“The whole world will weep with gratitude when the big day comes because Mr Happer has got his comet!“
What Mr Happer really wants is to find a comet — and if he does, he’ll call it a Happer comet or Happer’s Comet or…Comet Happer. Sadly, Happer never gets his comet, but he does eventually get an asteroid.
This article focuses on the hunt for Happer’s Comet in the quaint British film Local Hero. And much like any comet that manages to avoid a crash and burn into the Sun, this enduring film that first appeared in cinemas back in 1983, has stood the test of time remarkably well.
As well as the hunt for Happer’s Comet, this article is about the interactions between the two key characters in the film: an oil company land deal negotiator Macintyre “Mac” played by Peter Riegert, a relatively unknown actor at the time, and the head of the company Felix Happer played by Burt Lancaster — and I could not imagine the film being what it is without Lancaster in the role of Happer.
When we first meet Felix Happer he is sleeping through a business meeting about an oil refinery to be built in Scotland. And no-one is going to wake him; he is, after all, the boss. So the meeting continues on in whispered tones.
But Happer’s daytime nap is not due to a lack of burning interest for his company, Knox Oil & Gas. He just prefers the observatory and planetarium in his penthouse, to the pipelines and plans in the office presentation.
The presentation through which Happer is sleeping is to discuss the company’s acquisition of Scotland — the part of Scotland that the Texan oil giant needs to acquire for its new onshore refinery and storage base, which also happens to be a picturesque little fishing village and stretch of sandy beach on the northwest coast called Ferness Bay.
They have a budget for the entire acquisition of $60 million and want someone Scottish to do the negotiations. Enter Macintyre or “Mac”. He prefers to tie up oil deals by Telex, but the company wants him on the ground in Scotland.
Felix Happer wants to meet the Scotsman who has been selected to go so Mac is called up to the top floor. But the truth is Macintyre has no Scottish roots whatsoever. His Hungarian family picked the name when they first arrived in the US.
What soon becomes clear to Macintyre is that Happer is less interested in the details of the deal on the ground than he is about what may take place in the sky above.
From a control panel in his desk drawer, Happer pushes some buttons and the ceiling retracts to reveal a map of the constellations. Virgo will be well up this time of year in Scotland, Mac is told, and he is promptly given instructions by Happer on how to find it, what to look for when he finds it, and what to do if he sees anything unusual taking place in it. Mac will be Happer’s eyes and ears in Scotland.
Happer: “This is Virgo. Find the Great Bear…the Big Dipper…and you can’t go wrong. Get to know it. I’m expecting something special from there. Keep your eyes skinned. I want reports.“
Mac: “Reports, sir?“
Happer: “Anything unusual in Virgo. It might be a new star, or even a shooting star. I want to know about it. I want reports. Anything out of the ordinary, you telephone me, night or day…“
Somewhat bewildered, Mac smiles and nods politely when Happer asks if he understands. It’s not the meeting the pretend Scot was expecting at all…
Happer: “Do you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?“
Mac: “I have a general idea…”
Happer: “Well, you’ll know when you see it. And you’ll telephone me, OK?“
Happer: “You do know what a comet is, don’t you?”
Mac: “I feel sure I’d know one if I saw one.“
And if you, the reader, don’t know, you might like to read this.
So Mac goes off to Ferness in Scotland, confident that he will be able to tie up the deal in a couple of days.
Mac’s counterpart in Ferness is Gordon Urquhart (played by Denis Lawson), the local hotelier, accountant and stealthy negotiator who has his own secret weapon, his wife Stella (Jennifer Black). It won’t be long before Mac falls hook, line and sinker for all the charms of the quaint fishing village.
While Mac is keeping an eye on the stars…and Stella…his colleague Oldsen from the Aberdeen office (played by a young Peter Capaldi) is keeping an eye on the sea…in the form of Marina, the marine biologist who scubas along the coast studying what the North Atlantic drift washes up into Ferness Bay.
