Rabbie biopic set to run at Ayr races

February 8, 2009 | Burns News

Burns film to premiere at horsetrack ‘drive-in’

The first feature film based on the life of Robert Burns to be made since 1937 will be given its UK premier just a few miles from the poet’s Ayrshire birthplace.

Ayr Racecourse, the home of the Scottish Grand National, is to be transformed into a massive drive-in movie venue to screen the film.

Made by the Mauchline-based film company Palm Tree Productions, Red Rose will tell the story of the poet’s support for revolutions in both France and Scotland while he was a government employee as well as his adulterous affairs, most notably with Maria Riddell. Burns’s fall from 18th century polite society, his failing health and eventual death will also be dramatised.

Using huge screens already at the racecourse, it is hoped that up to 700 people in their vehicles could attend the US-style screening. Although plans are at an early stage, it is believed racecourse bosses are considering coinciding the premiere with the annual Burns An’ A’ That festival which is held in Ayrshire during May and June. Sponsorship could also mean the open-air event will be put on free of charge.

Alan Macdonald, the millionaire owner of construction firm Dawn Group, which runs Ayr Racecourse, said: “It’s early days but we’re really excited about having a drive-in premiere at the racecourse.

“No date has been set yet, but we will try to tie it in with one of our May Day race meetings. Because we’ve got the big screens there it will just be like an American movie and we could have between 500 and 700 people there.”

Plans for the drive-in screening were hatched last month after clips of Red Rose were shown at the West Sound Burns Supper in Glasgow’s Thistle Hotel. The exclusive supper, the biggest in the world, was attended by hundreds of prominent Scottish figures.

Macdonald added: “I thought the film was excellent. I think it’s going to be a very good film and will be well received.”

Mairi Sutherland, of Palm Tree Productions, said the film would be made available to distributors at Cannes in May. She added that there had already been interest from major companies including Miramax, United Artists and Columbia, and it was hoped it could be released in UK cinemas this year.

“The hope is to get international distribution, but at the very least it would be released via an independent distributor. Whatever happens, it will be seen in cinemas in Scotland and the UK. I would have thought that would be during the summer.”

Red Rose, which cost £ 1.8 million to make, will star Michael E Rodgers as Burns. Previous appearances by the Whitburn-born actor include The Patriot with Mel Gibson, NYPD Blue and Will And Grace.

Lucy Russell, named British Shooting Star 2002 at the Berlin International Film Festival, will play Burns’s wife Jean Armour, while Rebecca Palmer takes the role of the poet’s aristocrat lover Maria Riddell.

Sutherland added: “We wanted to look at aspects of Burns’s life that are known by people but which might not have been understood until they were dramatised.

“To have followed his life in a way that a lot of Burns boffins might expect it to be done would require a long TV series. But I think the people who really know Burns in the Burns Clubs will not have a problem with this film.”

Given the film’s low budget, Palm Tree focused on depicting the life of Burns rather than spending millions on ornate sets to reconstruct 18th century Scotland.

“We don’t have Hollywood funding and we’re an independent company so we used places in Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway where Burns had been when he was alive.

“Through museums and the National Trust we got access to places such as the room where Burns died. I hope that will give the film an added reality.”

The open-air screening at Ayr is part of a £ 12m masterplan by Macdonald to revamp the century-old track. Also included are plans for a rock concert venue, a nine-screen multiplex cinema, a casino, housing, a hotel with a 500-seat conference hall and sports bars.

Macdonald said: “Before we took it over last June it was just looked upon as a racecourse and nothing else. We look upon it as a 365-day event venue.”

He added that a concert by “an international act” was planned at the racecourse to coincide with Troon’s hosting of the British Open Golf Championship in July.

Despite its small budget, the film screening is a coup for Palm Tree, which was in competition with three other bids to bring the Bard’s life to the big screen. Since the late 1990s, the possibility of Robert Carlyle, Dougray Scott and even Ewan McGregor playing Burns have been mooted.

While actor David Hayman was touting a film about the poet, BBC Scotland were involved with a script by Douglas Rae and TV writer Danny Boyle. Another project, led by Braveheart actor James Cosmo, was to have involved Carlyle in the lead role.

The latest bid involves director Vadim Jean’s The Mob Film Company. On its website – – the company says it plans to cast Scots actor Gerard Butler in the role.

Ian Sharples, its producer and financial director, said: “It’s going to happen. The script is nearly complete and Gerard Burns has agreed to play Burns. We are hoping to go into production, if not this year, then next.”

The last time that Burns’s life was brought to the big screen was in the 1937 film The Romance Of Robert Burns, starring Owen King as the Bard.

Last night, the prospect of a modern take on Burns’s life was welcomed by Laurie Black, director of the Robert Burns National Heritage Park in Ayrshire. He said: “Burns was a man of the people, he was not just for the elite or for those involved with culture.

“Something like this that exposes people to the work of Burns, no matter how outlandish, is fantastic.”

However, some Burnsians were less excited by the screening. One, who has seen part of the film but who asked not to be named, said: “To be honest, I thought it was low-budget and pretty awful.”

Copyright 2004 Scottish Media Newspapers Limited

Publication: The Sunday Herald
Author: By Liam Mcdougall Arts Correspondent

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