(Last updated2/11/01)
Donovan Quick

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The Telegraph, December 29, 2000, by James Walton:

Don Quixote rides again

Last night, after a couple of creditable near-misses and some spectacular failures, Christmas 2000 finally gave us a genuinely great piece of TV drama. Donovan Quick (BBC1) could so easily have gone wrong: among the dangers it risked were sentimentality, excessive moralising and looking like a pastiche of those old Plays for Today—many of which likewise featured a plucky group of ordinary folk taking on the evil capitalists. Early on, too, the programme appeared destined only for terminal dourness. After all, the main character Lucy (Katy Murphy) was a single mother whose preferred methods of coping with a car-stealing son, a senile grandmother, a mentally-handicapped brother and an alcoholic boyfriend were straightforward ones: shouting a lot and being an alcoholic herself. But then Donovan Quick (Colin Firth) showed up as her mysterious new lodger, and everything was transformed.

Admittedly, the Don Quixote parallels weren’t subtle. Donovan soon turned out to be a man of almost pathological chivalry. Lucy’s brother- Sandy Pannick—duly became his faithful companion. The two then set off to tilt at Windmill, a company whose public motto was the suitably meaningless "Local transport for the global community". (The private version was rather more honest: "It’s not enough to succeed—others must be seen to fail".) Yet, the scenes in which Quick and Pannick ran both their people’s bus-route and rings round Windmill were irresistibly exhilarating.

But the goodies’ victories were short-lived. Lucy started out sounding depressingly fatalistic ("Big companies always get what they want") but ended up sounding merely right. Donovan’s commitment to social justice meant that he got beaten up on a regular basis. We also discovered that he was, indeed, technically mad—a former Windmill high-flier who’d been sectioned by his family after he began acting oddly (ie decently) to opponents of the company.

He was therefore carted off from Lucy’s house to the asylum, so that the next time we saw him he’d been "cured" and was back wheeling and dealing without scruple. (As Quick had earlier said of Quixote, "He was a great madman. When they returned him to sanity, he was nothing.")

All of this, as I say, could obviously have been excruciating. Instead, the always-sharp script combined with the brilliant central performances to ensure the characters and the issues complemented each other so well that Donovan Quick managed to be both emotionally stirring and intellectually troubling—especially, of course, at a time when public unease about corporate power is at such a peak.


The Times, Dec 29, 2000, by Paul Hoggart:

Tilting at windmills

If nothing else, Donovan Quick (BBC1) was memorable for Liz Smith’s most outrageous Christmas performance. We have had the cameo of the old derelict in A Christmas Carol; she excelled as usual in The Royle Family. Here, however, she spent the entire film wandering around in an ill-fitting slip, saying things like “Anyone seen ma false teeth?” It takes a special quality to make batty old wreckage so engaging, and she has it by the wrinkly stockingful.

But then this was an idiosyncratic drama altogether. True, there was nothing stunningly original about the big themes—a bunch of dead-beat losers take on the system and win (sort of ), led by an educated dreamer, who arrives among them like a deus ex machina and transforms their lives, while he himself is forced to confront his own inadequacies when things go horribly wrong. Well-trodden tracks perhaps, but the drama rolled along engagingly on a mixture of wry observation, absurdity and “You lookin’ at me, pal?” realism.

The story was a loose updating of Don Quixote, with Colin Firth as the eponymous hero (though with a secret past). The similarity lay in the clash between Quick’s naïve idealism and the brutal, exploitative cynicism of the real world. Firth’s muted, Jane-Austen-adaptation courtesy was perfect.

Yet Don Quixote was unhinged by the fantasies of popular literature, and his enemies were everyday objects, transformed into monsters by his fevered imagination. Donovan Quick, by contrast, had been driven mad by guilt. His insanity was grounded not in delusion but in the effects of his own ruthlessness.

His monsters also turned out to be real, a ruthless transport corporation called Windmill, a nightmare combination of aggressive deregulated bus company and privatised railway. The writer Donna Franceschild must be delighted with the timing of her blast of political rage, as travellers of all persuasions suffer the frustrations of our choking transport systems. 

But the real power of the piece lay in Franceschild’s exploration of the poor and alienated struggling to survive without support in hopelessly corroded communities. Quick wanders into a cheap lodging house run by Lucy Pannick (Katy Murphy), an alcoholic with a delinquent son, a mentally disabled brother Sandy (David Brown) and a rapidly senescent grandmother (Liz Smith).

Lucy also has a suspicious, defensive attitude and an obnoxious boyfriend (David O’Hara). As she explains to Quick in a painful moment of truth, the only way she can get any human warmth is to let people shag her.

Quick switches into Quixote mode when Windmill arbitrarily cancels the only bus which gets Sandy to his day-centre. During a Cliff Richard hey-gang-let’s-do-the-show-right-here sequence, (complete with breezy Van Morrison tracks), they set up their own one-bus company and take on the big boys.

Inevitably the corporate bullies play dirty and win, and after a vicious beating Quick returns to his former self. He is, it transpires, Daniel Quinn, the Windmill executive who ordered his buses to crash through a picket line, killing a union official. In a final encounter on a station platform his re-assumed executive mask drops when he meets Lucy, now self-confident, happy and successful, her life transformed by the effects of his Quixotic aberration.

It was an unusual, but often touching blend of reportage, fantasy and polemic.

The Guardian, Dec 29, 2000, by Gareth McLean:

Firth Among Equals

It's just as well Colin Firth read Cervantes' book and didn't simply rely on Nik Kershaw's interpretation of Don Quixote as the inspiration for the good deeds of Donovan Quick (BBC1). Otherwise, he'd be sporting fingerless gloves, a fluorescent snood and a spikey hairdo, and even the actor formerly known as Mr Darcy couldn't carry off that ensemble. Happily, he wore tailored suits and fresh-from-the-box boxer shorts, and arrived like an Armani-clad spectre in the dingy Pannick household with good intentions.

