Remember the Ally-mo

 

© BBC

 

One unsettling feature of growing older is that when an anniversary arrives and you think back to the original event, you feel shocked when you realise how much time separates now and then.  The other day, the 2018 World Cup competition began in Russia and it’s just occurred to me that the 1978 World Cup in Argentina took place 40 whole years and ten whole world cups ago.  It’s almost traumatic to realise how much time has elapsed.

 

However, if you’re old enough to remember the 1978 Argentinian World Cup and you were in Scotland at the time, you’ll testify that the event itself was traumatic.

 

For those of you who’re unacquainted with the topic – what happened in 1978 was that of the four national football teams in the UK, Scotland was the only one to qualify for Argentina.  And the country had a team that, on paper, looked like it might achieve something.  It boasted players from some of the mightiest football clubs in Britain: for example, from Manchester United (Martin Buchan, Gordon McQueen, Lou Macari, Joe Jordan), Liverpool (Graham Souness, the legendary Kenny Dalglish), Glasgow Rangers (Derek Johnstone, Tom Forsyth, Sandy Jardine), Nottingham Forest (Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Archie Gemmill) and, er, Partick Thistle (Alan Rough).  And in charge of these remarkable players was a manager called Ally MacLeod, who was remarkable in his own way.  Though not necessarily in the right way.

 

Emboldened by wins in 1977 over the European champions Czechoslovakia and over the Auld Enemy, England – the game concluded with the Scotland fans swarming onto the pitch at Wembley and digging up clods of the turf and breaking the goalposts into wee pieces to bring back to Scotland as souvenirs, much to the horror of the English commentators – Ally began to talk up his team’s chances in Argentina.  When early in 1978 Scotland failed to win the Home International championship involving England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he shrugged it off with the tantalising comment that the championship’s title “could be dwarfed by the World Cup.”  Such statements, and Ally’s general air of swagger and optimism – “My name is Ally MacLeod,” he announced when he became Scotland manager, “and I am a born winner!” – acted like catnip to both football fans and the hacks working on the sports pages of Scotland’s newspapers.

 

From the Independent / © Getty Images

 

As the World Cup approached, a heady sense of expectation began to infect the Scottish population.  Folk started to believe that the Argentinian World Cup would be a jamboree of Scottish footballing genius, culminating in Ally and the gang lifting the trophy.  No wonder a carpet company cannily signed Ally to do a commercial where he sat on one of their rugs whilst dressed as a gaucho – 1970s Britain’s idea of what everybody in Argentina looked like.  This led to a priceless incident where, just before he departed for Argentina, Ally was accosted by an exuberant fan who declared, “Ally, see the day after your commercial?  My ma bought one o they carpets!”

 

Ally was indeed a great salesman.  He could truly market the brand.  Unfortunately, that was not quite the same as delivering the goods.

 

Even my favourite rock band, the Australian (but mostly Scottish-born) AC/DC, got in on act and wore Scotland football strips during a 1978 gig at Glasgow Apollo Theatre.  Also getting in on the act was the Scottish comedian Andy Cameron, who recorded a song called Ally’s Tartan Army that soon rode high in the charts.  It contained such catchy, if posthumously cringeworthy, lines as: “And we’re fairly shake them up / When we win the World Cup / Cos Scotland is the greatest football team!

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Being in Scotland in the spring of 1978 and watching this happen was disconcerting for me.  The year before, my family had moved from Northern Ireland and taken up residency in a farm near the Scottish town of Peebles.  Since then, I’d assumed that the Scots were a stoical, down-to-earth lot, not given to flights of fancy.  But then, all-of-a-sudden, they’d succumbed to this madness about Ally MacLeod, winning the World Cup and having the greatest football team in the universe – what was going on?  I found it particularly noticeable the day before Scotland played Northern Ireland in the Home Internationals.  When I walked into a meeting of the local Scouts that evening, all the other (Scottish) scouts had an insane glint in their eyes and were gleefully predicting how Scotland was going to slaughter, dismember and stomp on the grave of poor, lowly Northern Ireland the next day.  (As it turned out, all Scotland could manage with Northern Ireland was a 1-1 draw, much to my satisfaction.)

 

Still, over time, the madness seemed to seep into even my non-ethnically Scottish soul.  Hey, I thought, it would be cool to live in the country that’d won the World Cup, wouldn’t it?

