Saturday, 13 January 2018

I've just seen my grandmother for the first time in 50 years - in a film!

Janet Mulholland in her first - and only - film role, as a Shetlander bringing a British naval officer something nice to eat (a realistic touch, as she was one hell of a cook). The film's Norwegian title was...

...Schetlandsgjengen (which translates as The Shetland Gang), and the English language version was called Suicide Mission. Released in 1954,  it celebrates the early exploits of the derangedly brave crews of the  Norwegian fishing boats that maintained a link between Britain and German-occupied Norway between 1941 and 1945. The film concentrates on the crossing in which Captain Leif Larsen - known in Norway as Shetlands Larsen - had his boat blown from under him by German planes 90 miles off the Norwegian coast. It's in Norwegian, but you'll understand what's happening. The most extraordinary thing about it is that everyone on the boat is playing himself - aa a quick glance at the cast list on iMDB will confirm. That really is Shetlands Larsen - and those (with the exception of the heroic boy, presumably) were some of the fishermen who risked their lives to keep what came to be  known as The Shetland Bus running:
The rest of the film shows the exhausted survivors dragging themselves back to Norway in a small rowing boat, where they hide out while the Germans mount a major search operation to track them down, and the British organise a rescue mission. After the events depicted in the film, the unit's slow, vulnerable fishing boats were augmented by three zippy,  well-armed submarine chasers, and it was given the very dull official title of the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit, or NNIU. 

My grandmother, Jenny Mulholland (née Janet Stuart), was not playing herself - she was a Glaswegian rather than a Shetland Islander. But she happened to be living with her daughter's family (i.e. us) in Norway when the film was being made, they needed a Scottish "local", and so she became one of the only three Britons in the film. The others were T.W. Southam - playing a bluff British admiral - and a young Michael Aldrige, who would go on to enjoy a long and immensely distinguished acting career: he appeared in many films, and was barely off our TV screens for 40 years (my own personal favourite among his numerous performances was as pipe-puffing ass Percy Alleline opposite Alec Guinness's George Smiley in the landmark 1979 series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). 

In the 69-minute English-language version of Suicide Mission (available to view for £2.49 from YouTube), Jenny Mulholland ("Yenny" as Norwegians called her) appears in three separate scenes, in two of which she gets to deliver several lines of dialogue. But there are two longer Norwegian-language versions which feature a Shetland knees-up (a céilí or cèilidh) in which she's part of a trio of singers, sits for a bit on a bench next to Larsen, and is then seen dancing with one of the Norwegians - she appears to be having a jolly good time!
There's a distorted, restricted-view 74-minute version of the Norwegian language version of Shetlandsgjengen available for free on YouTube (presumably to stop it being removed for copyright reasons) - but what I really want to get hold of is a DVD of the 91-minute version. Unfortunately, it's listed as currently available on the sites which once offered it for sale. 

I would have been one-year old when the film was released in Norway in 1954 - but my brother tells me that he accompanied his starlet grandmother "on 'the red carpet' at the Saga Kino in Majorstuen, aged eight." I'm jealous. Granny absolutely loved the pictures, and must have been tickled pink to appear in one. Her husband died young (stomach ulcers), and "granny" became a single parent (not a phrase much used in those days), supporting herself and her two young daughters by running a small dress-making business from their home in the heart of Glasgow (West George Street). After her eldest daughter married a Norwegian bomber pilot during the war, and ended up raising a family in Norway shortly after the country's liberation, our grandmother agreed to sell her business, up sticks, and leave her bustling native city for an impoverished, war-torn semi-wilderness - doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, but she was part of a tough generation (and a hard-as-nails city) which, like the Norwegians, didn't see the point in moaning about every little thing. Jenny Mulholland's sacrifice was our gain - and I'm not just talking about her wonderful cooking and her astonishing clothes-making skills. When she died in 1968 on a visit to her younger daughter in Glasgow, our mother lost her best friend, and my brother and I lost... well, let's leave it there. Let's just say that every boy should have an inspirational teacher and a no-nonsense Scottish granny. 

I'd known that Suicide Mission was available to view online for several years, but sheer cowardice had prevented me from watching it: I didn't know how I'd react to seeing my grandmother again. Silly, because it brought back nothing but comforting memories. She wasn't a drinker, but, wherever she is, I hope she's watching a Hollywood movie, smoking a cigarette, and unwrapping one of her beloved Callard & Bowser Plain Jane toffees.

If anyone has a spare DVD of the 91-minute version of Shetlandsgjengen knocking around, please give me a shout. 


  1. Amazing and wonderful.
    If I was a script writer I would have somehow contrived to write in the line "you call that wee thing a..." delivered in a broad Glaswegian accent.

  2. Feel free to delete the above. I always thought that comment in those circumstances was absolutely brilliant.