Scotland on Sunday’s writers pick the stand-out artists, events and cultural phenomena of the past 12 months.
Originally entitled The Bear And The Bow, Pixar’s latest animated feature sounded a little similar to Johnny Depp’s directorial debut The Brave, except Depp’s picture is about making a snuff movie: let’s hope they don’t sit side by side in the DVD section this Christmas.
In the year of Brave, it felt like Brave was about all year. In early 2012, journalists were shown the first 30 minutes of the film, a lushly animated depiction of Scotland where lochs sparkled in the sunlight, and – thanks to a suggestion from VisitScotland – snow was a stranger. After that there seemed to be Brave bulletins almost every week. There were stories of the animators conducting fact-finding missions to Scotland and getting sozzled at their distillery visit, a lavish international junket where drinks were served, followed by some perilous-sounding archery lessons, and premieres all over the world including, eventually, Edinburgh.
Princess Merida had a lot of responsibility on her slender shoulders: not only was she supposed to unite a kingdom and save her mother, but she was also the first female character to carry a Pixar picture. And of course there was VisitScotland’s £7m campaign, designed to attract tourists to a land of Scottish slang, Gaelic songs, standing stones and vicious bears.
The film itself turned out to be boisterous, consistently beautiful, nicely voiced, conventionally told, and ultimately disappointing, second-tier Pixar material. Still, VisitScotland gave Brave’s Mark Andrews a Silver Thistle award for his outstanding contribution to the Scottish tourist industry. No such acknowledgement for Brenda Chapman, who originated the project, pushed for the Scottish locations and directed the film until Pixar removed her from the job. Merida might find it instructive that centuries later, women still struggle to get crowned.
Sometimes, in a certain light, she can look like a young Dionne Warwick, other times like an older cousin to Eternal, the R&B act who adorned her bedroom walls as a teenager. The hair has variously been ice-cream swirl, Leningrad Cowboys Go America and glamorous alien. But really it’s the voice that comes from somewhere else.
Post-Olympics profiles of Emeli Sandé like to claim that at 2012’s outset hardly anyone had heard this luxuriously soulful voice. That’s a slight exaggeration, given that she’d scored a number two single the previous year, a number one with Professor Green and been awarded a Brit. Scots were almost certainly the first to believe she could be the next superstar of the British soul revival after Amy Winehouse and Adele, and at the SECC last month she made a point of thanking “the few of you who saw me when I was trying to get my music out there at Oran Mor, talent shows and uni”. But no one knew quite how epic the breakthrough would be, least of all Sandé.
On 6 July, she performed a late-afternoon set at T in the Park, telling fest-goers: “This has been a dream of mine for a long time.” She had to keep secret a bigger show exactly three weeks later, but there was still a chance the Olympics opening ceremony could be less landmark cultural event, more It’s A Knockout. It was very much the former, and after her stunning rendition of Abide With Me in tribute to victims of the 7/7 London bombings, everyone wanted to know about the girl from Alford, Aberdeenshire, how she wrote her first song when she was 11, how she made her future manager wait while she studied medicine. Then, at the closing ceremony, Sandé, 25, sang again, a double to match those of the sports stars.
Back at the start of her incredible year, she was asked what she might be doing in 2013 if the music didn’t worked out. “It would take me a while to get over that,” she said, “but then I’d probably re-apply for uni again and train to be a psychiatrist or a neurologist.” Anyone with a brain knows that’s not how this pop story will pan out.
Fifty Shades Of Grey
If there’s one thing I know about publishing it’s that the next big thing in is never a predictable phenomenon. After Dan Brown, JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and well-crafted novels about moral complexity and linguistic innovation (yes, I made the last one up) who’d have thought the New Big Thing would be soft-porn fan-fiction? Fifty Shades Of Grey took everyone by surprise except those of us inured to being surprised.
As a phenomenon, it’s fascinating. More than 60 million copies. Publishers scurrying to lurk in the murkier corners of the internet in search of something a bit the same (note to them: see above). “Sexy” has gone mainstream – proof, were it needed, that publishing takes a while to catch on. People are reading that don’t normally read, and I can only hope they go on to read something other than the Fifty clones hurried out to cash in. Hats, ties and suspender-belts off to Hodder, though, who had the low cunning to sign up former porn star Sasha Grey to write their smut-lit. See what they did with that name there?
