IN the run-up to the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, BBC Scotland is tonight (at 2100 hours) screening The Scots at Waterloo, a docu-drama featuring the actual stories of five Scots at one of history’s bloodiest and most decisive battles.
Here, producer, Seona Robertson, managing director of Caledonia TV, answers the questions, about this Scots-Irish co-production…
Who commissioned the programme?
Ewan Angus at BBC Scotland commissioned the programme with David Harron as executive producer. David also exec’d our recent BBC One Scotland documentary, A 100 Years of The Sunday Post – quite a different story!
The Scots At Waterloo is the second co production between Caledonia TV and Stephen Rooke’s Tile Films in Dublin for BBC Scotland – a follow-up to the two-part, After Bannockburn, screened in March this year to mark the 700th anniversary of the Bruce invasion of Ireland.
As before, the Irish funding came from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Sound & Vision Scheme and Section 481, Ireland’s Film Tax Corporation Credit.
The Irish broadcaster this time was TG4, the Gaelic language channel, with Mícheál Ó Meallaigh the commissioning editor there.
Flame Distribution provided a distribution advance against international sales.
While After Bannockburn was largely the same series for RTE and BBC Scotland and Northern Ireland, apart from the title and some narration rewrites for the local audience, this production had three versions.
BBC Scotland is screening a single hour, purely on the Scottish stories. TG4 have a feature-length single programme in Gaelic on the Irish and some Scottish stories. The international version is a two-hour series, Waterloo’s Warriors, featuring all stories.
Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘look and feel’.
Les Wilson and I at Caledonia TV have a substantial track record in both TV oral history and military history. Waterloo is where the soldiers’ stories we are now so familiar with from the 20th and 21st centuries began. It was the first battle where we know exactly what it felt like to be in the line of fire – from hundreds of eye witness accounts.
We had to paint a personal human story with no archive and no living interviewees.
Drama doc was the obvious solution.
By selecting the best from a vast array of memoirs – especially from the Scots – we narrowed down the story to five for the Scottish version and ten for the international – 11 if you include the Anglo-Irish Duke of Wellington.
Les wrote a script carefully based on the actual texts that was part pure drama, part reminiscence from the men and women, and part documentary with interviews from historians.
For example, Professor Saul David, a leading military historian and experienced broadcaster, was our guide round the battlefield in Belgium, helping the audience through the very complex ebb and flow and placing our characters in the action.
Irish director, Ruán Magan, worked closely with Les in evolving the script and brought an experienced eye to the style of the shoot.
Among his recent credits are the major History Channel US drama doc series, The Men Who Built America; and the Canada/Ireland co-production for The History Channel, Death Or Canada; which also looked at history through personal stories.
Ruán worked in the text from the memoirs in an ‘interview’ style, shooting our actors in the wake of battle.
He also evolved a fantastically gritty and realistic close-up shooting style for the battle scenes; some look as if they could come from a head cam in Afghanistan.
Ruán was aided by the fantastic eye of Irish DOP, Ronan Fox.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
At Caledonia TV, as well as the writer and executive producer, Les Wilson and myself, were in-house staff – line producer Julie McCrone, head of production Sajid Quayum and researcher Donald Alasdair Campbell.
Julie dealt with everything on the UK shoot – locations, re-enactor groups, costumes, weaponry and stunt horses.
She also sourced the perfect replica of the Chateau of Hougoumont in the UK.
All co-productions between different companies in different countries are a challenge.
Sajid kept communication flowing on both sides of the Irish Sea and had a tight grip on the complex budget.
Donald worked with casting director, Simone Pereira Hind, on finding our actors, sourced historic images, aided with logistics – and latterly donned a kilt to appear on screen in the Highland charge!
Stephen Rooke’s Tile Films has a long track record in international history docu-dramas, such as the award-winning Saving the Titanic and works with a wide range of freelance talent such as director, Ruán Magan, and DOP, Ronan Fox.
His office in Dublin also put together a highly efficient crew for the entire shoot and research team for the Irish elements.
