The Angels' Share – Set Visit
I’m standing at the back of a handsomely adorned grand room of an upmarket hotel in the heart of Edinburgh watching a curious ritual take place: a mass whisky tasting. Master of ceremonies is a moustachioed dandy in a mustard waistcoat. He holds an elegant glass up to the light and admires the colour of the golden malty liquor within. Waiting on his every word and aping his behaviour with their own dainty tumblers of booze is an enthusiastic crowd that broadly splits into two types: tweed-wearing whisky connoisseurs and tartan tourists who no doubt insist on calling the tasty liquid they’re quaffing scotch.
This idyllic middle-class soiree is being disrupted, somewhat, by a table of uncouth, shabbily-attired Glaswegians who are pissing about at the back of the room. "How’d they make it past reception?" I think to myself. I hope someone from the hotel is going to give them a right good talking to.
That’s not going to happen, however, as these are the lead actors in a film called The Angels’ Share, a boisterous comedy about a quartet of reprobates serving community service, who plan an audacious robbery of a priceless barrel of whisky from a Highland distillery to help them escape the rat trap of poverty and crime they were born into. The bit of theatre I’ve just witnessed is the fulcrum scene, where the whisky master conducting the tasting lets slip of a recently discovered rare island malt that will soon be going up for auction. Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan), the brains of the operation and somewhat of a whisky tasting prodigy, ropes his ne're-do-well chums into siphoning off their share of the barrel in a plot that's reminiscent of That Sinking Feeling via Whisky Galore!
Quietly pulling the strings of this Ealing-esque romp is director Ken Loach, who for five decades has been making films with a social conscience, sometimes with furious anger (Hidden Agenda, Cathy Come Home) and others with warm humour (Riff-Raff, Raining Stones), and always with a deep humanity for the people in society who get the fuzzy end of the stick. When the scene wrapped for lunch I caught up with some of the cast and crew, who had nothing but praise for their director.
“His style is really distinct and very observational,” says Robbie Ryan, The Angels’ Share’s director of photography while chomping on a healthy looking plate of greens. “Ken is very keen not to have the camera near the actors so that they can perform with no distractions whatsoever.” (I can confirm this, as for most of the morning I was crouch behind a pillar with the film’s grips and runners so that the performers didn’t get put off by the plonker wandering around set with a notepad – i.e. me.) Tripods and long lenses are the order of the day, then.
Having Ryan shoot in the Loach-style is a bit like using a sledgehammer to bang in a paper tac. Given that the award-winning cinematographer’s previous gig was Andrea Arnold’s wind-lashed Wuthering Heights, which saw his camera get up close and personal with Cathy and Heathcliff as they wandered the Yorkshire moors, working with Loach must have been a picnic. “I struggled with it sometimes," confesses Ryan. "I like the energy of handheld – I like running around and you feel like you’ve worked all day – whereas here I feel like I’ve not actually worked so hard.” As I tuck into a delicious lunch of baked salmon and green beans at the pop-up alfresco canteen the catering department have knocked-up in the lush grounds of a church neighbouring Princes Street Gardens, I can only nod in agreement and promise that I’ll visit him on his next extreme movie set.
For all his films' gritty, real-life content, Loach's image is much more conservative – classical even. Although Ryan’s own sensibilities tend towards the expressionistic, he deeply admires Loach’s work. “People think of handheld as being natural and real, but in a way it’s quite intrusive to a person who’s acting because they’ve got a camera beside them. Ken’s much purer: it’s much more about watching something happen as an observer,” explains the Irishman. “Actually,” he adds with a knowing laugh, “if he could, he’d have the camera out of the room all together, not there at all.”
Another technique used by Loach to add veracity to his dramas is the use of non-professional actors in key roles. The whisky tasting expert with the splendid facial hair and gregarious manner from the scene I’ve just watched is not played by a R.A.D.A-trained character actor who's hoping this role will be the one where Hollywood finally takes notice, but real life whisky aficionado Charles Maclean. I catch up with him as he grabs a cheeky cigarette before the afternoon’s scenes. “I got involved when Paul Laverty, the script writer, got in touch,” he tells me. “We got on like a house on fire – really, really well – but it was only about forty minutes into the conversation that he revealed who the director was. I get approached by film production companies quite often but it’s invariably documentary type things, and usually nothing comes of it. But I thought, this is going to be real if Ken Loach is behind it.”
How did he find the acting process? “It wasn’t scripted at all. There were guidelines: you’ve got to include x, y and z, but how you do it is up to you.” The first half of the scene I’d just witnessed, for example, had just been conceived that morning. “I think some bits are more tightly scripted than others but by-and-large there’s a certain amount of ad lib.” Maclean reckons this is why Loach so often manages to elicit great performances: “The actors have got to up their game and think on their feet, they can’t just rely on learning a script.”
Giving one of these vital performances is Paul Brannigan. Another novice actor, he plays the film’s lead Robbie, and was chosen for the role, in part, because his own early life closely mirrors his character’s background. “The way Ken does it, even with the script, he will ask you your opinion,” explains Brannigan with obvious admiration for British cinema’s elder statesman. “He’ll maybe ask you ten times and you’ll maybe come up with ten different opinions, but no matter what happens you always find yourself coming back to the script, but maybe you’ve just got different words that you would use.”
The Angels’ Share is all about second chances. At the beginning of the film Robbie is on the brink of going to jail for a vicious assault, but a compassionate judge sentences him to do 300 hours on a community payback scheme instead. Loach also gave Brannigan a second chance when he failed to turn up for his first audition. I ask Brannigan how he would define his relationship to his director. “The only way I could describe him is that he’s just a really good mentor. Not just in terms of acting but life in general, he was really, really good with me.”
I don’t get a chance to speak to the man himself as he works through lunch overseeing the next camera setup for the afternoon’s filming. At 75-years-old there’s still clearly a passion and drive in Loach to tell stories that speak to the injustices he sees around him. With the shadow of austerity and mass youth unemployment hanging over the UK like a thunder cloud, it’s reassuring to know that British cinema’s great political filmmaker still has a fire in his belly.