Sunset Song – the film

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon was published way back in 1932, it’s set in rural Scotland in the early 1900s and it tells of the hard life that the people had, particularly the women, especially if their husband was a brute, as Chris’s father was. Everything changes when World War 1 breaks out and so ends a way of life and life itself for so many of the menfolk. It has been dramatised by the BBC, quite successfully, in 1971. But it has been made into a film now, it’s never a good idea to try to squash a book into a film lasting a couple of hours and directed by Terence Davies. Anyway, we felt the need to go and check it out, so we took ourselves off to the Saturday matinee showing of it. The cinema was very busy, unusually so lots of people love the book and obviously lived in hope.

Almost from the beginning I was disappointed by the look of Chris, the main character who is in her last year of school. Her hair was so bouffant-ish – with the addition of a couple of plaits/braids. It looked like a very weird wig. Worse was to come though as for some unaccountable reason they chose an English actress to play the part of Chris, who is a young woman from The Mearns, a part of north-east Scotland, not far from Aberdeen. Poor soul, she tried to do a Scottish accent but really it was quite painful to the ear of an actual Scot. In fact I don’t think anybody had an authentic north east accent. Chris couldn’t even manage to say loch – never mind anything else. There must have been a Scottish actress who would have made a good job of the part, they can’t all be working on River City.

To be fair, the rural locations were lovely, it was beautifully set, as were the locations of the various houses involved in the film. I always get a lot of pleasure from looking at the furnishings in films, whether it’s a sumptuous palace or a poverty stricken cottage interior. I think the set designers did very well and to me nothing screamed out as being incongruous in its setting.

But that didn’t make up for the grating mock Scottish accent, and there were a couple of parts which I found almost embarrassingly bad. Particularly a scene when there were lots of people marching across fields, all making for – the church, whilst a very English sounding choir was singing incredibly loudly. That scene seemed to go on forever and I just kept thinking that if I had been the director it would definitely have ended up on the cutting room floor. I know that I’ve seen an almost identical scene in another film, I think it might have been How Green Was My Valley. I felt as if the director was doing a sort of daft homage to something anyway, and he really shouldn’t have, it was dire.

They eventually reached their destination, which was actually Arbuthnott Church, from the outside anyway. We visited the area with Peggy Ann of Peggy Ann’s Post when she stayed with us last May and we had a good look around the church but we weren’t able to see inside it. Anyway, the minister mounted the pulpit steps – a suspiciously new looking pulpit, and worst of all, he was wearing a surplice, one of those white smocky looking articles of clothing that English people seem to think are worn by all religious ministers/vicars/priests. They certainly aren’t and never have been worn by Church of Scotland ministers. Honest-tae-god, if there had been a wall handy I would have been banging my head off it!

To be fair there was some decent acting in the film, it just wasn’t being done by the main character and although there was a lot to fit into the film, considering the book, it still managed to be slow. The woman sitting beside me kept heaving huge sighs and peering at her watch!

I suspect that just about everyone in the cinema was there because they had read and loved the book, and in those circumstances it’s always going to be difficult to pull off a glorious success, but if you just love things Scottish, beautiful countryside and horses – as some people do, then you’ll probably find it worth watching.

Arbuthnott, The Mearns, Aberdeenshire

One of the places which Peggy was keen to visit was the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre at Arbuthnott in The Mearns, Aberdeenshire. So one fairly fine day we drove up there to the centre which is really a cafe with a small exhibition at the back of it, telling the story of Lewis Grassic Gibbon who wrote the Sunset Song books amongst others. Those are the ones which most people have heard about though as they have been dramatised for TV a few times.

It’s years since I read the three books which make up The Scots Quair, but I remebered The Mearns which is the area they are set in was depicted as being a harsh and grim place but as you can see in these photos it’s rather lovely, in the spring/summertime anyway.

Arbuthnott River Bervie 1

The wee river is the Bervie and it meanders across the fields which are just down the hill from the church where Lewis Grassic Gibbon was buried just days before what would have been his 34th birthday.

Arbuthnott Gorse

Standing on a wee wooden bridge which spans the river you can look over to this field of gorse or whins as it is called in Scotland, and see a bank of primroses still blooming in late May, everything is at least two or three weeks later in flowering than in the south.

Arbuthnott Primrose bank

If you look closely you’ll be able to see the primroses again in the photo below.

Arbuthnott River Bervie

Grassic Gibbon had a hard life, having to join the army just to save himself from starvation at one point, and it’s sad to think that although he did eventually find success in writing, he died way down south in Welwyn Garden City, a town which I lived in for a short time at the back end of the 1970s, not a place of beauty as I recall.

I’m sure that I took some photos of ruined houses which were standing either side of the rough track which leads down to the River Bervie, but again they don’t appear on my camera, I think it’s a temperamental beastie – that camera of ours.

It’s the 1971 version of Sunset Song which I remember most fondly and I’ve discovered that someone has kindly put it on You Tube. I might just wallow in some nostalgia. I must have been 12 when it was first broadcast and it led to me reading the books.