Pannick by name, put-upon by nature, Katy Murphy was excellent as the fierce and fearful Lucy, nursing her wrath against the world and fuelling it with her own self-loathing. With a teenage son, a senile granny, and Sandy, a brother with a learning disability, to care for, Lucy was faltering under the weight of her burden, which also included a drink problem and Clive, a bullying boyfriend, played in all his impotent, delusional glory by David O'Hara. As Sandy, David Brown was incredibly watchable and Colin Firth was his usual impressive self. The casting of Liz "Nana Royle" Smith was a trifle odd, however. Given the number of accomplished Scottish actresses who could quite easily have played the part of the Pannicks' granny without an accent which wandered from Oban to Edinburgh, she was a curious choice. Nevertheless, as part of an outstanding ensemble, she was quite endearing.

After years of telling Sandy to keep his head down and keep quiet, Lucy was jolted out of self-imposed servitude by Donovan's tilting at windmills—namely Windmill Transport, the multinational company which cancelled the train which took Sandy to his daycare centre. With his big bag of money—Donovan was evidently wealthy, possessing a platinum Amex and never having heard of macaroni cheese—he bought a bus, made Sandy a company director and bus conductor, and attacked his giant nemesis. The renewal of hope which this new venture instilled in the Pannicks was delightful and Donna Franceschild's script trod a fine line between truthful emotion and magical realism, only occasionally stumbling into sentiment. And the appearance of comedy nuns only detracted slightly from the credibility of the whole. Focusing on a transport company which drives its competitors out of business ("It's not enough to succeed. Others must be seen to fail", was the motto of the chairwoman, Kathleen Gorman, who may well have had a bigoted brother hanging around somewhere), Donovan Quick had an unashamedly socio-political message. Yet it was rarely worthy or heavy-handed. Rather, it was a keen, funny and moving expose of monopoly capitalism....


The Independent, Dec 27, 2000, by James Rampton:

A tilt at far more than mere windmills

George Mackie is the sort of super-smooth executive that transport companies seem to breed. He has been sent along by his huge multinational firm, Windmill Transport, to mollify passengers fuming about the unreliability of their privatised train and bus services. As one irate commuter fires off a volley of expletives about the hopelessness of his service to work, Mackie attempts to soothe him. `'We're all endeavouring to achieve punctuality targets,'' he says in his most syrupy tones.

You have to suppress an urge to punch the screen during this opening scene from Donovan Quick, a witty and touching film about the manifold failures of the privatised transport system, which is being broadcast on BBC1 on Thursday. As the transport network continues to have a collective nervous-breakdown, it is a highly topical piece that will resonate with everyone who battled to get home for Christmas by bus or train.

Written 18 months ago, Donna Franceschild's script now looks like a work of supreme prescience. An ingenious recasting of the Don Quixote myth, her drama depicts a world where the needs of passengers often seem to be the last concern of the huge multinational companies now running the transport network. It is hard to avoid the impression that they consistently put profits before people.

On to this stage strides the inspirational figure of Donovan Quick (played with panache by Colin Firth). An honourable but deluded man, he decides he has had enough of the hopeless transport system and resolves to have a tilt at Windmill. Furious that the company have, without warning, cut the service that takes his disabled friend, Sandy (David Brown), to his day-care centre, Donovan defiantly sets up his own one-man bus company.

Rattled, Mackie (played by David Westhead) responds by swamping Donovan's route with 16 Windmill buses. He may be doomed to failure, but he is sure as hell not going to go down without a damn good fight. "For evil to triumph," he announces rousingly, "it requires only that good people do nothing."

As he climbs behind the wheel on his first day, Donovan delivers a stirring cri de coeur to Sandy Pannick (read, Sancho Panza), who has become his conductor. "We are about to embark on a great mission, Sandy, a great quest to fight the mighty Windmill. And they will try to defeat us—make no mistake about that. And they won't care who they hurt because there are no people in their equations. Only 'customers' and 'labour units', who only exist on paper and not in flesh or blood."

Donovan soon gathers popular support as the passengers turn against Windmill's bully-boy tactics. One loyal supporter of Donovan's bus tells Sandy: "The wife says that she wants to go to Amsterdam on holiday, but there's no chance. I'm not going anywhere where there are any windmills."

Franceschild, the writer responsible for such well-regarded dramas as Takin' Over the Asylum, Mug's Game and Eureka Street, echoes this character in her strong views about the takeover of our national transport system by private companies. "It is an emotive issue," she declares. "Rail privatisation and bus deregulation are things that tangibly affect the lives of ordinary people. It is the aspect of the Thatcher legacy they are most pissed off about. Even though we're paying huge amounts of public subsidy, we've got worse trains. Often you don't know which train or bus to catch or how to get any information about it. Capitalism works by cherry-picking the best routes and neglecting the rest."

The idea of one man taking on an apparently invincible enemy generates the conflict which is essential for any effective drama. "I wanted to find a monolithic giant against which Donovan could fight," Franceschild recalls. "I thought of creating a rapacious, Thatcherite company, and during my research, I came across a former miner in Fife who'd started up a one-man bus operation with his redundancy money and immediately fell foul of a big bus company.

"Bus privatisation created ferocious dog-eat-dog competition. That kind of free-for-all brings out the worst in people. Big companies just go for the jugular of smaller companies. Competition is one thing, but this isn't fair. Of course, capitalism isn't designed to be fair. Have you ever played Monopoly?"

"Windmill Transport, a giant with many arms, is a good target for Donovan to attempt to slay," Franceschild continues. "There's something noble about trying to fight such a massive foe against all the odds but for all the right reasons. I wanted to examine the lack of humanity in that system. I didn't want to write about bus deregulation as such, but create a situation where a little guy stands up to capitalism at its most voracious. Even though he technically loses, Donovan and his friends are empowered by standing up to the big guy."

Donovan proves an inspiring example. "Don't we all reach a point in our lives where we want to be like Don Quixote?" asks David Blair, the director of Donovan Quick. "That David and Goliath thing of taking on the bully is something we all want to do. People relate to the rudiments of the story. The film explores the ways in which Donovan enriches people's lives subliminally. He emotionally fulfils the people with whom he comes into contact.''

