Friday, 8 December 2017


In the 1970s we had various talent shows on the TV. You could say they were a precursor to todays X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, though with far lower production values. One such programme was called Opportunity Knocks and was hosted by Mr Cheese himself, Hughie Green. So cheesey was his presentation of the programme that Billy Connolly included him in his routine at one point, and liked the coincidence that Hughie Green's name backwards was the same as late night vomit produced after drinking too many Creme de Menthes, which apparently the Pope drinks.

Anyway, we digress. I've just completed filming with the latest youth group up near Stirling. They came up with a story line about a boy whose mother in the past had been a great opera singer, and he too aspires to be the same, but living in small town Scotland, his situation conspires against him.

Back in the early 90s Channel 4, together with the ran a competition in collaboration with English National Opera, called Operatunity. Well, the kids loved that title, but of course it likely had a copyright. However, the good people of Channel 4 clearly saw the value in supporting these students and gave them permission to use it in their short film.

But then we took it a step further. The gave the character the surname Knox, and thus the film became Operatunity Knox.

By a sheer coincidence I had been filming in London the week before, and whilst their picked up shots for them of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, so they could add them to their film.

Filming with two cameras simultaneously and with a drone flying camera for the chase sequences, the production values are such that Hughie Green would no doubt be jealous.

Thursday, 30 November 2017


It's not often you get to be behind the scenes of a world famous West End London theatre, but that's exactly where I found myself last Sunday.

For almost half a year the students that attend the performing arts academy where I teach Film & TV, have been rehearsing a show called Lazy Ace. It's a musical all about a conman called The Lazy Ace who has been swindling casinos on the Las Vegas strip. Back in June it seemed so far away, then before they knew it the curtain was raised in Her Majesty's Theatre, home to none other than The Phantom of the Opera.

It wasn't as large as stage as I had imagined, and the wings were tiny. The present building was built in 1897, but it's first incarnation was back in 1739. The layout and location of the dressing rooms was not exactly well thought out, down or up many flights of stairs which carried sound all the way to the stage. I'm sure the 800 plus audience will have heard "shhhhh" many times that Sunday night.

I didn't see the show, but did manage to see two scenes during rehearsal in the afternoon. What a difference the acoustics of a theatre make compared to the school hall they have rehearsed in. On the day there were a few melt downs, mostly nerves and a little stress maybe. One girl had been ill for about a week leading up to the performance and had a very sore throat. Then, during the last rehearsal, she opened her mouth and nothing came out!

Help was on hand from the theatre staff, who presented her with a Chinese potion that the opera singers use for just such an occasion. It was touch and go, but she nailed at the end which just made for an even more emotionally charged finale.

I haven't seen the students since I waved goodbye to the majority of them in London and a number of others at Edinburgh once off the train, so it will be interesting to see this Saturday how many of them have suffered the post show blues.

It certainly had the wow factor, and how on earth do we follow that!

Friday, 24 November 2017


It has been a fun a varied week, which has found me dashing about from the low highlands of Autumnal Scotland, to end the week in the big smoke of London.

It was Thanksgiving in the USA yesterday, a much looked forward to annual holiday. Though an American tradition, it inspired me to think about just what I am thankful for.

The obvious one is my friends of course. Without them, especially a select few, life would be pretty dull. In that vein I sent a number of good wishes off to various friends that I rarely see, across the pond, wishing I could be there to experience a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. And then, to my great delight, I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at a friends family home nearby, whose husband is originally from the States. Centre stage was a massive turkey; traditional green beans in mushroom sauce topped with "fixings"; followed by pecan pie and pumpkin pie. Fantastic.

The previous day I was in Glasgow with their son, who had a film in the Scottish Youth Film Festival. He had been asked to create a one minute film about What Scotland Means To Me, to launch a year-long competition of the same name, as part of The Year Of Young People in 2018. As well as being a competition, every film entered will be included in the Scottish National Archive forever. At the moment we can look back over a hundred years of films of life back then, and the aim is to provide the same for future generations. Stanley set the bar high, and already there has been a great response and take up.

That same day, together with my friend Stuart, I was conducting research for the Ballachulish Ferries film I've been hard at since July. Earlier in the year we had stumbled across an image on the internet, possibly the last photograph ever taken of the ferry that remains elusive in my search, that of the Glen Loy. The picture showed her without her turntable, beached at Camusnagaul opposite Fort William. But the photo online was of low resolution, and somewhat muddy and unclear.

