In The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (BBC, tx. 6/6/1974), writer John McGrath and director John Mackenzie dared to go where few have wanted to go, most preferring to sweep the atrocities of the Highland clearances under the carpet as being too painful, and in any case a very long time ago.
McGrath's play, performed by his 7-84 Touring Theatre Company, exposes this contradiction and shows the subject to be never more relevant, dragging it kicking and screaming into the spotlight in a very intimate, personal way. The play unerringly pursues its central case, right up to 1974: that the Highland Scottish people have largely been dispossessed, disinherited and disenfranchised; that they do not own their own land and have precious little genuine say in its use (the play points out that in 1974 all of the Scottish development boards/authorities were controlled by the English).
The play might seem a little patronising of its audience at times but this is countered by the honesty of its editing, which does not exclude the occasional look of wry amusement, scepticism or bemusement on the audience's faces. On other occasions the audience is visibly moved. This, and the wholehearted participation, cheering and clapping, is a ringing endorsement of the play. The theatre voiceovers, the filmed reconstructions and the aerial shots of the landscape are all equally involving. The interviews with the riggers alone are a priceless historical document.
Typical of the play's poetic anger is this line, "It is said that when the woman bards died they were buried face downwards so that their songs would not come up to disturb us. But they do, still."
John McGrath was a socialist. He set up the 7-84 travelling theatre company in 1971, its name derived from a statistic revealed in The Economist that 7% of Britain's people owned 84% of the country's wealth.
One wonders whether a drama as uncompromisingly left-wing as this could possibly be produced or broadcast on mainstream television today: the Labour Government of the time is presented in the play as little different from the Tory Party. The play attacks the political classes: their unwillingness to offend big business and capitalism and their desire to appease American big business. It's unlikely that McGrath, were he alive today, would be any less furious at the character of New Labour.