Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Terry Hanstock
Sharing peak times with PowellAlastair Dunnett
The Scotsman; September 1, 1997, Monday
The call generally came in mid-afternoon on a Friday as I sat at my Editor's desk in The Scotsman, conning over the details of tomorrow's Saturday supplement with Robert Warren. It was in the form of a telephone message left with my secretary, and it would say: "Arriving tomorrow morning at the Station Hotel Inverness, and going for a few hills. Can you make it? - Michael." Agnes Watt would book me a passage on the night sleeper, or the early morning express, and I would soon be off home gathering up some kit and getting in the mood for a strenuous weekend.
Sure enough, not many hours would have passed before I was in the foyer of the hotel, and there, bald and grinning happily, would be Michael, the famous film man, and with him, the faithful and ever imperturbable Bill Paton, the Shetlander who became his companion and eventually his minder. We would catch an early train to somewhere even further north and west, and set off for some summits. Many times we did this.
To bring in the name of Michael Powell at this time opens another and admiring chapter of my friendships. I had met him in the wartime, but he had an interesting contact with The Scotsman long before that.
In the middle of the Thirties, as a young film director, he had written a script about the evacuation of St Kilda, but had been refused permission to film on that island and had spent a long time searching for some other remote island with the same conditions. It was in The Scotsman office where he was researching files and old records under the auspices of my old colleague, Forsyth Hardy, that someone suggested the island of Foula, which lies near the Shetland coast. He had gone there and filmed The Edge of the World, now as great a classic of the fiction documentary as Grierson's Drifters is in its own field.
By the time I knew him he was in the middle of that great series which traced the history of Britain at war with The Spy in Black, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Battle of the River Plate, and all the rest.
He had the idea of making a film of human values in wartime and this became I Know Where I'm Going, with Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller. In the Scottish Office, headquarters of the Secretary of State for Scotland, we got him the necessary official permissions to film this on Mull and Colonsay and on an impulse I took a week of leave and went to join them in Mull, where I got to know something of his mind and his work.
I never made it into films even as a crowd extra, but in the scene where Wendy Hiller embarks for the dangerous crossing to her island and is caught up in a motor boat in the maelstrom of Corrievreckan, she is wearing my yellow oilskin instead of the black one the wardrobe department had issued, because mine showed up better.
It was snatched off my back by George Busby, the location manager, and I had to cower in a shed out of the rain until they got me a replacement.
All this was no hardship, and for years into the Forties and Fifties Michael and I, often with Bill Paton, went climbing every year into the hills of Scotland, which Michael knew so well and loved, like me.
Bill Paton was generally there with a small stove and a kettle in his rucksack and be would brew up tea for us and put out sandwiches. He had been a journeyman baker in Lerwick, had teamed up with Michael's company to cook for the squad on Foula, and had remained in the film industry every since.
Once the three of us, stopping for a midday lunch on the hills high above Loch Broom, were regaled by a fabulous cold roast duck which had been cooked by Frankie, Michael's Irish wife from Dublin. Michael had two sons, like me, both called after Irish saints - Kevin and Columba. My two are called after Scottish saints - Ninian and Mungo.
There was one memorable weekend when the three of us met on top of Ben more Coigach, not far from Ullapool, where we had spent the night in one of the hotels in the company of Seton Gordon, who was going to climb with us. It was to be a day of days, made memorable in that it was planned with great precision by Michael. The scheme was to split into two parties.
Michael and Bill would hire a car to put them down at the end of the road from Achiltibuie and go up Coigach from there, taking in Beinn nan Caorach on the way.
Seton and I would take his car to the north side, park it at Druimrunie Lodge, and make the ascent, with me carrying Seton's pipes in my rucksack.
Up we went, the bagpipe box sticking out like a small coffin and weighing somewhat heavier. Of course, when we reached the top Michael and Bill were already installed and in possession, but ready with decent drams to reward us.
So fortified, Seton conned for us all the adjacent heights so well known to him, and the headlands and the islands, some of them far off He showed the flat cap of Dun Caan on distant Raasay.
Years later, I found myself presiding over an immense Ross-shire gathering in St Andrew's Halls, and I told them the story of our adventures on that day. Later, in the Committee Room (these gatherings always had one) some of the platform party were asking me about the remembered details. Round our small circle there was prowling a small man with a bitter disapproving face and a large glass of whisky in his hand. His contribution, when it came, was: "Mr Dunnett, you omitted to mention that these activities took place on the LO-ORD'S Day."
These days on the hills were while Michael was at the height of his powers as a man producing films. The great ones were made in partnership with Emeric Pressburger. There was one notable critic - Prime Minister Churchill, who took time aside from his hostility to the Germans to disapprove of the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, so that there were no honours or medals for the unforgettable creators.
In time, Michael ended the partnership with Emeric, and set down a verse whose origin it has been impossible to trace, so that I feel certain that Michael wrote it himself. It has the edge of cool cruelty of which he was capable: 'Twas love I cannot ride with thee, And love I dare not bide alone.
For both were proud, and both were free And both were hard as the netherstone.
The time came when the incompatibility with Frankie could not be borne, and they came apart. Later, he found great peace with Thelma Schoonmaker, the gifted film editor with Scorsese, with an Oscar in her own right.
I cannot now name all the hills and islands I went to with Micky Powell, and he seemed to give a blessing to all of them.
Canisp and Suilven come to mind with special affection. I used to visit him while he was shooting in studios with budgets somewhat larger than he had had in those earlier days.
Some of his later films made immediate success, such as Red Shoes and Battle of the River Plate; others have still to find their full acceptance but are coming back by way of the specialist film societies to take their place, you may be sure.
Not long ago he turned up in the Red Square in Moscow outside the Kremlin walls, wearing a red bowler hat and arranging for the production of a film on Pavlova. A great spirit always looking for new frontiers.
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