Danny Boyle’s film of Trainspotting was the pitch-perfect opening salvo for Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia.
A post-ideological antidote to the conscience-pricking social realism of such politically-driven directors as Peter Watkins and Ken Loach, its purpose was not to evoke sympathy for those enslaved to a drug habit; rather, it was to cash in on their potential as subjects for sassy knockabout humour. Whatever else it may have been, this was hardly audacious iconoclasm in the service of a deprived community.
In time, iconoclasts can become icons. James Graham, lead singer of post-punk indie rock band, The Twighlight Sad, crowed that Welsh had written an ‘iconic book turned into an iconic film.’
What can I say about this that hasn’t been said before, Nothing! It’s great, go read it! I think it should be in all Scottish schools and part of the Higher English course.’
Where Graham was expressing an enthusiastic personal view, the Scottish Book Trust conferred the imprimatur of literary authority in stating that ‘Begbie, Sick Boy and Renton have become icons.’ The official arts body Creative Scotland went one better in 2017 with – I kid you not – a £500,000 grant to help fund Trainspotting 2.
Unlike the London-based British Film Institute, which had a mechanism for recouping support funding when a film is commercially successful, Creative Scotland’s award was a no-strings attached gift. Given that Boyle’s personal wealth was estimated to be around £43 million, this failed to impress many in Scotland’s cash-strapped community of artists, writers, musicians, and performers. It was not lost on most of them that an earlier film based on Irvine Welsh’s work, Filth, had also been subsidised by Creative Scotland, after the rights had been sold to Scottish director Jon S Baird by the Weinstein brothers’ Miramax. The sublime irony of the Trainspotting phenomenon is that while, on the one hand, it is revered for its counter-cultural values by such radicals as socialist-republican activist Kevin Williamson, its well-oiled marketing and promotional success exemplifies a free-market capitalist spirit which would delight any Thatcherite.
At the very least, we could ask ourselves if there might be something inherently depraved and hazardous about casually selecting such unsavoury devices as violence, drug abuse, criminality, underage sex, and even a dead baby as paradigms of Edinburgh working-class culture. When Alasdair Gray urged us to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ I doubt if Danny Boyle’s world of dystopian villainy was the sort of thing he had in mind.
Indeed, the unremitting vilification of a social class mostly unable to fight back can only entrench its problems and augment its failings. “It’s shite being Scottish, we are colonised by wankers” declares Trainspotting’s Renton, played by LA-based Ewan MacGregor OBE, whose personal net worth is believed to be in the region of $45 million.
Trainspotting, at its worst, was the free pass which allowed certain bourgeois influencers and their commentariat allies to take a swipe at an imagined feckless no-hope proletariat. Thus Scotsman columnist John McTernan trashed Leith as ‘Edinburgh’s deniable dirty little secret’ and praised Welsh for revealing ‘the truth of a part of Edinburgh: the heroin, the life of the addict, the reason that we became the Aids capital of Europe.’ Since, in his capacity as a New Labour adviser, McTernan had once damned his adopted country as ‘narrow, Presbyterian, and racist’ this view of his fellow citizens should probably not surprise us.
It wasn’t always so. In the early 1960s Craigmillar had such severe levels of poverty and social deprivation that it would qualify for a European relief programme. It was also the scene of a now largely forgotten social experiment in which the residents themselves took action. They established a festival society, staging plays, musicals, and historical pageants involving the entire community. The ethos was that all the local children should feel cherished enough to develop a sense of self-esteem, the elderly should be engaged in social activities, and everyone else would at least be offered the opportunity to use such talents as they possessed.
Anything less like Trainspotting would be hard to imagine. The local people pooled their talents. The underlying credo was that every Craigmillar resident had a value and could contribute something to the annual event, which mostly took place in 14th century Craigmillar Castle. By the mid 1970s at least 17,000 people were participating.
