The Crow Road (1996, Gavin Millar)

“It’s a saying. My gran would use it if someone died. She’d say, “He’s away the crow road.”

This post is part of the Home Sweet Home blogathon co-hosted by Gil at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Home for me is Scotland so I’ve chosen Gavin Millar’s TV mini-series The Crow Road, adapted for television by Brian Elsley from the novel by Iain Banks which aired in the UK in 1996. It’s a series about how grief affects a family and the stories people tell themselves to try and cope with loss, but like most of Banks work it’s also darkly funny and has some wonderful dialogue. 

The Crow Road begins with two contrasting journeys from Glasgow to the town of Lochgair on the West Coast. In a brief opening scene Rory McHoan (Peter Capaldi) leaves his flat in Glasgow and sets out on his motorcycle, while his nephew Prentice (Joseph McFadden) explains in voice-over how his uncle has been missing ever since that day seven years ago. Now Prentice is making the same journey. The novel begins with a memorable first line, but Elsley wisely opens with the mystery and marks out Rory and Prentice as being kindred spirits. Only when Prentice arrives late to his gran’s funeral still wearing his 90s’ student gear do we get the immortal line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Gudrun Ure plays granny, and is first seen in flashback up a tree pruning branches, a precarious position for anybody her age, but older Scots will remember her as the lead in Supergran (1985-87), a uniquely Scottish take on the superhero genre, so maybe she leapt up there in a single bound.

It was his grandmother who gave Prentice the task of finding Rory a year earlier, but it’s only with her death that he really begins to investigate his uncle’s disappearance. It’s one of a number of tragedies to affect Prentice in his young life and he’s searching for some kind of meaning about these experiences. As well as Rory’s going missing his Auntie Fiona (Stella Gonet) died in a car crash when he was a child, and more recently his friend Darren (Martin Ledwith) took his own life. The latter’s suicide led to a falling out with his father Kenneth (Bill Paterson). After Prentice and his friends took the car Darren killed himself in down to the water and burned it, Kenneth ridiculed the gesture as “pseudo-religious” pointing out all they had done was deprived a mother of her only means of transport. They haven’t spoken since. While Banks clearly shares Kenneth’s atheistic worldview, there is an otherness present in The Crow Road. A suggestion there are things beyond our ken at work here. 

Despite the complex (yet easy to follow) narrative structure The Crow Road also feels similar to other more outwardly conventional dramas about small Scottish communities populated by eccentrics. Like most middle-class Scottish families there’s a Tory, Uncle Fergus (David Robb), a local aristocrat once married to Fiona and now a widower. Uncle Hamish (Paul Young) turned to religion after her death and has now formed his own breakaway Christian sect and demands divine retribution against the Khmer Rouge while saying grace before his tea. Prentice is well-liked by those around him but as his grandmother says “generally thought to be a bit useless.” Before returning home to Lochgair his main concern apart from occasionally wondering about the existence of God was an essay on Wittgenstein he couldn’t be arsed finishing. Most of pals from the village are local kids from working-class families but in small towns people from a place tend to mix together. It’s the incomers who keep to themselves. He’s closest to Ashley (Valerie Edmond), Darren’s younger sister and the two share a bond over their mutual losses. He’s got an older brother Lewis (Dougray Scott), who’s making a name for himself on the Edinburgh stand-up circuit and just got a spot opening for 90s’ comedy double act Lee & Herring who Prentice rightly points out “aren’t funny.” Although Lewis thinks he’s an edgy  “anarcho socialist” comedian he tells lame jokes about his love life and is selling out for TV gigs.

So much about The Crow Road is about storytelling and being guided by the voices who went before us. Rory was a successful travel writer but had changed direction and was working on a family history. Prentice follows in his uncle’s footsteps, taking on this journey into the past but also hoping that it will lead him to Rory. For this he needs Ashley to boot up Rory’s 1980s’ laptop so he can read the massive LP sized floppy disks his uncle’s writing was stored on. Kenneth too is a storyteller, a writer of children’s books with titles like The Legend Of The Mythosaurus. Prentice recalls his father trying out these stories on him and the child being full of wonder. Kenneth taught his son to ask questions, to think for himself, and yet is exasperated when Prentice rejects his pragmatic godless worldview for superstition. Despite the distance between them they’re more alike than they care to admit. Kenneth believes Rory is alive, because every month a letter arrives for him containing a signifier of a childhood secret only they share. Something Prentice is immediately sceptical about when his father insists this is proof of life. 