 

After a delirious send-off at Hampden Stadium where 30,000 Scotland fans whooped and roared as if their team had just come back from Argentina clutching the World Cup trophy, Ally’s Tartan Army flew out and got ready for their first game of the competition’s first round, which was against Peru.  The evening that the game was on TV, I missed the beginning of it for my dad had sent me out to move some cows from one field to another.  I was in the middle of moving those cows when I heard a huge rumbling roar – like how I’d imagine the approach of a tsunami to be.  It took me a few seconds to realise I was hearing cheering coming from the town, a half-mile away beyond the last of my parents’ fields.  It was the sound of 5000-odd people in Peebles celebrating Joe Jordan knocking in a first goal for Scotland in the game’s 14th minute.  Gosh, I thought, it’s startedScotland really are going to win the World Cup!

 

So I completed my task, hurried back to the house and hunkered down in front of the television next to my younger brother, who’d really caught the Scotland World Cup bug and was sitting excitedly with a tartan scarf wrapped around him.  Scarcely had I arrived there when, just before half-time, Peru equalised.  Then in the second half Peru scored two more, so that by the game’s end Scotland had been beaten 3-1.  In a pathetic attempt to hide my disappointment, I pretended that, being Northern Irish, I hadn’t really been supporting Scotland and I thought their defeat was funny.  So I turned around and started laughing at my brother.  I stopped, though, when I realised he was in floods of tears.  However, my mother had already seen me laughing at him and she gave me a deserved bollocking for making him even more upset.

 

Next up for Scotland was Iran – an unstable country in the early throes of a revolution.  Scotland was surely going to win this one, right?  Wrong.  The team played so badly that they scraped a 1-1 draw and that was only because an Iranian player called Eskandarian scored an own-goal.  This game was famous for its images of a totally-deflated Ally Macleod sitting hunched over in the Scotland dugout, his hands clamped over the top of his skull in an attempt to shut out the world – “Ally trying to dismantle his head,” as one wag described it later.

 

From sportingheroes.net / © George Herringshaw

 

To heighten the misery, the Scottish striker Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drugs test.  Other football players have suffered drugs scandals, most notably the cocaine-snorting Diego Maradona.  But the hapless Johnston wasn’t even caught taking a glamorous drug – he tested positive for Reacitivan, a medication prescribed to him because he had hay fever.  Poor old Willie might as well have been busted for taking Benylin Chesty Cough Mixture.

 

By now the Scotland situation was looking grim.  Also grim was the atmosphere at Peebles High School.  One guy in my class told me there was a record shop in Glasgow that was now selling copies of Ally’s Tartan Army by Andy Cameron for a penny each – so that disgruntled punters could make a public display of smashing them into vinyl slivers on the pavement outside.  Meanwhile, a girl told me she couldn’t bear to drink Scotland’s national fizzy drink Irn Bru any more – because its name sounded it too much like ‘Iran Peru’.  Lessons with our English teacher, Iain Jenkins, strayed off the topic of Shakespeare and became lengthy post-mortem discussions about what was going horribly wrong in Argentina.

 

In fact, I remember us doing some creative writing one day and then Iain Jenkins reading out a poem that a mischievous pupil from south of the border had just penned about Scotland’s faltering World Cup campaign.  It contained the memorable line, “Poor Ally will have to emigrate to the moon” and the even more memorable couplet, “Willie Johnston is over the hill / That’s why he’s on the pill.”

 

To get through to the World Cup’s next round, Scotland now had to beat the Netherlands – and beat them by three goals.  There seemed zero chance of that happening.  From the dire way the Scots were playing, it looked much more likely that the Dutch would murder them.  Yet it was against the Dutch – who’d eventually make it to the competition’s final – that Scotland managed a victory.  Indeed, they were 3-1 up at one point in the game and if they’d knocked in another goal they could have lived to fight another day.   Alas, it wasn’t to be.  The Dutch eventually pulled one back, making the final score 3-2.  Scotland had won, but not by enough to stop them going home early.

 

Still, the game produced a brilliant Scottish goal by the diminutive Nottingham Forest player Archie Gemmill.  It was the best goal of that World Cup and possibly the greatest World Cup goal ever.  Incidentally, it’s also the goal whose footage is intercut with the hectic sex sequence in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995) – no wonder a dazed Ewan MacGregor murmurs at the end of it, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”  (Though I’m pretty sure that back in 1978 the Scottish football commentator Archie Macpherson didn’t really exclaim, as he does in Trainspotting, “A penetrating goal for Scotland!”)

