SAYS the BBC, here: “Scotland witnessed the world’s first true ‘oil rush’, when inventor James ‘Paraffin’ Young first refined lighting fuel from a shale rock in 1851… presented by geologist, Professor Iain Stewart, this film tells the story of shale, its lasting impact on one Scottish community… and the massive and unique landmarks still visible today.”
The programme is being broadcast on BBC Two Scotland at 2100, on Tuesday, May 17.
Producer, Maurice Smith, of TVI Vision, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the programme?
Ewan Angus for BBC Scotland, and their executive was David Harron.
Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘look and feel’.
We wanted to tell the story of the shale oil industry, which had a massive impact on Scottish industry, and left a lasting legacy in West Lothian, yet which tends to be ignored in comparison to other significant industries of the 19th and 20th centuries.
A number of the ‘red mountains’ – better known as the ‘bings’ – have been landscaped, flattened for housing or removed, but there are three really striking ones, now protected, at Broxburn, Winchburgh and the Five Sisters at Addiewell.
The last mine closed in the early 1960s, so obviously a lot of the former miners are dying out now, and we felt it was important to tell their story and the story of their communities.
West Lothian is often by-passed, in more ways that one, and, when we started talking to people there about the idea, they seemed delighted just to have some recognition.
At first, our director, Brian Ross, and I were nervous because the timing of the commission meant that the optimum period for filming was winter.
We decided to make a virtue of that, however, and were comparatively lucky. We had our presenter, Professor Iain Stewart, with us for seven days from January 8 for the initial filming. Apart from one day’s snow and another day of incredibly heavy rainfall, we had pretty good light every other day.
Those bings just look fantastic in the crisp cold; absolutely majestic.
Iain describes them in the film as ‘Scotland’s pyramids’. The Five Sisters are remarkable, but the sheer scale of Greendykes bing is awe inspiring.
Their colours, the vegetation that grows on them, everything about these bings is on a big scale. They look completely different from various angles, and to walk on them is an experience in itself.
We returned in March with Dave Hipkiss of UpAbove TV and one of his drones, and captured some fantastic aerial images which have been used really effectively at the beginning and ending of the film.
What kit and software?
Our main camera was the Canon C300. For some shots, we also used a Canon 5D installed in a gimbal, and had a couple of GoPros for vehicle shots.
We used two C300s for several of the interviews. Fraser Rice filmed everything with Iain, and Dougie Walker shot another week’s worth of interviews later in January.
The edit was done in-house, with editor, Noel Nelis, using Avid Media Composer, and the online and grade was done at The Hive in Glasgow by Guido Schneider.
Our man with the mics was Dougie Fairgrieve and the dub was done by John Devine at the Hive.
What were the main production challenges?
The main challenge was the weather. At first, we were concerned about getting the right people in front of camera. We wanted miners and other former shale industry people, but we also wanted people from the communities to share family memories, and so on. Once people heard what we were about, we had no shortage of volunteers, though.
We had two other challenges: explaining the technology without turning a social history into a science programme, for which we used animator, Cameron Duguid, who previously did some great stuff for our previous documentary, The Bridge: Fifty Years Across the Forth.
Technically, we had the familiar challenge of using specially shot material with stills and some great archive from the BP video library and Scotland’s Moving Image Archive.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
First thing I learned was that – outside West Lothian – if you mention ‘shale’ people automatically think you are talking about fracking. This is not a documentary about fracking!
More seriously, that issue shows me just how much people rely on the web for information. When they hear shale, they very often have no idea that Scotland mined shale and refined oil and other products from it for more than a century.
This whole industry has almost been excised from history, although at least West Lothian schools cover it now in the curriculum.
I greatly enjoyed meeting the people we interviewed, a really diverse group. I started my career as a journalist with the West Lothian Courier, way back when, and this project reminded me how close-knit some Scottish working-class communities – places like West Calder and Addiewell, for example – continue to be, long after the industries that bound them together have gone.
We worked with a great presenter in Iain Stewart, and our exec producer, Colin Cameron, was worth his weight, as usual. What else did I learn? Not a learning, but several reminders that people can be so helpful when they know you want to tell their story and that you will do so sincerely.
As every with the best-told stories, this is about people as much as it is about shale.