Yes, the prose is like wallpaper paste and the brouhaha is a bit meh-so-what – we’re all reading Amanda Hocking’s wee troll books now, aren’t we? But there’s a further twist to the rack here. A movie of FSOG is under way, and Universal Pictures are suing the porn company that rushed out its own version. But will Little, Brown and Summit Entertainment sue EL James and Universal Pictures over unauthorised use of their Twilight characters as well, since the FSOG franchise began life as online heavy-breathing?
Still, it has produced some good parodies – Fifty Sheds Of Grey is a delight – and it has inadvertently boosted the sales of the music of Thomas Tallis and a novel by Thomas Hardy. And at least the Americans don’t spell the colo(u)r “gray” any more.
While few events, live or televised, could match the wow factor of Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, an injection of money via the London 2012 festival meant that Scotland had its share of large-scale theatrical spectacle this year. Most of it was at the Edinburgh International Festival, where Théâtre du Soleil’s extraordinary Les Naufragés Du Fol Espoir offered an epic, four-hour adventure inspired by Jules Verne, and 2008: Macbeth relocated the Scottish play to a Middle Eastern war zone. Meanwhile, NVA took over the whole of Arthur’s Seat for Speed Of Light, a living installation where the audience were also the main attraction. London 2012-related events also included the Big Concert in Raploch and Craig Coulthard’s Forest Pitch, an outdoor art installation near Selkirk whose unapologetically low-key and poetic version of spectacle raised a few eyebrows (£460,000 on a football pitch that will only be used twice?) but whose central idea – that nature reclaims everything in the long term – resonated with the schoolchildren recruited to help replant it.
One artwork captured the public’s attention this year beyond all others: Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege, a full-size inflatable replica of Stonehenge, won hands down – or feet in the air. From the moment the artist bounced off his creation and dozens of impatient schoolkids bounced on, its success was assured. Thousands of visitors took off their shoes, jumped and smiled. At the opening, four Turner Prize-winners were spotted bouncing side by side. Commissioned by Glasgow International Festival for Glasgow Green, Sacrilege went on to tour the UK and recently appeared in Paris. This was art that was smart, unruly and utterly joyous.
Shakespeare star turns
David Hayman as King Lear… Alan Cumming as Macbeth… Camille O’Sullivan in The Rape Of Lucrece… it’s the kind of stellar line-up you might expect in the West End or on Broadway, but in 2012, all three took place in central Scotland in one five-month period.
Shakespeare gets done all the time here, of course, whether it’s the much rained-upon Bard in the Botanics season in Glasgow or the recent wintery Midsummer Night’s Dream at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. But it’s rare for such notable names to take the lead in productions that began life here. The reason? In every case, they were enticed by the challenge.
For Hayman, appearing in director Dominic Hill’s inaugural season, it was the delicious combination of returning to Glasgow’s Citizens’, where he starred in a notorious all-male Hamlet in 1970, and tackling one of the mightiest roles in the canon.
For Cumming, it was the outrageous opportunity presented by director John Tiffany and the National Theatre of Scotland to play not just Macbeth, but every role in the play.
And for O’Sullivan, known primarily as a singer, it was the prospect of bringing immediacy, musicality and passion to Shakespeare’s long poem about the rape of a noblewoman in Elizabeth Freestone’s production for the RSC.
So how did they do? Hayman had his admirers, but to my mind, he lacked avuncular warmth at the start, was rough with the poetry in the middle and didn’t connect emotionally until the end. In Cumming’s case, not only did his audacity pay off, but he persuaded you he would be ideal casting for any part in the play – not least Lady Macbeth. O’Sullivan, meanwhile, brought heart-breaking soul and lucidity to an Edinburgh International Festival performance that was one of the highlights of August.
In this 50th year of the James Bond series, Skyfall triumphantly resumed the kiss kiss bang bang business with one of the best Bonds since Goldfinger. Expectations had been high since Bond took the Queen skydiving at the Olympics, but no-one expected an invigorating, full-blooded celebration of a beloved cultural icon, especially after Quantum Of Solace.