Franceschild reckons Donovan could be a role model for anyone who wants to fire others into action. "A lot of people now are politically cynical, as Labour have turned out to be Tories, Mark II. But when true opposition comes back, it will be because of a few lunatics who are never going to win but who make us think that things can be different.

"Donovan Quick is inspirational—even though he's a fool and a failure. At the end, he hangs up his lance, but you think 'what a great man'. You could never make this in the States—they'd say 'this guy Quick is a bit of a loser'—but I love the concept of honourable failure.

"Donovan embodies the idea of fighting a giant when you're obviously going to lose, but still doing it with nobility. People respect someone who chooses to fight, even though it's already been decided that he's going to lose. Ultimately, he fails because he's just one man, but he does make a substantial difference."

In a society without heroes, there is something appealingly old-fashioned and chivalrous about Donovan's fight for the underdog. Without getting too misty-eyed, it is moving that although he is condemned to defeat from the start, he never contemplates giving up.

Donovan Quick is very much in the noble tradition of the eternal toiler. "Look at the myth of Sisyphus, the man who endlessly pushes a stone up a hill," says Firth. "Or the novel, The Famished Road. In that, we are shown a vision of people in a village building a road to paradise. They have only built two or three feet, but it is the most beautiful, jewel-encrusted section. They have been working on it for 2,000 years, and they will never get to paradise.

"Being comfortable with that lack of resolution is as close as we're ever going to get to understanding anything. We have to accept paradoxes. Any search for clarity beyond that is doomed. Like Donovan, we make the mistake of thinking we've found the magic formula, or the system for winning at roulette, or the perfect political system. It's not about finding answers, but relentlessly pursuing them. You are always travelling; you never arrive."

Particularly if you happen to be on a Windmill bus.

Scotland on Sunday, Dec 24, 2000, by Eddie Gibb:

Takin' over the buses

How about this for an unlikely pitch for a television drama: Don Quixote meets Stagecoach boss Ann Gloag in a touching tale of love, disability and bus privatisation? Unlikely, for sure, but at least some of the these elements provide the basis of the ambitious film Donovan Quick, commissioned by BBC Scotland from the writer-and-director team that brought you the award-winning Takin' Over the Asylum.

Colin Firth takes the titular role as a modern-day Quixote, a self-deluded dreamer who set out to right the world's injustices. He starts in Port Glasgow, where the local people are poorly served by the newly privatised bus company. With his Sancho Panza-style sidekick, a learning disabled man called Sandy who makes an enthusiastic clippie, Quick sets up a rival bus operator but quickly runs into stiff competition from a corporate bully determined to force them off the road. For the purposes of this show, the company is known as Windmill Transport but they really mean Stagecoach, right?

Well, to adapt a familiar phrase from House of Cards, you might think that but the writer couldn't possibly comment. "There is really little I can say about that without losing my house," says Donna Franceschild, who scripted Takin' Over the Asylum and another BBC Scotland drama, A Mug's Game. "I've got to be real careful what I say. There are a number of bus companies that have acted in a pretty vicious way. If any company wants to say they're being libelled by this the only way they can be identified is by the practices of the company in the film. That would be like saying: 'We've run buses off the road so it must be us.' I don't think that's going to happen."

Probably not, but from a Scottish perspective it is hard not to think of Stagecoach. For a start, how many major transport companies in Britain are run by a woman? Franceschild just laughs and says she sees the female bus magnate as a kind of Margaret Thatcher figure. The fact the government has been forced to blame the current rail crisis on "20 years of under-investment", shows how timely this drama is. Franceschild says that Windmill is based on a number of companies, and that the aggressive tactics it employs to stamp on the competition have all been employed by various bus operators round the country.

This tale of privatisation is set on the buses, but it could have just as easily have been a railway. In fact, Franceschild and director David Blair first discussed tackling train privatisation in 1996. At that time Scotrail was in the throes of privatisation and Blair, a railway enthusiast, was particularly steamed up over the sell-off. "If you call him a trainspotter, he gets very upset," jokes Franceschild. For various technical reasons, the action was switched to buses though the fictitious Windmill runs both road and rail services.

At first she didn't see how a public transport strategy could possibly make an interesting television drama, until she hit on the idea of creating a contemporary Quixote. Quick is mad enough to take on an established company on behalf of the community, and is symbolic of the current suspicion of multi- nationals that fuelled the Seattle World Trade Organisation protests. It becomes apparent that though Quick is quite mad, his actions empower the local people. This is not, as you will have gathered, run-of-the-mill TV entertainment.

Franceschild, an American who has worked in the UK for 20 years, has gained a solid reputation for tackling social issues head on. Takin' Over the Asylum was set in a psychiatric hospital and was a dramatisation of the way mentally ill patients are stripped of their identity in such institutions. A Mug's Game, which was filmed in Tarbert, Argyll, where Franceschild now lives, centred on the effects of the threatened closure of a fish processing factory on a local community.

There is a strong theme of social justice running through Franceschild's work. "If it's something I care passionately about, I hope other people will too," she says. "I don't know how else to write." Her next project, whose working title is The Key, is a three-part drama following the lives of three generations of women from a Red Clydesider down to the grand-daughter who is elected as a Glasgow MP. Remarkably, the BBC in London has commissioned what is essentially a history of the Scottish labour movement in dramatic form.

Franceschild is fast becoming Scotland's answer to socially aware TV writers such as Jimmy McGovern and Alan Bleasdale. And like them has found it necessary to balance politics and populism. Social issues are generally regarded as ratings death by broadcasters, and Franceschild is one of the few writers who has got away with making politics so central to her work.

Despite the presence of Colin Firth, there is little that is hip or slick about Donovan Quick. The female lead is played by Katy Murphy, Franceschild and Blair's favourite actress, whose plain-girl looks go against the trend in TV drama for decorative female characters. There is an inescapable worthiness about Donovan Quick, though this has been leavened with a dark strain of humour. But given that disgruntlement with public transport is at an all time high, and privatisation is widely held responsible, this could be one social issues drama that doesn't prove a turn-off to viewers. Franceschild reckons it is easy to see why: "People are suffering and companies are making big profits."


