Classic film Whisky Galore! ‘unlikely forerunner’ of Trainspotting

Gordon Jackson, left,  in a scene from the 1949 film Whisky Galore. Picture: Mirror Syndication International

Gordon Jackson, left, in a scene from the 1949 film Whisky Galore. Picture: Mirror Syndication International

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One is a classic Scottish comedy about canny islanders who cannot believe their luck when a ship with a huge cargo of whisky runs aground in the midst of a wartime drought. The other is a gritty portrayal of heroin addiction in 1980s Edinburgh.

But a leading university academic says Whisky Galore! can now be seen as an unlikely forerunner of Trainspotting for its depiction of hard-drinking Scots.

Speaking in a new BBC Scotland documentary to be broadcast on Hogmanay, Dr Jonny Murray, of Edinburgh University, said there was a remarkable resemblance between the canny islanders and Irvine Welsh’s characters.

And he describes Trainspotting as merely following a long tradition of “substance abuse” being featured in Scottish movies, describing Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation as “kailyard set to club beats”.

The Hogmanay show Wha’s Like Us?, which is presented by Still Game star Sanjeev Kohli, charts the history of the nation’s portrayal on the big screen, with reminders of how the Scots have regularly been portrayed as tight-fisted, tartan-wearing, hard-drinking, God-fearing and “always up for a fight”.

The hour-long documentary describes Whisky Galore! as a classic example of kailyard – “a shorthand for how Scotland was presented to the world for many years”.

Dr Murray said: “Kailyard referred to images of Scotland that portrayed it as parochial, cut off from the modern world, small-town, hapless lads, winsome lassies. They certainly weren’t something you could recognise yourself in.

“Quite a lot of the elements of 20th-century Scottish stereotype are present and correct in Whisky Galore! – the slightly drunk, slightly unruly local, the figures who are magically cut adrift or don’t seem to respect at all the conventions of how we live in the modern world.

“But, as viewers, we’re also very aware that they know that they’re playing a stereotype. They’re not the joke, they’re in on the joke and the joke is being played on someone else.”

Trainspotting is described in the documentary as the film which “nailed a needle-shaped stake through the perceptions of Scots being a bunch of tartan-wearing shortbread munchers”.

Dr Murray added: “There is a lot of substance abuse in Scottish cinema. By Trainspotting the whole country seems to have graduated on to heroin.

“It’s very much an escape from reality.

“There is definitely an argument to be made that Trainspotting is kailyard with club beats. Whisky Galore! has become ‘Heroin Galore’.

“Again we see incredibly unscrupulous, unruly, wild locals who refuse to accept the rules by which modern life is made.”

Author Alan Bissett tells the documentary: “The most successful Scottish films for me are when they get the balance right between the grittiness and the reality and the fun and the energy of being working class.

“I cannot really over-estimate the impact of Trainspotting on my generation. What was strange about that was that it came a year after Braveheart, which was also massive.

“One was sort of stately and the other was this punk stoating about. The language was ours.”

Actress Kate Dickie, whose films include Red Road, Filth and For Those In Peril, said: “Just because things are real life doesn’t make them depressing and grim, but that’s tough because that’s how people live.”

The documentary also features unlikely praise for one of the most controversial portrayals of Scotland on screen - in the Hollywood musical Brigadoon, which is compared to the classic comedy Local Hero.

Writer and broadcaster Muriel Gray said: “I will not have a word against Brigadoon. It is the most perfect musical ever.

“What is Local Hero if it’s not Brigadoon? It’s giving up the modern world to step back into this beautiful idea of a romantic Scotland, which I think is still out there somewhere.”

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