❉ Sometimes the best dabbling in the occult come from sources for which this is a rarity, writes Michael Collins.
“But what in the world constitutes a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?”
“I can’t say. But that’s the story.”
“That there’s a ghost, but that nobody knows it’s a ghost?”
“Well — not till afterward, at any rate.”
“Not till long, long afterward.”
– Edith Wharton, Afterward
Isn’t it fun when a successful show decides to muddy its own genre waters? Fires in the Fall, a successful extended special of police procedural Bergerac, involved an arsonist ghost tracking down those who covered up the accidental death of a child. Falling in with the rules of the ghost story set out by M.R. James in 1927, there is a rational explanation for the events, but one so narrow as to not be practicable. BBC daytime regulars Doctors have been known to dabble with the supernatural at times also, and Boy Meets World once turned into a tribute to the Hallowe’en films. Sometimes the best dabbling in the occult come from sources for which this is a rarity.
Take Hamish MacBeth as one example. For, in 1995 with the series gaining over 10 million viewers each Sunday night, the series decided to present a lament for the dead and presented us with not one, not two but three different ghosts at teatime. And, much like the characters in an Edith Wharton, the audience only realised this after the fact.
Not that MacBeth was a series in which the spirits would stand out as uniquely odd. It had already used West Side Story to criticise the differences in the Scottish religious divide. We had comedy accidental cannibalism, gritty attempted murder and a police officer aided by the village psychic, so ghosts were practically at home in this part of the Scottish Highlands. In fact, if you believe the local folklore, ghosts are meant to outnumber the living in those parts, so a ghost story is only following quota!
Hamish MacBeth was a black comedy sitcom about the titular police officer, played by a young Robert Carlyle, who was posted to a Lochside Scottish village straight out of Twin Peaks. Or Wester Ross, Scotland, as its also known. Helped and hindered by the locals who fondly remember “the man before the man before MacBeth”, he solves crimes large and small, and tries to avoid promotion away from a relatively cosy environment.
Well, it was relatively cosy until the episode Wee Jock’s Lament happened.
The world of Lochdubh is shocked one sleepy morning, when a car driven by strangers hits Wee Jock, the West Highland Terrier beloved of Hamish. The two strangers are Glasgow criminals on the run, and MacBeth was delayed to the scene by giving a lift to a young woman lost hiking in the Scottish countryside. Much to the upset of the watching nation, the poor dug bought the farm, and was soon preserved for burial in a kitchen freezer. You think I’m kidding…
Distraught by the loss of his pet, Hamish became desperate for revenge, and after the hiker points him in the direction of the criminals, he drives off in the middle of a storm for vengeance. His friend/local psychic TV John has a premonition of MacBeth shooting the two men down in cold blood, and so a posse of the policeman’s friends hike off into the mountains to try and stop him before it’s too late. But Hamish MacBeth has already found the men, only they don’t know who he is…
Ken Hutchison (Straw Dogs) and the late Billy McColl (Ordeal by Innocence, Doctor Who) are particularly good as the criminal duo who seem to regret their choice of hideout seconds after it becomes irreversible. Hutchison looks older than his years, and his haunted look feels as part of the Scottish location as the rocks, crags and scree. McColl could portray a guilty conscience without a single word of dialogue needed. Both are haunted by snap appearances of a small boy, victim of an earlier hit and run incident years earlier. (Ghost #1) The reactions of the two contrast in the storm, with McColl ready to accept his lot, and Hutchison still trying to escape by any means.
TV John leads the village men towards the three men, seemingly guided in the gale force winds by the ethereal yet familiar barking of a wee dog. (Ghost #2, for those keeping score at home.) John is played by the wonderful actor Ralph Riach, a regular on TV and stage. You might have seen him as John Laurie in We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, or as Henry Legge in Young James Herriot, or in Braveheart. One particularly long-lasting impression he made was in a post-McManus Taggart story, Angel Eyes, which deals with the bigotry and homophobia of the police force as it deals with a serial killer attacking the gay community. Riach plays Gerald, the partner of a closeted celebrity murdered by the killer, and his dealings with the police, media storm and the victims highly bigoted family are all presented with a quiet dignity. TV John McIver (the first man in Lochdubh to own a television set) was his biggest role. He isn’t often praised for being one of our more dependable character actors and he should be. He sells his visions and his friendship with Carlyle with equal straight gravity, and so all of his character quirks are taken seriously by the audience because the actor takes them seriously.
And so John and friends manage to find Hamish in the nick of time and appeal to his better nature, and Billy McColl gives up the location of the dead kid’s body, submerged in the Govan Dry Docks. Hamish goes to Glasgow to oversee the recovery and let the family know in their Wine Alley home. The door is answered by the hiker…no, wait, it’s the hiker’s twin sister. It turns out the woman from earlier was the missing boy’s sister, and had gone up a mountain in grief and done herself in six years previously. At this point, MacBeth and the audience twig that, despite being in a crowd scene earlier, the only two people to acknowledge the female hiker being there at all were Hamish, and TV John the village psychic. Ghost #3, and you only ever notice it after the fact.
The narrative is swiftly and neatly tied in a bundle. Ghost #1 exists because of the criminals, and leads to Ghost #2. Ghost #2 leads its friends’ friends to save him. #Ghost 3 is the one actually after the criminal duo, using Hamish as her representative on Earth. And because #2 happens as a result of #1 and #3, the end result is a family who can come to terms with the knowing what happened to their son, giving Hamish a newborn Westie puppy. Wee Jock the Second.
Wine Alley, a former housing estate next to Govan town centre, was a clever place to tie the narrative up, sub textually. Sensible types will tell you the name came from the imports which arrived at the train depot. Locals will point out that wine didn’t arrive that way, and if you want to know why Moorepark was better known as Wine Alley, well, you can guess.
By 1995, the local council had down what local councils do to projected underclass areas: evicted everyone and got ready to demolish it for an industrial park. The scenes in the Alley in Wee Jock’s Lament were filmed months before every building in the scene, and the playpark, was bulldozed. The high rise went a few years afterwards. And a mere 20 years later, they remembered to build housing to replace those demolished. Progress for you! That’s the thing about TV shows, their location footage can be a time capsule for the past, as much as the dialogue and characters.
Also, that the wean’s family come from the Wine Alley is a subtle character point. The loss of a child in a tight-knit community echoing the loss of not only another innocent in the tight-knit Lochdubh, but also a lost child from an undesirable area, however unfair, can easily be seen as the sort of case the police would give up on relatively quickly in Thatcher’s ’80s, rather than dredge the local dry docks. There is a lot about this sort of class warfare and prejudice throughout ’90s TV, but in the great TV series Hamish MacBeth, it is nearly subconscious. Like Wharton’s ghost, it exists, but you only notice it after the fact.
❉ Hamish Macbeth: Wee Jock’s Lament (Series 1, Episode 5) first aired 23 April 1995, BBC One. All 19 episodes of the BBC series ‘Hamish MacBeth’, Series 1-3, were released in 2006 by 2entertain as a 6 Disc Box Set, RRP £14.99.
❉ Michael S. Collins, who lives in Glasgow, is the editor of Other Side Books. A former Fortean Times book reviewer, Michael was editor of The 40p website, as well as two editions of The Christmas Book of Ghosts. His horror fiction can be found in magazines such as Diabolic Tales and Stupefying Stories, among many others. He has no pet dragons. Honest.