Each episode is named after somebody whose story becomes the main focus of that episode. Prentice, Kenneth, Fergus, Rory. Events unfold using flashbacks as the story flits between past and present as Prentice uncovers more about his family and recalls his own childhood memories. While Rory’s absence haunts the narrative, Prentice conjures up a ghostly version of his uncle from out of his own psyche, An imaginary figure still clad in the same biker gear he went missing in, guiding Prentice towards things he already knows but hasn’t quite worked out yet. “It’s all there Prent.” 

Director Gavin Millar has had a long and eclectic career. He’s best known for collaborating with Jim Henson on Dreamchild (1985), a haunting biopic about Alice Liddell, the woman who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  In his younger days at the BBC Millar once directed a documentary on Michael Powell interviewing him as he worked at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio. The Crow Road shares a sensibility with Powell’s two films shot in Scotland, Edge of the World (1937), and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). The feeling that this land shapes people and makes them who they are. By the end it seems Prentice will be staying in Lochgair, though the possibility of an escape abroad with Ashley seems a distant possibility, he’ll remain at home, a storyteller like his father and uncle, the keeper of his family’s secrets.

Questions and Answers

Gil from RealWeegieMidgetReviews was kind enough to mention my blog on her site and set down a list of questions for me to answer.

  1. Have you ever met a celebrity somewhere random?

Not really. Though I did once serve Alan Titchmarsh when I was waiting tables a few years ago. Very charming. Can see why all the ladies like him.

2. Have you ever had a celebrity write to you in response to a fan letter?

No. Have never written a fan letter. Did get a thank you from Robin Askwith on Twitter for identifying an actor in a photo he’d met briefly in a bar in 1986. Turned out it was former Colbys star Joseph Campanella.

3. What’s your favourite advert with an actor or actress?

I guess you could make a case The Hire (2000) shorts starring Clive Owen are adverts as they were funded by BMW, but they feel more like short films with product placement which isn’t really the same. I remember seeing Brad Pitt in a Levi’s 501 ad back in 1990 and thinking he’ll do all right for himself.

4. If you could ghost-write a celebrity’s autobiography with their permission who would it be?

George Lazenby had a much more interesting career than people give him credit for. Becoming Bond (2017, Josh Greenbaum) was fine but didn’t seem have much interest in the man himself or his career after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, Peter Hunt). I’m fascinated by him quitting that role to make Universal Soldier (1971, Cy Endfield), an anti-war movie about a spy who drops out and starts hanging out with left-wing activists. I also feel the giallo Who Saw Her Die? ((Aldo Lado), co-starring with Angela Mao in the Hong-Kong martial arts movie Stoner (1974, Feng Huang), and Saint Jack (1979, Peter Bogdanovich) makes for an interesting 1970s’. There’s also the time he spent with Bruce Lee before his untimely death working on a proposed follow-up to Enter the Dragon (1973, Robert Clouse), and essentially playing Bond again on TV in Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Diamonds Aren’t Forever. Mostly I just want to talk to him about his appearance on the fashion house/spy show Cover Up.

5. Have you ever been on telly or in a movie?


6. Who was your first film or TV love?

I honestly can’t recall the first. It was so long ago. Probably Georgina Hayes on Grange Hill, or Abby on Howard’s Way.

7. You are allowed to snog, marry or avoid three movie or TV stars.. who are they?

I would prefer to avoid all TV and movie stars completely.

8. If you could give out an Oscar which category would it be for?

It would be a Lifetime Achievement Award for Albert Pyun.

9. Who would you like to accompany to the Oscars?

To be honest I prefer being at home and tweeting about them, but if I had to go I’d like to go with the guy from the law firm who’s responsible for keeping the envelopes with the names of the winners. I just want to see how stressful that job is now after the Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway slip up a few years ago.

10. Which film would you watch again and again?

I will never grow tired of Deathstalker II (1987, Jim Wynorski).

11. What’s your favourite TV Movie?

A bleak but very funny production written by Alan Bennett for Screen Two called The Insurance Man (1986, Richard Eyre) which is loosely based on the life and work of Franz Kafka. The late Robert Hines stars as a young man living in pre-WWI Prague who develops a mysterious blue tinged skin infection on his chest while working in a factory and is sent to a government building to meet a clerk called Franz Kafka (Daniel Day-Lewis) to see if his condition makes him eligible for insurance. There he finds he’s one of many claimants waiting around the labyrinthian hallways, or being sent from one office to the next because they have the wrong form. All he wants to do is find out what’s wrong with him but his journey through the building turns into a nightmarish series of encounters with contemptuous bureaucrats and people who have become slightly unhinged by the whole experience. Made around the same time Day-Lewis broke through with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985, Stephen Frears), and A Room With A View (1985, James Ivory) and though he only appears in a few scenes he’s incredibly charismatic. I’m also very fond of a TV movie called Nick Knight (1989, Farhad Mann) starring Rick Springfield as a vampire cop in Los Angeles.