Brian Ferguson: Failed film plans are horror show

Sean Connery had high hopes for the film projects
Sean Connery had high hopes for the film projects
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THE relatively recent history of Edinburgh is littered with what one would generously describe as pipe-dreams. It’s pretty wearying stuff when you begin to add them up from the last couple of decades.

Teardrop-shaped hotels in the middle of the Forth, Leith’s answer to the Tate inside a giant blue warehouse, underground shops in Princes Street Gardens and a national photography centre on Calton Hill. And these were among the less fanciful.

A new athletics arena on the outskirts of the city, underground car parks on George Street and a concert arena in Princes Street Gardens were all seen as serious propositions, but have gone nowhere.

When it comes to missed opportunities, the world of film throws up two glaring examples which could well haunt Scotland’s capital for years.

It is no bad reflection on Sir Sean Connery that he gladly put his name to both projects. Scotland’s first major film studio and a permanent new home for the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) were seen as pet projects for the Bond icon when plans for each first emerged – as well as potential lasting legacies.

If the £90 million studio complex, earmarked for the Hermiston area of west Edinburgh, was by far the more ambitious, it was one that appeared to have more support at the time it was being mooted in 1999, with Sony among the high-profile backers.

But within a few years the plan appeared dead and buried, as the scheme failed to win the backing of the capital’s planners because of its green-belt location.

But as the 2004 Edinburgh International Film Festival drew to a close, Sir Sean was putting his name to a new set of plans, for a £20 million film complex in the heart of the city’s culture quarter.

Architect Richard Murphy was in typically bombastic form as he outlined his vision of Edinburgh finally having a home for major film premieres, as well as a year-round base for film production companies, film students and the much-loved but ageing Filmhouse cinema.

But despite planning to take the plans out to the Venice Biennale, neither he nor the film festival had bothered to seek the city council’s views before going public and revealing Connery’s endorsement. As a result, it was an idea doomed almost from the outset. That was less than a decade ago, although it seems light years away now.

The film festival went on to settle for a less-ambitious option for red-carpet premieres – the installation of projection and sound equipment into the Festival Theatre to allow it to stage galas there.

It is still limping along with the Filmhouse and Cameo cinemas, although mercifully EIFF returned to Cineworld at Fountainbridge last year.

Meanwhile, the site of Richard Murphy’s proposals for the Sean Connery Filmhouse, at Festival Square, is as desolate now as it was then, a depressing reminder of what could have been.

As for that Scottish film studio proposal, it was kicked so far into the long grass that it was eventually picked up by production companies in Glasgow. The project is being actively progressed on the city’s waterfront and has a pledge of £1 million from Creative Scotland. Already up and running is the Film City Glasgow complex, promoted as the “heart and soul of Scotland’s film and TV industry”.

As well as attracting just as many audiences as the Edinburgh International Film Festival with its own fledgling event, Glasgow now appears the undisputed film location capital of Scotland, after luring blockbusters such as World War Z, Under the Skin and Cloud Atlas (although parts of the latter movie were shot in the capital).

Last year, Glasgow Film Office, which now boasts four dedicated staff, reported a £20m economic boost from such productions. One can only imagine the boost to the city’s economy if and when a major film studio becomes reality.

Just as the Glasgow Film Festival was reporting a record attendance, news emerged that one of the two dedicated film unit staff in Edinburgh was being made redundant – the only actual job loss to emerge out of the wreckage of its Marketing Edinburgh agency.

Like other arts cuts elsewhere in Scotland, it is the message that this move sends out, rather than the sum of money involved, that is by far the more damaging to the city’s reputation. Not for the first time of late, the question comes to mind: Edinburgh, where did it all go wrong?