BBC Radio 7, 12-13 July 2010
Produced by Bruce Young and the BBC Scotland Drama team - most notably responsible for the Buchan adaptations of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle - The Master of Ballantrae came across as a full-blown melodrama recalling Cain and Abel; the story of a 'good' brother Henry (Liam Brennan) who stayed at home looking after the family estate, and the 'bad' brother James (David Rintoul), an adventurer spending most of his time gallivanting around Europe, supported by hand-outs provided (albeit unwillingly) by his family.
The contrast between the two was skilfully drawn: James faked his own death twice, and eventually turned out to be a spy for the English government, although ostensibly supporting the Jacobite cause. Henry stayed at home to look after the family estate, married James' sweetheart Alison (Vicky Liddell), who preferred a life of stability to one of perpetual insecurity, but could never discover happiness, even though leading a comfortable existence. His life lacked that spark of danger characterizing James' life; and, although he refused to admit it, Henry envied his brother.
The third protagonist in this adaptation was McKellar (John Shedden), a faithful family retainer who for the most part supported Henry in his efforts to expunge James from the family sphere. However, as the action progressed, so McKellar's attitudes changed; he developed a grudging respect for the prodigal brother's bravery and refusal to let adverse circumstances conquer him.
The story unfolded as a series of picaresque adventures, where James crossed land and sea both to escape his captors (the British government, and later the Jacobite supporters), and to return home once more to the family. His entire raison d'etre revolved around the recovery of buried treasure, stashed away somewhere on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Eventually James returned to America in search of it; Henry followed at a discrete distance, although his reasons for doing so had a lot more to do with killing James rather than finding any treasure. McKellar went with Henry; the two of them eventually discovered James dead. By now Henry was in such a state that he also expired: the two brothers were buried side by side, remaining together in perpetuity, however much they might have disliked it.
Sonorously narrated by Shedden, who kept warning listeners of the horrors to follow (and thereby increased our desire to learn exactly what they were), this Master of Ballantrae proved consistently entertaining, with its tales of rivalry (with distinct biblical overtones) set during the mid-eighteenth century. If nothing else, this adaptation proved just how adept director Young can be at handling this type of material.