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Crow Road, The (1996)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Crow Road, The (1996)
Union Pictures for BBC Scotland, 4-25/11/1996
4 x 60 minutes, colour
DirectorGavin Millar
ProducerBradley Adams
ScriptBryan Elsley
Original novelIain Banks
PhotographyJohn Else

Cast: Joseph McFadden (Prentice McHoan); Bill Paterson (Kenneth McHoan); Peter Capaldi (Rory McHoan); Valerie Edmond (Ashley Watt); David Robb (Fergus Urvill); Dougray Scott (Lewis McHoan); Paul Young (Hamish McHoan); Simone Bendix (Verity)

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Troubled young Prentice McHoan, wrestling with the catastrophe that is his life, strives to uncover the truths buried by his secretive family and to solve the mystery of his long-disappeared Uncle Rory.

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Iain Banks' reputation as one of the most promising Scottish novelists of his generation began with his startling 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory. But it was to be some 12 years, and another nine novels, before Banks' vivid and narratively complex work was finally adapted for the screen. An elaborate mystery of family secrets, sex and death, The Crow Road (BBC, 1996) was a refreshingly modern adaptation at a time when British television was dominated by lavish period classics like Middlemarch (BBC, 1994) and Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1996).

Banks has a distinctive skill for evoking the tormented melodrama of youth, and The Crow Road's multiply troubled young protagonist, Prentice McHoan, is one of his most engaging creations, bewildered and defeated by a catalogue of woes: sexual frustration; a secret adoration for his beautiful cousin, the 'upwardly nubile' Verity; academic disaster; a long-running feud with his father, and the burdens of a better-looking, wittier, more talented older brother and a family prone to premature death. On top of all this, Prentice is presented with the task of solving the six-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of his Uncle Rory: is he continuing a wandering existence, sending occasional cryptic messages home, or is he, in his mother's colourful phrase, 'away the Crow Road' - dead?

Joseph McFadden ensures Prentice remains likeable despite a tendency to self-pity and a seemingly relentless capacity for self-destruction - notably an unwarranted hostility to one of the world's greatest dads (a typically wonderful Bill Paterson). Kenneth McHoan's atheistic anti-determinism is a challenge to his son's restless grasping for meaning, for a unifying system that can explain his Uncle's disappearance, the suicide of his idolised friend Darren, the apparently accidental death of his Aunt Fiona and his own recurring failures with women. In the end, a scarred but slightly wiser Prentice acknowledges that his father was right, that there is no higher power, no supernatural logic to human suffering.

Bryan Elsley's adaptation is truer to the essence of Banks' novel than to its detail, adding as well as discarding scenes and confidently rearranging Banks' chaotic chronology, which hops back and forth between Prentice's present and his family's muddy histories, tantalisingly revealing the ripple of consequences linking events many years apart. Most significantly, Elsley introduces a series of conversations between Prentice and the missing Rory, a device that proves surprisingly effective as a representation of the young man's nagging quest.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. The new year (4:47)
2. The next day (4:17)
3. Fergus's secret (3:19)
Complete episode - 'Kenneth' (59:36)
Capaldi, Peter (1958-)
TV Literary Adaptation