“We can’t go to the police, the police are boring. Alfred Hitchcock says so”
— The Beiderbecke Affair
Stonemouth (Charles Martin, 2015)
There’s a sense of deja vu about this Iain Banks narrative — the hulking bridge, the family secret, the huge clan, sex and drugs and violence. I remember being gripped by the television adaptation of The Crow Road nearly twenty years ago and the astonishing performance by Peter Capaldi who deserves to play more great roles. In this two-part television adaptation we have a similar set of tangled relationships in a small Scottish town — at a wedding Stewart Gilmour (Christian Cooke) sees his fiancée Ellie Murston (Charlotte Spencer) kissing someone and then disappears off to a toilet cubicle for a line of coke and a shag. This understandably leads to his being chased out of town. The Murstons are a small time set of gangsters, tartan Sopranos, locked in a rivalry with Mike MacAvett (Gary Lewis), who sells fish even if he doesn’t make people sleep with them. Two years later, Stewart’s best friend Callum Murston (Samuel Robertson) has apparently committed suicide off the Stoun Bridge and Stewart ventures home for the funeral.
Obviously he is taking a risk but the Murstons’ lieutenant Powell (Brian Gleeson) says it’ll be okay, as long he’s gone after the funeral, pays his respects to the Don (Peter Mullan) and keeps away from Ellie. Well, one out of three isn’t bad and without those two there wouldn’t be a plot. Stewart had received a video message from Callum on his mobile before his death and local police officer, old school friend Dougie (Ncuti Gatwa) suggests there is something fishy about the autopsy. Which of the family secrets is the one that either led to Callum being offed or killing himself? And do people really send video messages rather than leave voicemails?
I have to confess that from early on I latched onto gay best friend Ferg (Chris Fulton), who has engaged in shenanigans with a number of people in the town and wondered whether the not-quite-impossible love triangle of Callum-Stewart-Ferg had become possible in Stewart’s absence. The gay gangster is a trope, after all, and usually does not end well. (That might amount to a spoiler, of course. Or a bluff. Or a double bluff.) The plot itself bluffs us and counter bluffs, as it should, with a few moments of ambiguity left for us to question.
Hanging over all of this is the bridge, not quite a refugee from another Banks novel, but quite clearly CGId in, imposed onto the Scottish landscape. Whilst on the one hand let us marvel that tv can do such a thing, on the other it doesn’t seem quite real (in part because we know it isn’t real) and there’s a sense of irreality over the whole. Our Tartan noir has given us Rebus, Brookmyre, Trainspotting, but the contemporary rural Scotland has been Balamory and Hamish Macbeth and Monarch of the Glen. There are a few throwaway lines about Scottish heritage and Presbyterianism, but I can’t quite see the turf wars of the New Jersey bois.
It works because of an extraordinary performance from Mullan as Don — and Banks was clearly winking at us with that name — and a lesser extent from Gleeson. Mullan can do the hardman, but you can see the restrained sorrow and anger at the same time, you can believe there could be a moment of extraordinary violence, you can believe he has the pair of balls he does. If his two surviving sons — referred to as the Chuckle Brothers, and that too must be a trope — were a quarter as hard, then he could put a bid in for Glasgow.
And so Stewart can be menaced but —
— and here we run into the two flaws in the adaptation.
I need to do some thinking about first person or intradiegetic narration. Such a narrator can only tell us what they’ve seen and if, therefore, they die… Well, okay, it’s still possible to narrate whilst drowned in a swimming pool, but not often. But Stewart seems likely to be escaping, er, Scot free, because he’s narrating — although it might not be clear when he’s narrating from. We can only see what Stewart sees — although there are two moments I recall in the first episode where this is broken away from. In the second half of the second episode, even more so. Of course, Blade Runner (1982) is more interesting (if not necessarily better) than the Director’s and Final Cuts because of that narration which gives Deckard ownership of the film and the replicants’ viewpoints. In a novel, it’s easier to mix viewpoints (and Banks does, of course — see Complicity, say); film and tv tends to go for narrow or omniscient. To my mind, the mix is inelegant.
The second flaw is I don’t think Martin can handle those action scenes. I watched the programme on iPlayer and there was something wrong with the streaming as Stewart was chased around the town. Even so, I think there was some slow motion. Indeed, the second episode had a few aspirations to pop video — but it had a great soundtrack so I can see the temptation. But the Chuckle Brothers (who were there in a different guise in Pride) weren’t quite convincing. Stewart was going to have the shit beaten out of him unless he was rescued.
And don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.
I said, don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.
Ah, apparently the script writer did. Or Banks did.
At some point, you go to the police, don’t you?
I need to read the novel to see whether Banks handles the climax any better. On the one hand, there’s an emotional tug at the heart strings that feels awkward but there’s a move to consolation. It has a choice of two endings: consolation or melodrama. I’m not convinced it picked the right option. I think the Banks of The Wasp Factory would have picked differently.