New stage adaptation of Para Handy stories set for Scottish tour
Writer and director John Bett on the timeless appeal of Neil Munro's tales
What drew you to the work of Neil Munro? Have you always been a fan of the Para Handy stories?
My Skye granny was an inveterate haunter of provincial auction houses and would often return home with baskets of books which nobody wanted and which a wily auctioneer had partnered with household items of more immediate interest to buyers. These books were placed in a room at the end of the hall called ‘the box room’ and it was there I first encountered the works of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and D.K Broster, and made the acquaintance of exotic creatures like Long John Silver and Rob Roy. One day a little volume fell off the shelf. Battered and faintly mildewed, it held small promised but it was through its pages that I first shook hands with the Master Mariner himself, the crafty Para Handy, and his shifty crew. I found the stories funny and delightful, ate them up and soon, like Oliver Twist, was asking for more. Fortunately, Munro had anticipated such hunger. More tales were on offer.
Why do you think Munro’s stories have endured?
Revisiting these stories 50 years later, I was pleased to discover that their charm had not evaporated, that they still appeared fresh and newly minted and, most importantly of all, that they were still funny! That this is the case is due to Neil Munro’s inventive talent, observational skills and sly sense of humour. Though the adventures of Para and his chums take place in a more innocent time and though the world they inhabit may have vanished, they themselves are immediately recognisable, for Munro was able to take a gentle scalpel to the Scottish psyche and show us what we’re really like: cowardly, hypocritical, two-faced, mean, conniving, lying, backstabbing, drunk, misogynistic (the list goes on) but also, and here is our redemption, creatures capable of great kindness, consideration, warmth; people of passion and joy, bringers of light and laughter.
Munro is often accused of being couthy. He is not! Corny? Not the case. What he is is a celebrator. A celebrator of what it means to be a Scot and how to endure!
Did you take any inspiration from the previous TV adaptations?
Of course. For Scots of a certain age, the name Vital Spark, means one thing and one thing only - a television series, shot in half-hour episodes, in black and white, and featuring a role call of Scotland’s finest acting talent. The programmes were wonderful and I salute them. I am not trying to compete with them or emulate them. What I am trying to do is find new ways of telling Munro’s stories.
Storytelling is the basis of drama and the telling of tales and singing of narrative songs happens all over Scotland in gatherings and ceilIdhs on a daily basis. I have chosen to re-tell Munro not only with actors adopting their ‘parts’ but with music and a band who will hurry the action along, help us move from location to location, thread together isolated tales into the patchwork which becomes Para’s world.
At several points in the evening two screens will show film footage shot in the early part of the 20th century by amateur enthusiasts and gathered with love and care by the Scottish Film Archive. These clips provided an unique passport into the vanished world of the tales. I want to subvert an audience’s expectations. I wish to surprise and delight them, give them as the late great John McGrath would have said, ‘a good night out’.
I am trying to pass to you the wonder an eight year old boy felt. And still feels to this day.