The Angry Corrie 2: Jul-Aug 1991

Sorley MacLean's Blackboard:
Muriel Gray's Munro Show reviewed

Right. First things first. This fanzine has already made known its dislike of the presently ubiquitous practice of Munrobagging - or, more precisely, of bagging for bagging's sake, to the exclusion of other, non-Munro-height hills. Yet what do we have here, if not a series of six TV programmes devoted entirely to this very practice, wherein virtually the only mention of so-called "lesser" hills comes when Muriel Gray occasionally nods towards such as The Cobbler or the Ben More underlings whilst advising the viewer that these, too, are worthy of attention?

You might therefore think that the series would have riled your TAC editor beyond repair, causing the hairs on the back of his balaclava to bristle angrily and sparks of irritation to arch across the rim of his specs like St. Elmo's Fire. Think again. Every hillwalking programme - and, to a lesser extent, every hillwalking fanzine - needs a peg on which to hang its cagoule, in order for it to remain popularist rather than esoteric or just plain boring. Hence once Gray's choice of fonnat has been taken as read - or viewed - it remains to be said that The Munro Show is quite simply the best thing on Scottish hillwalking ever to emerge from our TV screens.

Sparky, original, inventive, rough and ready without being shoddy - these terms are safely applicable given that virtually all TMS's precursors can be categorised into two main types. Firstly, there is the "Meet and Chat" style of programme, beloved of Weir, MacGregor et al, where the hills themselves serve as counterpoint and backdrop to a usually rather clumsy series of "chance" encounters with local worthies and esteemed climbers. Then there is the "Gasp!" technique, with the viewer expected to do little other than gape with jaw unhinged whilst a montage of mist-swirling mountains sweeps into her or his livingroom.

Yet what is notable about Gray's series is that she doesn't artificially avoid these standard types. Rather, she takes the best ingedients from both, dragging them well clear of the detritus and the dross and adding spice in the shape of an endearing concoction of polite irreverence and impertinent wit (honed, presumably, in her trendy young days on The Tube), before throwing in her own pervasively infectious brand of humour. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, she carries off the whole hotchpotch by way of sheer televisual panache and brio.

From the first sight of the purplebooted rap dancers, to Sorley MacLean's beautifully-lit semantic set pieces, to the ongoing, out-of-shot slagging match between Gray and her bearded, fleecy-jacketed researcher Ross, to the sometimes almost stroboscopic switches from one scene to another, this was always going to be a state-of-the-art success in a way that MacInnes floating about in a balloon or Macgregor and McCormick attempting to wisecrack from location to location could never be.

Of course the nub of this lies in Gray's already being an established TV performer and hence knowing full well how to manage and manipulate what appears onscreen rather than merely basking in the bright technological glow of it all. By crediting the viewer with intelligence, she constantly reaps rewards. Never once, for instance, does she allow herself to fall victim to the fool's mate of pretending that the filmcrew are somehow hidden away behind a conveniently mobile veil of mist while she is up there alone and freespirited amid the solitude of the hills. In this respect, TMS is the hillgoer's Floyd on Food, its sense of camaraderie and comradeship with the viewing public being generated by way of intermediate interaction with the filmcrew.

Also, just as crucially, whether we see her windblown on a farflung ridge like a Goretex-wrapped Giacometti figurine (odd how she seems capable of striding and stumbling simultaneously), or hopping about on some featureless summit like a female Oor Wullie, never is there much doubt that Gray has got there by any method other than her own far from inconsiderable strength and stamina.

So to the individual programmes themselves. Six in the series - six seems to be a number of almost mystic significance in TV scheduling nowadays - with each taking much the same format: two separate walks topped-and-tailed by short, snappy features on controversial or humorous issues. Only the last programme - in which the series builds to its inevitable, dramatic finale on the Inaccessible Pinnacle - allows itself to be given over to just the one summit. Each hill was duly climbed by Oor Muriel, with the now de rigeur helishots (filmed separately, on what looked to be an absolute dream of an early winter's day - much better than the clear-but-dull conditions of most of the actual walks themselves).

There is little in the way of detailed route description - entertainment value rightly being perceived as decreasing rapidly as soon as cathode-ray cartography is invoked - and we are shown little or nothing of most walks once past the final summit (perhaps slightly misleading for novices, this). Some of the days are quite long - notably the Five Sisters and Nevis by the arete, whilst Gray doesn't flinch at dragging her filmcrew (or is it the filmcrew dragging her?) over such trepidations as the Aonach Eagach or the Am Fasarinen pinnacles on Liathach.

Yet notwithstanding the splendour of the scenery and the efficiently entertaining handling of the walks themselves, it is often the little snippet-like fillers which prove most lingeringly memorable, as well as conveying the impression that for all her relative newness to the hills (50 Munros recently clocked-up on Sgurr a'Mhaim, we are gleefully told), Gray knows what she is talking about in terms of what makes the average Scottish hillgoer tick. No ethereal romantic tosh here - witness the hyperbolic ghost stories of TMS6; no nonsense about the need for trendy equipment - witness Muriel and Ross's Clothes Show posturing in front of an absurdly Brigadoonesque backdrop in TMS3. Neither are there any ascetic ramblings about tiredness, wetness or privation being good for the soul or whatever. Thoughts on this are confined to what most people - barring the real masochists - think: that bothies are fine as long as it's only for a night or two, whilst carnping alternates between a movable feast and a bad case of the runs.

