ONE of the most important cultural figures of modern Scotland, and probably one of the least familiar names, is Stuart Hood (1915-2011), novelist, translator and former controller of BBC television. Born in Edzell, Angus, his work was centred on the inter-relatedness of literature, media and politics. In 1943, he walked out of an Italian POW camp and spent eleven months in an ancient peasant world of ploughing, planting, harvesting and communal hospitality. He also worked with the partisans and engaged in guerrilla warfare against the German troops. This most direct opposition to fascism gave him a lasting sense of human priorities. The sensitivity of his writing, particularly in his greatest novel, A Storm From Paradise (1985), is measured against the absolutism of the fascism he fought against. He once said, “I was always interested in how politics is lived.” That’s the key to understanding his work as a novelist, a broadcasting professional and a politically aware and committed individual.

When Hood wrote his later books, Fascism For Beginners (1993), On Television (1994) and edited Behind The Screens: The Structure of British Television (1994), he was acutely aware of the relations between fiction, mass media, persuasion, and the truths that must be told. Since his death, the power of social control, the selective dissemination of information, and the relation between online, screen and print media has become a key feature of our time. Some of the dangers are discussed by Iain Macwhirter in his book, Democracy In The Dark: The Decline Of The Scottish Press and How To Keep The Lights On (Saltire Society, 2014). The analyses provided in The Media In Scotland, Neil Blane and David Hutchison, eds (EUP, 2008) are very much in the spirit of Hood. The argument is brought up to date in Christopher Silver’s brilliant Demanding Democracy: The Case For A Scottish Media (Word Power Books, 2015).

For Lord Reith (1889-1971) the BBC’s job was to inform, educate, and entertain. But consider Sir Alan Peacock (1922-2014), from 1984-86 Chairman of the Committee on the Financing of the BBC, rejecting Margaret Thatcher’s proposal to fund the BBC by advertising and proposing a long-term strategy in which subscription would replace the licence fee. Essentially, he advised abandoning Reith’s priorities and changing the BBC and all associated “heritage” industries away from educational priorities towards money-making. He has a special place in the story. Alongside him we might note the significance of director general John Birt. In his 2002 autobiography he admitted how fiercely he aligned the corporation with the unionist agenda in the late 1990s and opposed devolution in broadcasting, insisting that BBC news “bound Britain together”.When he put the case to Tony Blair, the then PM grasped the argument immediately and agreed: “Let’s fight”.

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Hood, above, concludes On Television by noting: “The future shape of the television industry will be determined by political decisions taken at government level. These decisions will be determined by how that government perceives television – as an industry in which the market decides or as a medium which can provide a public service, supplying the Reithian trinity of information, education and entertainment. These are political issues that deserve to be addressed and discussed by viewers, trade unions, by political party branches. A society, to coin a phrase, gets the kind of television it deserves.”

Well, we deserve a lot better than what we have now. Looking back over the last fifty years, say, what could we single out as exemplary engagements with Scottish literature in radio and screen media?

Many fine writers produced original radio plays or adaptations of classics, and there were, once, countless literary discussions and arts reviews. The medium is perfect for audio work focused on poetry as sound, literature and music, endorsing the literary validity of regional voices, forms of speech and the acoustics of locations. Literature means different things in soundscapes of different geographies, movements on land, river and sea. Think of what the external acoustics of Orkney are like, and what the indoor acoustics of Iona Cathedral are like. All poetry is about movement, one way or another. If Wordsworth’s poems are mainly at a walking pace, “The Birlinn of Clanranald” moves continually upon water, first by rowing, then by sailing, through storm, then finally rowing again. And after its opening episode in the pub, “Tam o’ Shanter” is mainly about riding – first slowly and unsteadily, then at full gallop. Radio is the perfect medium for evoking the sounds of such movements. It doesn’t have to be hindered by visual literalism.

RADIO plays by writers such as Jessie Kesson, Iain Crichton Smith and Stewart Conn and adaptations by Catherine Lucy Czerkawska and especially Chris Dolan’s adaptation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Gerda Stevenson’s radio version of Walter Scott’s The Heart Of Midlothian, exemplify a vast and massively under-researched archive, not to mention the biographical and critical value of recorded interviews and accounts of the lives of major writers. One work of lasting value is the radio play Carver (1991) by John Purser (b. 1942), about the life of the great composer of polyphonic church music, Robert Carver (c.1485-c.1570). It was published by Methuen in Best Radio Plays of 1991: The Giles Cooper BBC Award Winners (1992).

In film, entire national iconographies have been fashioned and refashioned, most often by people who have neither lived in Scotland nor studied our history. If narrative fiction is the convention of what used to be called quaintly “feature films” what about poem-films? And where are the film biographies of such great Scots as John MacLean, or Tobias Hume? If they’re made for cinema, they can be broadcast on TV.

