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  • Alistair Braidwood

You Have Been Watching (TV Special) …The Crow Road

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

If they were going to make a TV series of an Iain Banks’ novel it makes sense it would be The Crow Road. The Wasp Factory is too violent/disturbing/weird, The Bridge too fantastical, Complicity, which was adapted by the same team who made The Crow Road as a movie (see You Have Been Watching…Complicity), too deviant for TV and many others which would not have made the transition so easily. The Crow Road is classic Banks in that it deals with family secrets, religion, sex, death, politics and the meaning, or otherwise, of life.

The TV series, made in 1996, is a mostly faithful version of the novel, with only the most necessary pruning evident. Banks himself has said that it is ‘annoyingly better than the book in far too many places’, and he has a point. For instance, where Banks takes many pages explaining just how low the central character of Prentice has fallen, Gavin Millar, the director, simply has someone giving him change as he pats a dog, in the assumption that Prentice is begging. There are a few scenes such as this which distill the essence of what is a dense text. Having said that, The Crow Road needs every minute of its four hour-long episodes to tell the tale adequately.

The cast are the series’ greatest asset and include many of Scotland’s best actors at the top of their game. Peter Capaldi, Bill Patterson, Paul Young, Stella Gonet, Alex Norton and David Robb are effortlessly good as they trade arguments and ideology. In lesser hands Banks’ words could be regarded as hectoring or lecturing, but scenes, such as the one where Paul Young’s Hamish is arguing about religion with his brother, and Prentice’s dad, Kenneth, as played by Patterson, are humourous, polemical, dramatic and ultimately tragic. Information and entertainment, who could ask for more?

The younger cast do well in this hallowed company, particularly Dougray Scott, Simone Bendix and Valerie Edmond (who I used to have quite a thing for, but you don’t need to know that). Scott is someone whose acting style can go way over the top, often in films where more subtlety is required, but his style suits the part here as he plays Prentice’s cocky older brother Lewis, and he also shows a vulnerability that is too often missing in his later work.

Joe McFadden has to carry the central role of Prentice McHoan, and I remember thinking, on first viewing, that he wasn’t up to it. But on further reflection he is perfectly cast. The young Prentice is a teenage nightmare, and is, to borrow a phrase from E. Blackadder, wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume. But that’s how he is in Banks’ novel, at least to begin with. He is the archetypal teenage brat, who thinks the world isn’t fair and keeps asking ‘why do bad things happen?’. To be fair, he has encountered a lot of death in his young life, but he is still one of the most annoying characters in Scottish fictionMcFadden captures this perfectly. I’m still not convinced whether his is a very subtle performance or just Joe, although he also manages the transition into a, slightly, less annoying presence as the novel progresses with ease, so perhaps I’m being harsh. It is typical of Banks that Prentice’s maturing is as a result of his finding the love of a good woman and accepting his father’s (and Banks’) atheism and rationalist outlook as a more likely world view than his Uncle Hamish’s bizarrely personal Christianity. Banks likes his central characters to come round to his way of thinking eventually, and Prentice is no different.

Here are the opening scenes:

There are many really enjoyable aspects to watching The Crow Road with the benefit of nostalgic hindsight. There are some superb posters on Prentice’s walls that denote the time; Betty Blue, Nirvana, Scottish CND, Three Colours: Blue and Red, Reservoir Dogs and, of course, The Crow. There’s music by Edwyn Collins and The Shamen and other specific cultural references such as evoking the fond memory of Lee and Herring. I was quite moved to see the old Tron theatre bar as it was in the mid-nineties, even recognising some of the bar staff. There’s also a tremendous amount of smoking going on. Properly, in a manner that makes me nostalgic not only for seeing it on screen, but for my own smoky past.

Is the series as good as the book? No. But it’s very good and keeps Banks’ pitch black sense of humour. There could, and really should, have been further Banks’ adaptations by now. Espedair Street and Whit are the two novels which spring to mind that I could imagine working, although not many series get the luxury of being four hours long these days. You can watch the whole of The Crow Road on You Tube, or buy a copy of the DVD for around £3. It’s a worthy investment of your money and time, as are most things which involve Iain Banks.


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