For months I've been trying to find the original. It is thanks to Stuart that we finally located its location, in the Langmuir collection, part of the Special Collections section of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Imagine my delight as we turned a page in one of the photo books to come face to face with the original! On the back was written "5A", which in all likelihood relates to a negative number, so now the library are trying to see if the negative still exists.

The day before Glasgow saw me back up in Doune with my young students that are taking part in a film course until Christmas. Now halfway through, they are just starting the process of creating a short film, something another friend, John, is giving of his time to help write. The groups wish list for some of the scenes are to have big city landscapes. Doune, however, is in the middle of rural Stirlingshire, the nearest "city" being Stirling itself, but it doesn't fit the grandeur of what they want, so they were a little disappointed. But it just so happens that this weekend I'm filming in London, and as a surprise for them I'll capture some iconic London buildings and landscapes while I'm there.

And finally, just before I'd traveled to Doune I met up for coffee with my friend Alastair, director of 2020 Productions in Edinburgh. As we chatted about all the goings on for each other, it dawned on me just how lucky I am to have such varied, fun work, and a wide network of equally fun, genuine friends.

I truly enjoy what I do to make a living, which is added to by great friends that altogether make my life full and interesting, and that is what I give thanks for at Thanksgiving.

Friday, 17 November 2017


On the coldest night of the year since summer, I ventured off for a short hillwalking break with Pauline to the environs of Dunkeld.

This is a good time of year to go. The area is well known for its Autumn colours, and the rich gold, amber and red foliage of Birnam Wood did not disappoint, and could even have soothed the tragic Macbeth.

On the southern edge of Dunkeld & Birnam flows the longest river in Scotland, the Tay, from its humble beginnings on the slopes of Ben Lui, to the Firth of Tay, south of Dundee, it drains an astonishing 2,000 square miles of land, a little over 10% of the entire country, along its 120 mile course.

It was dusk when we arrived, alighting at the small railway station on the southern edge of the Tay. To our south was our destination for the night, Birnam Hill, and our goal was to camp for the night near the summit before darkness fell.

By 7pm we were fed and watered and tucked up in our little home from home. As I read my book under torchlight, something unusual caught my eye through the open door of the flysheet. Looking north east along the edge of the lower reaches of the highlands, a bright, deep orange, full moon began to rise. It was as if on fire, such was its depth of colour. Because the Earth is closer to the moon at the moment, I had read that it was 14% larger than usual. It was an astonishing sight. As it rose higher its orange colour faded, until it shone its silvery light through the trees surrounding my tent. It was truly magical.

On the Sunday we woke to beautiful clear skies, and the early sun was dancing through the trunks of the Scots Pine and Larch, the only deciduous conifer in Scotland.

Tents packed, we headed down to and through the village of Dunkeld. Our destination was Deuchary Hill, a 500m peak we have walked many times, and with many different people.

I was still recovering from a small bout of viral pneumonia, so my progress was slow. That, added to the fact that I mostly bike now as opposed to hillwalk, so my overall fitness is not what it was. I guess I'm a little older too, but that didn't deter from the enjoyment of the walk.

To make life easier we had dumped kit in the woods near the railway station, and were now sporting much lighter packs. Though not a strenuous walk overall, it was still nice to stop 3km on at the waters of Mill Dam, if only to feed a part of my lunch to the ducks, patiently waiting for the next generous passer by. The resident swans were on the water as well, but seemed too busy to swim across for their share.

The path we chose goes directly north toward the flank of Deuchary Hill, but its condition in places had deteriorated somewhat. The cause of this became apparent as we were passed several times by mountain bikers, enjoying getting mud splattered. Where the track takes a sharp turn we spotted the somewhat hidden path that is the direct route to the top.

Though steep in places, it is an easy route up, and we quickly popped out onto the summit and we beheld a glorious view of surrounding Perthshire, albeit buffeted by an icy wind.

Not a time to hang about, we descended quickly, making it back to Dunkeld with more than enough time to indulge in the usual reward of coffee and cake. Well, you would, wouldn't you.

Friday, 10 November 2017


"Exchange their poverty for wealth,
their ignorance for knowledge,
their anger for kindness,
their divisions for union".

So said industrialist and philanthropist, Robert Owen, in the early 1800s.

Do you work an eight hour day? It's likely because of Robert Owen's vision to improve workers rights in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. At the time he coined the phrase, "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest".

A couple of weeks ago, because of yet another good suggestion by Pauline, on a clear blue sky, crisp Autumn day, I visited the World Heritage site of what was Owens' utopia, New Lanark, situated south west of Edinburgh and almost equidistant from Glasgow.

