Eight of the best Scottish documentaries

Beamers by Paul Feegan

TO THE SEA THE GREAT SHIPS (1961)

Commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde is now a shadow of its former self, as the remaining yards survive on navy or government contracts. But this 28-minute film gives a glimpse into the industry’s glory days, when cruise liners and bulk carriers were built in yards stretching from Govan to Greenock. Directed by Hilary Harris and vividly narrated by Kenneth Kendall, it was produced by Glasgow-based Templar Films for the Clyde Shipbuilders’ Association. The film was more than a promotional tool. It was named Best Live Action Short Film at the 1962 Academy Awards – becoming the first Scottish production to win an Oscar.

documentary series The Scheme. Picture: Robert Perry” height=”600″ width=”901″ srcset=”/images-e.jpimedia.uk/imagefetch/http://www.scotsman.com/webimage/Prestige.Item.1.44636859!image/image.jpg?quality=65&smart&width=320 320w, /images-e.jpimedia.uk/imagefetch/http://www.scotsman.com/webimage/Prestige.Item.1.44636859!image/image.jpg?quality=65&smart&width=640 640w” layout=”intrinsic” class=”i-amphtml-layout-intrinsic i-amphtml-layout-size-defined” i-amphtml-layout=”intrinsic”>
Lisa Ross, one of those featured in the BBC documentary series The Scheme. Photo: Robert Perry

Peter Watkins’ docudrama is still drawing plaudits more than 50 years after it was first broadcast by the BBC. It presented the final battle of the Jacobite rising of 1745-1746 in the style of modern war reporting and was praised for its cinematography as well as its use of non-professional actors. Watkins’ use of hand-held cameras – then a rarity – gave him the impression of a documentary made a century before the invention of cinema.

St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross fascinated long before it was abandoned. Hailed as a masterpiece of modernist architecture, the building was still being used to train priests when Murray Grigor arrived to make a short documentary. The film now provides invaluable insight into what Saint-Pierre looked like before it was stripped of its interior fittings and left to rot in the mid-1980s.

EDINBURGH BY SEAN CONNERY (1982)

Lisa Ross, one of those featured in the BBC documentary series The Scheme. Photo: Robert Perry

A Hollywood movie star narrating a documentary about his hometown might seem indulgent. But this production was commissioned by the local authorities with the serious aim of marketing the town to tourists – and it’s hard to think of a better leading man than Fountainbridge-born and raised Connery. Directed by Murray Grigor, the 30-minute film is beautifully shot and shows Edinburgh moving at a much slower pace than it does today. As Connery himself notes, the town “seems to have been built like a film set”.

This five-part series was the first social history of football to air in the UK. The documentary, produced at a time when TV coverage of the sport was limited to highlight packages and cheesy talk shows, aimed to explore its cultural significance and why it has become so firmly entrenched in Scottish public life. Among those working on the series was the late author William McIllvanney, who also narrated each episode. Only a game? is today best known as the initial inspiration for the long-running football sketch show, Only an Excuse?, starring Jonathan Watson.

This six-part BAFTA-winning documentary series followed the lives of several families living in the Onthank and Knockinlaw housing estates in Kilmarnock. Although widely supportive of its subjects, some of whom readily admitted to problems with drug and alcohol addiction, it was predictably condemned by local politicians as “poverty porn”. He briefly made tabloid stars of several of those featured, including Bullet the dog.

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Peter Ross: The best plans in place

Doo fleein’ – or pigeon flying – is a centuries-old Scottish sport. Wooden doocots, usually around 20 feet in height, can be found in cities and towns across the country, particularly in Glasgow. Paul Feegan’s short film captures the beauty and competitiveness involved in this idiosyncratic pastime. Pouters won numerous awards upon its release at several short film festivals, including those in Glasgow, Hamburg and Berlin.

FROM SCOTLAND WITH LOVE (2014)

A feature documentary commissioned as part of the cultural program accompanying the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, From Scotland With Love is created entirely from archival footage from the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Screen Archive. There is no narration and none of the scenes are identified, although some towns, such as Largs, are instantly recognizable. The documentary is instead animated by an original soundtrack by Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote.

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