Still Game’s Greg Hem­phill tells us about his spooky TV spe­cial,


The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

IT’S late Oc­to­ber and the air be­neath Auld Reekie is cold. But is there some­thing about the chill in the at­mos­phere of the an­cient vaults un­der the cob­bled streets that has noth­ing to do with the au­tumn weather? That’s what ac­tor and writer Greg Hem­phill and I are aim­ing to find out. At one point we stand shiv­er­ing by can­dle­light as our caped tour guide Ly­dia tells tales of bodysnatchers, ghosts and ghouls. The weak light starts to flicker, the thick stone walls and low ceil­ing seem to close in and all of a sud­den a loud scream makes me – a grounded type not usu­ally moved by thoughts of the su­per­nat­u­ral – jump. We col­lapse with laugh­ter: this is ex­actly what we’re here for, the sort of glee­fully man­u­fac­tured scary mo­ment Hal­loween is all about. And it’s just the sort of feel­ing Hem­phill hopes to give au­di­ences in his new Hal­loween black com­edy for BBC Scotland.

Hal­loween is clearly a big thing in the Hem­phill house­hold, as high­lighted by the amount of time and ef­fort he and his fam­ily put into the spook­i­est time of the year.

“We have eight boxes of dec­o­ra­tions for Hal­loween and one box for Christ­mas,” he tells me with a mis­chievous smile once my blood pres­sure has re­turned to nor­mal. “We’ve been dec­o­rat­ing the house for about 15 years and we’re known as a bit of a des­ti­na­tion for Hal­loween fans to come and do a bit of guis­ing. It’s funny be­cause our neigh­bours have had to up their game too. I ab­so­lutely love Hal­loween.”

Such glee­ful ap­pre­ci­a­tion is per­haps linked to the fact that as a Scots Cana­dian – he em­i­grated from Scotland to Mon­treal with his fam­ily as a child in the late 1970s, re­turn­ing as a teenager – Hem­phill comes from the coun­try that pretty much in­vented Hal­loween, but grew up in the North Amer­i­can cul­ture that pop­u­larised it around the world. He ad­mits his dual na­tion­al­ity can cause a bit of fric­tion with his wife, ac­tor Julie Wil­son Nimmo, when it comes to guis­ing rit­u­als.

“We al­ways ar­gue about whether they have to do a turn,” laughs the 46-year-old fa­ther-of-two and Still Game star. “When I was a kid in Canada you just chapped the door and said: ‘Trick or treat?’ But Jules al­ways says that be­cause we’re in Scotland all the kids who come to the door have to do a song or a joke. So I have to sit and lis­ten to all these turns. I al­ways want to shout: ‘Just shout “trick or treat” and we’ll give you a sweetie,’ but Jules won’t have it.”

For cen­turies Scotland has revered All Hal­low’s Eve, in­tro­duc­ing the tra­di­tions that the Amer­i­cans even­tu­ally sold back to us (re­plac­ing turnip lanterns with pump­kins). But what is it about the Scot­tish psy­che that draws Scots to the spook­ier side of life? Ac­cord­ing to Hem­phill, it’s all about dark­ness.

“I think sym­bol­i­cally the death of sum­mer, the end of the har­vest, the com­ing of the win­ter, plays into it,” he ex­plains. “And the com­ing of the dark­ness – we re­ally feel that in Scotland. As I get older I re­ally no­tice it. Once the clocks go back there are months of fairly har­row­ing in­door life ahead. These things play into the myths around Hal­loween. And, of course, we just re­ally like be­ing scared.”

Hem­phill reck­ons Scotland’s cre­ative com­mu­nity is miss­ing a trick, and could do more to ex­ploit Hal­loween.

“In 10 or 20 years I hope the film in­dus­try will bur­geon in Scotland around hor­ror films,” he says. “We have so many leg­ends and myths – think of the kelpies, Tam o’ Shanter. There’s a cul­ture there al­ready.