Director Sam Mendes took Skyfall where no 007 movie had been before, yet returned to some of the early traditions of short-lived Bond girls, quirky deaths (Komodo dragons got a boost up the fear chain here), and Monty Norman’s goosed-up brassy music cues.
Most astonishingly of all, M and Bond took a trip back to Bond’s Highland birthplace in his original silver Aston Martin. The surprise was not that Bond was Scottish – the other guy made sure we knew that – but that they survived one of the most stylishly uncomfortable cars known to man. What’s the betting that the heating knob dropped off around Helensburgh.
In the UK, the box office bested Avatar and at the very least, we can safely say that Daniel Craig has chased down those people who wanted Clive Owen to be the man with the Walther PPK. OK, like the Aston Martin, not everything in Skyfall works: the final battle of wits between Craig and Javier Bardem around Bond’s booby-trapped ancestral home was intended to reference the siege of Straw Dogs – but irresistibly I was also reminded of Macaulay Culkin letting loose ball bearings under his burglars in Home Alone.
Otherwise, this Bond had elegance, and some angsty depth. It also had Q, Miss Moneypenny and a surprising conclusion which Mendes admits he couldn’t bear to break to Judi Dench in person. A bold narrative stroke, it wrapped up Bond’s past and set a standard for the future.
The night before she became the first British writer and the first woman to win the Man Booker for a second time with her novel Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel gave a reading from it at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
In the passage she chose, Thomas Cromwell was musing about what needed to be done to modernise England. Bridges should be built, harbours dredged, a job creation scheme set up and income tax introduced on the rich. The MPs in the House of Commons, convinced that poverty – and wealth – was all down to God’s will, shot down his plans.
He was, of course, right. He always is. He knows exactly what needs to be done to drag his country out of its superstitious past. A blacksmith’s son, he is classless in a stratified society. He is intuitive, informed, perceptive, observant, but he is also cunning and dangerous, like Sherlock Holmes crossed with Michael Corleone.
That’s one reason for Mantel’s massive appeal – that, in terms of its revenge-driven plot alone, Bring Up The Bodies is an English Godfather Part II. But of course, it’s more than that. Because she inhabits Cromwell’s mind so completely, she takes us right inside it, in language that hints at the past without stifling us with 16th century diction and with an insistent style that marks her out as, in the words of this year’s Man Booker chairman Sir Peter Stothard, “the greatest modern English prose writer at work today”. All this, and the rare ability to make the past every bit as ambiguous and open as our own present, which is the mark of the truly great writer of historical fiction.
That double endorsement by the Man Booker has been followed by both massive sales and near ubiquity in the “best books of 2012” lists. This was her year, and she deserves every last bit of her success.
The artist George Wyllie, who died on 15 May this year aged 90, occupied a unique position in Scottish cultural life. A self-taught sculptor, who didn’t begin a full-time creative career until the age of 58, he became an instantly recognisable and widely popular figure far beyond the world of the visual arts.
The man behind such landmark events as the Straw Locomotive and the Paper Boat, he celebrated Scotland’s engineering and maritime heritage. But he suggested that skills such as inventiveness, canniness and ingenuity also belonged to art making, and that was the province of everyone. Wyllie’s humour and inclusiveness did not disguise that he had, like many of his artworks, a steely core.
When Wyllie’s daughters, Louise and Elaine, devised a scheme to keep their artist father happy and occupied after moving into residential care, little did they know that it would snowball into a year-long celebration, nor that The Whysman festival they eventually devised for 2012 would turn out to be George’s final achievement.
The year began with a remarkable show of Wyllie’s archive at the Collins Gallery at the University of Strathclyde. Wyllie was ailing, but made it to see the show. The Aye Write! festival hosted a launch of his book of poetry, The Festival of Politics celebrated his legacy at Holyrood, and a major retrospective will run at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow until February. Children and former industrial workers across Scotland have also celebrated. Wyllie’s favourite symbol, the question mark, has been hung from the Finnieston Crane, as well as along the coast of Inverclyde. On Hogmanay, fireworks and paper boats on the Clyde will mark the close of the year. Wyllie will go out, as he lived, with a bang.
