It’s been a long road but filming has now started on Lewis

Almost 20 years ago, STV News presenter John MacKay swapped news reporting for novels, writing the first in a three-part series set in the Western Isles.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 15th November 2020, 9:44 am
John MacKay STV news anchor
John MacKay STV news anchor

The Road Dance is set on the Isle of Lewis, where John would spend his childhood summers. He has many links to the Western Isles, his mother Cathie hailed from Gearrannan, while his dad, Alex’s family were from Cirbhig - both in Carloway.

John told the Gazette: “My aunt Katie Mary still lives in Gearrannan and my aunt Ina and uncle Andy are in South Bragar. I have cousins across the island.

“I spent a lot of time on the island spending almost all of my summer holidays at my granny’s house in Carloway, before returning to the mainland for the start of the new school term.

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John MacKay pictured with his sons who all feature in a cameo role in his book adaptation for film

“I have so many fond memories of that time in my life. For a youngster it was true freedom, and completely different from Hillington where I was brought up.”

Inspired by a true story, The Road Dance follows a tragedy which befalls a woman and her newborn baby, set amid the outbreak of WWI.

“I’d always wanted to write a novel,” John said.

“When I came across the story that formed the basis of The Road Dance I knew that if I didn’t write it, I would never write anything.”

©Lisa Young 2020 Gearrannan Blackhouses Isle of Lewis

Published in 2002, The Road Dance became a Scottish bestseller, but it took almost two decades for it to be translated from page to the silver screen.

“It’s been a long process to get it made into a film,” John explained.

“I hadn’t even thought of it until the actor David Hayman first suggested it when he came into STV for an interview.

“In news, I’m used to a story appearing on screen by the end of the day. It’s a completely different timescale with a film.

Filming at Gearrannan Blackhouses, Lewis

“There have been a lot of ups and downs, but it was thrilling when it was finally greenlit.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how it turns out.”

After a few years of discussions, American company Sheridan Road Productions acquired the rights to John’s book, and filming has now begun on Lewis.

Maryilene Blondell, CEO of Sheridan Road Productions, explained her partner Jim Kreutzer was inspired to turn John’s book into a film after reading it while working on the award-winning film Tommy’s Honour.

“Whilst Jim was in Scotland during production, he was looking for another book to read and stumbled across John’s book,” she said.

“After finishing the book, there was no doubt in his mind that a feature film needed to be made about The Road Dance.”

“We have been working on bringing this project to the big screen for close to four years. There were many fits and starts due to the other projects we were working on.

“The bigger challenge however was writing a script that did the material justice. The story, which by the way is a true story from the island, has some very serious subject themes and we had to hit it just right.....or we risked the chance of the film being just too much.

“Our location manager, Ricky Hannaway, is a Lewis native and was instrumental in assisting us with finding some of the locations. However, most of the filming is being done in the village itself (with the exception of a few other local spots).

“We are very grateful to Mairi McRitchie for all of her help in assisting us with getting permission to film in the village. Without being able to use that location, we don’t know if our movie would be able to have the same effect on the audience- because the Blackhouses, the way of life at that time, and the land itself, are all important characters in the film.”

There are several Scottish actors and actresses, Morven Christie, Jimmy Yuill, who are involved with the film, as well as many locals who are serving as extras.

“We have gone to great lengths to establish an authenticity of the time. WWI on the island, as well as depicting those living here in a respectful manner.

Maryilene went on: “Ironically, my family hails from Scotland- The Isle of Bute to be exact. When I lived and worked in London for the BBC, I spent much time hopping back and forth to see my relatives. I feel very connected to the Scottish people, their land and their beliefs. All of these things added more layers of commitment for me to really make this film.”

Hermione Corfield, who has appeared in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is set to star as main character Kirsty.

Scottish actress Morven Christie has also signed on to play Kirsty’s mother Mairi.

While it is unknown whether the film will appear in cinemas or on a streaming service, Maryilene said that the project has already generated a lot of buzz in the cinematic industry.

“Obviously, distribution presents a whole new approach and dynamic with all movie houses throughout the world being closed,” she said.

“There already is quite a very strong, positive feeling throughout the industry based on the screenplay alone, which we are enormously pleased about.”

MaryIlene added that John has been excellent to work with throughout the process.

“He has been so gracious to us throughout this whole process. He has never wavered in his support and belief in us, nor did he ever make strong or outrageous demands in how we adapted his book to the screen,” she said.

“He trusted us, knowing our deep desire to bring this story to the big screen in as original a manner as is possible, was going to be as true to his book as we possibly could be.”

The Road Dance will feature a cameo by John’s son Ross, who will play the bagpipes during a scene. But, even that story has an island background.

Ross, who plays with the Scottish Power Pipe Band got the set of pipes from his grandad, who in turn received them from a WW1 veteran from Lewis!

Now the pipes will be played once more on the island where they originated from all those years ago.

As for the anchorman himself, he is also set to make an appearance as an extra.

“The director, Richie, kindly suggested I could appear as an extra. I’m going to be in the road dance scene. Enjoying a ceilidh shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me,” he said.

“My previous acting experience involved the challenging role of playing a newsreader in a TV drama. And my voice was overdubbed with an English accent.

“I’ve got higher hopes for this.”

Few people realise that John is quite the novelist and has now written three books all based on the Isle of Lewis. They are ‘The Road Dance’, ‘Heartland’ and ‘The Last of the Line’, with a fourth one - ‘Home’, due to be published shortly.

Maryilene concluded: There are still many miles left on this project. We have two more weeks of filming, post-production and then have to find the right distributor.

“Because of cinemas closing, everything is going straight to streaming. We’re looking forward to seeing where The Road Dance will land- Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, who knows.

“We are very proud and equally humbled that during a global pandemic, Sheridan Road Productions was able to make a period piece film, on a remote Scottish Island, in the advent of winter during a global pandemic! Nothing short of a miracle.