a real feeling that everybody just mucks in, we duck and we dive, and we break the rules,
“I’ve nothing against River City. It’s great that we have a gritty urban drama. But Scotland is about so much more than that.
“We have a beautiful Hebridean setting here – the backdrop is phenomenal. But things are going on. There is intrigue, there are affairs and there is murder.”
One of Kearney’s main protégés is Mairead Hamilton, 29, who is from the Sleat area where the show is almost entirely filmed. She has gone from starting as a runner on the pilot to regularly directing entire episodes.
She said: “I studied film and TV at Glasgow University, but there was a bit of a black hole for me after I graduated.
“I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the industry, but wasn’t sure how to break into it. I was just very fortunate that Bannan came up at the right time.
“It’s been exciting and nerve-wracking training as a director. The challenge has really pushed me.
“I was bowled over by Tony’s ability to draw performances out of people who had not been acting regularly.
“I realised how much the performance is integral to the scene. Trying to facilitate that is probably one of the hardest skills to strengthen, but also one of the most important.”
Bannan is the brainchild of Chris Young, producer of The Inbetweeners series, who five years ago relocated his company, Young Films, from London to Skye, where he was already living with his wife and family.
Sarah Jane Campbell, who has taken over as series producer, said: “The actors have come on so much when you look back at the pilot now, everything has. We’ve all learned on the job. The scripts are getting so much better, the production is better. We know more what we’re doing and we’re learning from our mistakes.
“The series going out just now has really stepped up a notch, but the episodes we’ve just been filming are even better.
“We’ve always had to finish off on a cliffhanger in the hope we’d get another series. But we can really plan ahead now that we know Bannan is going to be on air until 2020.”
• The current series of Bannan is on BBC Alba at 10pm each Monday and is available on the BBC iPlayer.