It was a sad day at my house when the news of Iain Banks’ death came out. A brilliant author, and a really decent fella, who almost ruined my second year at Uni – I discovered him and spent most of a term reading everything he’d written up to that point, rather than course-books. I had very fond memories of the 1996 TV mini-series based on “The Crow Road”, so I decided to watch it again, introducing my wife to it in the process.
“The Crow Road” is three stories in one – the gradual coming-of-age of Prentice McHoan, and his struggles with love and a family of oddballs; a murder-mystery about the death of Prentice’s Uncle Rory seven years previously; and flashbacks to Rory’s life, framed as Prentice discovering his Uncle’s papers and piecing together his sort-of autobiography. They intertwine, and the way they don’t exactly come together but inform and enrich your understanding of the other strands of the story is one of the great things about both the book and the show.
I’m getting ahead of the show, though. Joe McFadden, who slipped into early-evening family drama roles after this, it seems, plays Prentice, a student at Glasgow University who is brought back to his family’s home village of Gallanach thanks to the death of his grandmother. He’s fallen out with his father, the sternly socialist and atheist Kenneth, played absolutely brilliantly by Bill Paterson. Prentice at the start of the story sort-of believes in God, and this tension between the two drives some clever and philosophical discussions between the two of them and other characters; Kenneth’s brother Hamish is in a Christian sect with only one member (himself) and their brother-in-law Fergus is the Laird of the local castle. Their sister, married to Fergus, died in a car crash years previously, before the disappearance of Uncle Rory. Prentice becomes interested in Rory’s life after being given some papers by Rory’s ex Janice.
That seems like a lot of information to take in, but the show does it beautifully. There’s a flashback inside a flashback in the first ten minutes of the show, and all the performances are note-perfect, with two unfortunate exception. Verity, the object of his desires in the first few episodes, never gives any indication why she so bewitches Prentice and is a bit of a non-character, as things go (she’s really there to drive a wedge between Prentice and his brother Lewis, a successful standup played by Dougray Scott before Hollywood came calling). And then there’s his best friend Ashley, played by Valerie Edmond. I had such an enormous crush on her when I first watched this – she’s beautiful, funny, independent, passionate, and clever (okay, I still have quite a large crush on her). The problem is, she’s really struggling to act in some of the scenes. It feels like she’s reading dialogue from a book rather than acting it, and while it’s not that bad, and may have been a deliberate choice – a naturalistic performance to counterpoint the high emotions on show from the rest of the cast – it’s weirdly out of place.
If my gushing wasn’t obvious, I love this show. A lot of the heavy lifting was done by the book, one of those times when you’re the perfect age to discover a book for the first time. I was about the same age and doing the same thing as Prentice when I first read this – although my family have fewer murderous secrets, and I don’t live in beautifully picturesque Scotland. When I first watched it, my sympathies were more with him than with his Dad, but as I age and capitalism gets worse and worse for the daily lives of us all, Kenneth becomes more sympathetic. Normally, I’d be upset that merely ageing could change my mind on something, but this show is rich enough that it supports both the teenage me and the late-30s me.
Debate was inspired, and the four hours of the show flew by. I hope it’ll be as well regarded in another 20 years, as it deserves to be. One of the genuine classics of 1990s TV. Oh, and Iain Banks thought it was better than the book in lots of places, and given he didn’t shower any of the other adaptations of his with the same praise, I think it’s safe to say he liked this one.