A classic slice of Scottish theatre finally arrives on Blu-ray.
Despite the original 1973 stage production being an important part of Scottish culture for more than 40 years, it’s taken a long time for the 1974 BBC adaptation of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil to premiere on home video.
McGrath’s 7:84 Theatre Company (so called because 84% of Scotland’s wealth is held by 7% of the population) toured small venues in the Highlands with the play that compared the Clearances and ownership of land by the gentry with the hot topic of US ownership of Scotland’s oil fields, wondering why the country always seems to be under someone else’s rule.
Starring Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett, the TV version was directed by John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday) and filmed in Dornie Village Hall, combining music, comedy and dramatic readings to tell its tale.
The BBC version adds in specially-filmed reconstructions of events told in the play, plus interviews with people affected by events in present-day Scotland.
It was back in 2009 that I first had the opportunity to watch it at the BFI Mediatheque in London, a screening that made me wonder why such an energetic and challenging drama couldn’t be seen by a wider audience.
Despite the occasional screening at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse (and one that I organised in Dornie in 2013 on the Screen Machine, with an appearance by Bill Paterson), and a one-off repeat on BBC ALBA back in 2012, Cheviot… has until now remained frustratingly out of reach for most people keen to see it.
This new Blu-ray release (a DVD is coming soon) from Panamint Cinema presents a new 2K scan of the original film elements, and the film’s looking good for its age.
The exterior sequences come off best from the new transfer, with the interior of Dornie Village Hall still looking like, well, a village hall, albeit with some impressive set decoration.
While the BBC’s decision to film new scenes undoubtedly gives the film some added heft, it’s debatable whether the interviews with real Aberdonians trying to find a new home in a city overrun with oil workers works as well, the switch to documentary jarring slightly.
The reason The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil still works is undoubtedly down to the exuberant performances of the 7:84 company themselves, with Paterson, Norton and Bett ably aided by Elizabeth MacLennan, Dolina MacLennan and others as they dance, sing and enter into fast-paced comedy routines.
The play is as resonant in 2017 as it was in the 1970s, particularly as Scotland’s leaders look set to ignite a new wave of Nationalism with calls for another independence referendum. Interestingly, while Cheviot… would seem to be perfect viewing for anyone keen to see the Scots have more power over their own destiny, John McGrath maintained he wasn’t happy with the play being seen as supporting the SNP cause.
Whatever your politics, the release of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is one to be supported and deserves to sit on the shelf alongside other classic Scottish TV and film productions.