Town on BBC2: Welcome to the bay to nowhere

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention?

Town
BBC2

I know Oban quite well, from the air. Some years ago, an open-cockpit biplane in which I was travelling from the Isle of Mull to Glasgow was forced to make an emergency landing at what was laughingly known as the town’s airport (in reality, a disused car park whose “control tower” comprised an old caravan).

As you may imagine, this was somewhat terrifying, for all that I was wearing both a fireproof suit and a parachute. But even in a state of quaking fear, I was still able to register how bleak the place looked. As I listened to the dialogue between the pilot (my then boyfriend) and (ha, ha!) “air traffic control” – the euphemism “unscheduled landing” was used, doubtless for my benefit – I remember thinking: “Oban. What a place to die!”

Oban was the star of the first film in the latest series of Town (21 May, 9pm), which is sort of like Coast, only with more buildings and less guano. Why towns? As its presenter, Nicholas Crane, told us in the opening sequence, towns are “where we first learned to be urban”. This sounded kind of interesting to me – perhaps by going back to our roots, we can work out how to make city life a little more tolerable – but, in truth, it wasn’t an idea he explored very much. Or, indeed, at all.

Crane isn’t a great one for ideas – beside the Johnson’s dictionarythat is Jonathan Meades, he will always be a mere Ladybird book – and for this reason his films have the weird feel of the schools education programmes I remember being forced to watch in the 1980s, when my teachers were too busy planning their next strike to get up off their arses and teach.

Sometimes, Crane’s footage was so boring, it might almost have been a spoof. First, he showed us the local quarry. Then, he visited a sorting office. And then, as a special treat, he jumped aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The quarry was notable for its reserves of granite. The sorting office was marked out by its abundance of letters. The ferry was replete with passengers.

Crikey. I was on the edge of my seat. What next? A pub, where the characteristically Scottish beverages that are known as “beer” and “whisky” may be purchased and enjoyed over a quiet chat with friends? Or what about a quick tour of Oban’s railway station, where tickets for travel are on sale at what is known colloquially as “the ticket office”?

Oban is dominated by the rather wonderful McCaig’s Tower, a folly of granite on which construction began in 1897 and which resembles the Colosseum (I remember it well, as seen from the tiny metal bird in which I had foolhardily agreed to go away for a “romantic” weekend). Crane informed us that no one knows why John Stuart McCaig, a local banker, decided to build it – largely because he died before its completion.

Is this so? I understood that the project was a benevolent one, the better to keep local stonemasons in work during the winter. Also, that McCaig had hoped to instal some kind of gallery inside it, complete with memorial statues of his family. And I’m afraid that Visit Scotland agrees with me. Anyway, right or wrong, it was at this point that I truly ached for a little Meades-style lyricism: some vivid line to explain the strange and now almost extinct impulse for folly-building. The best Crane could do was to lower his voice to a whisper and describe it as a “sanctuary”.

I can’t believe that Town – this is the second series – is ever going to be as big a hit as Coast (eight series and counting). But if by some miracle it is, we’d better brace ourselves. According to Wikipedia, there are 936 towns in Britain, so it could run and run. In the fullness of time, Crane and his Pooterish insights might even start to have an effect on house prices – at which point, he’ll be the new Kirstie Allsopp. Or something.

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention? First, Mary Portas, in her spike heels and Barbarella frocks. Now, Crane in his sensible boots and his Gore-Tex. All I can offer by way of reassurance is the certain knowledge that no one ever moved anywhere just because it had a particularly hectic sorting office.

A fisherman in Oban. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

My Scientology Movie
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Is Louis Theroux’s new film, My Scientology Movie, “banned” in Ireland?

The film isn’t getting an Irish release – could the country's blasphemy and defamation laws be to blame?

The Church of Scientology is a touchy subject. So touchy, in fact, that the plot of Louis Theroux’s new documentary, My Scientology Movie, revolves around the controversial church’s refusal to appear in on camera. As the institution becomes more and more impenetrable, Theroux’s film uses dramatic readings and re-enactments (alongside more traditional methods like interviews with former Scientologists and scenes showing their attempts at access) to get to the heart of the subject.

Now, Theroux is discovering new complications as his film approaches release. As the buzz around the feature grew, Irish entertainment sites began to notice that although a UK distributor, Altitude, was attached to the project, there was no release date listed for Irish cinemas, nor an Irish distributor. This sparked concern among those familiar with Irish blasphemy and defamation laws – Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology documentary, Going Clear, did not secure an Irish theatrical release over libel claims.

The 2009 Defamation Act states that any “person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000”. Blasphemous matter is defined as anything that is “insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, and that intends to cause outrage.

There is a loophole in the law, if it can be proved that “a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value” in the work. The law also states that blaspemhy laws do not apply to an organisation or “cult” that prioritises making financial profit or manipulates followers and new recruits. Scientology isn’t officially recognised as a church in Ireland, but it’s unclear whether or not it counts as a religion under the acts definitions.

It’s important to note that the decision not to show the film in Ireland lies with the distributors – this is not a case of the Irish government banning the film from cinemas, as many have been keen to point out on Twitter. As this is at their discretion, it also means we might never know for sure why they decided not to go for an Irish release.

Altitude had this to say in a statement:

Altitude Film Distribution currently has no plans for a theatrical release of My Scientology Movie in Ireland, and has no further comment to make at this time.

Informative, GRMA guys!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.