The Making of One of the Finest Films About the Bagpipe and Its Music

Released 40 years ago, this film set the benchmark for piping movies that followed. We are grateful to its director, Mike Healey, for offering us unique insight into its making. Mike now lives and paints in the Lake District where he has held several successful exhibitions of his work….

It is 1980 and our film opens in America at a summer school for piping at the University of California’s campus in Santa Cruz. It was hot. Very hot! The fact that most of the teachers and quite a few students wore the kilt under a blazing sun was impressive – clear indication that they meant business.

To add to this somewhat surreal experience, my crew and I shared campus accommodation with a group of laidback American psychiatrists studying ‘neural linguistics’ – whatever that is! They all wore Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts.

by Mike Healey, Director

After filming that first day, we relaxed in the communal areas with a cooling glass of Californian wine and experienced the distinct aroma of cannabis resin mixed with the heavy scent of purple bougainvillea. 

Thanks to Seumas McNeill of the College of Piping and Principal of the school, we were given free access to all the classes over the next few days and got to meet many young pipers, including a Japanese student all the way from Tokyo. This entire sequence provided a gentle introduction to the Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) and  to the subtle intricacies of piobaireachd – not least for me and my crew. Clearly, we, and our non-specialist TV audience, were going to need all the help we could get.

I should add here that I was genuinely surprised when Neil Fraser asked me to direct this film. Although I went on to make a number of prize-winning drama-documentaries for BBC Scotland such as ‘Drop in the Ocean’, ‘The True Story of Whisky Galore’ (1982), ‘The Pinch’ (1980) and the ‘Early Life of Beatrix Potter’ (1990) starring Helena Bonham Carter, music, let alone that of the bagpipes, was not something in 1980 I had previously studied. Still, I had both Neil and presenter Rory McPherson (1935-2021) to guide me though the esoteric world of piobaireachd. Even with their help it was to prove a steep learning curve.

I first met Rory in Corfu, sometime in 1979. I was on a year’s sabbatical from BBC Manchester and had rented a small villa in the mountain village of Pelekas in order to write and paint. We met by chance over supper in the local restaurant. Rory was with his girlfriend, Caroline, who turned out to be Margaret Thatcher’s appointments secretary. We immediately struck up a friendship so it was fantastic when, quite soon thereafter, I got to work with him on The Glorious Effect. 

Rory’s military/diplomatic background, ITN experience and passion for Scottish music, opened up crucial doors for us and gave us access to many of the country’s best pipers. It also gave his final commentary an elegant credibility and authority. Add to that Neil Fraser’s gentle, genial style as Producer (I assume all Gaelic-speaking Highlanders are like this) and I was clearly part of an ideal production team.

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It is worth saying at this point that the GHB is NOT an easy beast to film. Most of the time pipers are on the move, walking up and down – often in the rain. Take our coverage of the Highland Games at Glenfinnan, for example.

To say it rained was an understatement. It bucketed down all day. With cold fingers, wet chanters and a minor gale blowing, I guess even the most experienced pipers would struggle – likewise sound recordists and cameramen. I was lucky, however, to have a sound recordist who managed a credible sound coverage in weather (particularly wind) that can cause havoc to sensitive microphones.

My job as director on such occasions is to spot interesting actuality and to promptly point my cameraman and sound recordist at it. For example, watch out for the organiser looking for (the missing) peg with which to secure his flag; or three grown ups wrapped like a parcel in a transparent raincoat; or (sadly) the little boy clearly lost. These moments – beautifully captured by my young cameraman Andrew Dunn – are as much about a typical Highland Games as is the music or (perilous) dancing on a wet stage.

My favourite shot in fact starts with Andrew’s close-up of the feet of one piper moving on a stage covered in puddles, then panning up slowly to reveal his face and instrument dripping with rainwater. Remember, the camera here is not on a tripod but hand-held. I shall have more to say later about the skill and technique required to get such shots but for now look out for Andrew’s close-up of someone’s socks dripping water!

This sequence shot at Glenfinnan is also remarkable for the stylish, often amusing editing by Alex McCall. One problem Alex and I faced in the cutting room many weeks later was how to manage the sound transitions from piper to piper. To mix directly from one tune to another often felt discordant, ugly even. Our solution was to use something ‘neutral’ to achieve these transitions – hence my choice of Vangelis (Greek composer of progressive, ambient jazz) throughout the Glenfinnan edit. A bold choice perhaps but I think it works.

Indeed, music (other than that of the GHB) plays an important part in this documentary – as in the lively opening sequence in the streets of Los Angeles or the atmospheric build-up to our visual evocation of the Battle of Culloden that forms the climax to Rory’s extended ‘history’ lesson halfway though the film. The music used here is by Gyorgy Ligeti.

Watch the film here (50 mins. approx.)…

Interestingly, I am currently working on a radio play for BBC 3 which involves (surprisingly) frequent mixes from bagpipe to Egyptian folk music. Direct transitions here work perfectly. Something to do with quarter-tones perhaps? I shall leave it to you pipers to explain why.

The Falkirk Tryst competition was exciting to film, as it is (I hope), to watch. Backstage actuality is always fun to capture and goes a long way to create atmosphere and dramatic tension. Again, much of the success of such lively sequences is down to a cameraman who is quick to respond to what is happening in front of him, open to direction (in real time), and has a good ‘eye’ – all of which Andrew Dunn had in spades.

This film was shot on 16mm colour film stock, using an Arriflex camera which weighs about five kilos. Carry that around for several hours and still secure a steady, hand-held shot  over what could be several minutes is no mean feat. There are many such moments in our coverage of the competition in Inverness and during the Falkirk Tryst itself but it was the Silver Chanter event at Dunvegan Castle, Skye, that proved to be our greatest challenge.

To begin with the drawing-room at Dunvegan Castle was relatively small, with very little room for a full BBC crew. There was also a large mirror which people like us hate – it reflects lights, microphone stands and the occasional crew member!

Despite these challenges, this proved (technically) one of our most successful sequences. The voice-over ‘analysis’ by Seumas MacNeil was an afterthought added in the sound studio after we had cut this sequence, but everything else was captured real time, both front and backstage and on just one camera. 

Snapshots from the film….

Remember, there is no rehearsal and we are seeing it for the first time – just like the actual audience that day in Dunvegan. Moreover, unprompted green-room banter is always revealing but access is rare; we were lucky.

To say that Andrew Dunn’s camerawork is remarkable is something of an understatement. During Angus MacDonald’s performance, the camera slowly pans from the bag to the chanter (free fingers trembling slightly) then up to his mouthpiece where, if you look closely, you can just see a small drop of spittle vibrating.

When operating hand-held, the cameraman is not only moving but adjusting his focus as both he and his subject move relative to each other. There are many such moments of technical brilliance in this film. No wonder Andrew went on to become an internationally recognised lighting cameraman, celebrated for such feature films as ‘The Madness of King George’ (1994) and ‘The Bodyguard’ starring Witney Huston and many others since then.

Thank you for liking this film. I hope now that readers will have a better idea of what went into the making of it. I have very fond memories of that project, not least the many talented musicians I met during that time.

*Read Dr Peter McCalister’s assessment of the film here.


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