Screen Machine: pop-up cinema visits the Hebrides

Creative Director, Documentaries, BBC Scotland

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Screen Machine, a huge mobile cinema, travelled to the Hebrides to preview BBC Scotland's new natural history series 'Hebrides: Islands on the Edge'. Executive producer Neil McDonald was on hand to witness the event.

A ferocious south westerly was whipping across the Minch as the Calmac ferry eased its way into the narrow inlet at Tarbert on the Hebridean Isle of Harris. As it unloaded its usual mixture of locals and tourists it also disgorged unusual cargo – a 34 ton mobile cinema, the Screen Machine - a pop up marvel which continually circles the remotest fringes of Scotland.

The Screen Machine truck disembarks the Calmac ferry.

First on the bill last week was the opening episode of a new landmark natural history series from BBC Scotland- Hebrides: Islands on the Edge which has been narrated by Ewan McGregor.

There could not be a more fitting place to screen the film than Harris. The stark beauty of the island is extraordinary. Its mountains were the understudy for Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tarbert perches precariously on the rocky east coast. Two hundred years ago the inhabitants were forcibly cleared from the more fertile west coast to scratch out a living amongst the boulders and peat in the east. It’s an island where the past hangs heavy.

The Screen Machine though is a modern technological marvel. Owned and operated by Regional Screen Scotland, it is fully digital, its sides unfolding to reveal, Tardis like, a roomy and comfortable 80 seat cinema that would not feel out of place in the coolest urban setting.

Neil McDonald introduces the screening of Hebrides: Islands on the Edge.

I was there as the executive producer for the BBC of Hebrides: Islands on the Edge. It’s the centrepiece of a forthcoming Wild Scotland season on BBC Scotland which features other gems like Wild Cameramen at Work, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, a four part series looking at the world class wildlife cameramen who have made Scotland their home and Midsummer Live, a 90 minute live show from the Callanish standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, which will investigate and celebrate the impact of the long nights on the natural and human worlds.

There are few places more magical than the Hebrides in midsummer but Islands on the Edge, produced by Maramedia in association with Otter Films, tracks wildlife through all the seasons. The series which was filmed over two years could not have been made without the support of many people in the islands so it seemed only proper that they should be given an advance preview.

We wanted the islanders to be able to watch the programmes in all their HD glory but with few cinemas on the islands the Screen Machine was called into action.

Crossing the Skye Bridge, the Screen Machine continues it's tour of the Hebrides.

Beginning on the Isle of Barra at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides the cinema made its way north, through some of the most sensational landscapes in the world, stopping on 6 different islands to screen Hebrides: Islands on the Edge.

In Harris, the audience ranged in age from 8 to 80. This was a film about their home, a place they loved. Their reaction was universal – they had never seen the islands photographed in such a spectacular way. Cameraman and producer John Aitchison and executive producer Nigel Pope had delivered a passionate and lyrical account of what it’s really like for both wildlife and people to live on the edge. John had filmed for 240 days through storm and drought to capture the most extraordinary wildlife behaviour. The people of Harris saw their island through different eyes.

Ewan McGregor, who narrated the programme.

Ewan McGregor did us the great favour of tweeting to his 300,000 followers that Hebrides: Islands On The Edge was “one of the most beautiful films” he had seen. The people of Harris agreed. I hope you do too.


Neil McDonald is Creative Director, Documentaries, BBC Scotland.

Hebrides: Islands on the Edge will be broadcast on BBC One Scotland on Monday 6 May at 9pm.

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