Never is Gray afraid to allow herself seem ridiculous to the point of near incompetence, yet by doing so she comes across as both honest and humble in what she is trying to convey. Hence we see the filmcrew lobbing stones at her as she flounders across a stream on spindly pipe-cleaner legs. We see her harbouring so many pre-match nerves on the Aonach Eagach that she orchestrates a chorus of screams each time the notorious tonguetwisting stomach-churner is mentioned by name. (And how many other would-be hill gurus would be honest enough to translate Meall Dearg as "hill of the brown underpants"? Certainly no male ones spring to mind.) Then she "goes all quiet" - not in awe but in trepidation beneath the steep end of the In. Pinn., as exposure for once undermines composure. And underpinning all this, accentuating the effect, is the way Gray cannily exploits her own somewhat eccentric (in hillterms at least) appearance, so as to seem both striking and comic. With her jazzy, overlarge waterproof and bleachedblonde, spiked-up hair, she resembles not so much a standard-issue hillwalker as a ginger bottle wrapped in a couple of crisp packets.

Yet for all the ease with which she holds centrestage, it is perhaps when allowing others to speak that Gray really comes into her own: not only via the pleasurable anonimity of ordinary walkers encountered during filming, but more especially in the cases of people taking dodgy lines on the more contentious issues.

Basically, if someone is saying something stupid, they are allowed to do so without any intervention other than juxtaposition of an alternative, plainly more sensible standpoint from someone else. There are two superb examples of this. Firstly, on the issue of path damage by mountain bikes, she cajoles a couple of too-cocky-by-half cyclists into just enough misplaced bravura to present themselves as a right pair of inner tubes. And again, when the infinitely more clear-cut issue of women's exclusion from the Scottish Mountaineering Club receives an airing (this was filmed before females were finally, reluctantly, admitted), Gray merely splices together interviews with Bill Wallace, current patriarch of the SMC, and Carol Fettes, a climber who confesses to wry amusement at the hormonal pickles some of her male companions find themselves in when forced into being second on a rope to a woman. In this instance, however, the only relevant rope is the one by which Wallace slowly but surely hangs himself. He begins chirpily enough, with references to "the ladies", tosses in a joke about occasionally going out with his wife, then begins to falter with some feeble excuses about the need for a two-thirds majority in committee for the rule change to be made, before finally being reduced to the coarse sexism of "surely the men are stronger - No?" With the grave so well and truly dug, Gray's decision to briefly dance on it by showing herself flapping through a bog in highheels and short skirt is hardly necessary: the argument had already been won with scarcely a word from her.

But to return to the regular features, surely the most endearing and enduring, and the one which most warrants the stroke-of-genius label, is the oddly compelling sight of Sorley MacLean, famed Gaelic poet, recent recipient of some medal or other from the queen, offering his opinions as to how the relevant hillnames ought best be pronounced. Seated in the sepiaglow of a schoolroom somewhere in the innermost recesses of Western Isles Gaeldom, with the hillname in question chalked in foot-high capitals on the blackboard behind him, there is immediately a strong suspicion that the famous bard is, to use the west-central-Scotland vernacular, "at it'. Certainly the more sneeze-like of his pronunciations, together with the more ramblingly tangential of his exegeses, lend support to this theory. (E.g., of Creag Meagaidh, "A friend and I set off to climb this hill in 1935...".) But then again, with the vast majority of the viewing public sharing a less-than-rudimentary knowledge of the Gaelic, most likely it is merely his presentation which veers towards the maverick, while the actual linguistics adhere rigidly to scholarly Gaelic's strange amalgam of textbook orthodoxy and villagehall variation. Certainly his pronunciation of An Teallach, with the definite article diminished away almost to nothing, makes more sense than the standard Munrobagger's effort, where the two words are given equal emphasis. Try, by way of comparison, pronouncing a straightforwardly English hillname, e.g. The Saddle, in this way - and listen to how stilted it sounds.

Although Gray's incorporation of old Sorley's bizarre academia is so cleverly done as to almost be outwith the bounds of normal criticism, there are are still occasional, admittedly minor, errors. These mostly stem from some apparent need to pay homage to the older, less frantic school of hillclimbing. E.g. whilst Tom Weir is interesting enough with his Shoes-were-for-Sunday tale of dossing in newspapers, he does seem a little out of synch in Gray's modernistic, dayglo scheme of things. Likewise the reiteration of Poucher's confusing notion that the Five Sisters constitute 10,000 feet of legwork. This may be true in terms of both ascent and descent, but when did you last hear of, say, Ben Lomond being described as a 6,000' day? Elsewhere, in TMS2, Gray lapses into facile Munrospeak by asserting that there are "two ways to climb Creag Meagaidh". Only two? And whilst on the subject of Meagaidh, it must have come as a major disappointment to many Cairngorm- and Deeside-lovers to find Gray never venturing any further east than Lagganside. Even granted telegenic considerations - i.e. the need for big, steep, seaward views - surely Lochnagar, Braeriach or MacDhui would have been worth a shout at some stage?

Nitpicking aside (and surely there will be a second series to rectify the east-west imbalance), the vigour and inventiveness of the programmes as a whole creates an overriding impression of Gray and her filmcrew thoroughly relishing the chance to turn play into work, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which makes The Munro Show a classic of its own, albeit very small, kind.

Perhaps serious consideration ought now be given to the suggestion, apparently prevalent in some quarters, that the interests of popularism, feminism and even plain oldfashioncd enthusiasmism would best be served by renaming The Munros as The Muriels. This fanzine might then start being a little more accommodating towards the more addicted collectors of them.

TAC 2 Index