Glasgow-Cinema City Re-born?


(Photo: Great Western Terrace- featured in House of Mirth)

 It is sometimes said that if an Edinburgher has a pound, he or she will save it, but that if a Glasgwegian has a pound they will go out and spend it. When one looks at the vast crowds in Glasgow which have traditionally attended football matches, or which went to the dancing in its heyday, there would appear to be truth in this statement. It is also given further credence by the statistics of attendance at the cinema in its classic period from 1920-60 when the term Cinema City was often applied to Glasgow, due to the huge number of cinemas  located there, and the vast attendances of which they boasted. In 1950 the district of Govan had nine cinemas, one more than the city of Aberdeen, which had twice Govan’s population.

In this classic period of the cinema, Glasgow itself hardly featured on the silver screen except in a few documentaries, such as Seawards the Great Ships from 1960, directed by Hilary Harris. This was written by John Grierson and Cliff Hanley and featured the Clyde shipyards at the height of their post war reconstruction boom, and it was the first Scottish film to be awarded an Oscar. But now the reel appears to have come full circle, and Cinema City has had a re-birth as a place where, increasingly, feature films are actually made and where Glasgow itself has become a movie star. The city’s Universities now have prestigious Film Studies courses on offer, the facilities for making movies in the city are world class, for example at the Film City facility located in the former Govan Town Hall. In recognition of this, the City Council has an offshoot to promote the use of Glasgow as a film location. Whilst it is not yet Hollywood on Clyde, the film industry is one of the growing economic sectors in the Glasgow region, worth an estimated £25 million a year.

Many of these recent films have featured Glasgow as Elsewhere, for example in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth, starring X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, the city doubled for late nineteenth century New York, with the tenements of Hillhead and Woodlands as stand-ins for those of the Lower East Side a century before, and Great Western Terrace doubling for the homes of the New York plutocracy.  The city has also been Moscow with its Moss Heights housing project, Rome with the City Chambers as the Vatican,  Philadephia with the grid plan city centre, and the steep streets of Partick have doubled as those of San Francisco.  The great variety of architectural styles in Glasgow (influenced possibly more than any other UK city   outside London by American and Continental styles) allows this to happen- few places have such an eclectic built environmental mix within so manageable an area, a director’s delight. A recent example of this Glasgow as Elsewhere was the filming  of World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, with Glasgow as Philadelphia, facing a zombie invasion.

And because Glasgow can be Elsewhere, it can also be Nowhere. It is not a city where you might think of setting an urban version of Brigadoon, it has a stark grimness at times and this has allowed it to be used as an imaginary place and the setting for futuristic dystopic studies of urban and social breakdown, such as Death Watch. This is my favourite film set in Glasgow, indeed one of my all-time favourite films which I saw on its first release over 30 years ago. Then it was a total flop, despite its A-List cast including Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider, but it has just been re-released to what I am certain will be a much better reception.  Bertrand Tavernier, Death Watch’s director, came to the Glasgow Film Festival in 2012 to launch its re-release. Tavernier described how he fell in love with Glasgow and its people back in the 1970s and he has been here many times since. He talked of the shooting of Deathwatch (despite the warnings he had had that the film crews would be robbed and mugged) as the easiest he has ever done, and of the enthusiastic help and participation given by local people. In the film describes an imaginary future which Tavernier thought would remain so, remain a science fiction, but which  in many ways has actually arrived, as has the time of this very prescient film.

Late 1970s Glasgow with the slums still standing, black as night, but unoccupied is the setting for the future where the poor live on the city margins held down by the authorities and where the middle classes lead lives where death  by illness has been abolished and where an intrusive commercially-driven reality television dominates people’s existence. The city has never been portrayed as dramatically, or in such tones of brooding beauty, as in Deathwatch, from shots in the Necropolis (then still wild and ungentrified,) to scenes by the riverside, (which at that time still had ships at the docks!). It also featured Glasgow actor Robbie Coltrane’s big screen debut. It is out on DVD, issued appropriately enough by the Glasgow based film outfit Park Circus- Watch It! –and you’ll hopefully never watch celebrity/reality TV again.

deathwatch-quadDeathwatch promotional poster for its re-release (Park Circus). Sadly Romy Schneider, illustrated, who played a character duped into believing she was going to die in the film, did actually die shortly after its making.

But my main interest is not is Glasgow as Elsewhere, or Nowhere, but as itself. How have directors and producers and their script writers portrayed the city in what is essentially its period of post industrial development, its Culture City period, following upon that of the industrial greatness of Second City and then the urban decline of No Mean City? What aspects and issues have attracted their interest and how representative is the view of the city which they have given? Let us first look at what these works do not concentrate on.