The Craigmillar Festival Society’s success attracted community workers and sociologists from as far away as Australia and the USA, inspiring other initiatives such as Glasgow’s Easterhouse Festival and London’s Notting Hill Carnival. It was admired and supported by many outside the community. Sean Connery, Richard Demarco, Joan Bakewell, Yehudi Menuhin, and Billy Connolly were among the contributors.
It also gave rise to a trilogy of films which would go on to win the Silver Lion award at the 1972 Venice Film Festival. My Childhood, directed by Bill Douglas, a searing depiction of his impoverished early life in the mining village bordering Craigmillar, was made on a shoestring budget using local people in every role.
If evidence was ever needed that genius could flourish in adversity Bill Douglas provided it in spades. As a child he’d known nothing but abject deprivation and been given the most rudimentary education, yet later in life he could cite Blake, Coleridge and Hogarth as influences and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of cinema, with a library to match.
He also had a fascination with the contradictions and complexities of the Scottish character. His proposed last film was to be his interpretation of James Hogg’s 1824 Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. A film-maker whose work has been compared to that of Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, and Orson Welles, Douglas would undoubtedly have made one of the greatest Scottish films of the last century. Sadly, unlike the state-subsidised Danny Boyle 25 years later, Bill Douglas was unable to raise the necessary funding, and left only an unused screenplay on his death at the age of 57.
The reflective and highly personal films of Douglas and the box-office blockbusters of Boyle probably elude comparison, but the one lesson we can draw from both is to consider the contrasting values they enshrine in the context of the decision-making process of establishment state agencies like Creative Scotland. What, exactly, were the agency’s board members trying to do for the reputation for Scotland by splashing £500,000 on a commercial film with a pernicious plotline based on the tragedy of a drug crisis engulfing Edinburgh’s deprived communities? Raising laughs from a drug abuse epidemic in impoverished areas whose inhabitants are statistically three times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than those in Scotland’s less challenged environments is morally questionable to say the least.
This is not in any sense a plea for Scotland to exclusively embrace some sort of sentimentalised Pollyanna view of its national character. Critical self-appraisal has long been one of our finest cultural assets, seen, perhaps, at its most profound in To a Louse and A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle, and at its most popular in the ironic humour of Ivor Cutler, Chic Murray, Billy Connolly, Limmy, or Gregor Fisher’s Rab C Nesbitt.
Official largesse wide of mark
None of this, however, can justify Creative Scotland’s generous largesse in the case of Trainspotting 2, especially since this came at the expense of a number of theatre groups like the Scottish Youth Theatre and Catherine Wheels Children’s Theatre which, in the spirit of Craigmillar Festival, were very much in the business of providing opportunities for young people from diverse, and often challenged, backgrounds.
The year after Trainspotting 2′s release the budgets of no fewer than 21 small- to-medium theatre companies were cut to ribbons. The problem wasn’t simply the subsidy to Boyle. Ten times as much Creative Scotland funding – a swingeing £5 million – had earlier been mopped up by the project to build a V&A outstation in Dundee in breach of its own guidelines. What planet do these people live on?
The provision of no-strings-attached public revenues to Trainspotting2 can only be described as a fiscal scandal. The film’s backers were California-based entertainments giant, TriStar, a division of the Sony Corporation (annual revenue $81.9 billion). Tristar bought the film rights in 2015, and went on to harvest a profit from it, despite negative reviews.
It could be called the question that dare not speak its name. Has Trainspotting and its state-subsidised sequel corrosively influenced the behaviour of a generation of young socially alienated Scots who saw in its squalid, amoral glamour something they could relate to? If that is the case – and doubtless many will dispute it – then we also have to consider the collaborative role of Creative Scotland’s funding of a commercial film which exploited a Scottish social catastrophe as fodder for a blockbuster black comedy.
There can surely be no subject less suitable as a subject for popular entertainment than the hopeless despair of an unfortunate demoralised minority in need of help. Apart from questions of simple decency and compassion, whether it’s America’s opioid crisis, or Scotland’s heroin disaster, seen up close and personal, drug abuse just ain’t funny.
Main image courtesy of Ewan Morrison