There’s a long history of representations of Scotland, from Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland (1935) to Brigadoon (1954) and on, but the list of films whose foundations in vision and writing might be accounted Scottish literature is a lot shorter. Examples might include Red Road (2006), co-written and directed by Andrea Arnold or the films of Bill Forsyth (b.1946), such as Gregory’s Girl (1981) or Local Hero (1983), with its extensive location filming in Pennan on Scotland’s east coast and Morar and Arisaig on the west coast. Ostensibly a comedy affirming old Scottish priorities over the exploitative materialism and power of American international finance, it opens ambiguities and asks questions about motivation and purpose that permit no easy answers, poised between seriousness and whimsy, dark adult themes and happy optimism. Forsyth’s TV film Andrina (1981) was an impeccable adaptation of a short story by George Mackay Brown. Jonathan Murray’s Discomfort and Joy: The Cinema of Bill Forsyth (2011) provides a thorough overview.

Another “literary” scriptwriter is Alan Sharp (1934-2013), raised in Greenock. After writing two novels of a projected trilogy, A Green Tree In Gedde (1965) and The Wind Shifts (1967), he went to work in Hollywood. The film Night Moves (1975) relocated noir conventions to the post-Watergate era of disillusionment and cynicism, yet Sharp’s novel of the film reads like the strange third in the trilogy, as if some of the characters from the earlier books had been transposed to a different ethos.

In Rob Roy (1995), Sharp returned to Scotland with an epic adventure story, but Dean Spanley (2008) came as a complete surprise. Based on a novella by the Irish writer Lord Dunsany, the film, set in Edwardian England, begins as a whimsical, poignant comedy about a Dean of the Church who seems to have been reincarnated from a previous life as a spaniel, yet this startling proposition gives way subtly and gently to an exploration of ageing, the changing relation between a father and his son, and a meditation on and ultimately an affirmation of the vitality of life, despite the inevitability of mortality.

And so to TV. Given its pitiful current condition it’s worth noting as a yardstick some of the best work of the past. Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009) was of the same vintage as John McGrath. Born in Scotland, his early work included the police series Z-Cars (1962-78), The Sweeney (1975-78) and the serial Reilly, Ace of Spies (1980). Like Sharp, he also wrote for Hollywood, but his six-part television serial Edge Of Darkness (1985) is his masterwork. The story takes the theme of power and corruption in the nuclear industry as it applies within and well beyond national boundaries and Westminster state politics. In a sense, it’s a cross-medium sequel to McGrath’s play, The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil (1973), taking the subject of international commercial exploitation to a further stage of history. Scotland, England, Ireland and America are represented in the national identities of the main characters: each has different priorities. In the tensions and unfolding development, the relations between state-centred political authority and the brokers of international power are explored in the form of a thriller. In Stuart Hood’s words, it is about “how politics is lived”. The text of the scripts was published by Faber & Faber and the programmes made available on DVD, while an analysis of the series by John Caughie was published in the British Film Institute’s “Television Classics” series (2008). I’d call Edge Of Darkness a classic of Scottish literature.

The playscripts and screenplays for television and film by John Byrne (b.1940) cross conventions of literary, visual and screen art forms, beginning with The Slab Boys (1978), followed by Cuttin’ A Rug and Still Life, and then a fourth play, Nova Scotia. His two TV series, Tutti Frutti (1987) and Your Cheatin’ Heart (1990) are full of wild humour, generous sympathies and tenderness. Like Hood, Forsyth, Sharp and Kennedy Martin, Byrne is a literary artist whose storytelling and depiction of characters and relationships are equal to those of our finest novelists.

The same might be said of Peter McDougall (b.1947). Glasgow-born, he worked in the shipyards before moving to London, where he began writing. His first television scripts were broadcast in the 1970s to critical acclaim and a shock of recognition. Just Another Saturday (1976) focused on a young man’s experiences through the day and evening of an Orange Walk in his native city, while Just a Boy’s Game (1979) recounted another single day experienced by two friends, a construction worker (played by Ken Hutchison) and a gang leader (played by the singer Frankie Miller) trying to move away from his violent past. The American director Martin Scorsese noted that the atmospheric filming was the Scottish equivalent of his own film Mean Streets. Down Where the Buffalo Go (1988), starring Harvey Keitel, documented an American officer’s experience in the nuclear submarine base near Glasgow and remains an overwhelmingly downbeat account of the social dysfunction brought about in that awful era.

IN more recent years, we’ve had almost nothing to compare with these works, let alone the TV adaptations of great works of Scottish literature from the 1970s: The Master of Ballantrae (1962), Sunset Song (1972), Weir of Hermiston (1973), Willie Rough (1976), Clay, Smeddum and Greenden (1976), Rob Roy (1977), Huntingtower (1978), The House with the Green Shutters (1980), many of these made possible by another heroic figure too easily missed in Scottish literary histories: the producer, Pharic Maclaren (1923-80). We wrote earlier this year about the three-part series Scotland: The Promised Land and emphasised how good TV could be, at its best – but this only emphasises how much remains to be done, and thinking of Maclaren, how much has been lost.

Joseph Goebbels once said, “The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never again escape from it.” Richard Strauss went to see Goebbels in Berlin in 1941, to be told, “Franz Lehar has the masses – and you don’t! The art of tomorrow is different from the art of yesterday. And you, Herr Strauss, are from yesterday!”

But maybe that’s where resistance always comes from.