The webbed-toed sea scientist (played by Jenny Seagrove) has already submitted a proposal to Knox Industries to build a marine laboratory in Ferness Bay and has no idea of the alternative plans for an oil refinery. When she does hear of it all, she dismisses it as mere nonsense.
Mac and Oldsen remark on the exhilarating location of Ferness as they acquaint themselves with the part of the beach where the refinery will be built. Then justify why they are there, asking themselves the question: “Can you imagine a world without oil?” And so they discuss. No cars, no paint, no ink, no polish, no nylon, no detergents, no perspex, no polythene, no dry-cleaning fluid…
Sounds like the bridge in that 1980’s song Turning Japanese by the band The Vapors, I thought (here). And let’s not dwell on the vapours that this new oil refinery will be pumping out all across Ferness Bay. I really think so.
And like all the locals in the village who double up on jobs, Mac has a second job to be getting on with, too:
Mac: “Do you know anything about the stars?“
Oldsen: “Not much. Why?“
Mac: “Oh, I want to check something out. I’ll get a book or something.“
Good luck with that…finding an astronomy book in a remote fishing village on the coast of Scotland with one tiny shop, pre-commercial internet, pre-Amazon, pre-, well, everything.
The film was shot primarily in Pennan on the northern coast of Aberdeenshire in the east of Scotland, and Morar and Arisaig in the Highlands on the west coast. Together these towns recreate the sleepy fictional village of Ferness and its pristine beach carved into an idyllically picturesque bay.
The spectacular scenery, environmental undertones, cosmic overtones and haunting soundtrack by Mark Knopfler make Local Hero one of the best British movies ever to grace our screens. And thanks to this film, Pennan is now world famous, as well as being home to one of the world’s most famous phone boxes, an object that became the most unusual star of the film.
It’s a movie with no violence whatsoever (okay, a rabbit got bumped) and almost no conflict. This may be why this film feels so unique and keeps us watching — waiting for something to kick off, maybe? Which, of course, it doesn’t. Yet it still manages to keep us engaged. I say almost no conflict, but we do have a bit of a rumpus over le casserole de lapin, and there’s a brief moment when the locals join forces to go after the one man whose sandy landholding is holding up the lucrative deal.
And 36 years later, this story was still considered to be popular enough that in 2019 someone thought to make Local Hero: The Musical. On hearing this (just the news, not the show), I felt as uneasy as Ferness’s village minister, Reverend Murdo MacPherson (Christopher Asante), when he was told to go outside and stall Mac and Oldsen from discovering the secret town meeting in the church. “Oh God. Not a sound. Please!“, he says.
Although the film is a comedy, it’s a subtle humour that never tries too hard. There are no jokes, just a few witty quips, and the film never pretends to be intelligent, quite the opposite in fact. The humour is in the characters’ interactions and pretences: a salesman attempting to get the best deal for the company and the cover the locals adopt to get the best deal for them. And is Marina a mermaid or not?
The longer the deal takes, the fonder Mac grows of village life. It’s a stark contrast to the petroleum, penthouse and Porsche that awaits him back home in Houston. Soon he will be siding with the locals with some sadness for what he feels he is encouraging them to give up. But behind the scenes, the wily villagers are busy planning what they will do with the millions they are set to make. A penthouse and Porsche, perhaps?
While reminiscent of Whisky Galore (1949), Local Hero also has touches of Brigadoon (1954), since Ferness comes together for a ceilidh every few months when the Russians stop by. Victor, the charismatic Soviet fisherman (Christopher Rozycki) brings vodka galore and is the person who reassures Mac that he’s doing everyone a favour. “You can’t eat scenery,” he points out.
But Ferness is destined to remain unspoilt, just like Brigadoon.
