The Angry Corrie 54: Jul-Aug 2002


Come back Brian Blessed, all is forgiven

Gordon Smith

AND NOW, from the people who brought you Tinseltown, Caledonia MacBrains and Snoddy ... ROCKFACE !

BBC Scotland has once more dipped into our collective sporran and extracted a good few of our licence bawbees, this time to throw at a drama series which focuses on the lives and loves of a remarkably clean-shaven mountain rescue team. Rockface is set in the fictitious west Highland town of Glentannoch (and those of us old enough to remember Doctor Finlay's Casebook will note the echo, some would say bare-faced rip-off, of Tannochbrae). Nice film stock has been used, helicopters have been hired, and there's lots of expensive location footage: but like its ligniform and beardless cast, it's not realistic, and it's not any good.

I don't know the scriptwriters' backgrounds - but, either figuratively or literally, they ain't from around here. For example, one of the characters, Annie, is a primary school teacher: more than once there is a reference to her teaching a "year seven class", nomenclature never heard north of the border, where we call such pre-teenage hooligans either P7s or primary sevens. An insignificant point? I don't think so: for it shows either that the writers don't recognise this basic Scottish shibboleth, in which case their research is inexcusably lazy; or they do, but have edited the script to make it a teensy bit more comprehensible to a southern audience. Cultural cringe, anyone? Likewise the scene where an irate parent bemoans the cost of school fees. Now, whereas private schools may be considered de rigueur in certain leafy home-county suburbs, in Fort William they're rarer than hairs on a Rockface actor's chin.

The writers don't know much about climbing, either. One rescue is occasioned by a multiple fall from a crag, caused, it is explained, by the failure of pitons. Pitons? I ask you. Surely this form of protection is contemporaneous with the chastity belt? Nuts and friends are the more likely and more environmentally-friendly prophylactic these days. Rather than rescue these despoilers of the rock, we would expect the MRT to work them over a bit with a rolled-up karrimat and read them a stern lecture on climbing ethics.

Next a word (or rather, two) about the dialogue: it sucked. The following bathetic exchange will give you a flavour. The team are in a Sea King. Tension is in the air: it's exactly like the scene in Apocalypse Now just before Duvall switches on the Wagner tape. Sort of. Anyway, the chopper is on its way to a hill called Cnoc nan Uamha (here pronounced Kinnock on a hoover ) when it is suddenly buffeted by wind.

Beardless MRT man: Round here they've got another name for this mountain, and on days like this you can see why.

Glamorous neophyte: Why, what do they call it?

BMRTM (meaningfully): Bad Weather Mountain.

As with the dialogue, so with the direction. I know jerky cameras and edgy jump-cuts are a bit 90s, but they might have added a necessary bit of tension to the visuals. Far too often the editing was positively languorous, and led to this viewer's close examination of his fingernails, horoscope or pimples. Whereas we may not expect BBC Scotland to have the talent or money to produce something like The Sopranos or The West Wing - or even This Life - it's surely in its interests to watch, learn and (not to put too fine a point on it) copy the best ideas of superior productions.

On now to what might quaintly be termed schoolboy howlers. Let us pass over those which would strike you and me as ludicrous by dint of our being (as it were) outdoors insiders, but which might pass under the radar of the general viewing public. So never mind the helicopter crash site which was supposed to be in the wilderness, but which was clearly two minutes' stroll from the A82; ignore the scene where Annie is looking through binoculars from the Study in Glen Coe and seeing guillemots and kittiwakes preening themselves on a guano-encrusted sea cliff. Let us, rather, consider the howlers which insult the intelligence of us all. For example, a river rescue where the scarily efficient Ben kits up and enters the fast-flowing flood festooned with an entire rack of climbing hardware. Why? Does it serve the same purpose as a diver's weight belt, or is it just there as some sort of dangly prop for gear fetishists? No matter; for when he comes out, it's gone anyway. Or when top climbing babe Caroline fails to get up a VDiff-ish outcrop to the disdain of the presbyterian Ben, the John Knox (only without the beard) of the hills. So embarrassed is she at her failure that she returns to practise the route solo. As she fragrantly thrutches her way up the route, we can clearly see that she is being top-roped. By whom?

And another thing: why is it that all the rescues appear to take place on flat, boggy terrain, rather than on those sloping lumps commonly known as hills? And why are there never any rescues involving that lovely but dangerous white stuff? Please don't bother to send in your answer on a postcard

And did I mention the lack of facial hair?

By several whiskers, the worst episode of all was the last. Two team members (one of whom is in love with the other, despite the fact that that other is married to his brother) are strolling across some more flat stuff when they are kidnapped by helicopter-crashed bad guys, the psychopathic leader of whom eventually commits suicide by publicly blowing his brains out rather than be taken alive by a heavily tooled-up SWAT team who arrive by inflatable speedboats (still with me?) At the same time, high on Beinn Subplot, some cragfast monks (before you ask, yes, there is a don't-get-into-the-habit joke) are being led to safety by another two of our hairless heroes along a precipitous path. But there's been an unfortunate rockfall which has made a bit of a hole in the path. What to do? No worries - within a trice, Gordon has miraculously gained the other side of the chasm and has at the same time managed to set up a tension traverse for the frozen friars. But oh no - another rockfall! First one, then the other rescuer is plucked from his stance and hurtles into the void at 32 feet per second per second ... but a monk grabs the rope and holds the fall! A result for the power of prayer! Good old Jesus! Way to go, God! But they're still in a bit of a pickle - the belaying Benedictine can't haul both of them up (being a comparative weakling, he can only lug one lump of 15 stones of deadweight up 150 vertical feet at a time), so Douglas demands that Gordon cut the rope and allow him to drop the remaining 200 feet or so to the jaggy, rock-strewn deck. My chances are fifty-fifty, he calculates.

My estimate of his chances of survival is considerably less, but also begins with an f. However, I am proved to be a grumpy pessimist: he lives, doubtless to star in a second series. Now, speaking as an opera lover who has wept copious tears at the sight of a portly bass baritone in a winged helmet calling upon the God of Fire to imprison his errant daughter on a mountain top, I usually have no problem with suspension of disbelief. However, the line of credibility must be drawn somewhere, and that somewhere is way before Rockface.

But there is one issue inadvertently brought up by the series which is, I think, worthy of further discussion. Doubtless for all sorts of reasons, ranging from network viewing demographics to political correctness, the producers of Rockface have ensured that there are a goodly number of black and Asian characters involved in the action. This was another one of the facets of the series that just didn't seem realistic. When I asked myself why it didn't ring true, I found that I could recall meeting only one black person in all my hill days (for the record, it was on Cir Mhor on Arran: he was in the Navy and his ship was anchored in Brodick Bay). Why should this be the case, I wonder? There is a large Asian population in Scotland, but despite the fact that they invented the world's finest hill food in the samosa, they are rarely seen on the hill. It's not as if Scots of Pakistani, Bangla Deshi or Indian origin are particularly loath to adopt their country's sports and pastimes: they are beginning to make an impact in football, and for years have been a major, if not dominant, force in Scottish cricket. So when, I wonder, will we see as many Asians on Creise as at the crease?


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