Restless Natives team to turn Scottish crime caper into musical

Dalya Alberge
·3 min read

It is a Scottish crime caper that was loved in Scotland and largely loathed by English film critics when it was released in 1985. But Restless Natives went on to become a much-loved classic with its comic story of two teenagers who become local heroes as highwaymen – Robin Hoods who rob tourists and give money to the poor. Over the years, A-list actors such as Jack Black, Gerard Butler and James McAvoy are among those who have declared it a favourite film.

Now Andy Paterson, Michael Hoffman and Ninian Dunnett – its respective producer, director and writer – are collaborating on a major stage musical version. In 1985, they were novice film-makers in their 20s when they faced the harshest response to their film.

Paterson went on to make award-winning productions, such as Girl with a Pearl Earring starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, but he will never forget reviews for his first film that were so wounding, his career was nearly ended before it had even started.

He recalled: “It was a movie made by people nobody had ever heard of. We had an English media press screening on a rainy Monday morning and they were not in the mood. They just didn’t find it funny. The press was horrible. The movie was trashed in a way that very nearly took us out of the industry.”

The film featured a soundtrack from the rock band Big Country, and starred Vincent Friell and Joe Mullaney as the highwaymen, as well as Ned Beatty, Bernard Hill and Mel Smith.

Paterson said: “It was our first grown-up movie and there are certain things that we always felt we could do better.”

But they were still unprepared for vicious reviews. One critic dismissed it as “dreadfully unfunny”. Another found it “just tiresome”.

The film-makers put the negative response behind them, having seen it perform well only in Scotland, where critics saw its qualities.

Hoffman went on to direct acclaimed feature films, including The Last Station, a Tolstoy biopic starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. With Paterson, he also made Restoration, a period drama with Robert Downey Jr as a physician at the court of Charles II. More recently, their Netflix film about Gore Vidal was shelved following allegations against its lead actor, Kevin Spacey.

But Restless Natives was far from forgotten, and Studiocanal is re-releasing it in a restored version on Monday.

Related: Restless Natives review – classic Scottish comedy is a reminder of a sweeter era

Peter Bradshaw, writing in the Guardian last week, gave it a four-star review, noting that the film was “part of a boom in Britmovie comedy of the era when Scotland was becoming caustically alienated from Thatcherite England, and which gave us Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy and Local Hero”.

Paterson, who hopes to stage the musical next year, said: “We are huge musical theatre fans and this story seems to lend itself to being told in that medium.”

He described himself as an amateur musician, “a failed rock’n’roller” who was in bands in his teens. It gives him a particular understanding of the importance of film music, unlike some film-makers who give composers the impression that the score is an afterthought. Paterson’s films include Hilary and Jackie, about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her sister.

He said the musical – written by the three of them together – is at an advanced stage and they have most of the songs. “We’ve used lockdown well … Tim Sutton, a big West End musical director and composer, who has written extensively for Radio 4 and the Royal Shakespeare Company is writing the original music. If not for the lockdown, Tim would have been musical director on the National Theatre tour of War Horse at the moment …

“The soundtrack of the movie was Big Country. Tragically, Stuart Adamson, who was its lead singer and main composer, died many years ago. But we’re very much working with Big Country and including their songs in the musical.”