The Blair essentials

Warm human drama set in the countryside just after the war, with lots of cuddly animals . . . hold on a minute, haven’t we been down this road before? Well yes, but Tom Lappin discovers that BBC Scotland’s Strathblair puts the limitations of its family viewing slot to better use than many of its predecessors.

There’s a very good chance that a recalcitrant . Sheepdog called Fly could be a national superstar I this time next month. The programme that would be responsible is Strathblair, BBC Scotland’s new ten-part drama series about a farming community in 19503 Perthshire.

For BBC Scotland it's something of a coup to be producing a prime-time network series for one of the most competitive time-slots. With a second series already commissioned and in production, producer Aileen Forsyth is naturally delighted. ‘The second run means there is a lot more work going around, when jobs seem to be being cut in most places. That’s cheering people up and is obviously good for BBC Scotland.‘

The story focuses on a young married couple and their struggle to be accepted into the close-knit Strathblair community. It’s a situation fraught with potential for strong characterisation and all the warm glowing humanity that characterises Sunday evening family drama. Strathblair’s combination of nostalgia, bucolic bliss and character-driven story lines is a format that has proved successful in the past, not least in The Darling Buds of May. Audience reaction is about as easy to predict as voting intentions, but the series does seem to have assembled the right components in the right places. The casting especially looks promising with experienced TV performers Ian Carmichael, Andrew Keir and Alison Peebles playing foils to the young incomers the Ritchies, appropriately played by TV newcomers Francesca Hunt and Derek Riddell.

These two are already the focus of some excited attention from the tabloids as stardom apparently beckons. Hunt, especially, seems to have been marked down as the next Catherine Zeta Jones, although she remains suitably level-headed, preferring to talk about the development of the character of Jennifer Ritchie.

‘It was a shock to me to be cast as this sort of merry wifie,’ she says. ‘In my theatre work, I’ve


usually been the hard, cerebral middle-class woman. Mind you, Jennifer does change through the series, as she develops. There’s a lot of learning to do for her, this nice middle-class girl from Wiltshire. But then she meets the female factor and Pheemie the outspoken woman farmer who are both saying “no, you don’t have to do this".‘ Researching the series, Hunt looked

‘At times we could only do a take when the sheep were ready. The sheepdogs always got it right though. They were real stars.’

through magazines of the period to get some idea of women‘s attitudes in the 505. As well as discovering the shocking truth that some of them wore ‘radiation girdles, for radiation treatment

throughout the day’, she uncovered a general level

of subservience that surprised her. ‘It’s been fascinating for me watching those different attitudes come out in the scripts.‘ she says. ‘There are scenes where it’s immediately said “well, of course you’re not coming to the pub dear”, and I go “of course”. I think that might interest people, that whole toeing-the-line thing. It’s funny what

Derek Riddell and Francesca Hunt as Alec and Jennifer Ritchie

you take for granted about women’s roles, things that just didn’t apply then. At the same time both Pheemie and the female factor are held up as examples that this domestication needn’t necessarily be a hard and fast rule.’

Budding feminism aside, the series does concentrate on the trials and tribulations of a young couple who, as Derek Liddell points out, ‘don’t know each other very well’. ‘That’s something I discovered happened in the 505 that I hadn’t fully appreciated before,’ he says. ‘People got married who didn’t really know each other, and that’s one of the problems the couple experience as well as the extraneous things.’

Extraneous things tend to be the usual rural hazards of feckless animals and cantankerous neighbours familiar to anyone who has ever seen an episode of All Creatures Great/Ind Small. Never work with animals they say, and Riddell recalls moments of real frustration waiting for the sheep to take their cue. ‘Sheep are not renowned for their intelligence ,’ he says. ‘At times we could only do a take when the sheep were ready. The Sheepdogs always got it right though. They were real stars.’ Back to that character Fly. Bouncer from Neighbours had better look to his laurels.

The List 24 April 7 May I992 57