The Times (December 23, 2000)

Colin Firth gets off the train in Scotland. He stands still, narrows his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Into the belly of the beast,” he says, and sets off on his mission like a latter-day Don Quixote. He lodges with a family where there is room for improvement. Mum is a 35-year-old alcoholic going on 50; Granny wanders around without any clothes on; one of the boys has a learning disability and the other is a glue sniffer with a criminal bent. The gas and electric bills are overdue and the fourth lodger in as many weeks has just walked out without paying his bill. But Donovan (“Who is this man?”) Quick gives them a common goal and sense of purpose. This may be a feel-good fairytale, but at the same time it is hard-edged, beautifully acted, accurate, funny and charming—like a late Christmas present that has been given with a great deal of thought and affection.

By Paul Hoggart:
If this sounds a little jaded, then at least I can recommend two modern dramas. Donovan Quick is a quirky and engaging update of the Don Quixote story, set in a run-down house somewhere on Clydeside. Colin Firth appears, as if by magic, a civilised, educated innocent of a lodger ready to take on the might of the evil Windmill bus company.

It’s really a fable about cynical transport privatisations, uncaring communities and people power. Liz Smith gives her most compelling performance as a batty old granny who slops round the house all day in her underwear.

The Scotsman (December 22, 2000) by James Rampton:

A victim of kind and prejudice

Firth thinks deeply about his craft—and that was one reason why he was drawn towards his latest film, Donovan Quick. Going out on BBC1 next Thursday, this is a thought-provoking drama set among the cut-throat world of privatised buses in Scotland. In this clever reworking of the Don Quixote myth, Firth plays an other-worldly loner who is so disgusted with the inadequate service provided by the greedy franchise holder, Windmill Transport, that he resolves to start up his own one-bus operation.

Even though it was made last year, the film nevertheless has a timely significance in a country where great swathes of the privatised transport system appear to have gone into meltdown.

But for Firth, Donovan Quick’s story has a universal resonance beyond mere contemporary echoes. There is something of him in all of us. We have all experienced that Quixotic sensation of noble failure—and we all share his dualistic nature. "Donovan Quick is infused with contradictions—and that makes for good drama. If you keep trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, you are never going to rest. You have to learn to live with something and its opposite—both are true. You can admire a politician and then find out that he’s corrupt—but one does not invalidate the other. Life can be fantastic and crap at the same time. We’re always looking for the final word on people, but Donovan shows us that you can be pathetic and noble simultaneously.

"Being comfortable with that lack of resolution is as close as we’re ever going to get to understanding anything. We have to accept paradoxes. Any search for clarity beyond that is doomed. Like Donovan, we make the mistake of thinking we’ve found the magic formula, or the system for winning at roulette, or the perfect political system. It’s not about finding answers, but relentlessly pursuing them. You are always travelling; you never arrive."


The Herald, Glasgow (December 9, 2000), by Gavin Docherty:

Dastardly, Mr Darcy

But first up he stars in Donovan Quick, a film drama for BBC1, directed by David Blair, and unimpeachably the best thing to come out of BBC Scotland in quite some time. It is a dark horse among dramas, a film with a political, social and moral conscience. He stars as the mysterious noble gentleman of the title, pushed to the edge of his sanity by an incident in his past, whose selfless actions ultimately change the fortunes of a family of pathetic basket cases headed by alcoholic landlady Katy Murphy. The script decrees that lucky Katy gets to play tonsil hockey with Firth, which will make her the object of envy among a few million of his devoted female fans. This update of Cervantes' Don Quixote starts off as a humorous satire on the tribal rites of a filthy-rich Scotland-based corporation making a mint out of privatisation of the buses and railways, but leads to a very dark and bleak climax. Shot in early 1999, the film has been almost criminally neglected for more than a year by the Beeb's schedulers before being rushed with almost indecent haste into the Christmas programmes package....

'...You always do feel that sense of quite high stakes if you are going to go into untried territory like Donovan Quick. It is not that often that you read a fantastic script.'

As much as Donna Franceschild's writing worked wonders for Firth, a modern-day interpretation of Don Quixote, with sidekick Sancho Panza portrayed with a truly knockout performance by learning disabled actor David Brown, must have sounded like a supremely cockeyed piece of work when it first appeared in script form. Obviously an actor of stature and power was needed to bring all the unflinching nuances of the man to the screen in a believable way.

Donovan is half-clod, half-poet, and the effect of his power and sensitivity is scalding. He is a fourteenth- century gallant lost in the revolution of 21st-century callousness. He arrives at a Scots boarding house and befriends the landlady's slow-witted brother who can no longer attend day school because the transport company, without consultation, have changed the routes.

Donovan commandeers an old coach and suddenly the pair are in business in a David v Goliath struggle against the big transport boys. Murphy, in the best performance of her career, gives a brilliant turn, shrieking her lines with desperate beak-like movements, a woman scorned by too many clouts on the chin by life.

Firth says: 'It is so full of paradoxes. I think life is made of that. Is Donovan brave to take on the might of a big transport company or is he stupid? Is he gallant and noble or is he ridiculous and absurd? He is a walking contradiction.' In the script Firth has some memorable lines about standing up to the corporate bully boys: 'Resist them—stand up to them.'

TV Times:

"It's very interesting", Colin Firth remarks, "how one gets interpreted as belonging to a particular period in English history. People seem to think I'm a very rich man with a mansion in Derbyshire who rides a horse and lived 200 years ago". Instead, Colin lives in Islington and drives a C-reg Nissan Cherry. Even so, in his post-Darcy Pride and Prejudice days it's hard to imagine Colin in a modern-day dramas.

One like Donovan Quick, for example. Colin is the Donovan of the title— a mysterious lodger in present day Glasgow who transforms the life of a dysfunctional family.

