Laxdale Hall - Scottish Period Comedy
Laxdale Hall by Brian Pendreigh
If Laxdale Hall had been an Ealing comedy it would probably have attracted a lot more critical and public attention over the years. It shares a similar theme with several Ealing classics of ordinary people rebelling against officialdom, boasts a great cast and marks the screen debuts of both Rikki Fulton and Prunella Scales, as well as a very early appearance by Fulton Mackay. And indeed it might well have been an Ealing comedy. Eric Linklater originally devised the story for Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, which had of course had a major hit with Whisky Galore!, which came out in 1948. Linklater subsequently turned the story into a novel, published in 1951.
The film meanwhile gravitated from Ealing to Group 3, a short-lived company that was set up to make feature films with public cash. Balcon, the head of Ealing Studios was chairman of the new company and he brought in producer John Grierson, who specialised in factual films and is regarded as the father of the documentary. Laxdale Hall was far removed from Grierson's usual sort of films. It was a whimsical comedy, very much in the Ealing mould. Highland villagers have to contend with a gang of poachers (including Rikki Fulton) from the big city, Glasgow, and a Parliamentary delegation from London (including Fulton Mackay), which heads to the fictitious parish of Laxdale when the locals refuse to pay road tax because their only road is full of holes. However it was set in Scotland and Grierson was a Scot, born in Stirlingshire. The new company was short of material, whereas Ealing had plenty, so Laxdale Hall became a Group 3 production and came out in 1952, just a year after the novel.
Whisky Galore! had famously shot on the island of Barra, because there was no room at Ealing at the time. It seemed natural that Laxdale Hall should shoot on location too, given that that was Grierson's standard modus operandi as a documentary-maker. It shot on the remote Applecross peninsula, just across the water from Skye. At the official briefing at the beginning of the film Fulton Mackay points Laxdale out on the map and is quite clearly pointing to Applecross. Director John Eldridge, who was a native of Folkestone, in Kent, and would later direct The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), headed up to Wester Ross with a mix of newcomers and experienced film actors, including a couple of veterans from Whisky Galore!
Jameson Clark, who was a policeman in Whisky Galore!, plays Roderick McLeod, Laxdale's shopkeeper and a sort of village elder, though he is also the local poacher. The laird more or less turns a blind eye to his nefarious activities, because he is the local poacher, as if it were some traditional post, not one of those Glasgow types, who come in cars with nets. James Anderson, who was in his eighties, filled, fairly obviously, the role of an old-timer in both films. He made only two films and died in 1953.
Rikki Fulton, who went on to become a legendary figure in Scottish comedy, has just a few lines as one of the Glasgow poachers, but his distinctive features are unmistakable as those of the the Reverend IM Jolly, who would later become a Hogmanay institution. Fulton died in 2004, but in his autobiography Is It That Time Already? he remembered his first film as a very enjoyable experience. "We all managed to squeeze into the pleasant Highland hotel at Lochcarron and had to commute daily by bus over mountainous roads to the location in and above the little coastal village of Applecross. It was bliss. Like a paid holiday, living and working in mostly fine, warm weather amid some of Scotland's most spectacular scenery." Not that he was being paid much. "I received £20 a week for the three weeks filming," he wrote.
Fulton Mackay and Prunella Scales have more significant roles. Fulton Mackay is Andrew Flett, a young civil servant from the Scottish Office, and Prunella Scales, who was only 20, plays Morag McLeod, Roderick's daughter and the village schoolteacher. In later years they would star in two of Britain's greatest sitcoms. Mackay played a namesake character, a rather pompous, by-the-book prison officer, who is continually outwitted by Ronnie Barker in Porridge. He also starred in another Scottish comedy film classic Local Hero. Prunella Scales was John Cleese's demanding, garrulous, rather snobbish wife in Fawlty Towers, serving to elicit some sympathy for poor Basil. In Laxdale Hall however they provide the romantic sub-plot.
The success and humour of Laxdale Hall owe much to the characters and to the performances of the actors. Several, including Prunella Scales, were English, but they manage to blend in quite naturally with the Scots. Many of the Scottish actors had worked together at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. The Scottish locations also helped lend the film an authentic Highland quality. Most of the location filming was done at Applecross, the neighbouring village of Milton, the dramatic, twisting Bealach na Ba road (Pass of the Cattle) and the surrounding countryside. The scene where the Laxdale postie visits the police station was shot at Kyle of Lochalsh. The film also shot at Southall Studios in London.
The role of the village undertaker was filled by Roddy McMillan, another very familiar Scottish actor from stage and screen. He was the dour skipper Para Handy in the fondly-remembered Scottish sitcom The Vital Spark in the 1960s and 1970s. Ian MacNaughton, a Glaswegian who had a small role as one of the policemen in Laxdale Hall, did not go on to such heights as an actor, but he would later become the regular producer and director on the show that changed the face of television comedy - Monty Python's Flying Circus. The police sergeant was played by Archie Duncan, another familiar Scottish character actor, who was Little John to Richard Greene's Robin Hood on TV in the second half of the 1950s.
James Copeland, in a small role as a fisherman, was making his film debut in Laxdale Hall. He was the mate in the Ealing comedy The Maggie (1954) and figured in Rank's Whisky Galore! sequel Rockets Galore! (1957), Tunes of Glory (1960) and dozens of other films and television series. He was also James Cosmo's father. Andrew Keir, who plays the young gamekeeper, would also appear in a small role in The Maggie, but more notably as Professor Quatermass in the 1957 Hammer film of Quatermass and the Pit, as Agrippa in Cleopatra (1963) and as the Duke of Argyll in Rob Roy (1995). Eric Woodburn, who plays Gamlie, the leader of the Glasgow poachers in Laxdale Hall, was the skipper in The Maggie and Dr Snoddie in Dr Finlay's Casebook in the 1960s.
Forsyth Hardy recalled in his book Scotland in Film: "Ignored by the London critics, it was an instant success in Scotland. It ran for months in Inverness, and for years after its first release, whenever an exhibitor knew early in the week that he had a flop, he would throw out a lifeline for Laxdale Hall." The film did get a North American release, after a name change. Whisky Galore! had become Tight Little Island; and, obviously attempting to tap into any goodwill created by its predecessor, Laxdale Hall was renamed Scotch on the Rocks. It was broadcast in the UK on several occasions, but the official archive print at the British Film Institute had deteriorated to the extent that it was not feasible to use it for a DVD release. Restoration would have been prohibitively expensive, but fortunately an old 16 mm print, possibly originally intended for film societies, came to light and was used as the basis for this new release, restoring Laxdale Hall to its rightful place in the Scottish film canon.
Brian Pendreigh is an Edinburgh-based freelance film journalist and author. He reviews films for Radio Times, writes film obituaries for The Times and The Herald and contributes regularly to the Mail on Sunday and other publications. He is a former cinema editor of The Scotsman and associate editor of Hotdog film magazine and has written a number of film books with Scottish themes.