Brian Ferguson: Contemplating Trainspotting II

AS UNUSUAL career highlights go, Thursday night was right up there. There was definitely something in the air walking along Glasgow’s Gallowgate towards the familiar sight of the Barrowland Ballroom.

Robert Carlyle as Begbie in Trainspotting. Picture: Contributed

In my earliest memories of the grand old venue, howling wind and freezing rain always seemed to accompany the lengthy walk along Argyle Street. But on Thursday, as it played host to one of its swankiest events, the sun was beating down as around 1,000 of the Scottish music industry’s movers and shakers queued up, suited and booted, for the Scottish Album of the Year awards.

Even 20-odd years ago, it felt a gloriously ramshackle place and little appears to have changed at all, despite the admirable efforts of the Scottish Music Industry Association to spruce it up for its flagship event.

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I was allowed to set up temporary office in an empty room deep in the bowels of the building. Glamorous it was not. But it was also a real treat to see behind the scenes of a truly iconic concert venue, especially one that is so cherished by generations of fans and performers.

It is tempting to hope the Barras will always be there but it remains largely unprotected from future development and for some reason is not deemed worthy of protection by the likes of Historic Scotland, even though it dates back to the 1930s and seems enshrined in the very cultural fabric of the nation. It is also somehow pure and untarnished.

Those two words sprang to mind the following day while listening to actor Robert Carlyle explain his concerns about returning to his most memorable character. It’s hard to believe it’s now 20 years since Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting was unleashed.

Carlyle, appearing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, seemed curiously fond of the psychopathic Begbie, the big-screen role he is still being constantly asked about.

The 20th anniversary of the release of Danny Boyle’s film, in 2016, is of course, providing the impetus for the Oscar-winning director to attempt the seemingly impossible – a so-called sequel.

Although the Scottish film industry is showing promising signs of recovery at this year’s festival, the blunt truth is the country has not boasted a film with anything like the cultural impact of Trainspotting since 1996. The dream combination of Welsh’s best-selling book, Boyle’s film, its soundtrack and the iconic marketing campaign meant it was omnipresent that year.

Ewan McGregor had always seemed the immovable obstacle to a grand-scale reunion, until he signalled last month that he was “totally up for it”. Yet Carlyle seemed keen to dampen enthusiasm, stressing everything would depend on the script. Returning to such an iconic role seemed to fill him with excitement and foreboding in equal measures.

He told a festival audience: “The previous film was so popular and such a massive cultural thing, particularly here in Scotland, that it would be ridiculous to do something that would undercut it in any way.”

I can understand why Carlyle, by his own admission, is hesitant to fully commit to a project that Boyle insists is definitely now a goer.

It’s hard to imagine even someone with Boyle’s track record coming anywhere close to emulating the raw energy, edge, imagination and uncompromising vision of the original, whose cast were all still relatively unknown at the time.

There are now so many tarnished movie franchises that it is worrying to think of Trainspotting becoming yet another, despite the likely involvement of Welsh and the original’s screenwriter, John Hodge.

A better comparison might be another cultural product of the mid-1990s that also seemed to define a generation. BBC drama This Life – which launched just as Trainspotting was filling the UK’s cinemas – couldn’t have been more different from the film in some ways, but more than four million people were gripped when the second, final season drew to a close. Amy Jenkins, This Life’s creator, and most of the cast, were unable to resist the prospect of a reunion in 2006, but the result was a depressing and deflating let-down.

Is it worth Danny Boyle gambling on Trainspotting’s still-enduring legacy? I’m really not so sure.