The Years that Modern Scotland Changed
Kirsty Wark returned to the more cozy territory of cultural history last night with this four-part series for BBC Scotland after coming under public criticism for her Alex Salmond documentary.
Alex Salmond’s trial, which aired last August, sparked concerns about perceived discrimination against the subject. The BBC refuted the charge, noting that interviews in support of the former First Minister were included in the program and that he was invited to participate but declined.
The stink was a reminder that in the tiny pond that is Scotland’s media and political scene, there are some big fish swimming and that some of them are biting.
Two Rivers Media of Glasgow created The Years that Changed Modern Scotland, like Alex Salmond’s The Trial. Two Rivers’ managing director is Alan Clements, the husband of Ms. Wark.
The first episode in Kilmarnock, where she grew up, began with the Newsnight host. “This is a people’s story about the last half century in Scotland,” Wark said, “and one that goes beyond the usual assumptions about our past.”
Was the documentary fair to Salmond?
Viewers might wonder how this “people’s history” varies from that discussed in his 2007 History of Modern Britain or his recent New Elizabethans series by fellow Scot Andrew Marr.
So Wark’s movie had a measure of originality to pass. It was a decent effort for the first episode, but we need to hang on to the congratulatory cigars for a while.
The talking head series was dominated, on the positive side, by the kind of “regular people” that TV supposedly reveres.
If the BBC’s Scotland news team had made the broadcast, it would have meant vox-pops shot with punters stating the obvious or the stunningly banal in the nearest shopping lane.
Fortunately, for their interviews, Wark’s team had done their job well and found fresh faces, such as Sawarnjit Burmy, Scotland’s first South Asian female police officer.
But did we really need familiar faces like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid to create that working-class voices were brought to the fore in the 1970s? Was anyone looking at William McIlvanney or Liz Lochhead unfamiliar with this? I don’t think that.
In several other films, some of the problems, from slum clearances to Govan shipyard strikes, have also been well covered.
However, I have to confess that I hadn’t heard the story of Irvine being slated for a Springfield-style monorail. In an interview with former Labour Minister Alistair Darling, remembering his days as a councilor in Edinburgh, it was later revealed that at some stage someone had come up with the not-so-brilliant idea of connecting the M8 outside Usher Hall with Lothian Lane. Wark looked suitably appalled.
First TV interviews with women from the courtroom
A treat was the archival footage. Focus on art was also welcome, with a section devoted to Cheviot, Stag, and Black, Black Oil. By remembering how it had a “profound” impact on her when she first saw the film, Wark introduced the chapter. It was a point worth more exploration, but no dice.
Overall, when it was at its most intimate, the film shined. The Years that Changed Modern Scotland was yet another low-key clip show “on the one hand, on the other” as it strayed from that approach.
It was as though Wark tried to keep herself out of the spotlight in order not to expose her own thoughts too much. But if it’s going to stand out, this kind of show needs a solid, authorial voice, a Schama, a Beard, a Holmes. Imagine what Prof. Tom Devine, with four hours of TV, will do for himself.
Letters for the documentary on Salmond
The last thing that The Trial of Alex Salmond wanted was a clear point of view. And yet, that was what was needed here, exactly.
In the coming episodes, let’s hope the style changes, especially those dealing with the political awakening of the country. There are many aspects about modern Scotland, but it is not bland. To go with it, it deserves a story.