 

From whoateallthepies.tv

 

So Scotland was out of the World Cup but with, technically, a wee bit of pride salvaged.  Sadly, such was the hype that’d accompanied them to Argentina that their campaign didn’t feel like anything other than an absolute disaster.  The day after the Holland game, I remember a schoolmate, the local postman’s son, coming into class.  He pulled out a tartan scarf, waved it around for five seconds and said flatly and unenthusiastically, “See that?  We beat Holland.  Magic.”  Then he put the scarf back in his bag and zipped it up again.  And nobody at school seemed to talk about Scotland, Argentina and the World Cup ever again.

 

Mind you, later that summer, I returned to Northern Ireland for a holiday.  People there seemed to view me as 100% Scottish now and they didn’t stop tearing the piss out of me about how crap Scotland had played in Argentina.

 

But let’s be fair to Ally Macleod (who died in 2004).  In popular Scottish mythology he’s often depicted as a vainglorious balloon, bragging that his team would win the World Cup, and then win the next World Cup, and probably the Ryder Cup, the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the Ashes and the Tour de France as well.  But I’ve scoured the Internet and been unable to find most of the hyperbolic quotes that I’ve heard attributed to him.  It’s fairer to say that he made a few tactless comments and exuded a lot of optimism, which the overheated imaginations of fans and journalists turned into mass hysteria.  In the dispirited environment of post-World Cup Scotland, though, nobody wanted to admit their own culpability and poor Ally became the scapegoat.

 

Anyway, if you can ignore the hubris and focus only on the football, Ally’s 1978 squad didn’t do that badly.  Yes, they had two duff games but they only lost one of those, and then they achieved a win against the eventual finalists.  If the cards had fallen differently elsewhere in their first-round group, they might have got through to the competition’s next stage; and, having had their wake-up call, performed better.  Other teams in other World Cups have done so with the same first-round record of one win, one draw and one defeat – including England.

 

Much has been blamed on that ill-fated World Cup campaign.  People have found significance in how it came shortly before the 1979 referendum on creating a devolved Scottish parliament, which died a death because of apathy.  The Scottish public voted for the parliament, but not in sufficiently high numbers.  It’s tempting to join those two dots – but I’m inclined to blame this collapse in Scottish political willpower at the end of the decade on factors a lot more complex than Ally Macleod bullshitting us a bit about football in 1978.

 

One thing that can be attributed to 1978 is the evolution of the Scotland football team’s travelling support, the Tartan Army.  Thanks to the bitter lessons learnt then, modern Scotland fans have dumped any belligerent, nationalistic sense of expectation and have gone about the (often thankless) task of supporting Scotland with humour, irony, self-deprecation and a determination to have a good time no matter how bad the results.  As a result, they’re now one of the most popular sets of fans in the world.

 

Actually, when Scotland played England a couple of years ago at Wembley, I saw a picture of some Scottish fans posing in Trafalgar Square with a life-sized cut-out of Ally Macleod they’d brought along.   That made me smile.  With his erratic management skills and over-exuberant PR skills, the daft bugger put us through the wringer in 1978, but it’s nice to know his spirit still gets invited to the party.

 

From the Guardian / © Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

 

The boys are back in (the Auld and New) Town

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Finally, nearly five months after it went on cinematic release in the UK and just before it goes on sale there on DVD, I’ve been able to catch up with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 in Sri Lanka.

 

It is, of course, the long-awaited sequel to Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), which somehow caught the zeitgeist of mid-1990s Britain, obsessed with Britpop and all things Cool Britannia.  How long ago that seems now…

 

To be honest, it annoyed me that the original Trainspotting got lumped in with the Britpop / Cool Britannia thing, even if the filmmakers opportunistically loaded its soundtrack with music by bands of the time such as Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica, Leftfield and Underworld.  (Ironically, the song that became the film’s signature tune, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, had nothing to do with 1990s Britain.)

 

To me Trainspotting sprang from an earlier, darker and less glamorous era than the one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress and Blur-versus-Oasis – namely, the mid-to-late 1980s, when a boom in heroin use and a subsequent, resultant HIV / AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh led to the city being dubbed ‘the AIDS capital of Europe’.  This became material for the book that inspired the film, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993), which is an altogether bleaker and rougher-edged work than Boyle’s cinematic version.  Though of course the film isn’t without its bleak or rough-edged moments either.  The worst toilet in Scotland, anyone?

 

Not that I’m complaining.  I think both Trainspotting the book and Trainspotting the movie are great and are classics in their respective fields, 1990s Scottish literature and 1990s British cinema.  So here’s what I thought of the new movie.  A word of warning – there will be spoilers ahead.