New Lanark is a purpose built "town" like no other you are likely to come across. On first approach it looks like a Victorian style new-build, so pristine is its stone work. In actual fact the build was started over 200 years ago by David Dale. The area was chosen for the fast flowing water of the river Clyde. The speed of the water is due in part to the fact that over a short distance the vast volume of the river plummets over a series of three waterfalls immediately before New Lanark. This was another reason for our visit, the Falls of Clyde.

In its early years many buildings went up as the cotton industry thrived, and in this time of the Industrial Revolution, new machinery was powered by giant waterwheels, rotated by the diverted water of the Clyde.

As I walked past the three-storey high, stone built buildings, I felt I was in some rather grand meuse in a suburb of London, than among what were essentially, cotton mills.

We walked south and away from the collection of buildings, following the course of the River Clyde upstream. Visible from the village are the tumbling rapids of Dundaff Linn (Linn meaning waterfall), the lowest of the three Falls we would see, and nearest to New Lanark. The sun was low in the sky and no sunlight reached the river. Over millennia it had gouged its way deeper and deeper, and now the sides of the canyon was smooth vertical rock over a hundred feet high.

The track through the woods then becomes a boardwalk just a foot or two off the water, though when the river is in spate the boardwalk is not accessible. This pops out at Scotlands very first hydro electric power station, built in 1927.

The path wound its way through Autumn woods, eventually following a sharp bend in the river, where the highest fall, Corra Linn, came into view. A mist of fine water particles rose, as huge volumes of water went over the 84foot drop.

The path crosses over a weir two kilometres on, over the top of Bonnington Linn, the first of the Falls, which for me were the nicest set, split in two by a small island. Now at the top of the gorge, a small amount of sun could reach the cascading water.

To return to New Lanark you have to double back and retrace your steps, which is what Pauline and I eventually do, but not until we had wandered down the west side of the river to view the Corra Linn at a closer vantage point.

Halfway we came across the ruins of Corra Castle, and at first I hadn't noticed it, buried as it was in hundreds of years of ivy growth and fallen trees. Built in the 15th century it was home to an appropriately named family, the Weirs. Now it is home to a rare family of bats.

After viewing Corra Linn we started the retrace of our steps, and within little time were back in New Lanark.

New Lanark's founder, David Dale, sold the mills in the early 19th century, to a partnership that included Robert Owen, his son-in-law. Owen would become an influential social reformer, and improved the living and working conditions of all the workers at New Lanark, some 2,500 at its height. He introduced the eight hour day, and built a school for the workers 500 children.

War may always be prevented,
by those who adopt the principles of peace,
being at all times prepared
to resist injustice and oppression;
and this may easily be affected by
wise arrangements in the education of the young.

Owens business partners were unenthusiastic at his spending of profits on making the workers "comfortable", but Owen fought off all attempts to interrupt his vision. New Lanark would go on to become celebrated throughout Europe. Visitors, including royalty, were astonished at the cleanliness  of the place, and the happiness of its inhabitants and workers. His vision of, a happy worker was a productive worker, was justified by the mills becoming highly profitable.

They eventually closed, as recently as 1968, and rapidly fell into disrepair. New owners stripped the buildings of valuable metal, but in 1971 they were listed as historic buildings, that then required their legal preservation. By 2005 most of the buildings had been restored, with new business, such as a hotel and offices, opening up in the old mills. Along with Edinburghs Old & New Towns, St Kilda, the Antonine Wall and the Forth Bridge, UNESCO made New Lanark a World Heritage Site.

Robert Owen passed the ownership and operation of the mills to the Walker family in 1825, and set sail for the US state of Indiana. He established a new vision there, based along the lines of New Lanark, and called it New Harmony. The project ultimately failed, and Owen returned to the UK. He passed away in 1858, penniless.

So the next time you put in your eight hours, say a little thank you to Robert Owen.

Friday, 3 November 2017


If it wasn't for my best friend Pauline I don't think I'd get much of any exercise at all. I certainly wouldn't have discovered as many places in the great outdoors, or cycled across the width of the United States. So pretty much every time Pauline suggests heading off somewhere for a mini adventure, count me in.

But when she suggested getting the 9.30am train to go and cycle the Devon Way, and that we'd be back in time for evening supper, I had to question her judgement. I mean, it would take all day just to travel the 500 miles to Devon for goodness sake!

But as usual, I hadn't listened. This was a short cycle route starting in Alloa, just outside Stirling, and follows the Devon River to a small village called Dollar in the shadow of the Ochil Hills.