We meet Lucy Pannick, the alcoholic head of the family. Then there's her son Jim, who steals cars. And there's Gran who wanders around the house half-naked. And finally, Sandy, Lucy's good-natured but mentally impaired younger brother. Donovan walks into this strange household and immediately things start to change for the better. But Donovan's certainly not all he seems. "To be honest, I didn't have a clue how to play him", says Colin. "Is he mad or is he sane? Is this a flight of sanity or a flight of lunacy? I don't know..."

The star billing of Colin Firth should be enough to get the ladies tuning in, but we reckon this drama warrants a wider audience than just fans of Mr Darcy. As always, Firth is compelling as the title character, a quiet mystery man who descends upon a Scottish town where the HQ of a big transport business is located; one of those companies that outrages locals by cancelling services willy-nilly. Donovan takes a stand, makes friends with the ragtag Pannick family and, via flashbacks, it becomes clear what Donovan's motive is. This tale, about a search for atonement, unfolds nicely and is sweetly touching.


Screened at the Birmingham (UK) Film Festival on Nov 19, 2000 and the Cairo International Film Festival

Variety, Nov 20-Nov 26, 2000, by Lisa Nesselson:

An audience-pleasing David and Goliath story distinguished by excellent performances and a narrative armature borrowed from Don Quixote, "Donovan Quick" tilts at all the right windmills. A blend of charm and grit gives this modest but well-crafted Scotland-set fable a wee bit of sleeper potential that might reward distribs.

Well-mannered Donovan Quick (Colin Firth) shows up in small Port Clyde and plunks down double the going rate to lodge in a room in a ramshackle house. His landlady is 35-year-old Lucy Pannick (Katy Murphy), who, in the 20 years since her mom died, has been driven to drink by taking care of her mentally retarded brother, Sandy (David Brown), and their half-senile grandma (Liz Smith).

Between times, Lucy indulges in unfulfilling trysts with Clive (David O'Hara). He's a rugged fellow drinker with pipe dreams of starting a diving school, leaving his wife and starting over with Lucy.

When Sandy can't get to his special education class because Windmill Transport has eliminated his train stop, Donovan springs into action, paying cash for a bus and creating a pay-what-you-can-afford route with himself at the wheel and Sandy as fare-collector. Windmill plays dirty and a transportation war is on.

Donovan is haunted by sepia-toned nightmares, the meanings of which are gradually made clear. Pic suggests that emotional healing through apparent lunacy may be preferable to what passes for sanity.

Told with style and underdog-fueled gumption, pic looks great on a $1.8 million budget, with the blowup from Super-16 excellent and TV vet David Blair ("The Lakes") making the most of his first big-screen helming outing.

Script by U.S.-born, U.K.-based scribe Donna Franceschild is a clever updating of Cervantes' famous tale but also works fine for those unfamiliar with the source material. Cast is topnotch across the board, with highest marks for Firth, Murphy and especially (mentally retarded actor) Brown as Donovan's Sancho Panza, Sandy.

Reviewed at Chicago Film Festival (competing—New Directors section), Oct. 15, 2000.

From film2.com, a review of British entries at the Chicago Intl Film Festival:

18 October 2000

A summary* which comfortably fits Donovan Quick as well (entered in the New Director Comp), though first-time screenwriter Donna Franceschild offered a different version in her intro to the screening, explaining her combined vision with debutant director David Blair which produced “a sort of modern-day Don Quixote story set against the backdrop of national rail deregulation.”

At times mythical, surreal andat othersbrutally realistic, Donovan Quick sees Colin Firth in the mysterious title role, arriving in the rundown Glasgow household of the dysfunctional Pannick family, and ultimately galvanise them into a bizarre war with the grabbing transport corporation that’s riding roughshod over public needs. And while not perfect, it’s humorous, moving and entirely watchable, and deserves far better exposure than its received so far.

DQ has been scandalously turned away from both the Edinburgh and London Film Festivals already, and does not, as yet, have a distributorthe latter arguably a symptom of the former. People regularly bleat on about the state of the British Film Industry, but if our own Festivals cannot support UK product, what long- range hope can there be? Do British films really require guns and mockney gangsters to be successful at the moment? And is the LFF schedule really so strong that there was no available place for Donovan Quick? I fear the answer to the second question at least will be no.

* Reference to review of Ken Loach's Bread and Roses: "making the political agenda grass-roots relevant by grounding his message and story in the lives of utterly believable characters" and "It’s sensitive, touching, funny and tearingly emotional by turns, but all achieved with an honesty and near total lack of manipulation.

Screened at the 36th Chicago International Film Festival on October 14 & 15, 2000. From the program:

"You can't sum up Donovan Quick that easily.  It's a parody set against the background of bus deregulation,
but there's a rich range of emotional texture in it. The story allows you to be slightly fantastical
and go close to the wire." (Director David Blair)
This engaging and satisfying film transposes the Don Quixote myth to present-day Glasgow in an inspiring, against-the-odds, slightly mad battle pitting an unlikely, everyday hero against a greedy corporate monolith.

Every family has its quirks.  Just because Lucy Pannick (Katy Murphy) drinks, her son Jim steal cars, Gran forgets to put her clothes on and Sandy (David Brown), her mentally-disabled brother, runs model trains in his room all night, doesn't mean the Pannick family is dysfunctional. But they are having a problem keeping lodgers. Enter Donovan Quick (Colin Firth, Shakespeare in Love), a mysterious wordsmith who takes up residence with them, and even insists on paying a higher rent. But as they celebrate their good fortune, the police arrive with Sandy in tow. He got lost in the city on the way to his day care center after his train stop was discontinued by the giant multinational, Windmill Transport, which has taken over the train system. Donovan overhears and becomes incensed, setting into motion events which will change the lives of the Pannicks and the community in the process.

After a confrontation on-board and in a train station office, Donovan decides they should start their own one-bus company in defiance of Windmill. Lucy watches in disbelief as, overcoming all sorts of odds with the entire family pitching in, the money starts rolling in for the Quick & Pannick Bus Company. Soon Donovan's quest needs the support of the entire community, when Windmill Transport suddenly decides they want a piece of the action. But as Donovan's attitude toward the family changes the way that they see themselves, it becomes clear that the important thing is not winning, but the fight itself. Featuring well-written characters and appealing, compassionate performances from Firth, Brown and Murphy, this unabashedly idealistic film demonstrations that we can change our lives simply by changing our minds.

