Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Edge of the World?

The wild and forgotten island of Foula, louring across the seas. Not an obvious place to shoot a movie.

Greetings, toffeewomblers. I am going to post about my Adriatic odyssey soon - I know you can't wait. I'm also going to post more about sex and drugs, as I have noticed those posts seem to attract by far the most visitors. Weird that. In the meantime, my trip to Foula finally produced an article - in The Times, the other day, while I was away. Here's the excitingly unexpurgated version. With extra photos.

To the Edge of the World...

This summer, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the British film director Michael Powell will be remembered for many great post-war films, like The Red Shoes, or Black Narcissus. But it is arguably a much earlier project, The Edge of the World (1937), that is his most remarkable. Not least because it was shot on location on the rugged, storm-battered island of Foula - the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom.

Why did Powell choose to film his love story on this daunting outlier? In 1930, Powell saw some footage of the evacuation of the St Kilda islands, an archipelago fifty miles west of the Outer Hebrides.

The Gaelic-speaking Kildans had been forced to give up their strange, communistic lifestyle (there was no private property, and all decisions were taken by the whole community) when the young people of the isles started drifting to the mainland. Eventually there weren't enough able-bodied people to do the necessary work, and the Kildans, many of whom had never seen a tree, let alone a car, were forced to petition the British government for resettlement in Scotland.

Even at the time, the melancholy poetry of this situation caught the imaginations of journalists, artists, and the public. Cinema newsreels were on hand to record the wrenching scene as the 'last of the Kildans' forsook their ancestral homeland. To a visionary and ambitious young film director like Powell, the story was a godsend. By 1936, he was ready to make a film based directly on the Kildans' poignant fate.

But where to film it? As Powell records himself, in his charming book about the making of the movie (200,000 Feet On Foula), he originally wanted to use the island of Hirta, in St Kilda itself. But after long negotiations with the kilted and absentee laird of Kilda, Powell was refused permission, on the grounds that his crew would 'disturb the birdlife'.

Thus thwarted, Powell sought an alternative location. Mingulay, another recently deserted Scottish isle, in the Outer Hebrides, was considered and then rejected. Various other options were weighed and found wanting; then, on the very last possibly day, when Powell's options on boats, assistants and loans were about to expire, someone suggested Foula.

It was an inspired choice. Foula resembles St Kilda in many ways. It is romantically, and impossibly, remote (twenty miles west of the Shetlands, in seas that can leave a sailoir stranded for weeks). It has soaring and dangerous cliffs (Hirta and Foula dispute for the title of highest cliffs in Britain). Most of all it had a sense of life on the precipice, of existence on the very edge of civilisation, which was perfect for the theme of Powell's movie - of fated love on a dying isle.

And so, against all the odds, and all the elements, Powell got to make his wistful and impassioned film. Dozens of technicians, actors, make up artists, cameramen - and two shivering British cinema starlets - were ferried across the icy Shetland seas to Foula. There the team set up camp in a prefabricated village, prone to collapse during Foula's many storms. Soon they were surrounded by bemused locals, some disapproving of the ungodly fuss, some fascinated by the incursion of modernity into their awesome but unforgiving landscape.

Cleverly, Powell won the favour of the dozen or so families resident on Foula by co-opting them into the film. All the extras in Edge of the World were native Foulans, a factor which helped to give the film its 'authentic' feel. The handsome fees paid by Powell were also very welcome on the cashless isle: one elderly Foulan was heard to say he couldn't believe he was being paid 'just to stand here and smoke my pipe'.

After several months of floods, gales, tantrums, and boisterous whisky parties, Powell returned in triumph to a London which was already agog at his endeavour. The film was edited, and put on the screen. It was an instant hit, and has remained something of a classic ever since. Martin Scorsese, for one, ranks it with the greatest movies ever made.

There is a poignant coda to the story. Powell left Foula convinced that it would inevitably follow the fate of St Kilda. Surely, he thought, the demands of the modern world would prove too much for this lump of blasted sandstone, surely the young people would drift - as in Kilda - to salaried jobs in Glasgow or London. And then the slow decline would set in, and then little Foula would be abandoned to the squabbling skuas and the wheeling puffins.

Has it happened? On first sight, from the daily Shetlands plane, you could be forgiven for thinking so. There's the mighty cliff, the Kame, where one of the heroes of the film falls to his death. On the western flank of the isle is the kittiwake-skimmed loch, besides which the film's lovers consummate their fateful affair. But where are the people?

It's then that you see the crofts, tucked along the barren hillsides. Many of these humble dwellings survive from the filming: the cottage where the elders meet, the church where the minister does his sermonising, these are all recognisable from The Edge of the World.

What's more, these crofts are home to about 30 residents to this day. Some are 'blow-ins' from Scotland and England, but others are descendants from the inhabitants Powell met. Such as Isobel Holbourne, a granddaughter, by marriage, of the same laird who gave Powell permission to film on Foula.

Isobel still farms a scatter of crofts in the gusty northern end of the isle, by the striking stone arch known as Gaada Stack. Does she remember the making of the Edge of the World? She laughs and says she's a 'good three decades too young'. But she does recall the time when Powell returned, in the 70s, complete with his Edge of the World cast, to make a documentary about the movie. As Isobel puts it: 'One of the stars of the film, John Laurie, he sat on a hillock and looked at some young Foulan children, and he said: "it's a miracle, Foula is still here."' Isobel shakes her head: 'Our survival is not a miracle. It's hard work, and lots of it. But it's nice that they remembered us, the film was important to Foula, it connected us with the world.'

Then Isobel adds something unexpected. Apparently, one of the many extras in the movie still lives on the island. Her name is Edith Gray.

The oldest Foulan on the island, Edith Gray is described in Powell's book, rather unfairly, as a 'roly-poly' blonde. These days she's a little less roly poly, but she is still a remarkably spry, funny, cheerful old lady - who vividly remembers when the film-makers came. 'It was an adventure, it was very exciting for everyone.' She also remembers Michael Powell: she describes him as 'a rather demanding man'.

Edith hasn't been off the island for 26 years. 'I didnae feel the need'. She is equally dismissive of the idea that Foula will one day die - that for all the rugged individualism of its people, their resourceful good humour - it will go the way of St Kilda. 'No,' she says, 'I cannot see it. We love this island too much.'

And maybe she is right to be optimistic. Right outside her venerable croft, the peats are still stacked up in the gardens, the turnips are still growing in their protective corrals, and the sheep are still bleating on The Sneug - just as they have been for decades, just as Foula has known it for centuries. Michael Powell would be very pleased.

[NB Here's a very weird and intriguing postscript (don't say you don't get value for money on the Toffeewomble!). I was in Venice two days ago, and I visited the Doge's Palace.

One of the main ceremonial rooms in the Palace is the so-called 'map room' - a spacious medieval hall featuring two huge if innacurate globes, and great big maps of the 'known world' that cover all the walls.

The maps are 16th century I think - they have a vague grasp of America, a hesitant idea of India, a good sense of the Mediterranean etc.

Anyway I looked, jokingly, for Foula - on the huge old map of the north west of Europe. I didn't expect to see it, naturally.

But there it was, called 'Foule', west of the Shetlands - how bizarre is that? On an early Renaissance map, in Venice - a map of the whole world, that has only a vague idea of Africa and the rest...?]
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