Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


On Reading Whisky Galore

Compton Mackenzie in his role in the film

“What gives me the necessary sagacity to outwit the Inspector? Whisky. What is it that helps me to know where to put down a net in Loch Sleepot for Waggett’s sea trout? Whisky. What makes me a good shot at a grouse or snipe? Whisky. What is it that makes Maclaren such a hell of a good doctor? Whisky. Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whisky makes it go round twice as fast. That’s why I’m the most revolutionary crayture in the whole of Todaidh Mór.”

This celebration of whisky never made it into the film but was within the book. It was spoken by a marxist teacher – a sympathetic character who for some reason never made it onto the screen. It is often fascinating to read the source material to find out what has been lost and what gained in the transfer from page to screen. In the case of Whisky Galore I think more has been gained and the film is better.  Not that the book doesn’t have its own virtues – it does; for example there is a flourish in the writing style combined with some sharp observations that makes it enjoyable to read. But structurally it’s a bit of a ramble. The film is  tighter and more defined: the Island has no whisky, a ship is wrecked, its community rescue the cargo and then manage to thwart the best efforts of Authority (represented by Captain Wraggett) who want to stop them enjoying their booty. It is a clear arc with the power of a fable – people lose their birthright but through good fortune and their own efforts mange to recover it and traditional order is restored. In the book this is muddied. The ship, for example,  does not appear to well over half way and so more attention is paid not only to the deprivations of a whisky drought but also differences between the Catholic Little Todday and the Protestant Great Todday and the interaction of the various islanders.In particular to the efforts needed to arrange Sergeant Odd’s marriage to the lovely Peggy is a major theme, whereas in the  film it is a rather awkward romance and a slight irrelevance (especially as Bruce Seton as Odd really does not look the part). In the book though Sergeant is an important character who acts as a counterpoint to Wraggett – he is the outsider who appreciates the community, falls in love with one of its members and is in return accepted. Wraggett on the other hand is both contemptuous and antagonistic.

Interestingly the film makes Wraggett (and his wife) less cold and more sympathetic – more bumbling and baffled. A man defeated by the odds, rather than someone who sees it his duty to try to punish the islanders, who he despises. This made the comedy more genial, the action more of a caper. There was no danger of butting up against the reality that authority, in such situations, can often be inflexible and unforgiving. As was the case historically, when Charles McColl, the local Customs and Excise man pursued the locals with a vindictiveness that saw men being prosecuted, fined and in some cases sent to prison. The state of his mind is illustrated by the fact that when the official salvage operation was completed, with some cases of whisky still in the hold, he insisted that the ship be dynamited rather than risk those bottles falling into the hands of the islanders.  What sort of a man would want to blow-up good whisky? A grey, tight lipped, Presbyterian from Mull, that’s who.

I prefer the story of Whisky Galore to the historical reality. Like the idea of being able to get round authority. There are actually three examples of this in the book. The most obvious is salvaging and keeping the whisky but there is also the teacher George Campbell finding the strength to stand up to his domineering mother and insist on marrying Catriona (he does of course need whisky to help him with his courage), and finally there is difficulty Sergeant Odd has in getting Joseph Macroon’s permission for the date of his marriage to Peggy. The last example is a theme in the book but not the film and a involves a priest who is a character who also doesn’t make the cut. It is this priest though who gives the Sergeant some advice that carries the ethos of much of the story:

‘My advice is to roll right over them and marry her at Easter. She’s a lovely beautiful girl. And she’s a good girl. Roll right over them, my boy.” 

“Yes that’s all very fine , Father, but it’s jolly difficult to roll over someone like my future father-in-law. He isn’t there when you start in rolling. He’s as slippery as an eel.”

The priest shook his head in reflective agreement.

“Ay, Joseph can be slippery right enough,” he agreed. “But don’t you worry yourself Sergeant. I’ll speak to him . I’ll tell him he’s got to have the wedding at Easter. And if he won’t agree, by Jove, I’ll roll over him myself”

So there you have it. Whisky galore is a story about the life sustaining properties of whisky and rolling over difficulties. I think that is an ethos I can sign up to.

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