Normally when we are on a cycle trip I take my hybrid Specialized bicycle, but as this route was very short, easy and entirely flat, we opted to take Brompton bicycles, with its ingenious folding design. Personally I think I look ridiculous atop a high saddle stem on the tiny bike with tiny wheels, but I have to admit it is great fun. The other advantage is there is no requirement to book the bike onto trains, as it neatly folds up and can be carried on. It's a fairly recent concept, with the company only starting up in London in 1975.

You wouldn't necessarily choose to use a Brompton on a long cycle tour, as it is very much a commuter bike, but this day we were only traveling a total of 14 miles, so it was perfect as the path is so easy. If there was any doubt remember that it's advertised as being suitable for baby buggies for goodness sake!

Leaving the station at Alloa the path took us north toward Tillicoultry, which is about the half way point. It's not until you are within sight of Tillicoultry that you actually start following the River Devon though, at an appropriately named village called Devonside.

Needless to say the Autumn colours were evident, if not past their best, though this year has not seen a vibrant display anyway. Earlier in the year we had three months of virtually no rain, and it has stayed unseasonably warm after summer. It's likely those two factors have contributed to the leaves starting to turn then falling quickly before they have had a chance to display their bright colours.

Very Quickly we were in Dollar and chaining up the bikes at the bottom of a gorge walk called Dollar Glen. Owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland, it has a fairy tale feel to it. Waterfalls spill out of narrow clefts in the cliff sides, and moss carpets the stones and fallen trees among a dense woodland, ensconced in the shadow of the nearby Ochil Hills.

There is a boardwalk all the way up, mostly to protect the environment from the erosion of many feet. Lichen is the most abundant life form on the planet, and in Dollar Glen alone there are upwards of 190 species. This, combined with the wildlife habitats and geology have made it an area of Special Scientific Interest, guaranteeing its protection.

At the top is Castle Campbell, dating back to the 15th century, when it was a stronghold of the Earls of Argyll, now managed by Historic Environments Scotland. Originally known as Castle Glume, it passed to the Campbell Highland Chief through marriage and the Campbells stayed at the castle for 200 years. It is one of Scotland's best preserved tower house castles. Of course, as you may have guessed, Mary Queen of Scots stayed there, as did the preacher John Knox.

You can walk a circular route and coming down takes you through less precipitous landscape. Though we had only cycled seven miles to get here, and 45 minutes would see us back in Alloa, we could not break with tradition, and so, before unfolding our transport, sought out the usual "coffee and cake", rounding off a perfect mini adventure.

Friday, 27 October 2017


What a thought! But hang on, why be so down about that fact? I reckon our feeling of "oh no..." is borne not out of actual dislike of the season, but the earlier and earlier bombardment of adverts, and the stores displaying Christmas goods from as early as August! The period itself, for me anyway, is a great time of friends, food and relaxation. Oh, and presents, naturally. I'm not a religious person at all. I don't sign up to the so-called "real meaning" of Christmas from a Christian point of view. But then, isn't the "real" meaning of Christmas, peace, compassion and love?

Well, whatever it is to everyone, it is a fun time for most. Yes it can be a sad time, recalling lost ones, and maybe better times past, but it can also be a time to leave your troubles to one side, and surround yourself with close friends and family.

Then there's the food. Oh, and how I love the food. I am a traditionalist, albeit chicken instead of turkey, and though I say so myself, I do put on a good spread. A highlight of this is a traditional Christmas cake, and today that is precisely what I have been doing. I make two cakes every year, both gluten free, which is not difficult, given the tiny amount of flour required. Both are gifts to friends. I could never eat a whole one myself . . . I don't think.

Making them consumes most of a day, with a good hour or so for prep, and then keeping a watchful eye on the oven for two and a half hours. Times two of course.

From next week will come the careful "feeding" of the cakes with brandy. This will continue for about six weeks, at which time I will make my own marzipan and icing, and apply the finishing touches.

Satisfied with my efforts, during the baking time I ventured out for an Autumnal walk to the local Figgate Park. I was pleased to see that there was still some colour to be had from the wildflower meadow. Just over a month ago the meadow had been virtually all yellow, but it would seem the more colourful flowers have made their appearance later.

I sat a while watching the ducks, geese and swans on the pond, foraging for scraps of food, either from under the surface, or from people throwing various food items into the water for them to fight over. Normally the competition is fierce due to the large number of squabbling seagulls, but on this occasion they were obviously off somewhere else, creating an altogether more civilised foray.

After sipping a coffee in the late afternoon sunshine, I wandered back home in time to extract the golden brown creation from the oven.