Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, adapted by Donna Franceschild

Contact Us

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, adapted by Donna Franceschild. Dir. Kirsty Williams. Perf. Amy Manson, Robin Laing, Pearl Appleby. BBC Radio 4, 25 Jan. - 1 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 28 Feb. 2015.

Set in and around the small town of Segget in Aberdeenshire, Kirsty Williams's production focused specifically on the novel's social aspects, especially the conflict between the long-established bourgeois residents such as Miss M'Askill (Wendy Seager) and Leslie (Ralph Riach), and the "spinners"; the workers at the local mill owned by English immigrant Mowat (Nick Underwood).

Trying to adjust to this class-conscious environment was the newly-appointed minister Robert (Robin Laing) and his wife Chris (Amy Manson), whom we previously encountered in Gaynor MacFarlane's production of Sunset Song (2009), recently re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. In the earlier adaptation the role was played by Lesley Hart; in Manson's characterization Chris came across as a thoroughly determined person, proud of her rural roots in a crofting family, and refusing point blank to conform to the genteel manners expected of a minister's wife.

Inevitably Chris's behavior caused social unrest, especially in one climactic sequence where she invited Mowat, Leslie and Miss A'Askill to tea, and told them in no uncertain terms how their conservatism was one of the principal causes of social unrest in town. Mowat refused to pay any more wages, while the other two regarded the spinners as little more than vermin. The three guests left Chris's house politely enough, but they were now implacable enemies.

As the production unfolded, so Robert's attitude changed; at first he made every effort to keep everyone happy, but once he realized how myopic his congregation actually was, he sided with the spinners in their fight for increased wages and greater self-determination. It was no coincidence that the action of this adaptation was set in 1926 at the time of the General Strike, when it really did seem as if the country would experience major social upheaval. Nothing came of the action, of course: the spinners were forced back to work on lower ages, and their mill was eventually closed by the unscrupulous Mowat. Nonetheless Williams's production suggested that the spinners had acquired a political and social consciousness that they seldom experienced before the strike; things would never be the same again, regardless of what Leslie and Miss M'Askill believed.

Constructed as a series of short scenes, Williams's production was both fast-moving yet aware of the novel's significance as a piece of social criticism. Union activists such as Jock Cronin (Stephen Duffy) were regarded as potentially subversive, despite their concern to fight for workers' rights. Not only did they represent a threat to the established social order, but they had the capacity to influence the workers' minds - far more so than the complacent Mowat who, for all his surface politeness, had little or no understanding of the community he inhabited.

The production came to a dramatic climax when a baby belonging to one of the workers' families was quite literally killed by vermin, as his finger was gnawed off by rats. Human vermin had been devoured by animal vermin. This shocking event spurred Robert on to deliver a final sermon in church, emphasizing the importance of treating all human beings equally. The message fell on deaf ears: most of the bourgeois community of Segget preferred to maintain their comfortable lives. Nonetheless Robert's sermon adumbrated what would happen in the future, when the old order was superseded by a more socialist ideology. It did take another World War to bring this about, but at least it happened.

Cloud Howe was full of incident, as well as being cleverly constructed, contrasting Robert and Chris's life with that of Chris's servant Else (Pearl Appleby), as she first spurned her employer and subsequently returned. This strategy showed how people of different socio-economic backgrounds could learn to co-exist with one another, so long as they set aside class prejudices.