Scotland, where it never rains

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The Independent Culture
NO ONE understands us quite as well as the folk who make big decisions about popular drama for the Beeb and ITV. By lunchtime on the day after we have tuned into (or out of) their latest offerings, bug-eyed analysts with sun-denied soft skin have crunched the numbers and told their bosses what has triumphed, what has flopped - and why.

About 18 months to two years later the fruits of their analysis hit the screen. Which is why these things seem to go in waves. Aspirational, thrusting characters in an urban environment one year, bewildered youth solving problems in a positive way the next. Today we are in the middle of a phase in which loads of caring, quirky Scots, living in close-knit communities surrounded by glorious scenery, remind us of the more enduring values. On both sides of the box. At the same time.

"C'mon, Jock" were literally the first words heard in last week's episode of Hamish Macbeth (Sunday, BBC1). Macbeth, for the uninitiated, is a raffish, sexy copper whose beat extends to the heather-strewn hills and seal-filled sea lochs around the tiny port of Lochdubh - a village where, uniquely for the Highlands, it never rains and the midges never bite.

Mantid in appearance, with a long neck, thin body, small head, and prominent cheek-bones, Macbeth is having a thing with the fabulous Alex, the laird's daughter - all skimpy knicks and exposed midriff - having thrown over the delectable Isobel, intrepid reporter for the Lochdubh Listener. Inbreeding in Lochdubh seems to have produced a generation of supermodels, all wanting to become Macbeth's lady.

The community is made up of about five other people, the most unusual of whom is Esme, the manhunting B&B landlady. She sports a baroque hairstyle and a quilted dressing-gown. But the strangest thing about Esme is her language. At one point in the last episode she seduced a guest by offering him a "nice poached egg". This particular expression was new to me. Was it, I speculated, perhaps a corruption of an original Gaelic expression - poichead eigg, meaning to fornicate among the boulders? Tight-knit communities are full of such surprises for the unwitting intruder, I imagine.

The visitor's first port of call would be the pub, run by tart with a heart Agnes, who is married to hapless entrepreneur Barney. You know he is one of life's losers because his boat is called The Fat Chance and he is (as he revealed to Macbeth in an utterly contrived confessional moment) "firing blanks". Even in caring, communal Scotland real men give great sperm.

Barney also shows what a schmuck he is by employing the statutory village idiot, young Lachie, to run his most preposterous money-making enterprises. This week's involved winching a false whale fin past a boatful of sceptical tourists and - of course - it ganged agley. Lachie, however, found a sunken cargo of smuggled cannabis and fed it to his father's cows. Within minutes they were slumped in the hay, mooing along to old Hendrix numbers, and setting off a health scare which has crippled the British beef industry.

Meanwhile a smouldering stranger was in town, wandering about looking young and sexy. Esme was interested. Agnes was interested. (I would have been more interested if, say, Lachie had been interested, but that's me.)

All the guy had done was smouldered, I mean, it's not an offence. But it was enough to expose the intolerance of small-town life. Hamish took him aside. "This is a nice quiet place," he warned, "I'd like to keep it that way." Meaning we only have sex with each other. I'd have told him to awa' and poichead eigg, but since the boy was Agnes's real son, given up when she was 16, he presumably realised that he had to save himself for uncomfortable revelations - "I have something to tell you" - followed by hugs and tears all round.

On the other side was a depiction of the darker side of community life. In the Tannochbrae of Dr Finlay (Sunday, ITV) events are set 50 years before those of Macbeth's Lochdubh. Classic cars rock over cobbled streets, the cottage hospital is still open for business and killer illnesses such as typhus and typhoid stalk the land.

But the most crucial difference is the pub. In the Flying Dutchman there are no pool tables, no women and no discos. With so little to divert them, the customers soon fall back on the old favourite of whipping up hatred against outsiders. Thirty seconds into any animated conversation someone identified in the credits as Hate-filled Man One cries, "I say let's burn them out!" The chorus goes up, "Aye! Fetch the torches!"

Last week it was Dr Finlay's fusty, eccentric sidekick, Dr Cameron, who saved the day. First he pulled off the old colonial trick of feeding a baby with penicillin, thus discrediting the witch-doctor in the eyes of her tribe (in this case a group of itinerant Irish, imported straight from a dramatisation of the Potato Famine, complete with facial mud). Having thus won the trust of these primitive but good folk, he then proceeded to save them from the Tannochbrae chapter of the Ku-Klux-Klan, who by now had made the journey between the pub and the barn that the Irish folk were staying in.

His rewards were a vatful of poteen, participation in an inelegant version of the Riverdance and a night snuggled up next to Big Molly in the hay. Was there poichead eigg? Apparently not. But next morning Molly shamed Cameron by turning up at Arden House with his combinations, which he had left behind.

That the Scotland of the late Forties was full of lynch mobs and beautifully maintained automobiles I can readily accept. But that Cameron should have mislaid his combinations, that stretches credulity. They were enormous, heavy and obviously scratchy. These days such a garment would only feature in expensive health spas, worn for 20-minute sessions by ageing film stars to build up body muscle. You could not possibly mislay them.

There was greater attention to verisimilitude in the third great programme reminding us of the values of communitarianism, Meerkats Divided (Wildlife on One, Thursday, BBC1). The meerkats of Addo had been living with a wonderfully observant BBC film crew for over a year. Deprived of television and newspapers, they had clearly not heard of the trials of Noeline and the tribulations of Jeremy in dealing with the consequences of "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries.

The result was that we discovered things about this community that they probably did not know themselves. Like who it was slipped past the vigilant Nkosi (the local Hamish Macbeth) and engaged in effective poichead eigg with the winsome Browneyes, queen of the meerkats. Her disloyalty to the group - though genetically beneficial - will have had taxi-drivers the length and breadth of Britain banging the arms of their chairs and yelling, "Isn't that just like a woman?"

Two factors combined to give this wonderful programme a topical feel. The first was the insight offered into the advantages and drawbacks of rigid social orders. The second was that meerkats, with their dark-ringed eyes, cute little faces and nervous expressions, are dead ringers for Cherie Blair. Watching one devour first a scorpion, then a sun-spider - all wiggly legs and poison - reminded me that pretty soon there will be an election, and Cherie will find herself dealing with Peter Hitchens of the Daily Express.

As the sun set over Addo, a voice told us that next week we would be visiting a community of dolphins. They are, it said, "violent, intelligent and affectionate". A bit close to the knuckle for me. I'll be watching Hamish Macbeth.

Lucy Ellmann is on holiday.

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