Rating the author’s biopic of Glaswegian music mogul Alan McGee as ‘not Scottish enough’ baffles Aidan Smith
The last time I saw Irvine Welsh he was drinking beer alfresco on Leith Walk. With the obvious exception of VE Day, this was the start of the most joyous 24 hours in the history of Edinburgh’s most vivacious thoroughfare, ending with a victory parade by his football team, the Scottish Cup having been won at last.
The time before that we met on a No 44 bus, little old ladies aft and rear, me heading to Musselburgh to interview a legend from said team and him desperate to tag along, but he had to get off at Meadowbank to visit an old pal who hadn’t been keeping well.
And the time before that was on another bus, a T in the Park “special” which seemed a bit of a misnomer as the charabanc wheezed up the M90 to Perthshire, but the famous writer didn’t mind. He was just another festival dervish that baking hot day, intent on forsaking the sun for the Slam Tent, the great, big, blue, wobbly, raving cathedral of dance music.
Crikey, that Irvine Welsh – he’s pretty Scottish. Follow him on Twitter and you can laugh along to his ball-by-ball exhortations to Andy Murray, dashed off in the vernacular, the gutter poetry with which he’s made his name. In his books he’s bestowed the dignity of print on the toerag providing the radge with nothing less than an apotheosis.
His films have made tourist attractions of the Banana Flats and other brutalist edifices, although hordes of Japanese on movie-location pilgrimages will search the capital in vain for “The worst pub in the world” and John Menzies, prime uptown spot for a chorey.
Ah, but Welsh is not Scottish enough, according to Creative Scotland. The state-run culture agency has just turned him down for funding for his latest film because he lives in the United States and the director and producers of the feature are English. If you didn’t know that Chicago is his wife’s home city you might wonder if Welsh had fled there to get away from bonkers logic like this.
That Welsh is the writer, the man with the plan, makes the flick pretty Caledonian as far as I’m concerned. Movies get called “Scottish” – and especially if they’re successful – with a lot less going for them than that. I used to work on the showbiz desk of a tartan tabloid where the motto was “Put a kilt on it”. Interviewing soap opera strumpets – a grim job but somebody had to do it – you had to make sure you asked if they had a Scottish granny. We even claimed them as our ain folk if they’d once holidayed in the Highlands and it had rained every day.
The Welsh film’s claim to Scottishness doesn’t end with him. It’s a biopic of Alan McGee, the rock ’n’ roll mogul, who is played by Ewen Bremner, the star of Welsh’s Trainspotting movies. Now, the former hails from Mount Florida and the latter from Portobello. You can’t help wondering if Creative Scotland, in declining to back the project, assumed McGee to be an American and Bremner an Italian matinee idol.
McGee is the panel beater’s son who discovered Oasis – in Glasgow, as it happens – and founded what was briefly rock’s hippest label with most of the bands on the roster being Scottish. There’s a theme developing here, don’t you think? When I interviewed McGee in 2005, he looked back on a dissolute life and declared: “Let’s be honest, I come from the West of Scotland so I’ve probably only got ‘til I’m 60 before I’m cauld.” At the time he was 44; six years later he pondered how classic Scottish personality traits had shaped his life, still ongoing. Good, old Protestant guilt had persuaded him to stop drinking the profits from club nights and establish Creations Records. “From my mother I got my astuteness with money,” he told me. “My dad was a ****, basically. I don’t mean that he was horrible, just stubborn in that very Scottish way. That’s been invaluable to me.”
The last time I interviewed Bremner, in 2010, he was the only member of the quintet featured on the famous poster for the first Trainspotting film to still be living in Scotland. His sharp features could often be spotted in Edinburgh – “There’s Spud” – and there was no desire, or need, for him to adopt starry airs and graces. Reflecting on his subsequent career he said: “I play the other guy or the guy’s friend. The strange guy, the mysterious guy or one of the guys. But never The Guy.”
The making of the Britpop impresario is not an untold story. McGee has already penned his memoirs and featured in numerous music documentaries and has never been shy with the self-mythologising quotes. But the film has not been rejected because of a lack of originality, rather the frankly fatuous reason of it not wearing the correct number of kilts.
Creative Scotland is obviously strict on the movies it funds having Scottish producers. But how is that a guarantee of quality and authenticity when nothing like the same rigour has been in place over Scottish accents? From Michael Caine in Kidnapped to Mel Gibson in Braveheart to Jessica Lange in Rob Roy to Christopher Lambert in Highlander – the last-named topping a poll to name and shame the absolute worst – Hollywood has inflicted some shockers on us.
Similarly, television production in Scotland sometimes gets away with being strangely kilt-free. BBC Scotland has made dramas not always telling Scottish stories or featuring Scottish actors. It’s also made a comedy – Mrs Brown’s Boys – which is Irish-set and has been voted by viewers the best of the 21st century and slammed as the worst by most critics, which is a pretty amazing trick, even if you think our TV resources should only be spent on tartan product.
But a film about a Scot, written by a Scot and starring a Scot? Where can I see it?