BECAUSE it is huge in America, because it boosts tourism in the Highlands, because it has given more work to more Scottish actors than any show since the golden age of Taggart, there is a tendency within Scotland’s media to look kindly upon Outlander. Well, let us now bring that to an end.
Outlander is wretched. Woeful. It is affront against the medium of television so grievous that John Logie Baird, had he known that his native culture would one day be portrayed with such cack-handedness, might have thought twice about tinkering with that strange box in the workshop. Lest there be any doubt, let me put it in the manner typical of the show’s cringeworthy dialogue: “Jings, thon really is the purest pish.”
Adapted from the work of American novelist Diana Gabaldon, Outlander – which we are supposed to believe is the English translation of “sassenach” – is a time-travel drama of sorts, but also a historical romance, and, when the mood takes it, which is quite often, a scented-candle fandango of Vaseline-lensed erotica. This is a show that arrives trailed as the feminist Game Of Thrones, but that comparison does a disservice to both Game Of Thrones and feminism. Rather, it is Mills ‘n’ Brigadoon. It is Dreich Encounter. It is Fifty Plaids Of Gray.
Debuting last year on the US cable channel Starz, Outlander arrives in the UK thanks to the Amazon Prime Instant Video streaming service. The eight episodes already shown in America were released all at once towards the end of March, and the remaining eight are now being screened on Sundays, shortly after each is broadcast in the US.
The Irish actress Caitriona Balfe plays Claire Randall, an English nurse, who, as the series begins, in 1945, is on a second honeymoon in the Highlands with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), the sort of bufferish historian who comes to a nasty end in M R James stories.
Claire had been on the front-line during the war, Frank served as an officer in MI6, and the trip north is intended to soften his stiff upper lip and bring them close together again now that both are back on civvy street. This seems to work insofar as they enjoy some semi-alfresco houghmagandie on a shoogly table in a creepy room of a ruined castle. However, when Claire makes the understandable mistake of pressing her palms against a particular standing stone used in a Druidic ceremony on Hallowe’en, she finds herself wheeched back in time to 1743.
There she is taken up by a rough band of Highlanders (the McDouble-Entendre clan, one assumes, as they seem to speak entirely in hoots and innuendo) who fret that she is an English spy but put her to work as a healer. One of these clansmen, Jamie Fraser (‘River City’ alumnus Sam Heughan), is a good deal less smutty and manky than the rest, and his pectorals are even more impressive than Poldark’s, so it is no surprise when Claire comes to marry him. Their happiness is threatened, however, by the malevolent interest taken in them by Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, a psychotic redcoat captain, also played by Tobias Menzies, who is the ancestor of Claire’s 1945 husband Frank. More complicated yet, Claire schemes to prevent the Jacobite uprising from taking place, hoping to spare Jamie and his brethern the killing field of Culloden.
The British army, according to Outlander, recruits simpering toffs, sadistic rapists and no other sorts of people whatsoever. The Scots, meanwhile, are bampots with hearts of gold. The most bampottish of all, Angus, is “a fornicator of women and a shagger of wee beasties” – which makes one suspect that his descendants went on to form AC/DC.
For those unconvinced by Outlander’s feverish plotting, some small pleasure can be derived from watching as once magnificent, now crumbling Scottish institutions (Doune Castle, Aberdour Castle, John Sessions) hove into view. Every few minutes, in fact, some fruity old British thesp or other makes a grand entrance: Captain Darling from Blackadder as a misogynist exorcist; Bill Paterson as the lawyer Ned Gowan, who turns up quoting John Donne, coughing into a hankie and confessing to being “fair puggled”. Gary Lewis, who has a neat trick of being far and away the best thing in any given film or drama, comes close to repeating that trick here, playing the chief of the MacKenzie clan with his customary blend of compassion, threat and melancholy.
Given that the cast are from all corners of Scotland and beyond, there is a tremendous confusion of mangled accents. Some Highlanders seem distinctly Glaswegian, while others are distinguished graduates from the Mel Gibson School Of Voice Coaching. The script owes a great deal to novelty tea-towels – “Dinnae fash!”; “Away and bile yer heid!” – and the show as a whole dollops out Scottish clichés like so much cold porridge. No auld sang goes unsung, no bannock unflung. The music, too, has a bad case of the Jimmy Shands. The main theme is a version of the Skye Boat Song, and when Loch Lomond started up, I certainly found myself misty-eyed with yearning …for Take The High Road.
Not everything is bad. Claire is a strong character, much given to bevvying, though her swearing needs work (I mean, “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ!” – really?) and the plot, if you can bear to stick with it, begins to sweep you along after a while. Indeed, almost half of episode six is given over to a compelling scene between Claire and Black Jack which is thick with a sense of dread and menace. The show also uses cliffhangers rather effectively. There is a grand, old-fashioned Saturday tea-time swashbuckler within here somewhere, struggling to get back to its own era – ITV, circa 1982 – but this is lost beneath a dense layer of unnecessary adult content, all that explicit sex and gore. Watching Outlander is, at times, like picking up a copy of the Sunday Post and finding someone has slipped a copy of Razzle inside.
Worst of all is the heavy reliance on exposition and voiceover: “1743, decades before the American revolution, England and France are at war again. One of the Hanover kings is on the throne…” Most of the time this adds little, even allowing for a US audience unfamiliar with the niceties of 18th-century Scotland, and it is so intrusive and clunky that Caitriona Balfe, who narrates, is forced into the position of undermining her own performance. Why cast an actress with such an expressive face and then force her to smother herself with verbiage?
Ach, the whole thing feels like a wasted opportunity. While it’s great that they make Outlander in Cumbernauld, they should have made it better. None of this will much trouble the show’s many devoted fans, over 200 of whom are travelling from a dozen countries to attend the Outlandish UK Gathering at the Crieff Hydro in May, but the mystery is why they are so devoted in the first place. If it is because they love Diana Gabaldon’s books then fair enough, but the television adaptation? Well, I’ll say this for it. There is at least one aspect of Scottish culture which it recreates with great faithfulness and authenticity: mince.