Sangs and clatter, as pupils revel in Tam o' Shanter

29th April 2011 at 01:00
Drums, cymbals and chants resounded as pupils provided the soundtrack to Robert Burns's narrative poem. Raymond Ross reports

What better way to open Scotland's first silent film festival than with an animated film and an extremely animated audience? But this is no ordinary audience. This is an audience that is about to become an orchestra.

In they pile excitedly to Scotland's oldest cinema, The Hippodrome in Bo'ness, three P6 classes about to embark on a unique visual and musical journey which will raise the roof of this venerable picture house.

Beneath their seats, as they discover in seconds, is a whole assortment of percussive instruments: drums, cymbals, bodhrans, maracas, glockenspiels, tambourines and rainsticks (among other delights) which are soon being struck, banged and shaken in frenzied anticipation.

A call on the drum. A call to order. The pupils are about to watch a 10- minute film, a silent animation of Robert Burns's Tam o' Shanter, made by Grangemouth Girls' Youth Group with artist Emma Bowen.

But first, the edited version of the poem is flashed up on the screen and the Scots vocabulary discussed. For a lot of the pupils this is their first exposure to it, though a lot know who the poet is: "He is a very good poet", "He's Scotland's best ever poet", "He writes in Lowland Scots".

But to our film. An evocative and atmospheric collage of imagery, puppetry, animation and "live" acting by the Grangemouth Girls, it plays through with musician and workshop leader Susan Applebe accompanying on cello. The pupils are transfixed, appreciative to the end. Then the real excitement kicks in. It's their turn to ride with Tam.

With Ms Applebe prompting and conducting, rehearsal begins. Drums roll out the storm; bells tinkle like stars; a cymbal clashes lightning; muted "skeleton" sounds evoke "the deid in their last dresses"; owls are hooted; Maggie's trot, canter and gallop clips, clops and clatters. We have combined chants of "Tam o' Shanter" with "gettin' fou and unco happy", chorused whispers of "Kirk Alloway" and "ghaists and houlets nightly cry", a climactic shout of "Weill done, Cutty Sark" followed by a sudden and complete silence before the whole orchestra kicks in again for the cut to the final chase.

Now we're ready for the first "take". We have the storm group, the horse group, the "ready chorus" for the landlord's laughter, the chants, whispers, stars and lightning and we're off; each pupil following both film and conductor. And it's not bad at all, especially considering we've only been here an hour or so.

A few tweaks here and there, some experimentation on individual instruments, a couple of notes on watching the conductor, some last-minute instruction on volume and timing and we go for the recording.

It is remarkable how well it works, straight through, no stops and (re)starts, no interruptions. But it's really only when the pupils sit back, their work now done, to watch the film with their freshly-recorded soundtrack at proper volume, that you realise just how superb it is. And all the more remarkable when you consider it took less than two hours, from scratch, to orchestrate and record.

All workshops are, by definition, "interactive", but Ms Applebe and the Falkirk Council Heritage Learning team describe this one as "immersive"; and it certainly is that.

"Having a conductor makes them feel safe and they learn that every sound each one of them makes is important to the overall effect, to the orchestration. It's about teamwork and individuality," says Ms Applebe.

"It's a big thing to get children to play like this for the first time, to say to them: we all depend on each other, it's up to you, you have to go for it. And that's the essence of it - creative children," she says.

The pupils, from Bothkennar, Carronshore and St Andrew's primary schools, have the pleasure of returning to their respective schools to share the film and soundtrack with their fellow pupils, a permanent record of work well done and a reminder of a unique creative experience.


Last month's Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema not only drew large audiences to see classics like Nosferatu and silent stars like Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, but also showcased local talent including Bo'ness Academy students. Their documentary, An Escape from Reality, celebrated the Hippodrome (opened in 1912) through the memories of its patrons.

There was also an illustrated talk on early cinema in Scotland, using footage from the Scottish Screen Archive, and a slapstick workshop with Plutot la Vie, teaching some of the slapstick secrets of the silent stars to pupils, students and theatre professionals.

"The Hippodrome is a living, working museum where we hold workshops and school screenings throughout the year," says festival director and Falkirk Council arts development officer Alison Strauss.

"Today's immersive workshop shows what can be achieved in terms of creativity and teamwork with pupils improvising, yet working together in a shared activity, taking instruction while exploring their instruments, listening and watching both screen and conductor and making something new, original and artistic," she says.

The festival also staged a "jeely jar" special matinee of Chaplin's The Kid (pictured). Young people were offered two tickets for the price of one if they appeared with the requisite jam jar which traditionally gained free entry in the Hippodrome's heyday. The matinee included a Charlie Chaplin fancy dress competition.

There was also an accompanying exhibition entitled "Fleapits amp; Picture Palaces", though festival organisers assured us that no antiseptic mist would be sprayed over the juvenile audience, even though this was the custom in the good old days of jeely jar matinees.

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