Film maker explores Scotland’s fairground families

Membership of a Scottish organisation for fairground workers has dropped 25 per cent. Picture: Dan Philips
Membership of a Scottish organisation for fairground workers has dropped 25 per cent. Picture: Dan Philips
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A NEW FILM by Bafta-winning director Martin Smith is to explore the lives of the families who rely on the travelling shows for their livelihood.

The feature film is expected to go into production this summer, after its director spent 18 months visiting fairgrounds and meeting members of the show community.

Martin Smith said he was inspired by childhood memories of living alongside the fairground in the west coast town of Helensburgh.

Little is known about the hundreds of families who rely on the travelling shows for their livelihood and the mounting problems they are said to face with every passing year.

The new film, entitled Shows, will depict the struggles of a young showman to fit in with the locals in a fictional Scottish seaside town, and explore the relationships between the teenager and his mother. Real-life showmen and their families are expected to be cast by Smith.

He said: “As far as I know, it’s the first time the show community will have been depicted in a film in Scotland. I’m hoping to cast a number of real-life showmen in it.

“The inspiration came from growing up in Helensburgh, where the main entertainment was the funfair that was there all year round.

“It could be a strange experience, hanging out at this funfair that in summer is all bright lights and excitement and in the darker months took on an altogether different nature.

“Long after I’d left, I began to wonder about the family who worked the fair, and how I never really knew them.

“There was something ‘other’ about them - they had an air of excitement and power and even though we had spent so much time within each other’s company, I never really knew anything about them. They were almost mythical.”

Creative Scotland backing

Leith-based Smith has already won the backing of Creative Scotland for the project, which was selected by a scheme aimed at finding “Scotland’s future feature film-makers”.

He was encouraged to shoot a short version of the drama, entitled Seagulls, to help drum up interest and found its young star, 14-year-old Mikey Hoc, from Liberton High School in Edinburgh, while looking for potential actors at a boxing club in the Craigmillar area of the capital.

He will unveil the finished short – which also features Scottish actress Kathleen McDermott, who starred in the 2002 film Morvern Callar – at the Berlin Film Festival this week.

Key scenes in the short Seagulls, which is in official competition at the Berlin Film Festival, were filmed at the annual fairground in Eyemouth, in the Borders.

Smith, who won a Scottish Bafta for a short film exploring issues around children’s cruelty, said he hopes to raise enough interest at the festival to get the full-length production up and running within months.

Its subject matter is an industry in decline, with membership of the main organisation for Scotland’s fairground workers having decreased by 25 per cent in the last five years.

A reduction in the number of available sites for fairgrounds, growing red tape, protests from hostile communities and the growth of new technology offering alternative forms of entertainment is said to have left the next generation of fairground operators seeking alternative employment.

Smith worked with the Scottish Showmen’s Guild, which has roots dating back to the late 19th century, to build links with the travelling workers who own the fairground rides and their families who will inspire his characters. He said he was keen to “shine a light” on the tensions that exist between local communities and the showmen families, which he attributes to a lack of understanding of their way of life.

He added: “Apart from the years of living by the shows, as part of my research I embedded myself within the show community and just got to understand the unique aspects of the showman’s life from their perspective. It’s a lifestyle that is under immense pressure because of economic conditions, but the show people have a really strong determination.”

Smith, who directed music videos earlier in his career, said: “I’ve had several short films released over the years, but this is my first feature.

“I’ve been working on it for some time now. But during the development process with the producers that were mentoring me it was suggested I should make a short based on some of the characters in the feature script.

“It’s quite an unusual thing to do and the short that I’ve made very much stands in its own right, but the script feature film script is at a pretty advanced stage now. Berlin is a huge opportunity for us to find those essential co-production partners that can make the film happen.”

Janet Archer, chief executive at Creative Scotland said: “We have supported Martin through various talent development programmes and it’s great to see his work being selected for a prestigious international festival. We look forward to seeing how his feature project, Shows, progresses following Berlin and the success of Seagulls.”

Less than 10% of showmen work in Scotland

THERE are believed to be at least 20,000 active showmen families in the UK - but as little as a 10th of them are thought to make a living in Scotland now.

Despite winning official approval from the Scottish Government several years ago, their numbers north of the border are said to be gradually on the wane.

When First Minister Alex Salmond hosted an official reception for Scotland’s showpeople in 2009 there were 450 members of the Scottish Showmen’s Guild, representing around 2000 families who had been entertaining the public for decades. That number has now slumped to just over 350 members.

At the time The First Minister said: “Travelling showpeople are an important part of Scotland’s culture, history and economy and combine a strong tradition of family and community with a high level of entrepreneurship and business acumen.”

The organisation’s current chairman, Alex James Colquhoun, said the growing difficulty of finding sites and securing licences for them was deterring many showmen and driving them out of the country.

He said: “There is more red tape and it is more expensive to run shows in Scotland than any other country in Europe.

“It’s become more and more difficult to get a licence every year. We are finding councils turning them down when no-one has complained and the showmen have agreed to do everything asked of them.

“A lot of sites have been built on or have had people move in beside them and object to a funfair that has been there for years. You are talking about 10 families being affected on just one site.

“If you are trying to find a site in Scotland in The World’s Fair, the weekly newspaper for showmen, at the moment there is actually nothing available for this year.

“On sites like Glasgow Green, the funfair has been moved around so much over the years it is almost hidden away. But the ironic thing is the funfair at the SECC in Glasgow every Christmas has never been more popular.”