The making of ‘The Wee Man’ Paul Ferris story

TO SAY Ray Burdis has an axe to grind is putting it mildly.

TO SAY Ray Burdis has an axe to grind is putting it mildly.

It is more than a year since the veteran actor and film-maker first had a run-in with the powers-that-be in Glasgow. But as he prepares to unveil his hard-hitting feature on the life and times of Paul Ferris he is still spoiling for a 
dust-up with Strathclyde Police and Glasgow City Council.

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Burdis, who produced The Krays, was not exactly expecting the red carpet treatment when he started making a film about one of the city’s most notorious gangland figures. But the film’s director says he was dumbfounded after being forced to relocate virtually the entire shoot to London, having being “effectively banned” from the city owing to the nature of the The Wee Man, which portrays Ferris’s descent into violence after being targeted by a gang of bullying brothers when he was just 11.

Burdis has compared Glasgow to “Nazi Germany” after he was asked by the police to submit to them a script for The Wee Man, the film he also wrote based on Ferris’s best-selling autobiography. The bloody gangster film is now about to get a gala premiere in the city, which provides its backdrop.

With its all-star cast and uncomfortable subject matter, The Wee Man promises to be Glasgow’s equivalent of Trainspotting, which had the city fathers in the capital squirming on its release in 1996. For example, the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, responsible for promoting the city to the world, provided a terse “no comment” when asked for its views ahead of The Wee Man’s release.

There was a similar reluctance from the council’s leader, Gordon Matheson, to be drawn on the film, despite the city’s leading politician last year boasting that shooting on major productions such as World War Z and Cloud Atlas helped generate more than £20 million for the economy in 2011.

The council said Glasgow Film Office had diverted inquiries to Strathclyde Police. The force says it did not try to ban the film but said it had turned down requests for assistance and advice from production company Carnaby because it was deemed “inappropriate”. With the film’s stabbings, shootings, car bombings and police corruption, it is perhaps unsurprising there was a lack of enthusiasm to get involved in such a project.

The full official trailer gives a flavour of what cinemagoers can expect when the film hits Scotland’s cinemas at the end of next week.

One early review of The Wee Man described the portrayal of Ferris and his violent struggle for power in 1980s Glasgow leaving a “nasty taste in the mouth” and said it was “arguably irresponsible.” Another critic warned the film features “repellent bursts of bloodletting”.

Martin Compston, the highly rated young actor, who says the chance to play Ferris was too good to turn down, already seems braced for the backlash.He told his Twitter followers last week: “2weeks today and the wait is over let the abuse from the powers that b commence!”

Burdis will be joined by Ferris, Compston, and co-stars John Hannah, Stephen McCole and Laura McMonagle for the film’s premiere on Tuesday, the day before the Glasgow Film Festival – an event backed by both the council and the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau – launches its programme for 2013.

Burdis, who made his screen debut in Ala Clarke’s Borstal drama Scum in 1979, says the experience of trying to film in Glasgow was the worst he had encountered in more than 40 years: “We were basically told by the council and the police that we were not welcome and would be offered no help at all to make the film.

“When you are making a film you need an awful lot of help, particularly if you’re going to close off roads for filming, like we needed to. We were basically told that they couldn’t guarantee our safety. I couldn’t believe that they were so obstructive to be honest.

“We had done so much preparatory work before we were about to start, we had done the casting and the location hunting, and had even booked studio time. We got a letter from the police saying we weren’t welcome to shoot in Glasgow because of the subject matter. The police also wanted to see a copy of the script, which I’d never come across in more than 40 years in the business. The whole thing was like something out of Nazi Germany.

“I couldn’t believe it, the whole thing shook me to the core. Paul is a reformed character these days but the film was also based on events that actually happened in Glasgow.

“They were historical events and most of the events in the film are factual. I tried to be as sensitive as possible to the families of the murder victims, and some elements of the story were changed, but Paul actually insisted on changing a couple of things to make it more accurate to what happened.”

Burdis and the crew ended up shooting the bulk of The Wee Man in the East End of London, with only a handful of days filming in Glasgow to secure mainly skyline shots of the city.

He added: “The way the police and the council handled this actually cost the city of Glasgow money when we had to uproot the whole production. We are talking several million pounds. We had to find parts of the East End of London that looked like Glasgow in the late 1970s and 80s at very short notice.”

Burdis was approached directly by Ferris to get the film off the ground after discussions with Robert Carlyle came to nothing. At that point all he had to work from was Ferris’s book: “I found it capitvating. It’s a riveting tale, full of integrity that pulls no punches: it wasn’t glamourising the fact that Paul was a gangster, but telling us the story about why that happened to him, and I found that so moving.

“It was not so much the gangster part of it that appealed to me. It was such a strong story about a young boy growing up in Glasgow, about being relentlessly bullied as a youngster and then seeking retribution. It was much more interesting than a straight shoot-em-up.”

The Wee Man depicts Ferris’s rise through the city’s murky underworld, his relationship with Glasgow godfather Arthur Thompson and his rivalry with his son, Arthur “Fat Boy” Thompson Jr. Ferris famously walked free from court after being cleared of the latter’s murder, after what was then Scotland’s longest-running criminal trial. Ferris was later convicted of gun-running but now says he has put crime behind him.

Ferris, who spent several days on set, says: “The objections (from the police) came as no surprise to be honest. There are elements of police corruption throughout the film and they had to be included. The police don’t come out of the film smelling of roses, but then again neither do I. Ray has captured 99.9 per cent of the real life. It’s a film that doesn’t glorify crime or gangsters. A lot of people are going to be surprised when they realise how anti-crime this film is.”

Compston, who shot to fame after being plucked from the streets of his native Greenock by Ken Loach for Sweet Sixteen in 2002, says Ferris had come to be seen as a “bogeyman” in the West of Scotland, but says he also knows his life story “inside out,” adding: “If you’re a Scottish actor and you’re not going to be William Wallace, you might as well be Paul Ferris.”