I recently, accidentally, watched again a little-known film which you may or may not be aware of. I was interested in this title because it was filmed half an hour’s drive from where we live, at Traquair House – just outside the little town of Innerleithen – and also, briefly, in Edinburgh and South Queensferry.
Traquair is one of my favourite places in the Scottish Borders: a beautiful, ancient building which feels homely and welcoming with the added attraction of their own private brewery. I can, heartily, recommend the Jacobite Ale!
The film I watched again was the 1968 “THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN“. Starring Ava Gardner, directed by Roddy McDowell (I just mistyped that as Oddy McDowell) and loosely, very loosely, based on an ancient Scottish fairytale. Sounds good?
Well, femme fatale Stephanie Beacham plays a ‘local’ lass. And young Ian McShane performs the stud part extremely well as Tom Lynn. Sound better?
If I mention that Joanna Lumley’s in it, too, delivering a line that should be engraved somewhere important or carved in stone for all the world to remember, I think we just might have hit the jackpot!
Except, not so much.
The film begins with some beautiful drawings that look like they were engraved on glass, showing what appear to be characters from folklore. There’s a medievally-looking party of ladies and gentleman, a castle and the Horned God, Cernunnos (?) being mauled by hounds…? Plus a unicorn. And a praying monk (?), too. All very folklorey so far and nods to the 16th century origins of this story.
The opening shot drops from a scarily large chandelier hanging over Ava’s bed. And there she is. With the studly McShane.
The party then set off, walking past a modern screen of engraved glass, in the townhouses’ hallway where the drawings appear for the briefest of appearances.
With a chirpy
“I hope you’ve all had enough to eat, we’re not stopping for lunch.”
from Ava, they’re off.
Photographer Ian McShane papps away at his friends using his big camera; the group of young things who were apparently also in the large town house all troop into the waiting cars and they drive to Scotland.
And, uh, what?
Spurned lovers and a questionable line that may be racist later, lots of driving shots and the credits roll. Lots. I’m hoping they had had enough to eat.
Then there’s a Scottish voice over, at Hadrian’s Wall. It’s suddenly dark now, so who knows where they got to as they passed through Newcastle in the bright sunshine? The tweedy Scots bloke explains that there is a story in verse from this place, of a young man held in thrall by the Queen of the Fairies, The Ballad of Tam Lin. The cars drive past in the background…
Cue Stephanie Beacham, the next day, riding her bike to Traquair House!
Traquair House is used as the setting for exterior shots of Gardner’s country lair, which is her country home, her hangout, surrounded by a gaggle (coven?) of young, hip swingers. With a folk-prog-rocky background, courtesy of Pentangle. There’s about a dozen young things, playing frisbee (mostly in slo-mo), drinking wine and being glamorous. Yes, Glamour is very much involved. Geddit? Oh and Space Hoppers!
McShane and Beacham meet over an astray frisbee, and give each other a meaningful look. Uh-oh. Scared, Beacham approaches a reclining Lumley, asking where to leave the puppy (?) she is delivering. Lumley, languishing with aplomb, directs her to the Tarot-reading young things on the terrace above. She is then directed to a xylophone-playing dude with a momentous perm and moustache. And then suddenly Ava appears, a vision in red, bewitching all whom she sees. Ava and Beacham then have a chat. Beacham’s from the Vicarage apparently. TUT. Vicarage, indeed! Manse, I should say.
Inside, the wonderful and downright gloomy Richard Wattis appears as some sort of Steward. Sadly, the interior is not shot inside Traquair and instead an out-of-scale faux castley set is used, with much split-level balustrading. And dazed looking young things scattered about like cushions. This is a shame as Traquair’s interior is stunningly beautiful. But the sense of Elphame, or another place, is clear. Ava’s home is enchanting all those within. The folkloric elements can be spotted throughout, but in a subtle way. I wouldn’t call this a horror film, even less a folk horror film, but it has elements of both. It’s not explicit that Ava’s character is the Queen of Elphame: her enchantment powers could be more to do with her wealth. But, the ambiguity of the plot allows you to believe one way or the other. Only in the final quarter of the film are elements of the supernatural more pronounced, with a sort of Wild Hunt leading to the tense ending.
Before that, though, Ava wanders about, flapping her flowing dresses around in a variety of hues and directions.
McShane flirts about a bit, has a deep and meaningful with Ava next to a small model of a Knight overpowered by a Queen on horseback (folklore alert!), then it’s off to bed.
Inevitably, the young stud and local innocent get it together, following an unusual sequence of still shots by a burn. Ava knows this, which eventually leads to McShane’s downfall as her chosen one. Beforehand, though, after McShane visits the Kirk and listen to Beacham’s father preaching the two young lovers have a picnic. A subsequent confrontation in the Great Hall of Ava’s court leads to a scuffle, the end of festivities and – out of nowhere – Joanna Lumley turns to her fellow courtiers, pronouncing
“Life is an illusion therefore nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”!
And, presumably, she does.
It’s one of the oddest lines in any film. I love it. I’d like a mug with this printed on it.
Richard Wattis informs McShane of the previous young men who have held Ava’s affections. And their grisly ends. There’s a slight gay subtext going on at this bit, but McShane’s character is not so modern as to respond politely. This is interesting, as only in the previous year, 1967, was male homosexuality partly decriminalised in England and Wales. Scotland would wait another thirteen years to follow suit.
More arguments ensue and, not wishing to give away more spoilers, the plot drifts towards its conclusion.
The film possesses a dreamlike quality, especially when views of the countryside and house feature. It is a rather beautiful thing, with a sense of scale of landscape and understanding of the themes of fairy and folklore. The slow pace and lack of action only adds to a sense of Otherworldliness, while the dated fashions and groovesters only add to the charm. Filmed in 1968, shelved for some years and edited into a number of versions with as many alternative titles, it was to be Roddy McDowell’s only film direction, which is a shame as there is much to praise here. It’s not a great film, but it’s not awful. The last ten minutes are a little bit iffy, though – and a little too dark to be able to see. Bt here, in this last act, the links to the old ballad are most obvious.
What is a little bit magical is that much of the filming took place in the part of Scotland where the original ballad of Tam Linn originated. The Forest of Carterhaugh is no great distance from Traquair, where Tam Lane’s well can still be glimpsed.
Well worth watching for the setting if only as a folklore-inspired oddity. And for Ian McShane’s obvious talents.
The film can be found here.
More about the ballad can be found in this excellent website.