The Falkirk Cowboys

Wednesday, 8pm, BBC One

Once Upon A Time In Stirlingshire… This week’s most uplifting hour of television is a documentary that looks back to a more valiant age – specifically, the lawless frontier of early-1970s Falkirk – and a gang of outlaws of the kind they just don’t make any more.

This was a wild bunch who turned their backs on the accepted ways of civilised society, left their little town, and boldly rode into the wild country, determined to create a new life for themselves. The private kingdom they carved out there in the wilderness was a simpler place: a world of two-fisted heroes and black-hearted villains; a world where the good guys would always win; a world where men could be men, and could wear their wives’ carefully customised handbags slung around their hips without raising an eyebrow.

Legends in their own lifetime, the members of this rootin-tootin’ posse are now getting the wider recognition they deserve as the stars of one of the most curious footnotes in British movie history. Our heroes are “The BA Cowboys,” a group of workers from the now long-defunct British Aluminium plant at Falkirk, who, when their shifts ended, transformed themselves into a crack amateur film unit and hightailed it for local parkland armed with a Super-8 camera, to shoot a series of DIY westerns. They kept it up for years, turning out ten- and twenty-minute epics with titles like Border Badmen, Apache Ambush and Lawless Breed.

A loving, unexpectedly moving documentary, Falkirk Cowboys tells their daft, brilliant, unlikely story by reuniting three of the films’ original stars, now all in their seventies and eighties: Denis McCourtney, the John Wayne of the company; Ian Gardiner, particularly prized for his 6ft 2 frame; and Alex Penman, who enthusiastically provided most of the Apache ambush in Apache Ambush.

Quite how the project first began, none can exactly recall now, except that it was all the brainchild of their visionary leader, the late Rab Harvey. A forklift driver by day, in his spare time Harvey was Falkirk’s secret answer to John Ford as writer-director of their increasingly ambitious films, which were shown in a makeshift cinema in the factory at screenings intended to raise money for local children.

Funding themselves by each paying 15p a week into a kitty, and armed with homemade costumes and props – including natty holsters made from the aforementioned handbags – these were, essentially, grown men playing Cowboys And Indians, and loving it. But, without being heavy-handed about it, the documentary teases out some of the other factors at work under the surface. Framing their homemade movies as folk art, it’s a film about working class energy and creativity, a film about friendship and community, and a film about a seemingly vanished period, when such things could flourish across Scotland’s central belt.

Stuffed with excellent archive, the documentary builds toward a recent gala screening at Bo’ness Hippodrome, as the community gathers to see these films projected on a proper cinema screen for the first time. Watching as the surviving Cowboys are welcomed like heroes by the audience, it’s not difficult to imagine their story being transformed into a movie itself – a film about art, laughs, ambition and transcendence in the shadows of heavy industry, along the lines of a Brassed Off, a Billy Elliot or a Kes.

Their tale even supplies its own metaphorical arc. For their last film together, the Cowboys left the western genre to venture into the realms of horror with The Mummy’s Hand, starring Ian Gardiner wrapped in bandages as the monster. Considering the fate that would soon strike the industrial towns of the central belt as the factories began to disappear, a story about living death seems eerily appropriate.



War Of The Worlds

9pm, BBC One

If anyone is still awake, it’s the final episode of this increasingly turgid and weepy adaptation of HG Wells’s groundbreaking sci-fi novel. The best moments of this series all came during the first episode, and they were all taken directly from Wells. Ever since, as it has sought to graft contemporary themes onto the story, it has only grown duller and more directionless, while sacrificing some of the best scenes from the original book. Most damaging of all has been the decision to splinter the narrative into a messy and senseless series of flashbacks and flash forwards, an obligatory disease that is spreading like wildfire across current BBC dramas. Still, nice tripods. As tonight’s finale begins, everybody is miserable. They will stay that way until it ends.


Storyville: Facing Franco's Crimes – The Silence of Others 10pm, BBC Four Last month, the remains of Spain’s former fascist dictator General Franco were exhumed from their monumental mausoleum and removed to a less glorified resting place. The controversy surrounding the decision highlighted how, 40 years on, the traumas of the Franco era remain raw – partly because they have never been addressed. Where other countries have attempted to heal historical wounds via processes of “Truth & Reconciliation” Spain instead imposed the official “Pact Of Forgetting,” designed to repress memories and erase history. Directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s straightforward, but searingly emotional documentary follows the ongoing struggles of victims who refuse to forget, and who still seek justice. They include a torture victim whose former abuser now lives only a few doors away from him; pensioners searching for the graves of parents executed decades ago; and aging mothers seeking children the state stole from them as infants.


Takaya: Lone Wolf

9pm, BBC Four

The title is literal: the star of this stunning nature documentary is a male wolf that lives alone on a tiny archipelago off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Quite why Takaya wound up there by himself is unknown – wolves are highly social animals by nature, yet the nearest pack is some 25 miles away, back across the churning waters that surround his little island. When he was first spotted there, no one thought he would stay, yet he has made the island his home for over seven years, and thrived there (particularly bad news for local seals). During that time, Takaya has become a fascination for wildlife photographer Cheryl Alexander, who has devoted herself to recording his activities, and this film is a hypnotic picture of his world, and of the strange connection that has developed between wolf and photographer.


Giri/ Haji

9pm, BBC Two

All eight parts of this extraordinary drama, written by Joe Barton and directed by Julian Farino and Ben Chessell, went up on the BBC’s iPlayer when the first episode aired back in October. But for anyone watching it on TV, tonight is the finale – and for anyone who’s not been watching it, please do yourself a favour and give it a go. From the beginning, this story about a Japanese cop searching for his missing mobster brother in London has had hustling wit and style: tense and tough, littered with humour, and sad and touching when you least expect it. But it has only grown better as it has developed. Tonight, in one quite audacious scene, all of the strands come together, and suddenly break through the skin of the show, moving it up into another realm altogther. Bold, strange and unaccountably moving.


Country Music By Ken Burns

9.30pm, BBC Four

The first instalment in tonight’s double bill of this lavish documentary covers 1964-68, to consider how country reflected and reacted to changes in American society during a time of profound upheaval. Charley Pride recalls the reaction of audiences who only discovered he was black when he stepped out on stage to perform, while Loretta Lynn speaks about bringing woman’s issues to the mainstream audience. Elsewhere, we see Johnny Cash bonding with Bob Dylan, while Cash-fan-turned-icon Merle Haggard came out of prison to become ‘poet of the common man.’ The second episode spans 1968-72, as the Vietnam War intensified and America grew more divided than ever. Against this tumult, former Army captain and Nashville janitor Kris Kristofferson brought new levels of street-level lyricism to the music, while George Jones and Tammy Wynette rose to become “Mr. and Mrs. Country.”


Woody Guthrie: Three Chords And The Truth

12.25am, BBC Four

A handy primer on the “dust bowl balladeer,” who represents the big bang of the modern singer-songwriter: famously Bob Dylan’s first great model, Guthrie set the pace for punk agitators when he daubed “This Machine Kills Fascists” across his guitar, and his influence still echoes behind the likes of George Ezra. This profile explores how, by mixing bitter personal observation, wry humour, and ear-wormy hooks, his deceptively simple anthems for the downtrodden made him an icon of socially conscious protest. But it doesn’t shy from his flaws: a product his time, Guthrie could be unconsciously racist early on, until a black listener explained it, and he changed. Among his many anti-racist songs is the curiously relevant “Old Man Trump.” Contributors include Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and Guthrie’s children Nora and Arlo.