 

Trainspotting 2 also has its roots in an Irvine Welsh book, 2003’s Porno.  This reunited the four main characters of Trainspotting, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, who in the original film were memorably played by Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle – actors who, in various stages of menopausal gnarliness, are also excellent in the sequel.  Porno was about their efforts to illegally raise money to fund a blockbuster porn movie called Seven Rides for Seven Brothers, which Sick Boy intended to film in the back rooms of the pub he’d just inherited from an aunt.  Its sub-plots included Spud trying to escape his heroin addiction by writing a book and a just-out-of-prison Begbie vowing to get bloody revenge on Renton, who at the end of Trainspotting (book and film) had run off with the all the money they’d made on a drugs deal.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Trainspotting 2 scriptwriter John Hodge retains these basic elements from Porno, but determinedly does his own thing with them.  Sick Boy owns a pub, but instead of wanting to shoot a porn movie on the premises he wants to turn it into a bordello.  Begbie breaks out of prison – in the novel he’s simply released – and first crosses paths with the hated Renton halfway through the movie.  This differs from the book, where Renton and Begbie’s first and last confrontation is saved for the climax.  And Spud, who in the book was attempting a write a history of his hometown Leith, here decides to use his past adventures, good and bad (though mostly bad), as the basis for a novel.  When you see him writing its opening line – “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy” – you realise what he’s doing.  He’s writing the original novel of Trainspotting.

 

I almost expected Trainspotting 2 to end with Spud’s completed manuscript falling through a time warp and ending up in 1993, where it arrives in the hands of Irvine Welsh, who sneakily passes it off as his own work.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

 

One element of Porno that I’d expected Hodge and Boyle to dump, because it’d be too mysterious for cinema audiences who weren’t Scottish or Irish, surprisingly turns up in Trainspotting 2.  That’s the scam perpetrated by Renton and Sick Boy, whereby they break into and loot the bank accounts of various West-of-Scotland / Loyalist / anti-Catholic Glasgow Rangers supporters because they know what the four-number pin-codes are likely to be: 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when King William of Orange (King Billy to his fans) defeated the Catholic forces of James II and saved the countries of Britain for Protestantism.

 

In Trainspotting 2 this is compressed into a single sequence where Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a Rangers club in Glasgow to steal bank cards.  When their presence is noticed and they’re asked to entertain the punters with a song, they have to improvise like crazy to save their hides – and if you’re familiar with the culture that Boyle, Hodge and co. are poking fun  at, the result is hilarious.  In fact, I don’t expect to see a funnier scene in a film this year.

 

The great advantage that Trainspotting 2 has over the book Porno is timing.  Taking place in the early noughties, Porno’s characters were starting to realise that they wouldn’t stay young and reckless forever; but they could still act that way.  Set more than a dozen years later, Trainspotting 2 – whose making was delayed for a long time because of a rift between Boyle and Ewan McGregor – sees Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie firmly in the throes of middle age and reacting to it, for the most part, badly.

 

Renton and Sick Boy, when pissed and stoned, tend to retreat into a rosy, nostalgia-distorted version of their pasts where everything was, you know, better.  (This smartly allows Boyle and Hodge to duck the accusation that they’ve made Trainspotting 2 out of nostalgia for the 1990s.  No, they can argue, they’ve made a movie about nostalgia.)  It’s telling that in one scene they start obsessing about the legendary but ill-fated Northern Irish footballer George Best.  When the 40-something Renton recounts the famous ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’ anecdote, it seems he’s rewriting history for his own comfort.  No, he’s arguing, Best didn’t lose it as was commonly assumed.  He still had it – just as Renton himself believes he still has it.

 

Spud relates rather better to the past and his lost youth – he uses them creatively, as material for his writing.   Begbie, a psychopathic dinosaur, seems unable to grasp the concept of time, let alone the fact that it changes.  But even he’s starting to notice that he’s no longer the force he once was, something emphasised by a scene where he nicks a packet of Viagra.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

One difference between Trainspotting and Trainspotting 2 is that the new film makes much more of its Edinburgh setting.  The Royal Mile, the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, Cockburn Street, Harvey Nichols, the Scottish Parliament, the tram system, the Forth Road Bridge and Salisbury Crags are all used to good visual effect and even Edinburgh Bargain Stores and Edinburgh Castle Terrace Car Park look sexy during the movie’s comic and action set-pieces.  Indeed, the Scottish capital has rarely appeared so glamorous and exciting.  The days when ultra-Conservative Edinburgh councillor Moira Knox used to fulminate against Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting phenomenon for giving the city a bad name are long gone.

