This blog was first published in December 2017

Robert Livingston on Rocket Post – our groundbreaking collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland

It was the calm after the storm—Storm Caroline, that is.  The wind had dropped, a blanket of frost-hardened snow lay on the fields, and the distant peaks of Arran were a brilliant white. A few stray snowflakes drifted tantalisingly down.   And on the pier at Millport, gleaming darker blue against the piercing blue of the winter sky, the Screen Machine was about to host a world première.

And not just any world première, but a unique collaboration between Regional Screen Scotland and the National Theatre of Scotland: the first ever attempt to tour a filmed version of one of NTS’s productions. Rocket Post, written and directed by Lewis Hetherington, is the (almost) true story of German scientist Gerhard Zucker who, in 1934, experimented with using rockets to deliver mail.  And for reasons that are not entirely clear, he chose to carry out these experiments between the Isle of Harris and the very much smaller neighbouring island of Scarp, now uninhabited.

Rocket Post is a show for all ages, with a talented cast of five playing many parts, and many musical instruments.  It’s full of energy, songs, and good humour, but it also has a darker side. Last Autumn NTS toured the ‘live’ version to 10 rural venues across Scotland, to great acclaim, and that would normally be that.  But here at RSS we’ve been urging Scottish companies, especially the Nationals, to get Scottish content into venues under the system known as ‘event cinema’.  Up till now, such screenings of live performances have been monopolised by companies from the rest of the UK and abroad, like the Royal Opera House, or that ‘other’ National Theatre.  So, with funding from development body The Space, NTS arranged to film special performances of Rocket Post at the end of the tour, in Tarbert, Harris, as close as possible to the actual location of the historical events.

The plan now is that the Screen Machine will tour the resulting film (directed by Donald MacInnes, whose own family come from Barra) to venues on its normal touring circuit through the first quarter of 2018, quite literally enabling NTS to reach the parts that the live tour couldn’t get to.

We decided to hold the première of this new film on Millport because, well, it really had to be an island, for such a story, and at this time of year Millport offered the shortest ferry trip, and the one closest to Glasgow for getting the NTS team out to the Machine. And we already had good links with Millport Primary. The best laid plans, however, were nearly thrown off course by Storm Caroline. After closing the Machine up in Fort William in the worst weather conditions he’d experienced in 20 years of doing so, Senior Operator Iain MacColl was then unable to cross to Millport until the ferry service eventually resumed, just the evening before (and so two normal film screenings had to be cancelled).

But Friday the 8th dawned bright and calm, as I joined the NTS team on a minibus leaving from their Glasgow HQ, in Port Dundas. New NTS CEO Jackie Wylie was with us, as well as, among others, the show’s producer, cast member Cait Kearney (also with family connections to Barra), a photographer, and Donald John MacInnes, whose family, 46 years ago, had been the last to leave Scarp, which is now home to 300 of Donald John’s sheep! Waiting for us at the Screen Machine on the Pier was the whole of Millport Primary, pupils and teachers, with many of the pupils wearing their Christmas jumpers. The sun continued to shine for a group photo in front of the Screen Machine, and then we all trooped in for Jackie Wylie to introduce this very special world première.

Rocket Post is not Paddington 2—it’s not full of slapstick humour and digital special effects.  It may even be the first piece of ‘straight’ theatre (albeit on film) that some of the children had seen. So I was a bit nervous about how it would go down. While it’s true that some of the very youngest children may have got a bit impatient, the three boys immediately in front of me seemed held throughout, and I don’t think there were any toilet visits from any of the pupils. After all, the play tells an unusual story well, with very engaging performances, and some universal underlying themes that will have particular resonance for any parents and children living in rural communities, whether or not on an island. Spontaneous applause in the Machine joined with the applause of the audience on the screen, and then, well satisfied, pupils and teachers went back to school, and after some very welcome hot soup in the George Hotel, the NTS team and I caught the 12.30 ferry back to Largs, and then on to Glasgow.

Along with our successful, and ongoing, programme of screen presentations of photography exhibitions (a collaboration with Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow) the tour of Rocket Post is part of our long term ambition to make the Screen Machine not just a mobile cinema, but a touring ‘cultural hub’ and we hope that this first tour may be the start of a continuing relationship with the National Theatre of Scotland. So I encourage our audiences to take a chance on something a bit different with this film of Rocket Post—I’m sure they won’t regret it!

Thanks to Meaghan McEacharn for the photograph of staff and children of Cumbrae Primary School.

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