Mac and Oldsen come across Ben Knox, a beachcombing recluse (played by Fulton Mackay) who lives in a self-built shack on the beach. When Mac asks Ben how much he thinks the bay is worth, it is met with great amusement. It prompts a change of subject…
Mac: “Do you know about the stars, Ben?“
Ben: “Well, I know my way around this sky.“
Mac: “What about comets, any around?“
Ben: “Did you want to buy a comet as well?“
He goes on…
Ben: “If you want to find a comet, all you have to do is look long enough in the right place. If I had the inclination, I would look in Leo…“
But Mac is distracted when the sky comes alive with an intense meteor shower. Now he has something else to report back to Happer when he calls.
Mac: “The deal is about there, sir.“
Happer: “What about the sky?“
Mac: “The sky is amazing, there seems to be something happening in it all the time. Last night there was a meteor shower. It was spectacular.“
Happer: “Where was the shower, Macintyre?“
Mac: “I don’t know exactly sir, but I’m told that comet-wise Leo might be worth a look. Should I switch from Virgo? I’ll have more time when I finalise the deal.”
Happer: “No, do both Macintyre, Leo and Virgo.“
Meanwhile, a search of the Parish records has inconveniently turned up that Ben Knox owns the entire beach on which his shack is built — exactly where Knox Industries want to build their refinery. Houston, we have a problem.
Pushed to name his price for the beach, Ben says he will accept one pound note for every grain of sand he can hold in his hand. Mac has a budget of £1,000,000 for the beach but declines to play. Ben reveals he could only hold about 10,000 grains.
But Ben isn’t interested in selling his beach. He works the beach, scavenging what he can and has no need for money, therefore no reason to sell. Not for all the grains of sand on all the beaches in all the world, as Carl Sagan might have said.
And while we’re on the subject, how many grains of sand are there on all the beaches in the world? The answer is about four sextillion (4 x 1021), or about a third of the number of all the stars in all the galaxies in the known universe. (If you want to know how that was calculated, listen to this episode of More or Less.)
Back to the sky over Ferness and we know that Happer expects a new comet to become visible. But on the night of the ceilidh, the aurora borealis shows up instead.
With a pocket full of ten pence pieces scraped together from the cash register in the village hall, Mac calls Happer over in Houston from the red phone box on the Ferness quayside to describe these northern lights in real time. Slightly the worse for wear from whisky, Mac excitedly reels off what he’s sees in the sky…
Mac: “I’m watching the sky, sir. It’s doing some amazing things. It’s got everything, reds, greens, a kind of shimmering and there’s a noise, too, like a far-off thunder, only it’s softer. I wish I could describe it, I wish you could see it…it’s white and green and red…oh it’s blue! It’s just blue! It’s like a shower of colour…!“
Happer: “Ah, you’re a lucky man Macintyre. I haven’t seen the aurora since ’53, in Alaska.“
Mac: “I haven’t seen a comet yet, sir. I don’t know if I could spot one with all this other stuff going on. The other night Ben was saying that meteors are always a good sign of a comet and that stuff we saw coming from Leo the other night may just be an indication of what might be happening in the future…with regard to comets, of course. I will probably just keep my eye posted on Leo because there’s some extraordinary things happening in the sky and as you suggested I’ll watch Virgo as well, and I’ll let you know if anything— God! It just went red all over! It’s red all over!“
Meanwhile Marina the mermaid is providing a more paced scientific explanation to an awestruck Oldsen, who is captivated…
Marina: “It’s high energy protons spilling over into our atmosphere; they get through the magnetic shield where it’s weak, at the poles. It’s best when the sun’s active; that gets the solar wind up and that’s where the protons come from.“
Back in Houston, Happer has been distracted through most of the events being relayed to him from Scotland. His somewhat psycho psychotherapist, Moritz, has moved on from scoffing at him for wanting to find the comet (the quote that opens this article), to unleashing a special brand of surprise therapy outside Happer’s penthouse office window. It means Happer didn’t hear much of Mac’s description. And when Mac’s ten pence pieces run out, the call from the phone box is cut off. But Happer makes a decision: he is going to Scotland.
