Edinburgh International Film Festival saw out its historic 70th edition last week with a Closing Screening of homegrown comedy, Whisky Galore. Directed by Gillies MacKinnon, the film is a remake of the Alexander Mackendrick Ealing comedy classic of the same name. Set at the tail end of the war and based on real life events, it tells the story of the inhabitants of the little Isle of Eriskay and their plot to steal the precious supply of Scotch from a cargo ship that’s run aground.
Acting veteran Gregor Fisher stars in the central role of booze-loving postmaster Macroon, a widower sadly preparing to see his feisty daughters marry and move out of the family homestead. Fisher, instantly recognisable to UK audiences as booze-soaked street philosopher Rab C. Nesbitt, shines in the role amongst a fine ensemble cast. Comedian and actor Eddie Izzard plays island antagonist, Captain Wagstaff. A buffoon of a man who, in his pomposity, is unable to relate to the islanders in his charge, Izzard adds depth to the film’s most overtly comic character. I sat down with the actor’s on the festival’s final day to talk whisky and war.
Your character Macroon is more than a little fond of a dram of whisky. Do you drink it yourself?
I do like whisky, aye. There are certain whiskies that I’m not particularly fond of, do you know much about whisky? Well, in the process, an Islay malt, from the island of Islay, there’s a lot of peat involved so it’s got quite a pungent taste. Not for me. It’s alright, I’d drink it at a push, but I’m more a mellow, mild, Speyside kind of man. So yes, I do like whisky. I keep mentioning Macallan, I’m mentioning that quite a lot hoping that some executive from Macallan will see this and take pity on me and maybe send a couple of boxes, that would be nice wouldn’t it.
Ha, ok I’ll make sure to mention it. Do you like it as much as your character does, and the other islanders?
No, no, not as much as all that. It’s a funny thing, I don’t know if this is a universal truth or not, but the older I get the less attached I am to alcohol. I like a drink now and again but I can’t imbibe the way I used to. Because I have to say bye-bye to a couple of days and I don’t like that. And I always find if I’m drinking whisky, and I’m in very good company and we’re drinking away and it’s a good subject or whatever then it’s an addendum to that, it’s not why I’m there. What interests me nowadays is kids, mine included, will say things like I’m going out to get smashed. You think, “What?” because in my day that was something that happened just by accident, if you were in good company, you’d stayed a bit too long and you got a bit, as they would say in France, ‘pompette’. So I have a funny attitude to drink nowadays, youngsters seem to go at it hell for leather it was something that sort of encouraged conversation, and encouraged discourse between people not getting hammered.
It was great to see you on the big screen again, you don't seem to do so many feature films, is there a reason for this?
If I was being totally frank with you, it’s because people don’t ask and sometimes what they they ask I think, I don’t really want to do that. But when I got asked to do this it was a no-brainer, it was a very good script, the producer is a very old pal of mine, from 35 years ago. He said we’ll get to share a flat in Porstoy, I thought what’s not to like? It was a great cast, you know I’ve been 40 years in this game and I can honestly say it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. There was no minus about it, there were no screaming DOPs, there were no twitchy directors, there were no egotistical actors, everybody mucked in. We were welcomed with open arms in Porstoy, which is very rare. There’s usually someone annoyed because you’re filming there, be it the local postman who can’t deliver his letters or what have you, there’s always someone who’s jagged about something, it was just pain free. And I think we were all a bit sad when it finished.
You mentioned interacting with the islanders, so was is it all shot on location?
It was all done on the mainland, haha! You thought it was an island? That worked then! We talked - they talked - I’m not part of these decision-making things. There was talk of shooting it on an island, but logistically it’s a nightmare. This isn’t a big Hollywood fifty million quid budget thing where you can fly in this, that, and the other. We were on a budget, then we came across this place called Portsoy which is perfect, the harbor had everything, it was like as if it had been built for us. There was a post office, a school, a harbor everything you could possibly need. And it was contained, producers love containment. They don't like, “Oh, you have to move another ferry now” because it’s just a logistical nightmare and I suppose the difference between what they did here and in the original black and white one was there was a very small crew in those days, they camped there that was easy, but now there’re drones and God knows what involved so that was the best way to do it I think.
Does that put you off making more features? Did this feel a little more old school, in it’s production?
Yes, it’s usual nowadays… the film business nowadays is very money orientated isn’t it. Getting a film made; it's a nightmare, no matter what the film is there’s a process. There are studio executives and you have to jump through hoops, then when you think you’re going to get your film made the boss of the studio gets changed and something else happens and it's a nightmare. So one of the attractions to this was I knew it would be pain free, I knew the director, I knew his work, I knew the producers. What wasn't there to like?
Your character had a really lovely relationship with his two young daughters. How was it working with these two talented young actresses (Ellie Kendrick and Naomi Battrick)?
Well, that's the frightening thing now, you turn up with a bunch of total strangers, well some of them I’d worked with before, big Jimmy Cosmo and wee John Sessions, but inevitably, and it’s usually the people you have to be most intimate with, they’re total strangers and you think, “Oh God, here’s a couple of girls, how’s that going to work?” And sometimes there’s a kind of chemistry, sometimes there’s a kind of magic, and sometimes you’re just working with really good actresses. I think the latter was true. You know, I find it scary, with all these youngsters, especially when you have to work with the really young ones, and they can do it. And these girls could do it.
Did you impart any advice on them?
