The Edinburgh Film Festival starts next week, but Scotland’s love affair with cinema didn’t begin well reveals a new exhibition on our enduring relationship with the big screen.
WHEN the red carpet is rolled out at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre on Wednesday night, few of those striding up it for the start of the city’s International Film Festival are likely to realise the part the venue played in Scotland’s cinematic history. In April 1896, the theatre, then known as the Empire Palace, played host to what was the first film screening in Scotland. This newspaper’s review delivered a damning verdict on the night, declaring that the audience were more interested in the succession of variety acts rather than the short films shown.
Within years, though, Scotland was leading the way in embracing the movie-going boom, and when the credits roll on this year’s film festival on 30 June, the Festival Theatre will have played host to probably the country’s biggest cinematic event with the European premiere of Disney-Pixar adventure Brave. Yet, if that prospect isn’t enough to sate the appetite of movie lovers, then a new exhibition charting Scotland’s relationship with the big screen should certainly do so. Starting with that very first night at the old Empire, the National Library of Scotland’s celebration will look at everything from the rise of cinema-going and the growth of picture houses across the country, the making of classic films like The 39 Steps, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Kidnapped, Scotland’s little-known links with Hollywood – including Mickey Rooney being half-Scottish – and how the country has been portrayed on the big screen.
Rare promotional material, memorabilia and original scripts have been unearthed from Scotland’s national film archive, while the exhibition will also feature behind-the-scenes footage never shown before, as well as footage of ordinary Scots at work and play.
Although the exhibition promises a trip down memory lane for film fans – with its grainy film footage, original posters and classic adverts for soft drinks and ice lollies – it also brings things right up to date with clips and exhibits from Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Rob Roy, Orphans, 16 Years of Alcohol and even Brave, which does not arrive in UK cinemas until August.
The film festival’s closing gala, which the likes of Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane and Kelly MacDonald are expected to attend, culminates a remarkable 12 months in which Scotland has enjoyed an unprecedented cinematic boom. Stars like Brad Pitt, Colin Firth, Halle Berry, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, James McAvoy, Scarlett Johansson and Stephen Fry have all been in Scotland filming major new productions.
Andrew Martin, curator of modern Scottish collections at the National Library, said the exhibition, Going to the Pictures: Scotland at the Cinema had originally started life as a display of archive posters.
He said: “We soon realised we had a whole wealth of material, especially since we have been home to the Scottish Screen Archive for the last few years. There are more than 70 different films in the exhibition showing life in Scotland over the last century or so, as well as other material that the library itself has had since it was issued, like cinema programmes and marketing material for particular films.
“The exhibition looks at the stars who Scots would have flocked to see in the heyday of cinema, like Douglas Fairbanks, Harry Lauder and Mary Pickford, the way Scotland has been portrayed on screen by Hollywood, with films like Greyfriars Bobby and Brigadoon, and the impact the stars had when they came here.”
Famous occasions like Laurel and Hardy’s visits to Scotland, the arrival of Roy Rogers and Trigger at the Caledonian Hotel, in Edinburgh, and the filming of classics like Whisky Galore, Local Hero and The Maggie are recalled through photographs, posters and the pages of the original scripts.
Among the exhibition highlights are a letter written by Muriel Spark about the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, John Buchan’s personal copy of the script for The 39 Steps and a rare picture of Scotland’s first ever film star, John Clyde, who brought the character of Rob Roy from stage to screen in 1911 in Britain’s first feature film.
Ruth Washbrook, senior curator at the Scottish Screen Archive, said many exhibits and footage featured in the exhibition will never have been seen in public before. “We know some of the behind the scenes footage of films like Kidnapped and Greyfriars Bobby has been newly-restored. A lot of the film footage from our own collection is of ordinary people and we are still interested in people who have old home videos, particularly from the 1970s or before.
“We’re hoping people will give us their memories of cinema-going days – for me, the joy is getting the collections out there for people to see, and see their reactions to that. Sometimes I’ve presented film shows where people will recognise relatives and they’ve never seen that film before. They’ve never known that film even existed.”
Mr Martin added: “Almost everyone has experienced going to the pictures and being caught up in the glamour and excitement of it all. We hope the exhibition will bring back memories of films, people and cinemas that have been significant in their own lives.”
• Going to the Pictures: Scotland at the Cinema is at the National Library of Scotland from today until 28 October. The Edinburgh International Film Festival starts on Wednesday.
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