 

Like James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) – a sequel with which it shares an abbreviated nickname, T2Trainspotting 2 is immensely enjoyable but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original.  It can’t reach them.   The original Trainspotting (like 1984’s The Terminator) was iconically of its time and place and the ideas driving it, by virtue of being fresh and new, gave it a momentum that any follow-up simply can’t manage.  Nonetheless, Boyle and Hodge deserve kudos for resisting the temptation to just rehash the original and for exploring new territory with the characters, even if that territory is more ruminative and melancholic and less cinematically in-your-face exciting.

 

Trainspotting 2 isn’t the classic that its predecessor was, then, but it’s as good a sequel as I could’ve hoped for.  I think the adventures of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie should end here, though.  Just as the Terminator franchise ran out of steam after the second movie, I fear another entry in the Trainspotting franchise would be a sequel too far.  Yes, a Trainspotting 3: Rise of the Machines would probably be shite.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Pump up the volumes

 

(c) George Allen & Unwin Ltd

(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films

 

Although I’m someone who loves both books and films, I’m wary when these two art-forms overlap.  If a film appears that’s based on a book I’ve read and liked, I feel reluctant to go and see it.  Or if there’s a new film that’s based on a book that I haven’t read but I hear is good, I usually try to read the book before I watch the film.  And if I enjoy that book, I may not even bother with the film.  This is because I find that the majority of films based on books are – regardless of their quality as self-contained entities – disappointing compared to their source material.

 

Obviously, a film, even a very long film, will never have enough time to represent all the incidents, details, characters and ideas that give a book its richness.  You either end up with a film whose scriptwriter has hacked away chunks of the book – like the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul, which deletes one of the book’s main (and unfortunately for the film, most memorable) characters, the machismo-obsessed Argentinian writer Julio Saavedra – or with a film that becomes cluttered in its efforts to stay faithful to the book.  For film adaptations that try to recreate every twist and turn in the books’ plots, to the point where they become incomprehensible, you need look no further than the Harry Potter movies.

 

Television adaptations of books suffer from this problem too – although in theory TV programme-makers have more time at their disposal to cover everything.  I remember back in 1977 being narked by the BBC’s nearly-three-hour-long Count Dracula, which starred the late Louis Jourdan as Bram Stoker’s vampire count and which supposedly was the most faithful version ever of Stoker’s novel.  However, my twelve-year-old self, already a Bram Stoker purist, was not impressed that two of the characters, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, were for the sake of narrative simplicity compressed into one character called ‘Quincey Holmwood’.

 

A similar thing happened 23 years later, when the BBC unveiled its four-hour adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy.  Here, the fearsome father-and-son team of Sourdust and Barquentine, the officials who enforce the observation of endless, numbing ritual at Gormenghast Castle, were combined into one character played by Warren Mitchell.

 

Even when a film or TV production manages to reproduce a book’s plot and characters and doesn’t tie itself in knots doing so, it’s still liable to miss something that’s crucial to one’s enjoyment of the book – the author’s voice.  John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) both stick closely to the Thomas Hardy novels on which they’re based, and both are undeniably good films; but inevitably they lack that flavour that’s uniquely and enjoyably Hardy-esque.  For instance, I like Alan Bates’ portrayal of Farmer Gabriel Oak in Madding Crowd; but his performance didn’t, alas, give me the impression that Oak was capable of smiling so that “the corners of his mouth spread till they were an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the sun.”

 

Unsurprising, one book that translated smoothly into a film, losing little of its substance in the process, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal.  An account of a doomed romance during the Northern Irish Troubles, it was filmed in 1984.  The novel is short and straightforward in plot, so it isn’t diminished when its story is retold in a 100-minute film.  Also, MacLaverty is an author who firmly believes in showing rather than telling – he writes both simply and visually.  Thus, there isn’t a marked literary style that the film misses out on, either.

 

(c) Collins

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the odd film, based on a book, which does a better job of telling the story than the book does.  This is usually because writers, typing out hundreds of pages without having anyone to tell them when to stop, can fall into the trap of waffling; whereas filmmakers are usually under pressure to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end within a time limit.  For that reason, I thought that John Sturges’ 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Arctic / submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra was better paced and structured than its literary predecessor.  MacLean’s novel is basically an espionage whodunit where the characters potter about in a submarine, surface at the North Pole, and then potter about in the submarine again.  The filmmakers wisely confine the submarine stuff to the film’s build-up and use the North Pole for the climax, which they also beef up by bringing in some Soviet paratroopers.

 

Another film-adaptation that I preferred because it cut the flab from its source novel was Steven Spielberg’s shark-epic, Jaws (1976).  Happily, that film abandoned the sub-plots in Peter Benchley’s original book about the Mafia exerting pressure on the local town mayor to keep the beaches open in spite of the shark attacks; and about the affair that develops between the ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Police Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen.  This left more time in the film for proper shark action which, needless to say, my eleven-year-old self was delighted about.