The Scandinavian takeover
When the Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s amazing 30-yard overhead kick against England last month was instantly acclaimed as the greatest goal ever scored, no one can have been surprised. The Scandinavians, brilliant at everything, are taking over the world.
Brilliant at TV for sure. They make the best crime drama (The Killing) and in January followed that with the best political drama (Borgen). Then in May came The Bridge, where Denmark and Sweden put aside their rivalry with a co-production for the greater good of total Scandi-domination.
Scandi-domination swamps us like a giant Ikea duvet (in April, wouldn’t you know, Ikea usurped John Lewis as our favourite store). Within these superlative shows you’ll find the best TV heroines (Sarah Lund, Birgitte Nyborg, Saga Noren) and the best interiors, making them the home porn it’s okay to like. They’re grown-up about grown-up matters. The Killing is better at politics in its sub-sub-plots than most dramas entirely based round Westminster. You won’t find a more intelligent portrayal of modern family life, the stresses brought on by work and ambition, than Borgen. And when it comes to characters’ personality traits, there’s no pussyfooting. Saga is autistic, with a lack of social graces that goes beyond the usual Scandi-bluntness; here we give telly tecs a jazz collection, an interesting car, a fondness for gherkins.
The programmes show the Scandinavians to be world-class at casual nudity, but then we always knew that, and in the entire history of TV there’s never been a more thrilling closing-credits sequence than that rolled out by The Killing to the accompaniment of thunderous drums. Discounting Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s very funny spoof, you wonder why we haven’t tried to copy it. Then you remember that Ikea duvets only fit Ikea beds.
Imagine how gutted Black Lace must be that t’internet wasn’t even a twinkle of binary in TimBL’s eye back in 1984. Yes, Agadoo created discotheques full of people in batwing sweatshirts and Farah trousers pushing pineapples. But with a little help from YouTube, Colin Gibb and Alan Barton it could have been a global phenomenon, watched by hundreds of millions of people, imitated by Chinese dissident activists, feted by pop megastars and, erm, BoJo.
But that was then and this is now. And instead of Gibb and Barton, it’s Psy, short for Psycho, known as Park Jae-sang to his parents, a 34-year-old South Korean singer who has galloped into the global consciousness like a slightly portly pop star on an invisible steed. That’s not a metaphor, that’s literally what he’s done.
Psy, looking like a bit of a dork as he pretends to ride a horse, has been watched more than 889 million times. It’s the most “liked” video ever – five million and counting. It’s gone to number one in 28 countries. And in a brilliantly postmodern way, what started off as a parody of the flashy residents of the Gangnam district of Seoul – the South Korean equivalent of Beverly Hills – has now been adopted by the Seoul Tourism Organisation to encourage people to visit.
When Ai Weiwei made his version, it was instantly banned by Chinese authorities. The artist said: “Every person has the right to express themselves and this right of expression is fundamentally linked to our happiness and even our existence. When a society constantly demands that everyone should abandon this right then the society becomes a society without creativity. It can never become a happy society.” Not the snappiest, I grant you, but you get his drift, right? Psy put it slightly more succinctly: “The art of the dance is that you don’t have to be good. The purpose of this dance is to be ridiculous.” Bring it on.
In a society obsessed with youth, the old are often made invisible. Less so this year. Wrong-footed by the huge success of The King’s Speech, Hollywood began to pursue the grey pound with a vengeance, with films like Hope Springs and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which seemed to include virtually every well-known British actor over 60), while, at the other end of the movie-making spectrum, Michael Haneke won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for Amour, a bittersweet love story about a retired couple coping with the impact of a stroke. In Scotland, meanwhile, the trials of old age were a dominant theme both at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe (in shows like Mark Thomas’s powerful and poignant Bravo Figaro and Nutshell’s Fringe First winning Thread) and, the following month, at Luminate, Scotland’s first “creative ageing” festival, a highlight of which was My Shrinking Life, Alison Peebles’ very personal account of living with MS. Older characters featured more prominently on TV too, in dramas such as Last Tango In Halifax. Coincidence? To an extent, but taken together it also seems to reflect a growing recognition that, culturally, older people have too long been taken for granted. «