Scotland's Sunday Mail Sunday (January 30, 2000) by Gavin Docherty

QUICK...WARN BRIAN SOUTER; Can ruthless star in TV's Donovan Quick be based on our own pious tycoon?

Here's the story so far...a ruthless bus tycoon uses every trick in the book to drive his small- time rivals off the roads of quiet Scottish towns.

Quite how Brian Souter, whose real-life Stagecoach empire has made him the richest man in Scotland, will view a certain new TV drama series, we may never know.

But the BBC believe that millions of other viewers will soon be gripped by Donovan Quick. The series follows the efforts of bus boss George Mackie and his Windmill Transport empire to crush their opposition, and is named after a local hero who stands up to Windmill's multi- national might.

Fundamentalist Christian Brian Souter, who is leading the campaign to keep Section 28, is known to love nothing more than a quality television drama. But he might not love this one. Despite reassurances by the BBC, there are plenty of people who suspect he might find this tale a little too close for comfort.

Pride and Prejudice heart-throb Colin Firth takes the title role, opposite David Westhead, of Mrs Brown and The Lakes, as the grasping Mackie. The story sees Mackie take over a small transport firm and begin to axe services, including one to a daycentre for the disabled. Enter the charismatic Quick, who, with disabled pal Sandy Pannick (played by David Brown) has the guts to start his own one-bus firm to replace the service. Quick and Pannick are soon so successful they become a target for Mackie, who tries to poach their route.

The BBC have high hopes for the series, scripted by Donna Franceschild and directed by David Blair, the team who came up with the award-winning Takin' Over the Asylum. They are billing it as one of their most emotive dramas of recent years.

Interestingly for a work of fiction, documentary film-maker John Mair was brought in as a consultant. Mair's hard-hitting films include two which may have helped him in that role. The first was his damning World in Action expos of Souter's business practices, Cowboy Country. The second was an equally critical Frontline Scotland probe—Stagecoach Comes to Town— which so infuriated Souter he spent pounds 70,000 placing ads in the Scottish Press to rubbish the programme. Does Mair detect a whiff of Souter in fictional bus boss Mackie?

"I couldn't say," he says. "I saw it at a cast screening. It is brilliant. Very good indeed. It is very clever. It is Blair and Franceschild on song.

"It is brought up to date with a large bus company which we are never allowed to name."

Meanwhile, Chicago-born Franceschild, who now lives in Argyll, stressed that Donovan Quick was simply about the tension between "big capitalism and little people". She said: "Writers take inspiration from many things. Basically, I wanted to write about big companies that kind of squash small people.

"That was what interested me. Bus deregulation and train franchises were part of that picture in the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher's kind of capitalism encouraged that rampant steamrolling of everybody in your path.

"Donovan Quick is very contemporary because the situation where the big national company wipes out the little guy has now reached grotesque proportions.

"But I was never interested in going after anybody in particular. I wouldn't like to say that I had."

As the movie-men - and the BBC's lawyers - say: "The people and events portrayed are entirely fictional. "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental..."

TV supplement of the The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia) 23 January 2000:

(4 stars out of 5)
There used to be a time when you could fight City Hall. Today, you have to tackle the rapacious, monolithic corporations that have grabbed the business and there's just no point.

Not good enough, says Scottish based writer Donna Franceschild. The little man needs to be able to hit back against these overweening forces of authority, And, with director David Blair in tow, she delivers this charming, modern day Quixotic tale to show us how.

Donovan Quick stars Colin Firth in the title role playing the mysterious, modern day Cervantes-styled stranger who turns up one day as the new lodger in the Clydeside home of the appallingly down at heel Pannick family. Quick seems unable tonotice that his landlady, Lucy Pannick (Kate Murphy), is an alcoholic, that her forgetful grandmother wanders around in just her slip, or that her learning-disabled brother, Sandy, runs model trains in his room all night. But when the multinational bus company Windmill Transport takes over the local trains and leaves Sandy Pannick no way to get to his day care centre, he becomes their knight in shining armour.

The cluey and well spoken Quick astonishes the Pannicks by buying an old bus and, with Sandy, his Sancho Panza, as partner and bus conductor, setting up an alternative transport system.

Firth, a passionate crusader. is superbly cast in the role. Sandy Pannick, delightfully played by David Brown, who is himself learning disabled, just hangs on for dear life and tries to make sense of Quick and Pannick's flat rate ticketing system.

Franceschild, quite overt with her use of the Cervantes classic, has many amusing references lightly hidden through the BBC Scotland drama.

Who Magazine (Australia):

Grade  = A (ranging from A+ to D-)
The fantasy-driven story of legendary idealist Don Quixote is modernised in this 90-minute drama starring Colin Firth. As Donovan Quick, Firth tilts at one big windmill, abandoning a disturbing past in England for a spiritual journey into Scotland.  There, the well-heeled Englishman takes up lodgings in a village with a severely dysfunctional family headed by the heavy-drinking Lucy Pannick (Katy Murphy). Quick seizes the day and quietly works to improve the lives of Lucy, her learning-disabled brother Sandy (David Brown), her unemployed son, Jim (Paul Doonan), and her merrily under-dressed gran (Liz Smith).

When the all-powerful Windmill Transport company changes its rail timetable, leaving Sandy unable to get to his day centre, Quick charges to the rescue. He buys an old bus and establishes the Quick and Pannick bus service, a David-esque response that soon threatens the greedy Goliath. The impracticalities of Quick's idealism surface soon enough, but not before he's taken the fear and loathing out of the Pannick household.

A brilliant Firth is well supported. Brown is superb as Sandy, who becomes Quick's faithful companion, but it is Murphy, as Lucy, who shines with her portrayal of a woman who has 
been so abused that she sees herself as nothing more than fodder for undiscerning men. Altogether quixotic.

Canberra Times Review (January 17, 2000) by Robin Shortt:


Lucy Pannick runs a household that's described in the publicity stuff as like any other eccentric and dysfunctional family.