 

More often, though, a film adaptation of a book is successful not because it manages to be better than the book – but because it uses the book as a starting point and then goes off and does something different.  The cinematic result isn’t necessarily better than the book, but it works in its own right.  A classic example of this is Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K. Dick’s eccentric, mind-screwing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which uses Dick’s basic story to create a new cinematic aesthetic with the use of astonishing set-design, cinematography and special effects.

 

However, perhaps the most exuberant instance of a book being incarnated in a new, different-but-equally-valid cinematic form is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).  It takes Irvine Welsh’s ultra-dark and very-Scottish source novel and reinvents it a way that captured the mid-1990s zeitgeist in Britain (as opposed to just Scotland).  The film retains enough of the book’s darkness to make it feel edgy, daring and anti-establishment, though Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge leave out incidents that would have been near-unwatchable on screen, such as when a revenge-seeking character mocks up the buggering of a child with a Black-and-Decker power drill; or when psycho-villain Begbie kicks his pregnant girlfriend in the belly to make her miscarry.  At the same time, the film is awash with then-fashionable young British actors (Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald) and then-fashionable Brit-pop music (Blur, Sleeper, Pulp).  It becomes a mission statement, telling the world that British cinema is back (temporarily at least) with a punky new attitude and shed-loads of young directing, writing, acting and musical talent.

 

(c) Minerva

(c) Channel 4 Films / Poly Gram Filmed Entertainment

 

It’s fascinating how Boyle’s version of Trainspotting has to a large extent supplanted Welsh’s version of it – so that by the time Welsh got around to writing a sequel, Porno, in 2002, he seemed to be writing for two audiences, those who’d read the original book and those who’d seen the film.  There are references to things that’d happened in the book, which didn’t happen in the film, but they’re confined to vignettes – for example, there’s a couple of pages where the hero, Renton, tracks down Second Prize, a member of his old gang in the book who was deleted from the movie.  It’s almost as if those vignettes are there so that book-followers can read them and movie-followers can skip them, leaving everyone happy with the continuity.

 

Finally, over the last few years, we’ve seen a new phenomenon, that of the lavish movie series and the lavish TV series, which invariably end up as DVD box-sets that are as thick as sets of encyclopaedias.  This has led to certain book-to-screen adaptations being criticised not for what they leave out, but for what they put in.  The most famous, or notorious, example of this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which took J.R.R. Tolkien’s moderate-sized source novel, a prequel to his Lord of the Rings books that’s about 300 pages long, and expanded it into three movies that had a total running time of 474 minutes.  Jackson got flak from Tolkien fans for, basically, taking their beloved and scholarly old author and pumping him full of movie-steroids; for turning what’s essentially a mild-mannered children’s book into a long, loud, testosterone-fuelled, CGI-laden series of blockbusters.

 

Jackson, who’d filmed the three Lord of the Rings novels in the early noughties, argued that he’d merely padded out The Hobbit’s storyline with material from the appendices that Tolkien placed at the back of the third and final Lord of the Rings novel, The Return of the King.  These appendices gave extra information about the history, mythology and culture of the books’ setting, Middle Earth.  Sneakily, though, Jackson also added some characters who’d appeared in his earlier Rings movies who, to be honest, didn’t have any business being in The Hobbit movies – unless it was to please fans of the Rings movies who wanted to see some fond old faces again.  I suppose I didn’t mind the unnecessary presence in The Hobbit trilogy of the likes of Lady Galadriel or Saruman the White, but I could certainly have done without Legolas-the-elf.  Played by the doleful Orlando Bloom, Legolas is surely the most boring elf in Middle Earth.

 

And it’s not just The Hobbit that’s been pumped up during the transition from page to screen.  Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the first of Harris’s books about suave, cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter, had already been filmed twice; excellently by Michael Mann in 1986 and less excellently by Brett Ratner in 2003.  Now, however, it’s also become the basis for seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the NBC television series Hannibal, whose show-runner is the screenwriter and producer Bryan Fuller.

 

Although Fuller introduced the book’s main characters – serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh D’Arcy), senior FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and the charming, intellectual and suspiciously-culinary Dr Lecter himself (Mads Mikkelsen) – in the first episode, it’s only now, some 30 episodes later, that the show is getting around to the actual meat of Harris’s novel, which is the hunt for the family-murdering, William Blake-inspired serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.  Coincidentally, the actor playing Dolarhyde is none other than Richard Armitage, who in the Hobbit movies essayed the role of the royal dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, “son of Thrór, King under the Mountain” – or as my girlfriend likes to call him, ‘The Hot Dwarf’.

