Stephen McGinty: Glasgow gangster film shot down

Film-makers behind the biopic of notorious Glasgow hood Paul Ferris were not exactly welcomed with open arms in the Dear Green Place, writes Stephen McGinty

Film-makers behind the biopic of notorious Glasgow hood Paul Ferris were not exactly welcomed with open arms in the Dear Green Place, writes Stephen McGinty

THE cineaste who this weekend wishes their violence and cursing to be home-grown as opposed to American and so opts for The Wee Man over Django Unchained will strain to recognise any of the Dear Green Place in the biopic of Paul Ferris, the notorious Glasgow gangster. While there are plenty of stabbings, shootings and enough “f” and “c” words to make even Quentin Tarantino wince, not to mention the surprise presence of a homicidal dwarf, there are few gritty shots of Glasgow. This is because the producers realised they were far from welcome and moved south.

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This week, Strathclyde Police and Glasgow City Council have used near identical words stating: “We didn’t try to ban the film and any suggestion that we did would be inaccurate.”

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council went on to say that the producers approached the Glasgow Film Office, which is a wing of the city council. “We told the producer that GFO did not have the authority to approve locations, but did describe in which ways we do help productions. We gave contact details for the police, but provided no further assistance.”

However, it seems that a decision was taken by Glasgow City Council not to offer the film-makers the same level of assistance routinely offered to any other production. If so, the question is: who made that decision? And why?

In an e-mail to one of the film’s producers, Clive Waldron, film commissioner Jennifer Reynolds did state the ways in which the Glasgow Film Office can assist productions – but then went on to explain, as the producers read it, that it was a facility they would not be extending to The Wee Man.

The e-mail explained: “Glasgow Film Office is the film commission for Glasgow and is part of Glasgow City Council. Generally, we are the first point of contact for all productions hoping to film in the city and our assistance centres around locations and logistical advice. We do not give permission for filming in any properties or outdoor spaces, but we can point location managers in the right direction for seeking permissions or arranging any activity which is likely to impact on everyday city functions.”

She then went on to state: “The remit of Glasgow Film Office is to maximise filming activity in the city but in this case we cannot help you.”

A few days later, on 6 December, 2010, the film-makers made a written request for assistance to Stephen House, chief constable of Strathclyde Police, whose secretary wrote to the producer Michael Loveday to say that he had passed the request on to Fiona Taylor, assistant chief constable for operational support, who would contact the film-makers in due course.

Four days later, the film-makers received a letter from the assistant chief constable which read: “I am in receipt of your letter and attached production notes from 6 December 2010. After careful consideration of the subject matter, I must inform you that I do not feel it is appropriate for Strathclyde Police to assist in facilitating its production.”

She then, in a subtle manner, showed them the door: “I should not like to advise you on the merits or otherwise of producing the film in Glasgow, that I feel is a matter for you and your colleagues.”

You can imagine the assistant chief constable making a similar statement to a drunken rabble: “I should not like to advise you on the merits of taking one step closer, that I feel is a matter for you and your colleagues.”

So did, Glasgow City Council and Strathclyde Police “ban” the film? No, but they made it difficult for the producers to shoot, OK, let’s not use that word, to film in Glasgow. I can see why Strathclyde Police would have no wish to assist in any possible way with a biopic about one of the city’s most notorious gangsters. You can understand the chief constable wishing to avoid the bitter irony of having police officers stopping traffic to allow the director to reconstruct the brutal murder of Arthur “Fat Boy” Thompson Jnr, a case Strathclyde Police believed they cracked, only to watch a jury refuse to convict the prime suspect, Paul Ferris. As for Glasgow City Council, why should taxpayers’ money facilitate a movie which may serve to boost the ego and notoriety of a gangster that brought misery and fear to so many of its citizens? It is a legitimate argument and one I only wish someone in the council was able to articulate. If these decisions are taken on our behalf, I believe we have the right to know the manner in which they were made and by whom.

Then again, I can also see why Glasgow City Council prefers to give the impression that assistance was offered and say nothing while privately suggesting that this is all a “publicity stunt” to put bums on cinema seats this weekend. Why give the film the “oxygen of publicity”?

My own view is that by being obstructive, Strathclyde Police and Glasgow City Council have set a precedent on the type of films welcome in the city. If you are a Hollywood studio and you wish to turn Glasgow into Philadelphia and unleash hundreds of zombies, as was the case with World War Z, or film car chases up and down the Broomielaw for Fast and the Furious 6, the door is open. If you are a small production company wanting to make a film about Glasgow’s violent criminal underworld, the door is also open – if it is clearly a work of fiction. The Big Man, starring Liam Neeson and based on William McIlvanney’s novel, had no problem with permits or assistance from Strathclyde Police. If, however, you are a small production company wanting to make a film about Glasgow’s violent criminal underworld and it is based on real events, you could be in trouble.

The closest parallel to The Wee Man was in 1979 when STV made A Sense of Freedom about the life of Jimmy Boyle. This was before the creation of dedicated film offices, when the authorities’ displeasure was demonstrated by fire engines that turned up in middle-of-the-night shoots, then parked in front of the camera, thunderous editorials of condemnation from newspapers, and previously agreed locations turning out to be padlocked and guarded by police officers. Today A Sense of Freedom is highly regarded and pulled in a massive TV audience when screened on its 30th anniversary.

Had Martin Scorsese been a Glaswegian, the Glasgow Film Council would no doubt have turned him away if he arrived clutching the script for a Scottish Goodfellas. I’ll wager that there are a few police officers and councillors who count Goodfellas as one of their favourite films. We love movies about American hoods and gangsters, the only difference between their life of crime and those of our hoods is distance and geography.

In New Jersey there will be people who despise Robert de Niro’s character Jimmy Conway as much as some people in Glasgow despise Paul Ferris. The fact is there is no denying the potential for drama in the relationship between Arthur Thompson, the licensee and Paul Ferris and the drug deals, murders and extortions that rippled through the city in the 1980s and 1990s. In any other country these events would already have been turned into a film or television drama, and if it had been filmed in any other country and involved their real-life gangsters as opposed to our own, we would watch and enjoy.

There will be those who argue that there is a world of difference in quality between Goodfellas and The Wee Man and I wouldn’t argue, but the fact is that when the Glasgow Film Council was saying “we cannot help you” it didn’t know how good or bad it would be, the content was enough for it to close the door. The consequence of the decision was a loss of work for Scottish film crews. The producers had planned to rent offices and studio space for six weeks of pre-production followed by a six-week shoot in Glasgow, with a potential spend of £2.5 million. Instead they filmed in Glasgow for just two days, largely establishing shots that required neither the assistance of the police, or the council, with the majority of time and cash spent in London.
Glasgow is a city that loves going to the movies, as the launch of the Glasgow Film Festival this week illustrated, and we’ll have to wait and see how the film plays. On one level you could imagine Le Petit Garçon would have been a great movie to open the festival, if, that is, Paul Ferris was French and the film had subtitles.