Lucy herself is an alcoholic, has a deadbeat boyfriend and is a single mother. Apart from her juvenile-delinquent son Jim she also has to care for her learning-disabled brother Sandy and her few-bricks-shy-of-a-load Gran and on top of all this, she learns the train to Sandy's day-care centre, which offers his only chance of independence, has been cancelled by the evil multinational bastards at Windmill Transport. 

Right on queue, tall-dark-and-handsome stranger Donovan Quick (Colin Firth) shows up and rents Lucy's spare room. Quick soon befriends Sandy and convinces him to help start their own bus company, in competition with Windmill, but it isn't long before they're facing a predictable dirty-tricks campaign.

I can pretty much guarantee that Donovan Quick is better than whatever reruns they're doing on the commercial channels. The story is uplifting enough without being too mawkish, and the performances are enough to make it worth watching (especially Firth's, who manages to establish Quick as flawed and interesting rather than a mysterious Superman). 

Being Scottish, this does have a few un compromising" moments in its look at working-class life, but it's closer to Hamish Macbeth than Looking After JoJo.

Our rating: A Scottish Henry Fool.

October 12, 1999  Screened at the Cork Film Festival
    Reviewed in the Irish Times (October 15, 1999) by Hugh Linehan:


Halfway through its week-long schedule, this year's Murphy's Cork Film Festival is rolling along with some confidence and professionalism. [...] Cork's chief importance is as a showcase for the best in international cinema, ranging from the avant-garde to the commercial mainstream, and the programme, now running across four screens with the increasing involvement of the Gate multiplex, has the potential to reflect that range better than anywhere else in the country. Inevitably, there were misses as well as hits this week, but this writer experienced more of the latter. [...]

In contrast, the BBC Scotland production, Donovan Quick, ignores such contemporary trappings. It's often been a valid criticism of British (and Irish) films that they avoid the modern world, even when they're supposedly addressing it, and the last year has seen a rash of bland, anachronistic Full Monty-lookalikes to reinforce the point, but David Blair's quirky, likeable film is too individual and unusual to be lumped in with the rest of that crop. 

As the title hints, this is a modern-day Quixotic tale, which pits the little man against the overweening forces of authority. Colin Firth plays the eponymous, mysterious hero who shows up as the new lodger on the doorstep of the Pannick family, led by alcoholic Lucy (Katy Murphy), and including her learning-disabled brother (David Brown, who is himself learning- disabled, giving a terrific performance). To the Pannicks' bemusement, they find themselves caught up in Firth's crusade against the ruthless corporation which runs the local public transport system, and Murphy's cynicism is challenged by his idealistic "madness".

Donovan Quick is the kind of film which, in the wrong hands, could have ended up as the most awful sort of sentimental mush, but the screenplay (by Donna Franceschild, who wrote the recent adaptation of Robert MacLiam Wilson's Eureka Street for the BBC) and direction are too intelligent for that. Blair was responsible for the under-rated TV drama, Vicious Circle, based, like The General, on the life of Dublin gangster Martin Cahill, and here he convincingly creates a cast of highly believable, sympathetic characters who you find yourself really rooting for.

The Scotsman, September 21, 1999, by James Rampton:

From bus bust-ups to brio, Donna Franceschild’s updated take on ‘Don Quixote’ has it all, says James Rampton - All’s fare in love - Fare-play with a modern-day Don Quixote and the fun of the fare - Battle of the little big horns - All the fun of the fare

THE caller to the late-night phone-in is in full rant mode. A sort of Victor Meldrew with added attitude, he is incensed about the unreliability of his newly privatised local bus service. He is fulminating at the phone-in guest, the smoothie regional executive of the new bus operator, the Port Clyde-based Windmill Transport. "I was waiting for my bus to work this morning. It was due at 7:12, but did it turn up at 7:12? Did it hell. It turned up at 7:33. Twenty-one minutes late. I want you to sort out that bus! You’re the bastard responsible! It’s down to you, isn’t it? It’s you! It’s you!"

This is the opening scene from Donovan Quick, a new film from BBC Scotland which has just finished shooting in Glasgow and one which may well ring bells with the users of some privatised bus services in Scotland. It certainly chimes with Donovan Quick. Fired-up by the phone-in, he decides to take up the righteous cause of tilting at this windmill by setting up his own one-man bus company.

Before you can say "Cervantes", Quick’s quick-on-its-feet enterprise is a huge success and a threat to the highly competitive Windmill Transport. Donna Franceschild, the Scottish-based writer of such acclaimed dramas as Takin’ Over the Asylum and Mug’s Game, reckoned that the buses were a good, er, vehicle for her updated version of Don Quixote’s heroic yet ultimately doomed struggle against an invincible enemy.

"I wanted to find a monolithic giant against which Donovan could fight," explains Franceschild, sitting on the location catering bus (no, it’s not one of Windmill’s). "I thought of creating a rapacious, Thatcherite company, and during my research I came across a former miner in Fife who’d started up a one-man bus operation with his redundancy money and immediately fell foul of a big bus company. It was real David and Goliath stuff."

Donovan Quick is a story that appeals to our natural love of the underdog. "In Britain, there’s this wonderful thing about fair play," Franceschild continues. "The idea of someone putting their redundancy money into a one-bus operation that then gets taken over pisses people off. Competition is one thing, but this isn’t fair. Of course, capitalism isn’t designed to be fair. Have you played Monopoly?"

So she had Donovan aim his lance at this fearsome rival. "Windmill Transport, a giant with many arms, is a good target for him to attempt to slay," Franceschild says. "There’s something noble about trying to fight such a massive foe against all the odds but for all the right reasons. I wanted to examine the lack of humanity in that system. I didn’t want to write about bus deregulation as such, but create a situation where a little guy stands up to capitalism at its most rapacious. Even though he technically loses, Donovan and his friends are empowered by standing up to the big guy."

Readers may be sensing similarities in all this with Stagecoach, the powerful, real-life bus company. However, Franceschild is quick to dampen down any comparisons. "We didn’t want to single out any one bus company," she says. "At the time of privatisation, there were a lot of big fish swallowing smaller fish."