 

One way in which Fuller has extended the story of Red Dragon to almost unimaginable lengths has been to throw in chunks of the third of Harris’s Lecter novels, which is also called Hannibal.  These chunks include the character of Mason Verger, the repulsive meat-packing mogul who plans to feed Lecter to his collection of prize pigs; and Lecter’s escape to the city of Florence at the end of season 2.  Actually, Fuller has described Hannibal as a ‘mash-up’ of Harris’s novels rather than a linear series of adaptations of them, which makes sense.  And I have to say that of Harris’s novels, Hannibal-the-book is the one that most suits the grotesque, baroque and gothic aesthetic of Hannibal-the-show.  (It’s a pity that NBC has just announced the cancellation of Hannibal, as it would have been interesting to see, after another season or two, what Fuller would do when he finally got around to filming the second and most famous of Harris’s Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs.)

 

Anyway, I wonder which literary work will be next to be subjected to the pumping-up, as opposed to the trimming-down, treatment.  Perhaps Peter Jackson or Bryan Fuller will treat us to a nine-hour film trilogy or TV adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s hundred-page novella The Old Man and the Sea.  With, hopefully, the big fish played by Richard Armitage.

 

(c) Berkley

(c) NBC

 

Cinematic heroes 7: James Cosmo

 

(c) Paramount

 

I’ll make no bones about it.  I love James Cosmo, the Scottish character actor who on the 24th of this month will turn 66 – though he’s been a fixture of films and TV shows for so long you could be forgiven for thinking he’s much older.

 

These days the hulking, craggy and formidable Cosmo – whose visage is usually bedecked with a beard, moustache and long tresses of hair that on anyone else would suggest ‘ageing hippy’, but that on him suggest ‘someone you really don’t want to mess with’ – seems most familiar when he’s clad in armour and wielding a broadsword.  He’s carved a profitable niche for himself playing characters in movies and TV shows set in the ancient world, the Middle Ages and medieval fantasy lands, such as Braveheart (1995), Ivanhoe (1997), Cleopatra (1999), Troy (2004), The Lost Legion (2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-2013).  However, Cosmo, who was born in Clydebank and attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the Bristol Old Vic Drama School, worked long and hard on television before he cornered the market for playing grizzled bear-like warriors in historical and fantasy epics.

 

He earned his acting spurs during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in a long line of TV shows and TV plays.  The better-known titles he appeared in include Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, Softly Softly, UFO, The Persuaders, Doomwatch, Sutherland’s Law, Ouiller, Warship, George and Mildred, The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, The Professionals, Strangers, Minder and Fairly Secret Army.  The most distinguished TV productions from this time to feature Cosmo were probably Nigel Kneale’s haunted-house-cum-sci-fi-horror-story The Stone Tape (1972) – its influence is detectable in many films and TV shows made since then, including the recent acclaimed British horror movie The Borderlands – and the 1974 Play for Today adaptation of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, the most important piece of political theatre to surface in Scotland during the 1970s.

 

I was in my mid-teens when I started to notice Cosmo as an actor.  He played a villain in an episode of The Hammer House of Horror (1980), which climaxed with him driving a cleaver into the skull of the fragrant Julia Foster, something that must have shocked those viewers who remembered her from the wholesome 1968 musical with Tommy Steele, Half a Sixpence.  That grisly scene made a big impression on me, although nothing compared to the impression it obviously made on Julia Foster.  He also appeared in 1981’s The Nightmare Man, a cheap but creepy BBC mini-series scripted by the great TV writer Robert Holmes about a mysterious killer stalking a fogbound Scottish island.  The Nightmare Man saw Cosmo in good company, as the cast also included Celia Imrie, James Warwick, Tom Watson and the equally craggy and durable Scottish character actor, Maurice Roeves.

 

(c) BBC

 

By the late 1980s Cosmo was becoming the go-to guy if you needed an imposing Scottish hard man in your production.  For example, he appeared in Brond, a 1987 Channel 4 adaptation of the novel by Frederick Lindsay, a rather trippy thriller set in Glasgow and involving conspiracies and terrorism.  It tells the story of a hapless innocent, played by a very young John Hannah, who falls under the influence of the mysterious and sinister Brond of the title and ends up being accused of carrying out a political assassination.  Brond is played by the portly and menacing Stratford Johns, although Cosmo is no less intimidating as Primo, the silent, lethal hulk who acts as Brond’s henchman.  Two years later Cosmo had a similar role in the glossy Glasgow-set BBC thriller The Justice Game, in which this time he terrorised Dennis Lawson – who played Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy and is the real-life uncle of wee Ewan McGregor.

