Scotland

How Falkirk's metal workers became cowboy film stars

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Media captionThe unlikely tale of the Westerns made by British Aluminium factory workers in the 1970s

The men of metal who worked in Falkirk's huge aluminium factory in the 1970s would often spend their spare time playing darts or snooker but one group did something very different - they made cowboy films.

Grown men reliving their childhood by running about the woods playing Cowboys and Indians was originally seen by many as a joke.

But the man behind the idea was deadly serious and over the next few years fork-lift truck driver Rab Harvey assembled a cast who made a string of increasingly ambitious films.

The men, who all worked at the British Aluminium factory, became known as the BA Cowboys.

Image copyright BBC/Objective/Falkirk Community Trust
Image caption Falkirk Cowboy Denis McCourtney rides a horse into British Aluminium

Surviving cowboys Denis McCourtney, Alex Penman and Ian Gardiner recall their time as unlikely movie stars for a BBC Scotland documentary, which has unearthed their films for the first time in decades.

They all credit Rab Harvey with being the movie buff who had long dreamed of making Western films like the ones he grew up watching.

His first recruit was Jock Aitken because he had a Super 8 camera. He was soon followed by Denis and the others.

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Media captionBored 70s factory worker? Why not make amateur westerns in the park in your spare time?

They began in July 1970 and made a string of short films with titles such as Apache Ambush, Border Badmen and The Lonesome Drifter.

The first film was an eight-minute epic called the Lawless Breed.

The men dressed up in basic cowboy gear such as guns, holsters and hats and got to work on Rab's simple script.

At the time they were making their first films the Western genre had changed.

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was in cinemas, showing a "revisionist" version of the wild west with more graphic violence.

Image copyright BBC/Objective/Falkirk Community Trust
Image caption Falkirk Cowboys, Ian Gardiner, Denis McCourtney and Alex Penman, as they are today

The films of the BA cowboys belonged to a different age. They were recreating the Saturday morning cinema classics featuring John Wayne that they had watched as kids.

Ian says: "We grew up playing Cowboys and Indians in the school playground and around the streets.

"It took you back to being a schoolboy. We were reliving our childhood."

It was an old-school, simplified version of the Western myth, with the native Americans, known as Red Indians, always being the bad guys.

When it came to casting, Denis was the hero for the simple reason that he could ride a horse.

Alex, on the other hand, was one of the few to volunteer to be an Indian because he liked cutting people's throats.

Image copyright BBC/Objective/Falkirk Community Trust
Image caption Denis McCourtney was the hero because he knew how to ride a horse

"There were a lot of people wanted to be cowboys," he says. "I wanted to be different."

Everything was done on the cheap. The men paid a weekly subscription of 15p but it did not go much further than buying film for Jock's camera. For the props, they had to be inventive.

The gun belts started life as handbags and Denis got replica bullets made by turners in the factory.

The same actor also had to play many parts. One got killed six times in a single film.

Health and safety was not a concern either and the fights were never choreographed beforehand.

"If you got a whack in the jaw because someone misjudged it, that was just hard luck," Alex says. "If you got hurt, you got hurt."

Image copyright BBC/Objective/Falkirk Community Trust
Image caption Alex, Ian and Denis attended a cinema screening of their films

Over the years, the films got more ambitious.

In 1974 they made Showdown. It runs for 21 minutes and is technically complicated, with more edits, sound effects and overdubs.

The film also introduced another authentic part of the old Western - saloon girls, played by wives and daughters of the cast.

They filmed in the Victoria bar in Falkirk, the first time they had created scenes indoors.

It culminates with a hanging scene for which Ian had made a harness out of old car seat belts.

By now the films had gained quite a reputation and were shown to pensioners or at children's parties. They raised money for a charity that provided wheelchairs for children with spina bifida.

Image copyright BBC/Objective
Image caption The surviving BA cowboys film a scene at Callendar Park stables in Falkirk, where some of the scenes from their movies were filmed

The exploits of the BA Cowboys hit the big time when popular BBC magazine programme Nationwide sent reporter Bernard Falk up to spend the day with them.

He ended up tied to a tree in Callendar Park.

Next came a change of direction. After conquering the world of the Western, Rab wanted to try the horror genre.

The final film was the Mummy's Hand, which was filmed in a quarry at the back of Falkirk Golf Club.

Soon after, the BA Cowboys came to an abrupt end when a group of the cast left British Aluminium in a severe round of redundancies.

More than 40 years later, the films were discovered in the archive of Falkirk's Callendar House museum and the surviving BA cowboys were finally able to attended a big screen premiere at the Hippodrome in Bo'ness.

Denis says: "We were sitting there saying 'I can't believe this' because we thought we'd never see them again."

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