‘Outlander’ and Contemplating Detachment: a 21st Century ‘Scotch on the Rocks’?

The drama series ‘Outlander’ starts tonight…well, I say ‘starts’, but it will actually start broadcasting its third series to most territories in September – and a 4th has been greenlit by Sony Pictures. We’re just a wee bit behind here. But that’s quite unusual these days, is it not? When I were a lad, if a US TV series started, you knew it would often be some time before it made any sort of ‘terrestrial’ schedule, with Sky (and British Satellite Broadcasting, for those that remember it before the merger into BSkyB). ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, for example, took 3 years to come to the BBC, despite its ratings success. These days, we generally expect ‘big’ series to be picked up tout de suite, and even if satellite has a veto first, terrestrial (which these days means FreeView) will have it a year later.

But ‘Outlander’ has been going for a while now. Ostensibly a time-travelling fantasy (but then so was ‘Life on Mars’, and how good was that?) set in 1743 Scotland, from the books (eight since 1991) by Diana Gabaldon, it features an English nurse a year after the end of the Second World War, who is transported back to the mid-18th century. It has a strong pedigree, though – developed by Ronald Moore (responsible for ‘Battlestar Galactica’, acclaimed at the time as ‘the most damning indictment of the Bush addministration on television’), with Ira Steven Behr (one of the main movers on ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’) and with music by Bear McCreary (of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fame), as well the actor who portrays the unfortunate Edmure Tully in ‘Game of Thrones’, so it has some talent around it. Even more than that, the production was given ‘creative sector tax relief’ by the Treasury of the UK Government in 2013 to facilitate studio development.

And yet…the UK was noticeably absent from the global list of territories when the first of its 8 episodes aired, at the start of August 2014. There were rumours that the delay to the broadcast had been orchestrated by the Westminster Government – and a queue of people keen to shout down such nonsensical tinfoil-hat wearing paranoia.

Interestingly, this was confirmed via Wikileaks in April 2015, when an internal Sony Pictures memo dated June 27th 2014 showed that there was a meeting with David Cameron on 30th June to discuss (as one of three topics) “the importance of OUTLANDER, (i.e. particularly vis-a-vis the political issues in the UK as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall)”. Sure enough, ‘Outlander’ did not broadcast on time with the rest of the territories, in spite of being where much of the production was filmed and based. Indeed, it was not until March 2015 when the series was first available to the UK – and even then, it was via Amazon Prime video.

Surely this cannot be the case – that a UK Government would intervene in broadcast schedules for such a thing? Well, the UK Government has been somewhat bitten by this before – in 1973, a ‘political thriller’ penned by one Douglas Hurd (later to be part of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) was turned into a six part series and broadcast by BBC Scotland. It cannot exactly be described as sitting amongst the greats of political thrillers, such as ‘House of Cards’ (or, perhaps, ‘Edge of Darkness’) – Wikipedia describes it as assuming “that there would be a political crisis in which the Scottish National Party would emerge as a serious force. A paramilitary organisation operating on the fringes of the SNP, the Scottish Liberation Army, stages a rising, seizing Fort William…” In spite of the fact that it was not showing Scotland or the political movement for self-determination in any sort of serious way – indeed, it was somewhat ridiculing Scottish independence – it seemed to actually act as something of an inspiration regarding independence to some people, leading to a rise in support for the idea. One can imagine that this might have had Cameron’s government wary of making a similar error of judgement…particularly as the polls started to narrow.

I also wonder a little about ‘Reign’ – the 16th century dramatisation/fantasisation of Mary Queen of Scots’ life, continually under threat from English attacks and subterfuge…I don’t recall that premiering in end 2013 start 2014, as it did in the rest of the world’s main territories? If you watch it, it hardly looks very dangerous to anything, not even taking itself that seriously – and yet…returning to ‘Scotch on the Rocks’, it apparently proved controversial – so much so that the BBC had to declare that it would never be shown again: “Both the novel and the television serial proved quite controversial. The BBC promised at the time never to show the series again, and it was believed the master tapes had been wiped because of the controversy. In 2012 it was stated that the series had not been wiped and that the tapes are held in the archives of BBC Scotland, although contradictorily it is believed only episodes 1, 4 and 5 have survived.” If such  a show could become political dynamite, then what else might inflame those rebellious Scots?

As a preview, I watched the first episode of Outlander ‘in advance’ last night – I learned that my childhood understanding of the word ‘sassenach’ as meaning ‘lowlander’ (hence central belters as well) may in fact have been flawed. The show is well executed, but ‘Establishment threatening’? As Christian Wright notes: “The Outlander series is set in Scotland in 1743 and it explores among other things the relationships and attitudes of British occupying military forces toward the local population. The picture painted is often one of British repression and brutality borne of visceral contempt for Scots. It seems there were no limits to which HMG would not go to subvert the referendum campaign while simultaneously the Prime Minister told the Nation independence was entirely a matter for the Scots. Eight months before the referendum vote, diplomatic cables had revealed, that Cameron was conspiring with 34 foreign governments to traduce the Scottish Government and to publicly oppose Scottish independence. HMG was also caught planting negative stories in foreign newspapers, implying the Scots were not capable of self governance.”

The series starts tonight at 9pm on More4 – I know, hardly ‘mainstream’ – but Lesley Riddoch says its worth a watch, so why not see what scared David Cameron 3 months before the Independence Referendum?


“From a SPE perspective, your meeting with Prime Minister Cameron on Monday will likely focus on our overall investment in the U.K. – with special emphasis on… the importance of OUTLANDER (i.e., particularly vis-à-vis the political issues in the U.K. as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall).” (Sony Internal Memo, 27th June, 2014)

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