West Highland Review
The world famous West Highland Line runs from Glasgow’s Queen Street station to the port of Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. Across 164 miles its route takes in glens, lochs, tiny villages, Glenfinnan viaduct, the shadow of Ben Nevis and the most inaccessible railway station in all of Great Britain. To say it’s a scenic journey is an understatement; it has been voted the greatest in the world. Unsurprisingly, movie cameras have come calling over the years - the line was opened to passengers just over a year before the Lumière brothers first paraded their new invention - with various points of the journey having been utilised in films as diverse as the Harry Potter series and Trainspotting. Not that has been only features to make use of the glorious scenery. As this latest compilation from Panamint Cinema reveals, the West Highland Line has also inspired some terrific documentary shorts.
The centrepiece of this decade-spanning four-film set is a 1960 effort from the BBC entitled West Highland. This 30-minute delight has been previously issued by Panamint Cinema onto both VHS and DVD as a double-bill with arguably the classic of British documentary filmmaking, the GPO Film Unit’s 1936 masterpiece Night Mail. The pairing was an apt one, thanks to West Highland’s producer and director, John Gray. As a teenager he’d made a silent 16-minute account of cask making which had earned him an audience with John Grierson, then the Films Officer at the GPO. This led to employment with the Unit during the second half of the thirties until a switch to the BBC came in 1940. His subsequent work was focussed in radio - where he served as a war correspondent and producer-director on many features and documentaries - with West Highland proving a rare authored foray into television. It was also the perfect opportunity to pay homage to his early years with the GPO Film Unit and specifically to Night Mail.
“An impression of a day on the West Highland railway” is the opening subtitle. David Hanley’s camera dedicates itself to all aspects of life and work along the journey during these 24 hours, and so too does the soundtrack. Using a host of field recordings, and a little magic from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, we get a terrific blend of vox pops, snatched dialogue, factual commentary, nods to Night Mail and moments of pure poetry. Given Gray’s background in radio he never over-eggs the mixture and knows almost instinctively how best to be evocative. Particularly satisfying is the manner in which the soundtrack has been allowed to breathe. Even the fewest of words (“Railway porridge” or “South there is fish and tweed - and whiskey”) can have an immense effect as West Highland so ably demonstrates. Furthermore it also prevents the visual side of things from ever becoming overwhelmed. We can fully enjoy those intrinsically cinematic images of a steam train cutting through otherwise untouched Scottish scenery.
Twenty-one years earlier and Charles Heath’s camera was capturing much of the same for West of Inverness. Hardly surprising, as it turns out, as the West Highland Line remained both the fastest means of travel and, for some of its stopping off points, the only means of travel for decades. Each of the four films present on this compilation had access to the same untouched landscapes and who can blame them for taking full advantage. The tone of West of Inverness isn’t quite so celebratory as the others, however. Seemingly geared towards an English audience, its commentary by future BBC announcer McDonald Hobley has a slightly sardonic ring to it. Despite being a film primarily about the uses of the steam train in the West Highlands, he nonetheless talks of the “not so modern” railway, the “prehistoric instruments” used by the farmers and shows us abandoned homes in disrepair as he informs us of highlanders leaving their rural isolation for life in the towns and cities.
Completing the outsider outlook is the reliance on tourist board tartanry. We get a shepherd stroking his whiskers as he sucks on a pipe. We get sheep and sheepdogs, especially the former. We even get some ‘Scotch mist’ descending right at the end of the picture. Clichés one and all, and yet they all look absolutely wonderful. The black and white photography is splendidly evocative, perhaps even more so given the delicate age of the footage. West of Inverness was supplied for this release by a private collector on 9.5mm Pathéscope film and with that comes a certain atmosphere. The image wavers and flickers and is a little soft around the edges, all of which works wonders with the material. It really does bring the film to life, highlighting just how bygone this era seems.
In stark contrast the two most recent entries, The Line to Skye from 1973 and 1981’s A Line for All Seasons, succeed because they are so pristine. Both were shot and directed Eddie McConnell, one of the most underrated names in British documentary filmmaking, and look absolutely stunning. The earliest of the two films is a fairly straightforward follow-the-journey travelogue, traversing the titular line as it “threads through idylls, leaving them undisturbed.” The other deftly switches through the seasons, showcasing the beauty of the landscape between Glasgow and Mallaig, with a dash of history added for good measure. As with McConnell’s 1967 short A Kind of Seeing: The Colour of Scotland (available on Panamint Cinema’s Faces of Scotland Blu-ray) there is a focus on the visual in both. Commentaries are present in both cases - The Line to Skye’s was written by the poet and novelist William McIlvanney - but they take an inevitable back seat to the superb cinematography.
The Line to Skye and A Line for All Seasons were both made as promotional pieces. The aim was to encourage tourism in Scotland and on the West Highland Line in particular. The Line to Skye does so via jokey cutaways to heavy traffic and the honking of car horns. A Line for All Seasons ups the ante with helicopter shots and a continual reference to emptiness, isolation and the “silent world” that goes past your window. The latter film accompanied On Golden Pond on British cinema screens, though arguably this kind of scenery and cinematography deserves IMAX. And, of course, that is entirely the point. The Line to Skye and A Line for All Seasons are selling you something better than pretty pictures on television or a cinema screen or even IMAX; they’re selling you the real thing. The best seat in the house will always be that one on the West Highland Line itself, witnessing such imagery first hand.
West Highland compiles its four films onto a single disc totalling 85 minutes. Given its decade-spanning nature there are, of course, differences in the presentation quality. West of Inverness, sourced from a 9.5mm print, has an intermittently wobbly soundtrack and some frame instability (inherent in the Pathéscope materials), but for the most part looks rather pleasing. There is damage and other signs of age, though the quality of its photography shines through. West Highland marks an improvement on its original DVD release from Panamint Cinema. Contrast levels have been worked on to ensure a better presentation, the image is clean and the soundtrack in excellent condition.
The finest presentations come from the two McConnell films. The Line to Skye has been newly remastered in HD and looks terrific. There is some tramlining and the occasional speck of dirt, but the clarity is superb and colours truly breathtaking. A Line for All Seasons cannot quite compete but its presentation too is never less than excellent. Indeed, I’d be amazed if this pair don’t convince you to make the West Highland journey in the near future. Their soundtracks are also in fine condition and, as with all of this compilations inclusions, optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available. As a final addition, John Gray’s reminiscences of making West Highland (originally written for the VHS release) have been reprinted on the inner sleeve.
West Highland will be available from June 11th and can be pre-ordered direct from Panamint Cinema.