BBC4 is such a blessing. Without it UK TV would be unbearable. This Christmas holiday the channel revived the traditional Yuletide TV schedule and gave us a run of Ealing films. The standout for me was Whisky Galore! which I hadn’t seen for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, adapted from Compton Mackenzie’s novel, it is inspired by a real-life incident in which a ship went aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1941 – enabling islanders to ‘salvage’ much of its cargo of whisky. Mackenzie was himself the local Home Guard commander who turned a blind eye to the salvage operation. In the film, the locals of the mythical island of ‘Todday’ (a play on ‘toddy’?) are offered a similar opportunity during a period when their own supplies of whisky have run out. The only barrier to their enjoyment of the spoils is the local Home Guard commander, the English Captain Waggett played by Basil Radford, one half of the comic duo ‘Chalders and Caldicott’ with Naunton Wayne who appeared in several British films from 1938 onwards. Waggett brings in the ‘Excise men’ to hunt for the whisky hidden by the islanders. In doing so, he finds himself at odds with nearly all of the islanders.
Whisky Galore! is now considered a ‘classic comedy’. Initially it was only a moderate hit in English cinemas, playing better in Scotland but scoring an unexpected success in the US (as Tight Little Island) and in France where the title translated as ‘Whisky a GoGo’. Its release in 1949 alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, helped to establish the idea of the ‘Ealing comedy’. As Philip Kemp points out in his book on director Sandy Mackendrick, (Lethal Innocence, Methuen 1991), once a film gets the ‘classic tag’ it is often difficult to step back and view it objectively. But let’s try anyway.
The film’s production context is crucial. It was made in 1948 when the UK attempted to keep Hollywood productions at bay through import tariffs as part of the struggle to achieve a balance of payments. Hollywood responded by embargoing British cinemas and UK producers attempted to fill the gap with increased production. Alexander Mackendrick was a young filmmaker at Ealing given his first directorial task on a location shoot (with all available studio space taken). Mackendrick was American-born but part of a Scottish family and he would go on to become one of the stars of Ealing and a director and later film teacher with an international reputation. His first film, not surprisingly was a little uneven and took twice as long as the budgeted 60 days to shoot on the remote (from London) island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
Watching the film now I’m struck by three immediate observations. First, there is a great deal of music, both in terms of score and the diegetic music used for local celebrations. Second, the location photography and the use of local non-professionals creates a very strong sense of place. Third, the narrative is actually pretty thin with the one central conflict and a couple of romantic sub-plots involving the two daughters of the island’s central entrepreneurial figure Macroon who runs the general store. This means that one of Ealing’s bigger stars, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood is rather under-used. In fact all three central female roles (the other daughter and Waggett’s wife) are similarly under-used apart from a few one-liners. On the other hand, the film celebrates that Ealing trait of the small community working together and the film succeeds because of the sheer vitality of the camerawork and editing supporting the performances and the direction of the central narrative.
The interest for film scholars now, I think, lies in the film’s representation of certain ideas about ‘Scottishness’ and its relationship with similar films in terms of location and thematics. This dossier of materials compiled by Paul Cronin on the website ‘The Sticking Place’ provides many interesting starting points for debates. I’d like to pick up on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘kailyard’ tradition. This term can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and it refers to the practice in rural areas whereby worker’s cottages would have attached a small plot of land to grow cabbages or other brassicas such as kale. In the 1890s the term was used to describe a certain kind of Scottish literature perceived as sentimental and nostalgic at a time when the Central Lowlands of Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) had developed into major urban centres within the British Empire. In 1982 Colin Macarthur re-ignited the debate in his book about Scottish cinema, Scotch Reels, and the kailyard and ‘tartanry’ traditions. (‘Tartanry’ refers to the whole paraphernalia of the Victorian construction of Highlands culture.) It’s not for sassenachs like me to lecture Scots on national identity but I would point out that the kailyard has its equivalent in Ireland and the parts of England that I’m familiar with – workers’ cottages with a garden for the spuds and cabbage and a pen for a pig. The kailyard itself is authentic but the problem comes when it becomes the central focus of national identity and is disproportionately represented in comparison with the industrial tenement.
Whisky Galore! with its ‘Highlands and Islands’ setting is certainly rural and culturally Gaelic, but in fact the film makes relatively little of local culture apart from the narrative necessity of a whisky-fuelled celebration for the nuptials of Macroon’s daughters. What is important is that the central narrative hinges on the response by the locals to the actions of ‘outsiders’ – Waggett and the Excise Men. This sets up a romantic, idealised local community opposed to the rational, orthodox ideas of the English ‘colonial’ administrators. This rather than the kailyard seems to be the way in to the narrative and its ideological readings. Whisky Galore! is interesting in its relationship with what went before – Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and what came after, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1982). These films (and several others) all celebrate the resistance of the ‘spirit’ of the Celtic fringe in resisting the intrusion of the ‘modern’ consumerist and regulated world into the organic but fantastic community of the Irish/Scottish Highlands and Islands.
One of the important decisions about the film’s script was to jettison the local religious conflict between two different island communities. In the novel, the wreck presents a salvage opportunity for both the Protestant (Calvinist) community of a ‘Northern Isle’ and the Catholic community of a Southern isle – the ship grounding on the dividing line in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing was terrified of the religious question and Mackendrick himself , although not a practising churchgoer, was a Protestant who said he did not understand the local Catholic community who seemed more Irish than Scottish. The result is that the film fails to convince when the Todday men, confirmed whisky drinkers, are unable to go to the wreck for 24 hours because they respect the Sabbath day (surely more of a Calvinist concept).
I enjoyed watching the film again. I was thrilled by the overall presentation and, like several other commentators, I was intrigued by the use of conventions relevant to 1948 – the noirish lighting of the salvage scenes and the war film references in which the excise men seem like the Gestapo searching houses for contraband whisky. But I would have liked more Joan Greenwood and more of the romance on those wonderful beaches – one day I’ll spend some June nights in the Hebrides!
Whisky Galore! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.