Oh, I hope not! I was asked on two or three occasions what I thought about it (acting) but I generally, in a fatherly way, said what’s what. But, I’m genuinely pleased to hear that about it, I’m glad that relationship works because that's how we differ from the original, we flesh that part out and explain it more than the original telling did. But you see this isn’t a remake it's a retelling.
I’ve got one more question, as Rab C. Nesbitt, how did you get your vests so grubby?
It's a very tedious process; it’s cold tea. Somebody would take cold tea and then dip it in. Another little known fact is that they all came from Selfridges. Don't ask me why, but there must have been a lot of people wanting string vests from Selfridges.
Of course, your character in the film goes out of his way to stop the islanders drinking but I’ve asked Gregor so: are you a whisky drinker?
Yes! I wasn’t when I was younger, I couldn’t drink any alcohol when I was young I poisoned my taste buds with refined sugar, I didn’t know it was that, it was just everything was “Eurgh”, I got into cider trying to be social with everyone, but now I’ve worked out what’s going on with my taste buds I do drink whisky, and I hope that the whiskey companies take the film to their hearts. I believe that whisky companies couldn't overtly back us because you have to do “Drink Responsibly” so we couldn't say “Yes, yes, get it down you!” but I think this hopefully should be good for whisky sales in Scotland and the film has got a Local Hero feel to it and that's where we planted it. I think the original Whisky Galore was a little rougher around the edges, broader, this is a little more naturalized, more real, and the casting is great. I think Gillies has done a good job. I’ve seen a rough cut but I haven’t seen the final version.
It’s a really nice film, there’s this real warmth to it...
Have you seen it? Oh, you've seen it!? What did you think? It’s not a wham, bam, laugh your balls off comedy is it? But it's a true fairytale and it's a character study of Gregor’s character. I think it’s his film. It’s Macroon. Everything centres around Macroon. I tried to put a bit of a third dimension into my character because my character’s a little bit like, “Boom, boom, boom, come on, come on” I just wanted to give a little backstory to him to figure out why he was there, I decided he was a career army man, he’d been in the last week of the first World War. That was my idea that I built into him, he just got into the war just as it was finishing and maybe got captured and this was not how it was supposed to be. Then comes the second war and they just don’t think he’s good enough so they send him off to an island. I wanted to have some sort of direction for him in there.
There were definite comic elements to your character, a kind of Dad’s Army, Captain Mannering aspect.
Well, apparently Captain Mannering’s based on my character in the original. I actually forgot that Dad’s Army was there, and then they had that recent film. Arthur Lowe does that very well, and I wasn’t trying to do Arthur Lowe, I was just trying to do a very posh version of me if I was up on an island saying “Do this, do that” and trying to get them into some bloody order. “This is how you do it, I know how to bloody do it, I’ve been an officer, I’ve been in the bloody army, come on”. I think the difference between Mannering is if there was a war I don't think Mannering would have been able to get his body anywhere near because he was a bit more roundly shaped. I wanted it so I if I could I’d get up there, get a gun - I’d probably get shot in the head in the first day - but I’d say, “COME ON!” I just wanted him to be physically marching everywhere, going by the book, “There’s a manual, if you read this bloody manual, you’ll find out what happened, am I the only one here who’s got brains!?” It was that kind of thing, but everyone’s just fucking me about. You’d have to do a deal with it like Sgt Odd, Sean Biggerstaff, that’s more the process, you have to start making inroads with everyone or they just start screwing around.
I really appreciated the scenes between you and your wife, they just really humanize the character, and you and Fenella Woolgar both look so great playing these upper class slightly buffoonish types.
Oh, that was the plan. Yes, exactly, they are buffoonish because there was a way of living, an upper middle-class way and this is it, and, “Everyone should understand and obey us, isn’t that how bloody life works?” Well, no it isn’t how life works. And I went to school with these people for twelve years, boarding school after my mum died. So I’m not of that but I know how to be that.
Did you do a great deal of research into that time?
I know a lot about WWII but I wanted to give him a backstory instead of learning how the island was, I wanted to track him back and give him a throughline. Our problem in WWII was we had a lot of people who were in officer positions who had been through the 20s and 30s and it was quite a nice life being a soldier because you had the officers mesh and there’s going to be a soiree, then we’re going to do field action games, but then a bloody war comes with artillery tearing fucking holes in things. Well, all these guys were good chaps but they weren’t any good at fucking fighting! I wanted to put that into him. He wanted to be a contender.
Did this interest about the war come from shooting Valkyrie or did you have a prior interest?
I knew about it before that, I just know a lot about military history, I put a lot of it into my standup. I think, like Churchill did, if you study history you can figure out where humanity keeps repeating good things and bad things. You have to squash the bad things and accentuate the good things. WWII was a very clear war. The Nazis were extreme fascists and racists and they needed to be pushed back. If I was there I would have been actively fighting. I go to the D-Day beaches and do three shows, three hours, in three different languages, German, French and English. It's a salute to the people who died there but also a salute to the 73 years of peace. I try to be positive and forward thinking but I know WWII inside out, more than WWI. WWI sort of got stuck in a battle where WWII had this fast moving aspect to it.
There’s such a warm, communal atmosphere amongst the inhabitants of the town on the screen, was that true of real life? Was there a lot of hanging out?
Well, the great thing was you could hang out with people and that's always fun, but you don’t actually see their work, you don’t see their stuff, where as in theatre you’d see into the rehearsals. Anyway, when this was being shot I was shooting the first scene and I thought, “Oh, that was nice” Then the second scene roles by and I just thought the whole thing just rolls by and everyone is well cast and it has a really nice feel to it.