On the other hand, there was a time when Brian Souter, Stagecoach’s maverick boss and the nearest thing to Richard Branson in Scottish corporate circles, might have seen himself in the Donovan Quick role. Pilot fish feeding off the leavings of ponderous corporate leviathan one minute, sleek killer whale the next; that’s capitalism for you.

Colin Firth is well-cast as the dreamily idealistic Donovan whose mission inspires his landlords, the down-at-heel Pannick family, to better themselves. In one scene, he sits behind the wheel of his bus on his first run from Port Clyde to Canon Bridge and launches into a spirited rallying-cry to his reluctant cohort, a conductor with learning disabilities called Sancho Panza – sorry, Sandy Pannick (played by David Brown). "We are about to embark on a great mission, Sandy. A great quest. To fight the mighty Windmill. And they will try to defeat us. Make no mistake about that, Sandy. And they won’t care who they hurt. Because there are no people in their equations. Only ‘customers’." Rousing stuff.

Firth is unwinding in a rather fancy Japanese restaurant following a hot afternoon in the central Glasgow studio. Director David Blair, who collaborated with Franceschild on hee two previous hits, has been driving him and Brown hard in a scene where they return home defiantly singing "We Shall Not Be Moved" after a punishing day battling Windmill buses. When Blair finally says he’s happy after numerous takes, Firth jokily asks: "Shall we have an end-of-scene party?"

Firth thinks we have all got a touch of the Donovan Quicks about us. "Like most powerful myths, it’s universal. If there’s anything I'm passionate about or decide to fight, it’s usually a case of Don Quixote – a pathetically ineffectual human being taking on something which doesn’t feel the blows at all and which is probably the wrong target anyway. Donovan never gets a punch in before he’s flat on his back, but his spirit is winning and his courage is absolute. "Donovan is never going to get the girl, he’s never going to defeat the dragon, but he’s going to keep going anyway. Is there a better way to describe the human condition?"

According to Franceschild, maybe we should all be a bit more quixotic. "A lot of people are politically cynical, as Labour have turned out like the Tories Mark II," she sighs. "But when true opposition comes back, it’ll be because of a few lunatics whoare never going to win but who start to make us think things can be different. Donovan Quick is inspirational – even though he’s a fool and a failure. At the end, he hangs up his lance, but you think ‘what a great man’. You could never make this in the States – they’d say, ‘this guy Quick is a bit of a loser’ – but I love the concept of honourable failure."

Don’t, however, get the idea that Donovan Quick is a piece of dreary, banner-waving agitprop. It is lively, humorous writing peopled with characters we can all relate to. But it is still that rarity in these times when any form of political engagement is seen as frightfully passé, darling: a film with a social conscience. "I used to have a play-writing tutor who said a good start for writers was asking ourselves what we are pissed off about," Franceschild concludes. "I’ll keep writing as long as I’m pissed off.

"Anger about the kind of conditions some people are struggling in fuels my work. My husband is a nurse, and I get paid a lot more than he does. I think that’s obscene. What I do is frivolous; what he does is vital."

Franceschild has obviously struck a chord with this story. Another film version of Cervantes’s novel is currently in production. Typical, you wait ages for an adaptation of Don Quixote, then two come along at the same time.

Donovan Quick will be broadcast on BBC1 sometime in the near future.

Press Release from BBC Scotland (April 22, 1999):

Colin Firth Stars in Donovan Quick

Colin Firth (Shakespeare in Love, Pride and Prejudice), Katy Murphy (Tutti Frutti, A Mug’s Game), David O’Hara (Braveheart, The Match),Liz Smith(The Royale Family, A Private Function), and David Westhead(The Lakes, Mrs Brown) are to star in Donovan Quick - a few film for BBC ONE from the BAFTA award-winning team of writer, Donna Franceschild, and director, David Blair.  Filming will begin on locations around Glasgow from April 25.

Colin Firth said today,  “This is a unique script and I am looking forward to working with David Blair on the film.”

BBC Scotland’s Head of Drama, Barbara McKissack, added:  “I am delighted that we are attracting major talents both on and off the screen to work with us in Scotland.”

When the mysterious and well-spoken Donovan Quick takes up residence with the Pannick family things will never be the same again.  The Pannicks are like any other dysfunctional family:  Lucy Pannick drinks, her son Jim steals cars, her grandmother forgets to put on her clothes and her learning disabled brother, Sandy, runs model trains in his room all night.  When multi-national bus company, Windmill Transport takes over the local trains and leaves Sandy no way to get to his day centre, Donovan starts up a one-bus company with Sandy to replace the lost service.  Against all the odds, the fledgling Quick and Pannick buses becomes so successful that the voracious Windmill Transport decides to poach the route for itself.  However, like his inspiration Don Quixote, Donovan Quick manages to thwart Windmill at their own game, galvanising the community and transforming forever the lives of Lucy, Sandy, Gran and Jim in the process.

Donovan Quick is an independent production from Making Waves Film and Television Limited, a company set up by writer Donna Franceschild and director David Blair who previously collaborated on two BBC Scotland series, Takin’ Over the Asylum and A Mug’s Game.  The producer is Sue Austen and the executive producers are Barbara McKissack and Jane Tranter. 

BBC News (January 28, 1999):

Firth on the buses, but off the rails

Actor Colin Firth will star as a madman in a contemporary version of Don Quixote for a new British film.

The Pride and Prejudice star - who also appears in Shakespeare in Love - will take the title role in Donovan Quick, which will be made for television later this year.

Director David Blair said the film is superficially about "a Don Quixote character", but is set against the unlikely background of transport privatisation.

Firth's character is in charge of axing bus services - but he gives the profits away to the needy, mirroring the hero of Cervantes' book.

"He's been sectioned in a mental hospital and what unfolds is that he is tortured by what he appears to have been doing in the past.

"He's arrested at the end and put back in a mental hospital," said Blair, who has also directed The Lakes and Takin' Over the Asylum for the BBC.

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