Having barely set foot on Scottish sand, Happer settles down with Ben Knox in the beach hut for a tête-à-tête about celestial, and no doubt ancestral, matters — since it turns out that the founder of Happer’s company was a Knox, too (Alexander Knox). Could it be that…?
The next day, Happer declares there will be no onshore refinery in Ferness, but instead a research institute devoted to studying the sky. And maybe the sea too, after Oldsen puts in a word to Happer about Marina’s proposal. The sea and the sky, the two love interests in the film…like Marina and Stella.
Oldsen is repurposed to help with the new plans for the institute in Ferness, while Mac is reluctantly sent packing back to Houston, forced to abandon the quaint village life he was just learning to love.
With eight unplotted sky objects to observe with Ben the following night, will it come to pass that Happer gets his comet?
The film ends and the last thing we hear is the phone box ringing on the quayside.
Happer never did get his comet. They are, after all, somewhat mercurial objects.
But he did get an asteroid. Because fast forward a decade in real life, to 1992, and the small Solar System body originally designated 1992 OF (aka 1969 TJ6) was soon to be renamed in Happer’s honour.
Asteroid 7345 Happer is a Mars-crosser a few kilometres in diameter (~3 km) that was originally discovered in 1969 but then lost and follow-up observations not made again until 1992. In 1992, it was officially discovered (confirmed to be an asteroid) by Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in News South Wales, Australia.
After approval by the International Astronomical Union, it was renamed for the fictional Felix Happer. You can read more about asteroid 7345 Happer here.
But which real life events might have been the writer Bill Forsyth’s inspiration for all the astronomical activity in the film? We have the promise of comets, an outburst of meteor showers, and the appearance of the aurora borealis…
When Mac sees the meteor shower with Ben, he is on the beach facing north and he appears to see the meteors radiating from high in the northeast. Which meteor shower might have inspired this scene? First we need to know the time of year…
At the start of the film we hear the weatherman on Mac’s car radio say that the temperature in Houston is a balmy 70° F (21° C), which suggests April to May (see chart). Then Happer reminds Mac that when he gets to Scotland he will 6 hours ahead of Houston. This means the action must be taking place up to the third week of April (any later and the clocks would be on British Summer Time and Scotland would be 5 hours ahead).
Although not coming from Leo, the Lyrids are visible in Scottish skies in mid to late April radiating from high in the northeast. They are part of the debris trail of comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher). Other meteor showers visible at the same time of year are the Eta Lyrids (originating from comet C/1983 H1, IRAS-Araki-Alcock) and the Eta Aquariids (originating from comet 1P/Halley) but those two meteor showers are either a couple of weeks too late or too low on the horizon to correlate with where Mac was seen to be looking.
The film was made in 1982. A particularly heavy outburst of Lyrids was recorded that year and noted in the news, so it is entirely feasible that the Lyrids were the writer’s inspiration for the meteor shower in the film.
As for the aurora borealis, Forsyth once said that he had seen them for the first time while he was writing the script for the film and that’s why he decided to include them in the film.
And although Happer never got his comet, Forsyth’s inspiration for a comet is glaringly obvious…because in late 1982, Halley’s Comet had just become visible again through telescopes out beyond the orbit of Saturn on its return journey back into the Solar System after 76 years. We wouldn’t get the chance to see the comet at its brightest with the naked eye until the beginning of 1986, its closest approach to Earth being on 11 April that year.
Alas, though, Halley’s Comet was too low in the sky to be well-seen from Scotland but Happer could have seen it from Houston…not in Virgo or Leo…but in Sagittarius or Scorpius.
If you liked this article about the hunt for Happer’s Comet, you might like these:
Making an Impact: Lights, Camera and Asteroid!
The Expanse: A personal distress call
The Expanse Title Sequence: Don’t Skip Intro
It’s the Size of Texas
The Door into Summer
The Edge of Space
Time Enough for Writing a Sonnet