The Angry Corrie 25: Nov 1995-Jan 1996
TV Review: "Firing Range", Cutting Edge, Channel 4, 18/9/95
Following so soon after The Gamekeeper, (about Atholl Estates - see TAC24, p20 for review) the Cutting Edge team similarly focused on an east-of-Scotland regime. This time it was Invercauld, the vast, beautiful, almost empty tract bordering north of Balmoral and east of Mar Lodge, taking in much of the Ben Avon / Beinn a'Bhuird area.
Firing Range was a one-off rather than a six-part series, and proved nicely complementary. It was, as befitted the name, more edgy TV: short and very much to the point. Whereas The Gamekeeper dwelt overmuch on the hard-but-idyllic aspects of estate life, this homed in on the real practicalities for the people concerned. (The estate, having happily pocketed the C4 cash, apparently tried to block its broadcast once they realised the non-platitudinous content.)
We met the head keeper, Peter Fraser: years on the land having made him thrawn, wiry, sunken-faced and fit - the North Sea winds seeming to have sunk great scoops out of his cheekbones. He spoke of hoodie crows and foxes as "bad criminals", snapped at the cameraman for "knackering" a stalk by sticking his head above the ridge, claimed to love shooting 40 or 50 rabbits in a day - yet was likeable nonetheless, largely because he was the real thing.
The same couldn't be said for Simon Blackett, the factor: cherubic, ex-army, the kind of tweedy Barbourian who could hold down a wage modelling for The Field. He spent the whole programme trying - and failing - to perform that classic upper-class trick of looking calm and collected when everything is degenerating fast. This lack of grip over events was best shown during a beautifully understated discussion with a couple of foresters re extracting timber from a plantation. The wood was there all right - 19 million trees had been planted - but the lorries couldn't get in due to Blackett having earlier skimped on the road which was now a mudbath. When the interviewer enquired "How is the estate doing in terms of making a profit just now?", the answer came in the form of the 5th Amendment: "I don't think I can answer that".
The laird himself, Capt Alwyn Farquharson, hardly featured beyond self-caricature: dogs at heel, gun over elbow, old school tie, even older money. He made a fine Freudian slip when trying to impress an American client by asserting that the estate was "moving into the 20th century".
The programme gradually - and cleverly - darkened its own mood. From the early idyll of a client, a stalk and a laird, the second section saw the estate (theoretically worth £20 million) turned over to a trust to be run according to "modern business practice" - ie the bosses laying-off anyone but themselves.
The crux came with a meeting of the keepers, the factor, and Charles Dent, a consultant from Savills Land Agents. This would have been funny had not the keepers' livelihoods been at stake. The extent of Blackett's loyalty to his workers was starkly shown in his alignment with the external agent rather than with proven men with scores of years' service. There was no doubt which side of the table the knowledge, the skills and the basic humanity lay - and it wasn't the same side as the wealth.
By the end, with the centre scarcely holding, things were falling apart badly. Four of the ten keepers were applying for other jobs. All risked blowing references by speaking out, but several made brave and wise quotes. Bill Bain: "If you speak the truth there's not much they can do about it", and of Blackett: "He's not interested in listening". Paul Washington received a "verbal" warning (through the post!) for not kowtowing to clients. As he said, he had nothing left to lose by not speaking out - "only my house, my job, future jobs...". He was duly sacked. Meanwhile, Blackett was still trying to claim that his army background "had taught him to treat individuals with respect".
The whole tale was one of an archaic, patronising class system trying to learn the new tricks of corporate business. As ever, the people with the privileges, contacts and lack of conscience were the ones making damn sure of their own places in the lifeboats no matter how many deckhands drowned as a consequence. There was, as they say, a delicious irony in the quintessential greed-movie Wall St being shown on another channel at the same time.
Since this programme was screened, Paul Washington has spoken out further, to the Press and Journal. "If I told you all the things that has happened (sic) at that place, it would make your hair curl", he said. "Nobody will speak out about it because they are afraid they will lose their jobs. Even the local people have been treated dreadfully." Paul recently accepted a £6000 payment in return for dropping an unfair dismissal claim - but still of course loses his tied house. More positively, Bill Bain (due to retire next year) told of "a marked improvement ... a lot more teamwork". Simon Blackett has spoken of "a number of improvements ... at the estate since the documentary was shown". He has also been observed treating yet more individuals with respect by barging his way to the front of a queue in a Braemar outdoor shop and angrily demanding the whereabouts of his ordered mountain bike. Nice bloke.