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The Call That Split a Village

A battle over plans to film in the hamlet made famous by 'Local Hero' pits a powerful resident against her neighbors.

August 13, 2000|BILLY ADAMS | Billy Adams is a freelance writer based in Scotland

EDINBURGH, Scotland — The weather-beaten village of Pennan, miles from anywhere and little more than a row of whitewashed stone cottages, boasts one outstanding tourist attraction: a red telephone booth.

Not just any old call box, this is the public telephone that outshone Burt Lancaster in the 1983 film "Local Hero," and it is the reason thousands of fans from the world over have made the pilgrimage to Pennan, where the movie was filmed, over the last 17 years.

Now another film project has made the little red box the focal point of a real-life drama that has the tiny community in turmoil, torn apart by squabbles over money and accusations of dirty tricks and lies.

And it is all because of a medieval law that gives one individual the power to rule against the wishes of the majority of residents.

In the touching Bill Forsyth movie, an American magnate played by Lancaster wants to build an oil refinery on the site of a village in northern Scotland, and he sends his representative, Mac MacIntyre, to make the canny locals an offer they can't refuse. Many of the film's scenes revolve, often with hilarious results, around the phone box, which is MacIntyre's only lifeline to his impatient boss.

Earlier this year, another set of filmmakers saw the celebrated landmark and decided it would be the perfect place to shoot a major new television drama series for the BBC. And like Peter Riegert's character in "Local Hero," they set about making the locals an offer they couldn't refuse.

At a public meeting, executive producer Adrian Bates outlined how more than $4.5 million would be pumped into the local economy. Pennan's crumbling harbor wall would be repaired, and $1.2 million would be spent on a project of the villagers' choice.

His words were music to the ears of most residents. After all, Pennan had achieved global acclaim because of "Local Hero." Tourists came to see and photograph the phone box, which is now a listed building. It is said that people ring the telephone from all over the world, and passing locals or staff from the nearby hotel usually answer.

In Forsyth's popular movie, which centered on the fictional Highland village of Ferness, Lancaster eventually falls in love with the fictional village he wants to destroy, cancels the project, and everyone lives happily ever after. The most memorable scene sees MacIntyre, played by Riegert, making a call from the telephone box against a stunning display of the northern lights.


Reality has not been quite so colorful in Pennan, a village nestled beneath sandstone cliffs on Scotland's northeast coast that was once a thriving port and home to 1,000 residents and 80 fishing boats.

Today, Baden Gibson is the only remaining fisherman in a community that numbers just 21 permanent inhabitants, and he says his lobster fishing has long since stopped being a viable business.

Many of the houses that stare out to the North Sea are rented out as vacation homes. The Pennan Inn feeds and waters visitors and also offers them somewhere to sleep, but the village has little else. There is no store. School bus service was recently cut and public toilets closed for lack of funds.

Without any sustainable industry to support Pennan, villagers were excited at the prospect of the lifeline offered by the BBC filmmakers.

But they hadn't counted on the reaction of their most powerful resident, Julia Watt. Much of Scotland is still governed by a system of land ownership introduced in medieval times, and Watt, a reclusive pensioner who was born in the Netherlands, was Pennan's "laird," commonly known as the feudal superior, an ancient title similar to that of a landlord.

Watt owned a few properties in the village, but her title effectively gave her power over the whole community. Feudal superiors are able to rule on planning issues affecting any part of their community, and as a result, Watt had the sole power to grant or refuse the filmmakers permission to shoot in Pennan. Her answer was no.

If they went ahead without her permission, she had the right to take legal action.

Watt, who with her late husband, David, bought Pennan's feudal title for 2,000 pounds in 1948 (approximately $6,000 then), allowed the "Local Hero" crew into the village in 1982 as well as subsequent TV ads and one-off shows to be filmed there.

She was unhappy about the disruption that the new production would create over the next three years, but at first she said she would abide by the wishes of the majority of villagers. Later, however, she claimed that had she conducted her own private vote and that there was a 4-to-1 majority against the project.

That prompted a revolt led by the owner of the Pennan Inn, Brenda Kutchinsky, who organized a public vote of the 59 people who stay in the village for at least part of the year. This time the result was in favor of filming--by 50 votes to nine.

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