The softly spoken denizens of the Isle of Skye, their craggy features sculpted by the same timeless deities that have crafted their extraordinary surroundings, are a captivating bunch.
As farming has died as the island's dominant occupation, many of Skye's young have moved away, following the opportunities. What's left is a somewhat ageing population, detached from the rest of Britain physically, and increasingly through their lifestyles. You could say that these hardy folk are rattling around (damn artificial hips) like forgotten history books in a dusty library, only breaking their concentration to throw censorious glares at skanky Southerners, while simultaneously renting them holiday homes.
Thankfully, all this just adds to their charisma. When stuck under the microscope of BBC Two's Wonderland – as conscientious and personally gratifying a showcase for quirky film-making as exists anywhere on television – their personalities spring to life. They don't even need to say very much. On Saturday's The Ghostman of Skye – billed unnecessarily as a "Hallowe'en episode" but much deeper than that reductive billing – the panoramic shots of rust-coloured mountains might drag to begin. But give it a chance. There's magic beneath those hills.
The story followed Donald Angus Maclean, one of the ageing Skye-dwellers who all seem to look the same, have identical names and all speak in a similarly incomprehensible Scandinavian-inflected drawl (there are subtitles). Maclean was going a bit loopy, you see, or at least that seemed to be the suggestion as this lonely figure was picked out travelling across a series of mind-blastingly superb landscapes. He saw ghosts around the island, but as everyone knows, they don't exist, it's just people being tricked by their eyes. And as the story evolved – told with appropriate brevity by the first-time Canadian director Alison McAlpine – and various of Maclean's contemporaries are interviewed and tell similar stories, you began to think there might be something in all this supernatural chit-chat.
There was. Maclean was mourning the loss of his wife. In his day, you got married and you stay partnered together. His eloquent description of the acme of his love to his wife – "both mentally and physically" – amounted to the specific point in the small of her back where he used to hold his hand. They even had a special name for it. At one point, Maclean broke down at his wife's grave, and found it hard to keep moving. He didn't make it to the end of the film, and is buried alongside her. Encountered with this kind of cheek-wetting, life-changing profundity – and asked whether I agreed with Maclean, or whether I wanted a hard and fast adherence to the facts, I'd probably tell him I'd seen spooks, too. To the inhabitants of Skye – who, more often than not, answer questions with a knowing, ironic gleam in their eye (they can't help it) – you wonder whether something so fleeting as a ghost would register anyway. Their brains operate on a different plane, and think about things like the partition cleaving life from death, or the passing of millennia. I have trouble remembering my keys.
And then after something rather sublime comes the faintly ridiculous Garrow's Law. It's hard these days to watch these kinds of BBC period dramas without expecting the scene to halt mid-monologue and then for the camera to zoom out and reveal Ricky Gervais wrestling with a sticky doughnut. The story, as it stands, follows the late 18th-century barrister William Garrow, a pioneering barrister and all-round good egg. He ticks all the boxes: didn't go to Oxbridge, cares about, you know, truth and justice and all that stuff, but suffers from a bit of a short temper because he just cares too much. His opposition comes in the form of lazy judges and posh-o barristers who would rather have a big lunch than cure the world of all its injustice. Garrow took on his first case – that of a thief, wrongly accused – but lost, and the defendant was put to his death. He had more luck with a lady who accidentally killed her newborn baby, however, and suddenly, he was a moral crusader. Garrow is played somewhat robustly by Andrew Buchan (Party Animals, Cranford); the lawyer instructing him is played by his associate Southouse (Alun Armtrong), a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure who tells him to chillax and spend longer on enjoying his lunch.
What's slightly amusing about this division of opinion, if you'll indulge the observation, is that even now, it still sums up the schism between bigwigs at the BBC and executives at a particularly well-known BBC-baiting newspaper. On the one hand, the state-educated liberals who care about the common man (or like to think they do); on the other, what they perceive to be reactionary adherents to the status quo who would rather find ill-meaning and folly in ordinary acts – and thrive off a certain promotion of fear that their valuables will be swiped at any moment – rather than seek out optimism. Such cynical observations aside, I did find myself welling up when Garrow won his first victory. Stick in some violins, have the falsely accused vindicated, and most will be similarly happy.Reuse content