There have been almost no historical films made about the city, set in its rich and varied past or in its industrial and commercial heyday which lasted till the early twentieth century. This may change as Glasgow’s film profile rises, but to date the only full length film about Glasgow set in an historical context was possibly the first such ever made, David Lean’s Madeleine, from 1950, showing a young woman’s attempt to challenge the strict bourgeois mores of the mid nineteenth century. As this was a studio production the city was literally a stage backdrop, and this backdrop full of inaccuracies. Madeleine’s lover lived in a replica Edinburgh High Street slum whereas in reality he occupied a bourgeois flat in Argyle Street, wild Highlanders partied at the Smith family’s holiday house….in Helensburgh, and so forth. But historically accurate mise en scene was not Lean’s interest, rather Madeleine’s drama was.

Historical is possibly a strong word to apply to Young Adam directed by David Mackenzie and made in 2003 starring Ewan MacGregor, but as it depicts life in industrial Glasgow and its environs around 1950, a life and a world which has almost totally disappeared in the ensuing in half a century, we can be forgiven for using the term here. Accurately conveying the claustrophobic and conformist society of the time, from which the young writer Joe wishes to escape, the director had a problem in conveying the industrial environs of the Forth and Clyde Canal half a century ago-since they are no longer there. In fact the canal was re-opened early this century as a leisure cultural and environmental project, reflecting changed times. To blot out these changes much of the film was shot in bad weather (no problem in Glasgow!) and also with the background out of focus, so that, for example, that warehouses at Spiers Wharf could still look like warehouses, and not the luxury flats they have become. I would make my first plea for film makers to use Glasgow’s past more than they have as a future subject for their works. The Covenanting and Jacobite periods, the Tobacco Lords, the Industrial Revolution, blockade running during the US Civil War, the wars of the 20th century- the choice of topics is almost endless!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd one especial omission, given that Glasgow is and has been a working class city and the crucible of the Scottish labour movement, is that the working class and its struggles have not featured on film, either in historical or contemporary times – apart from in documentaries. An obvious choice for a film that would be really worthwhile would be the Red Clydeside period around the First World War and the life of the great Glasgow socialist John MacLean. But there are many more topics. The UCS Work-In is retreating into history to such an extent that that would also offer scope for imaginative cinematic treatment. (Photo:Possil Basin- featured in Young Adam).

But, unfortunately, with some notable exceptions what still sells Glasgow is No Mean City. (It is possibly very surprising that the best-selling and most famous work of fiction on Glasgow, the novel of that title set in 1930s Gorbals, has never been made into a film. Possibly someone has their eye on it at this very moment………). In the last 30 years the marginalised and socially excluded of the city must have become one of the most documented fauna on the planet, though they are no endangered species. I have no problem with the issues of Glasgow’s poverty and violence being given attention, quite the contrary I would hate to see it airbrushed, or soft-focussed, out of existence; I do have an issue with this being projected, almost to the exclusion of the mainstream life of the city, as the paradigm of the place. Again there have been exceptions, think of the TV dramatization of John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti, which virtually launched the careers of Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane. This conveyed the problems of a group of edgy, marginal (but not socially excluded) musicians  in the mid 1980s with great warmth, humour and sadness, and which was set in a Glasgow which showed the scars of its past but in which the new Culture City was starting to emerge. But too much of the film coverage of Glasgow in the last couple of decades could be described as Miserabilist.

The first really outstanding and internationally successful Scottish feature film director was Bill Forsyth, who sadly-after making the successful Local Hero  in 1983 starring no less than Burt Lancaster, departed for Hollywood and ,many would argue, there experienced  an atrophy of his talents. Before that he made a cluster of films set in Glasgow and its environs which dealt with the then newly emerging problems of unemployment and social marginalisation. Films such as That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl (set in Cumbernauld which is just a bit of Glasgow overspill sited on a windy hill) and Comfort and Joy. The latter film, starring Glasgow’s own Bill Patterson, portrayed, with Forsyth’s own unique brand of whimsy and the Glasgow humourous banter, the initial origins of the ice-cream wars of that period on the Glasgow housing estates.

What is surprising in re-watching these films is that there is no despair in them. The kids in his films are healthy, well dressed and optimistic; when one of them in That Sinking Feeling says “There must be mair tae life than suicide” –he means it, it isn’t a statement of despair, but one of optimism. There were no drugs in the kids lives, and there was little violence. Even the feuding gangs in the ice-cream wars of Comfort and Joy spray each other with raspberry juice.  It could be argued that Forsyth was casting a rosy glow on his image of Glasgow at that period. There was  violence even then, no more marked than when shortly after his  view of the ice cream wars  in Comfort and Joy appeared, large scale thuggery broke out as ice cream vans in the peripheral housing estates became the carriers of drugs, heralding the onset of organised gangsterism and its attendant brutalities. Forsyth’s films hinted at the initial breakdown of the consensual society that had dominated Britain since 1945 and was to be forever smashed by Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 and its aftermath.  But we-and Forsyth- didn’t know that at the time.

