Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Let’s Not Book A Room In Brigadoon

Have you caught any of BBC Four’s “This is Scotland” season? Because some of it makes you think, ‘No, it really isn’t’. A rare showing of Culloden was impressive, only a few weeks after I praised it, but as for last weekend’s outing for Brigadoon… It’s a textbook example of a story which, when someone tells it to you in a few lines, really captures your imagination – but which, when you actually sit through it, makes a terrible movie. An enchanted old village appearing from the mist just once a century… What could possibly go wrong? Go on, guess.

Perhaps it’s that I lack patience with musical theatre – I know, dock my gay points – except in rare cases, and that though Almost Like Being In Love is a good tune, the rest of the songs here are syrupy and go on for ever. Perhaps it’s the distracting accents. Now, every American producer knows that there are only three ‘English’ accents: upper class (evil, which permits intelligence, or inbred and very dim); Cockerney (lovable, poor and stupid); and Scotch / Oirish, which are of course the same (rustic, poor, quaint and stupid). In this quaint little story set in the quaint little Scottish Highlands, this realistic range of accents is on full display – while the heroes are, of course, American (think of it like An American Werewolf In London, except that they start singing instead of getting bitten. It’s horrific).

Welcome To Brigadoon – You’ll Never Leave

My main problem with the film, though, is that a mythic return to the Eighteenth Century is very much more attractive as a dimly imagined myth, and that when you’re invited to step into the past, you’d much rather it stayed in the past. While the village is supposed to have made a deal with God, it seems more like hell on Earth.

It goes like this. Back in 1754 – two centuries to the day before the story is set – Brigadoon was put under attack by witches, and prayed for deliverance. So they were snatched out of time to escape destruction, and the village now drifts back into reality for just one day every hundred years. So far, so intriguing. Unfortunately, in the film producers’ quest to expand an intriguing one-line idea to as long and turgid a movie as possible, they then strip as much magic as possible out of the story: audiences will swallow an enchanted village that lives one day a century without batting an eyelid, they reckon, but we couldn’t possibly ask them to believe in witches.

But if the big threat in the movie isn’t the return of the witches in a new sorcerous assault, or if it’s implied God didn’t save Brigadoon from an attack by real witches at all, what could the God-fearing people of the village have yanked themselves out of history’s progress to save themselves from?


Well, there’s a clue in tourist Jeff’s line on witches, “Oh, we have ’em; we just pronounce it differently,” but the village’s raison d’être is made quite explicit by the schoolteacher: “Oh, I know there’s no such thing,” he says of witches – just women they didn’t approve of. Yes, Brigadoon is social conservatism gone mad. The terrifying ‘attack’ and threat of ‘destruction’ was not physical but their unelected leaders’ view of moral, and the religious maniacs cried out in their surety that they couldn’t win by persuasion, ‘Stop the world – we want to get off!’

The biggest surprise to modern audiences, more even than the jawdropping misogyny and wandering accents, is that the tourists are American and the scary intolerant control freaks living in another century British. Nowadays, surely the film would have to have visitors from this side of the Atlantic discovering a mysterious village in some landlocked part of the United States that vanished from reality for fear the gays are getting married.

Clearly, some of the filmmakers realised that this was a monstrously scary form of social conservatism even for 1954, because it’s deeply schizophrenic about its sympathies. It’s a huge romance, with one of our modern American souls falling in love with the place and one of its people – and who couldn’t fall for Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dancing around each other, and hope that love conquers all?

Well, his friend Jeff, for one, who as played by Van Johnson is a breath of urban, cynical sanity, with lines like “I’m a strange man, and you’re a mighty strange woman,” and “Is it formal, or shall I wear my Napoleon hat?” And then you discover that – jerking against the chain of the romance, the script and the enchanted hellhole – some of the young people are desperate to escape (and no, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have people forgetting / missing the outside world so much after two nights for them, but I’ll let that pass), and it turns out that no-one can ever leave, or the whole spell will collapse. You can’t even do an ‘exchange’. Gee, thanks. How much more repressive can this set-up get? I’m glad you asked, because of course one of the poor desperate prisoners makes a break for it, and there’s a hunt. Which, inevitably, requires a killing, even if it’s accidental (and again, I sense the scriptwriter who’s in love with this conservative utopia wresting the script back from the one who isn’t for a moment to stop the village dictators being so blatantly the villains by deliberate murder).

The idea at the heart of Brigadoon is a powerful one, borrowed from a German folk tale and borrowed by many other stories in turn, even a secret location protected by a “Brigadoon Circuit” in one of the finest Doctor Who novels – though in Robin of Sherwood’s Cromm Cruac and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) : A Man of Substance, both splendid pieces of television, each village has more blatantly made a deal with a devil – but not only is the film dreadfully dull, its social and sexual politics are diabolical.

On the other hand, this is just the film you want to watch to make you appreciate the go-ahead, all mod cons, funky charms of Bournemouth, should anyone be heading there soon.

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I see DWM has ranked lots of Doctor Who episodes.

I'm waiting for your opinions
I know. I'm excited.

And when our posties can be arsed to deliver any post, my subscriber copy may eventually appear...
But the Jonathan Meades programmes have more than made up for the tartan brigadoonery hoots mon the noo
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