TWO teenage rebels don a clown and a werewolf mask, arm themselves with a circus hooter spray gun and whizz around the Southern Highlands on a little Japanese motorcycle.

Like modern-day Highwaymen – think 1980s Yoppers meets two plookey Robin Hoods – Will and Ronnie (Vince Friell and Joe Mullaney) proceed to rob tourist buses, sharing the spoils with the poor and the needy – and their wee sister’s pals.

Daft film premise, eh? Then how come Restless Natives has not only been screened recently on BBC iPlayer, it’s also been released for streaming by StudioCanal.

And, pandemic permitting, there are plans afoot to turn the 1985 comedy into a musical theatre show, the music backdrop being the songs of iconic Scots rockers Big Country.

Restless Natives didn’t fair very well when first released. First (and only) time writer Ninian Dunnett’s film pulled in Scottish cinema audiences. But in England, screenings lasted less time than it takes to travel from Ealing Broadway to Beaconsfield.

Producer Andy Paterson recalls: “It was a movie made by people nobody had ever heard of. We had an English media press screening on a rainy Monday morning, and they were not in the mood. They just didn’t find it funny.”

There were also a few plot holes; the Suzuki GP125 the robbers used to speed off from the chasing police Escorts had all the thrust of a drunk uncle’s late-night argument. A fat policeman with severe angina wearing diving boots could have caught it up. And no cop thought to trace the owner of the bike from the license plate.

Yet, it’s been listed by the likes of Jack Black, Gerard Butler and James McAvoy as one their favourite films. Are they playing a joke in claiming the joke shop boys really pulled it off? And why does the storyline still resonate today, as suggested by the re-release?

One of the Scots likely lads, (as in likely to go to jail for some time) agrees the film captured the sense of displacement of the period.

Vince Friell acknowledges this to be an era of PM Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism. It was a wrecking ball of an economic strategy, which created high unemployment and social devastation. The lost boys Will and Ronnie lived in a graffiti-garnished, broken-pavemented Brutalist housing scheme. What option did they have?

“Yes, there was a sense the boys felt the frustration and the anger of the period,” he recalls. “And you can understand why there was an encouragement towards the idea of robbery, a real Robin Hood/anti-Thatcher feel about the film. It was also filmed in Wester Hailes, which was really run down.”

Friell’s character was a roadsweeper. “He was frustrated. There was a sense of hopelessness.”

The actor can appreciate why the film resonates today; young people fear alienation, and certainly lack hope. The impact of a year of covid destruction has left many without jobs – and a future.

“Yes, the film had its own logic. But at the same time, it’s a story which I don’t think you could tell today. These were simpler times, more innocent in a way. You wouldn’t get people holding up a bus with a clown gun that fired itchy powder. And no one got hurt in the robbing.”

While it may resonate with today’s economic and political climate, the actor says Restless Natives wasn’t a cry for independence. “Some have written that to be the case, but I didn’t get a sense of that at all.”

The film is now a nostalgic comedy tale with a darker subtext and a great soundtrack. Nevertheless, it’s a tale that could transfer successfully to theatre.

But could you tell this panoramic story of highway robbery in a theatre space? “There is a precedent with Scots writer Stephen Greenhorn’s play Passing Places,” he says of the round-Scotland adventure story. “It could work.”

However, 36 years on, Friell smiles as he acknowledges he’s a little too old to play Will, the teenager who falls in love with the bus hostess Margot, played by Terri Lally. “And there is a slight problem in that I’m not a singer.”

Perhaps he could play the Dad, played in the film by Bernard Hughes? “Yes, I could,” says Friell, smiling. “And at least my accent would be a little more convincing than that of Bernard Hill.”

He laughs: “He said he’d been listening to Billy Connolly records to get the accent right. I thought he’d been listening to Russ Abbott.

“And while there was a voice coach on set, that was more for me and Joe because EMI were paranoid that audiences outside Scotland wouldn’t understand us.”

Freill has fond memories of filming, becoming friends with Mullaney and Lally. “Although we never kept in touch. Sometimes that’s what happens. It’s a really transient business.”

Yet, Restless Natives wasn’t a game changer, in terms of career or financial reward. “That’s perhaps because it wasn’t a big hit in England. And at the time of release I was working, touring with 7:84 theatre company, and I didn’t even get the chance to attend the premiere.”

He adds, with a wry smile. “We did get a percentage of the profits, which I seem to remember was a couple of hundred quid.

“But it’s a nice wee film that I enjoyed making. And it’s great to see that it still has a life.”

Restless Natives has been re-released by StudioCanal this week.