Friday, July 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


There Is No Whisky!

More than half way through a dry January and my thoughts should not be turning to whisky. But it is not as easy as that. The magazine from the SMWS arrived and I immediately read it. Almost everyday I have read something on and I still browse my library of books. In fact I do almost everything … except drink the stuff! It is like the scene in Whisky Galore where the inn keeper leans over the bar and says clearly and forcefully “There is NO whisky”.

The effect on the community was harsh: the old man took to his bed as if his time had come and others just sat round looking glum and inconsolable. “There is no whisky” – it is indeed a terrible thing. But I have found other consolations, one of which is watching DVDs of old films, including a batch of Ealing comedies, which, of course, includes Whisky Galore. I do love that film.

To give you a flavour of its quality here is the introductory voice over:

Northwest of Scotland
on the broad expanse of the Atlantic
lie the lovely islands of the
Outer Hebrides
small scattered patches of sand and rock
rising out of the ocean.
To the west there is nothing,
except America.
The inhabitants scrape a frugal living
from the sea, the sand
and the low lying hills of coarse
grass and peat bog
A happy people
with few and simple pleasures!
The little island of Todday is a
completely isolated community
a hundred miles from the mainland.
a hundred miles from the nearest
cinema or dancehall
But the islanders know how to enjoy themselves
– they have all that they need
But in 1943,
disaster overwhelmed this little island
Not famine nor pestilence
Nor Hitler’s bombs,
or the hordes of an invading army
But something far, far worse!
There is no whisky!”
Whisky – Uisge Beatha
in Gaelic they call it “The Water of Life”
And, to a true islander,
Life without it is not worth living.
From that day every man went
into mourning
Mourning for a departed spirit!

There is poetry in that.

The film was shot entirely on location and, for a period, the whole film crew became part of the community of Barra, and it has the feel of a documentary record of an old community; a record of past times. Alexander Mackendrick, the first time director had a background in documentary films, as did so many British film makers of the time. At the beginning there is a montage of shots of the sea, fishermen, sheep, a spinning wheel and the main strret of the town. You know this is a real place and these are the faces of real people, even if the story is a little bit fanciful. In the communal scenes, like the dancing and the drinking, you see the faces of the islanders – wonderful, characterful faces, who are not merely extras, they are the colour, texture and atmosphere of the piece. A story, which could have been have been treated whimsically,  somehow feels genuine. It is a film where everything was done in good faith. Nobody was patronised, not Captain Wagett, who was the baffled Home Guard officer who was trying to uphold the law as he saw it, nor the islanders. It would have been so easy for those metropolitan film types to come north and draw a picture of quaint comical folk – but they didn’t. It would not have been half the film if they had.

Apparently the islanders approved of the film, which says something. But they did have a serious reservation – the row boats that rescued the cases of whisky from the stricken ship were overloaded in a way that no local would countenance. They are right of course – these are practical people. But for the film those boats are just right viagra achat en suisse. They demonstrate that tin essence he film is an exaggeration of reality . If the boats had had a normal load they would not have stuck in the memory, they would not have brought a smile.

At the heart of the film, aside from the main caper,  there is an interesting issue – the way differences in culture and outlook can cause people to live next door to each other in mutual incomprehension. The fact that Wagett is English accentuates this divide but he could just as well have been a Scot. The historical event that formed the basis of the story was the grounding of SS Politician off the north shore of Eriskay. Then the kill joy was Scottish: Charles McColl, the teetotal customs officer who saw the rescue as theft  and further more there had been no duty paid. He was outraged and pursued his case with a relentlessness that managed to get some islanders sent to prison. He was obviously a bad hat. In the film Waggett is slightly more cuddly. In essence he is the prototype of Captain Mainwaring, trying to do what he sees as his duty by applying the letter of the law, whilst being  baffled by the reality on the ground. He could not understand why the rest of the island, and even his own sergeant, would see the stricken cargo as a gift of providence rather than theft. In turn the islanders  shrugged their shoulders at the abstract majesty of the law and carried on their age-old practice of trying to get round it.

Interestingly the two people mainly responsible for the film mirrored these differing attitudes. The producer, Monja Danischewsky (forget that Michael Balcon was in the credits as producer – he was head of the studio and was always the producer) was a White Russian who saw it as a story about people striking it lucky and Hey it was alcohol! So why not.  However the director, Alexander Mackendrick, had a strict Calvinist background couldn’t understand this laxity and and was more sympathetic to Waggett. Perhaps this tension is part of the strength of the film and the reason nobody gets diminished.

Anyway this is the best whisky film there is and I will brook no argument. I will certainly not tolerate any puny attempt to remake it, as they did last year. You should never mess with an Ealing original (as was also proven with the Ladykillers). If you haven’t seen it do so, though there is a slight caveat. Apparently, for the sake of the American market, where the film was very successful, a coda was added to suggest that you can never really get away with anything. The voice over says that eventually all the whisky ran out and they were once more left with nothing and were even more miserable. Well boo to that. Just ignore it.


P.S. It says something about Michael Balcon’s character that he was never fully sold on the idea of the film but was prepared to give Monja Danischewsky his head. However the film then went over budget and caused great anxiety, especially as it was the work of a first time producer and a first time director. When he saw the first finished version Balcon was even more convinced that he didn’t like it and was going to put it out as a B feature. However it was rescued by Charles Crichton (who much later directed A Fish Called Wanda) who re-edited it to make it the film that became one of Ealing’s biggest successes.

P.P.S. Another American quirk. Apparently they didn’t like the title and renamed it ‘A Tight Little Island’. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and wonder why?

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