What kit and software?
DOP, Ronan Fox, shot the programmes on a RED camera at 4K with Nikon photography lenses.
The battle scenes were augmented by Roman Bugovskiy’s Steadicam.
Editor, John Murphy, edited all three versions on Final Cut Pro and came to Scotland to cut the BBC version with Les Wilson.
At EMC Post Production in Ireland, colourist, Gary Curran, graded the programmes using Da Vinci Resolve and Cillian Duffy completed the online in Adobe Premier.
What were the main production challenges?
Time was a big issue.
The main Irish funding was approved very late in the day in September, so we had eight months to produce three versions in two languages for international broadcasters for 18th June – the 200th anniversary of the battle was not moveable!
Due to peoples’ availability, the true production schedule – bar the script writing – was as tight as five months. But it was all done and dusted by the end of May!
The anniversary also affected the re-enactor community who were focused on their 6,000-person battles in Waterloo in June.
When could we film a big battle re-enactment with them?
Their practice runs were from late April onwards – too late for our schedule. So we created an Irish re-enactment in March and then stretched our drama shoot – running concurrently with two different version edits – to early April to film The Napoleonic Association’s 1,000-person event in Suffolk.
Boyd Rankin and Lynne Williams from Irish Arms, the historical reconstruction company, were invaluable at both shoots.
There was the day the military uniforms, sent from Angels in London, ended up at the wrong end of Ireland on a Friday evening on St Patrick’s Day weekend – but Lynne can conjure period costumes from a vast Aladdin’s cave which kept us going until the costumes were located.
Boyd can similarly produce sabres and muskets to order from his workshop and is the armoury and pyrotechnics expert on Game of Thrones, so our explosions were pretty authentic – it was advisable to keep well clear!
We did not have the budget to replicate Bondarchuk’s 1970 epic Waterloo – nor access to the Soviet Army!
And for three of our lead regiments there were no re-enactors in Scotland.
The Royal Scots Greys were in California and the Gordon Highlanders in Holland and Germany. The Devil’s Horsemen agency in Buckinghamshire had the grey horses and stunt riders to solve the first problem.
The Highlanders were more of an issue. Napoleonic soldiers require black powder licences to fire muskets legally; so extras and masses of safety experts were out of the question, cost-wise.
Our saviour here was Clive Jones and his Coldstream Guards re-enactment group.
Clive, a real ex Guardsman, instructed our actors in Napoleonic military drill, how to form squares, give orders and fire muskets.
And, over and above the call of duty, Clive and his long-suffering English comrades agreed to dress up in kilts and join our actors and the 42nd Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders groups to make the Highlander charges look realistic.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
I learned a lot more about the complex and controversial battle of Waterloo than I ever imagined and have become an official Waterloo anorak!!
My Ph.D research was on women’s’ letters and diaries in Renaissance Florence, so I was in my element, searching for the best human stories.
I had invaluable help from our historical consultant, Dr John Franklin, who must have read every one of the thousands of accounts of the battle in every language and who corrected every tiny error.
Going in search of cavalryman, Corporal John Dickson, who lived to 90 and regaled the residents of Crail every Waterloo Day with his adventures, and finding Private Dixon Vallance’s grave in Carluke, you began to feel you knew them.
As my grandfather was in the Gordon Highlanders through the First World War, I was particularly pleased to find a rare memoir, unpublished since 1842, from Sergeant David Robertson – no relation!
And it was fantastic to read the only account from an army wife near the front line from Scot, Jenny Griffiths.
When you stand on the battlefield of Waterloo looking out over the rolling fields, you can sense ghosts.
If you have read the vivid accounts of the many ordinary soldiers who fought and survived that grisly battle, you can clearly visualise what they must have seen as they faced cannon fire, waves of thousands of French infantry and many hours of cavalry charges.
I hope that our production makes that human connection for the audience – and relives that extraordinary day with our Waterloo Scots and does justice to their stories and their courage.