The warm-hearted whimsy and cheering banter that in notable in Forsyth’s films did not altogether vanish, and in 2002 appeared a film which readers of List magazine voted one of the three best Scottish films of all time, American Cousins (Sergio Casci). Like Comfort and Joy it is set in the Italian community of Glasgow, though in its fish and chip rather than ice-cream sub culture, which its director Don Coutts portrays with more accuracy than did Forsyth in his own film -as those familiar with this most successfully integrated immigrant community will testify. The film deals with the issues of gangsterism, poverty and urban decay but with an uplifting humanity that produces a wonderful feel-good factor, and the city is shown, from its icons such as the former Luma Works which doubles as Glasgow airport to its riverscapes – even in its urban wastelands- to be a thing, in certain lights admittedly, of staggering beauty. But though List readers might agree with my own love of this film, to the wider public it remains little known.

Glasgow’s film profile rose meteorically when the renowned director Ken Loach fell in love with the city, engaged, like Tavernier before him, by both the energy and humour of its inhabitants and the dramatic possibilities offered for filming in the myriad striking locations in and around the city. Films like Sweet Sixteen and My Name is Joe were international successes for the director and brought Glasgow and Clydeside’s social problems to a wider audience. An actor who had starred in the latter film and in others such as On a Clear Day,  Glasgow’s own Peter Mullen then went on to direct his own films in a similar genre, Orphans, The Madgelene Sisters, and most recently Neds, set back in the Glasgow of the 1970s. Where one might argue that Forsyth underplayed social problems in his films of that era, one could also argue that Loach-and Mullen- overplay them. Glasgow gangs of the 1970s existed but not to the extent dreamed up by sociologists at the time. Interestingly Loach himself has recently gone in a Forsyth direction with films that pander to whimsy and feel good factors, such as his most recent work, Angel’s Share, a redemptive drama about a group of unemployed Glasgow kids who go on a whisky heist. But the world in which their tale takes place is a much more brutal one than that portrayed by Forsyth 30 year before.

But Miserabilism  generally dominates cinematic images of Glasgow, as can be seen in Andrea Arnold’s  stylish thriller from 2006 Red Road, named after the mega-rise flats of that name (now in the process of being demolished) on the edge of the Springburn area of the city. A well-cast and gripping film, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Red Road however does nothing to combat the quite false and widespread image that Glasgow consists of little more than alienated urban wastelands. With its rich history, wonderfully varied built heritage and current cultural renaissance, Glasgow deserves better of the silver screen than that, a better balance.

And let’s not forget the muddle classes, as they are, without intended irony, described by their social underlings in this city. The West End of Glasgow has a population of well over 100,000 people, it is a city within a city, with a built environment equivalent to that of any European capital city, and where reputedly there are more University graduates as a proportion of the population than anywhere in the UK and where health and wealth statistics are far from  those of the Death by Deep Fried Mars Bar image  of the Dear Green Place so beloved of cosmopolitan scribblers. Though these social groups have featured in a couple of television drama serialisations, ie The Book Group ( dealing with the mores of a group of Byres Road  would-be literati) and Lip Service (about a group of professional lipstick-lesbians -though that was set in the detached west end colony of the Merchant City) they have yet to feature on film.

There have though been few if any attempts to follow up on Lean’s account of the nineteenth century Glasgow middle class in Madeleine.  A possible exception might be made for Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself) directed by Lone Sherfig from 2002. This was an almost entirely Danish written and directed film – but set in Glasgow (as Glasgow) with a Scottish cast! It deals with a pair of brothers running a struggling second-hand bookshop, and despite its title it is a film which treats suicide, death and loss in a beautifully uplifting and feelgood way, without any schmaltz– and also without any miserabilism! However in this lack of treatment of its middle classes on film, Glasgow is possibly not unusual; who makes films of the life of the middle class in provincial Lyon….or Turin? The metropolitan middle-class sells cinema it seems, just as it sells fiction.  London, Paris, Rome…..

If Glasgow has a future as a Cinema City – other than as a wonderfully chameleon-like location for films set elsewhere- it can only be by widening out from the topics which have dominated for the last 30 years, and by the screen giving us a more accurate picture of the city in its past and its present. Miserabilism may currently sell, but the cinema-going public will eventually tire of it. Broaden the social canvas, broaden the historical dimension…there is more material there than there is oil in the North Sea.

Ian Mitchell April, 2013.

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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