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Caithness writer's Radio 4 drama attracts audience of two million


By Gordon Calder

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Colin MacDonald adapted Weir of Hermiston from the final novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Picture: Alan Hendry
Colin MacDonald adapted Weir of Hermiston from the final novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Picture: Alan Hendry

A TWO-part drama by Caithness writer Colin MacDonald attracted a total audience of around two million when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

MacDonald, who grew up in Wick and lives in Edinburgh, adapted Weir of Hermiston from the final novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson died while writing the book and it remained unfinished but, using the author's notes, MacDonald completed the story and dramatised it for radio.

It is set in Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills in the early 19th century and is a tale of romance, murder, hangings and wild adventure.

Helen Mackay from Thurso played the lead female role, while the star-studded cast also included Phyllis Logan of Downton Abbey fame, rising Hollywood star Jack Lowden and veteran Scottish actor Paul Young.

The first episode of Weir of Hermiston was broadcast on Sunday, April 19, and the concluding part last Sunday. It remains available on the BBC Sounds app.

MacDonald, who has written for radio, television and film, said: "We had an audience of around one million listeners for each episode – and of course there will be more listening on catch-up over the next while. It’s great to hear that.

"And we had really good reviews/previews which described it as 'unmissable, gripping and powerful'.

I have had loads of emails from people, within the industry and outside it, saying Helen was exceptional.

"One listener sent a text to Helen Mackay which said, 'I have never listened to radio drama before. But I felt I was watching it.'"

MacDonald added: "That to me was the best thing of all. We try to make movies for the ear and the imagination, and for that person it worked."

He said the audience would have been "heightened slightly because of people being cooped up in their homes" due to the coronavirus restrictions.

Helen Mackay earned praise for performance as Christina Elliot in Weir of Hermiston.
Helen Mackay earned praise for performance as Christina Elliot in Weir of Hermiston.

MacDonald described Helen Mackay's performance in the play as "exceptional" and said: "One major aspect to the reaction to Weir of Hermiston is the number of people who thought Helen Mackay’s performance as Christina Elliot was extraordinary.

"It has been very striking. I have had loads of emails from people, within the industry and outside it,saying she was exceptional – and she was.

"She had demanding scenes to play, right across the emotional spectrum, and she delivered movingly every time. I was so lucky to have her in the cast.

"I will be working with Helen again. I am certain of that."

The drama marked a return to work for Mackay, who gave birth to daughter Nell last year.

Meanwhile, MacDonald is working on a film for Amazon Studios in Los Angeles which tells the story of Raasay crofter Calum MacLeod who, when thwarted by local government, set out to build a road across his island himself – a task that took him 10 years. MacDonald wrote a successful drama for BBC Radio 4 about it previously.

He then will be writing a sixth series of Shardlake, based on the historical mystery novels by C J Sansom, also for BBC Radio 4.


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