“The best hor­ror movies are un­nerv­ing rather than ‘jump’ scary. I’m think­ing of things like The Blair Witch Project, Don’t Look Now, Rose­mary’s Baby and The Wicker Man, which is one of my favourites. They leave you feel­ing un­easy. We Scots are the ob­vi­ous peo­ple to make films like this.”

Hem­phill and his co-writer Don­ald McLeary got the op­por­tu­nity to try their hand in the genre when BBC Scotland com­mis­sioned them to write what was orig­i­nally meant to be a Hog­manay story, West Sk­erra Light.

It stars a host of Scot­tish tal­ent in­clud­ing Wil­son Nimmo, John Gor­don Sin­clair, Lor­raine McIntosh and John Michie, best known as DI Rob­bie Ross in Tag­gart, and

Hor­ror is re­ally tough, as is com­edy. Peo­ple don’t scare or laugh eas­ily

fol­lows a group of city folk as they ar­rive on the fic­tional Isle of Sk­erra to view a light­house which is up for sale. But a malev­o­lent force is at work and all those who step foot in the light­house are cursed, pre­cip­i­tat­ing a host of su­per­nat­u­ral en­coun­ters – and a good few laughs.

“We wrote the script but the com­mis­sion­ers didn’t think it had the right tone for Hog­manay, which is a time of re­flec­tion,” says Hem­phill. “When they sug­gested it was more suited to Hal­loween we were de­lighted – Hal­loween is like our Hog­manay.

“It was so good to get the chance to do some­thing like this, which is a first for BBC Scotland. The best hor­ror takes you on a jour­ney. There is al­ways a de­vice, a re­veal, but if you know what the de­vice is too early, the film loses its mo­men­tum. We tried to cre­ate as much sus­pense and ten­sion as we could, have the au­di­ence won­der­ing what was go­ing on, and then once they re­alise what it’s all about, break for the bor­der and make it fun and ex­cit­ing for the last bit. Once the cat’s out the bag, you want to make it fun.”

Sus­pense and fun are ex­actly the words that spring to mind when watch­ing West Sk­erra Light, a pitch-per­fect Hal­loween treat for all the fam­ily filmed in Stran­raer. But how do you get the tone right on a project like this?

“Hor­ror is re­ally tough, as is com­edy,” says Hem­phill. “Peo­ple don’t scare or laugh eas­ily – you have to re­ally touch a nerve. But we were helped by the lo­ca­tion. Scotland is such great ter­rain for cre­at­ing spooky sto­ries as there are mas­sive bits of it that still feel re­mote, where there is no mo­bile phone sig­nal. That re­ally helps hor­ror.

“When our com­mu­ni­ca­tions are re­moved we feel like we are step­ping back in time, even by 10 or 20 years. We wanted to make some­thing en­joy­able for peo­ple who didn’t nec­es­sar­ily like The Ex­or­cist or Evil Dead, some­thing more like an in­tense episode of Doc­tor Who, where you are un­nerved and a bit scared, but where you’re sit­ting down with your fam­i­lies and watch­ing a good yarn.”

Back in the vaults, our time with Ly­dia and the ghosts of old Ed­in­burgh is draw­ing to a close. A party of for­eign tourists is queu­ing up out­side, rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity to be scared out of its col­lec­tive wits hav­ing paid good money for the priv­i­lege. Hem­phill and I share a know­ing look – Scotland re­ally is aw­fully good at this Hal­loween thing.

Maybe I’ll head round to his house for guis­ing – but cer­tainly not trick or treat­ing – this Mon­day night.

With thanks to Mer­cat Tours in Ed­in­burgh. For more in­for­ma­tion visit mer­cat­ West Sk­erra Light is on BBC One at 9pm on Mon­day.

Greg Hem­phill has co-writ­ten a black com­edy for the BBC to be broad­cast on Hal­loween. Such is his love of the tra­di­tion he says his fam­ily has ‘eight boxes of dec­o­ra­tions’ com­pared to one for Christ­mas

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