 

Meanwhile, in 1986, Cosmo had appeared in Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander, the fantasy movie about immortal beings feuding throughout human historyHe plays a member of the MacLeod clan in the medieval Scottish Highlands and he helps Christopher Lambert to escape when their superstitious fellow clansmen get alarmed about how, within hours, Lambert’s battle-wounds seem to miraculously heal themselves.  Not only does Lambert turn out to be one of the immortals but he’s also the world’s most French-sounding Scotsman.  Later in the movie he encounters Sean Connery, who’s another immortal and also the world’s most Scottish-sounding Spaniard.  (The scene where Lambert explains to Connery what a haggis is has to be heard to be believed.)  Totally scatty, but loveable, I suspect Highlander was the movie that helped Cosmo secure the sweaty, muddy sword-and-sandals roles he became well-known for in the 1990s and 2000s.

 

(c) Cannon Films

 

The key sword-and-sandals role for Cosmo arrived in 1995 when he played Campbell, father of William Wallace’s best friend Hamish in the Mel Gibson-directed, Mel Gibson-starring Braveheart.  Hamish is played by the huge, ursine Brendan Gleeson, who later found fame in Michael McDonagh’s glorious 2008 comedy-thriller In Bruges and in the Harry Potter movies, where he played Mad-Eye Moody.  If anyone is even huger and more ursine-looking than Gleeson is and could convincingly play his dad, it’s Cosmo.  (In reality, the two actors are only seven years apart in age.)

 

As we approach the referendum on Scottish independence being held this September, it’s difficult to talk objectively about Braveheart.  With the political debate intensifying, the film is often held up as representing everything that’s ugly about Scottish nationalism.  Every day on online forums and in the letters pages of the Scottish press, supporters of independence are accused of being lunatics who plaster their faces in woad, charge along muddy fields screaming “Freedom!” and generally believe that everything in Gibson’s film is historical fact.  Of course, historically, Braveheart is nonsense.  It’s also anti-English to a degree that wouldn’t be acceptable against any other ethnic, national or cultural group in a Hollywood movie.  (Gibson subsequently showed himself to have form in that regard.)  But in the film’s defence I’ll say that the battle scenes, for their time, were excellent.  And the supporting cast that Gibson assembled – Cosmo, Gleeson, David O’Hara, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Catherine McCormack, Angus McFadyen, Ian Bannen – is excellent too.

 

As Campbell Senior, Cosmo comes across as a near-unstoppable force of nature.  He gets skewered with an arrow at the initial uprising in Lanark but ignores that and carries on fighting; he gets his hand chopped off at the Battle of Stirling but ignores that and carries on fighting too.  Even when someone embeds an axe in his stomach at the Battle of Falkirk, he keeps going long enough to deliver a moving farewell speech to Gleeson.

 

For the record, James Cosmo supports independence for Scotland.  Indeed, if Scotland’s electorate consisted only of craggy hard-men Scottish character actors, Alex Salmond would have the ‘yes’ vote in the bag – Brian Cox, Peter Mullen, David Hayman and Ken Stott are backing independence as well.

 

A year later Cosmo appeared in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the movie that gave the world an equally potent image of Scotland, if a rather different one from that presented by Braveheart.  In fact, Trainspotting is the modern-urban-Scottish-junkie yin to Braveheart’s heroic-medieval-Scottish-warrior yang.  In Trainspotting, he plays another dad, this time of Ewan McGregor’s Renton character, a junkie so desperate for his next fix that he’ll crawl into the shit-encrusted bowl of the Worst Toilet in Scotland to get it.

 

(c) HBO

 

After Braveheart, Cosmo was kept busy with sword-wielding roles, something that’s continued up to his recent run in Game of Thrones.  However, he’s also become something of a fixture in recent British and Irish horror / thriller movies – he’s appeared in Urban Ghost Story (1998), Outcast (2009), Citadel (2012) and The Glass Man (2011).  That last movie features him alongside the actor and magician Andy Nyman and Neve Campbell, star of the Scream movies.  The Glass Man got good reviews when it was shown at film festivals but mystifyingly it’s never been released in Britain, not even on DVD.  (According to the blog of the movie critic M.J. Simpson, it’s now available on DVD in, strangely enough, Argentina.)  The trailer can be viewed on youtube, though.  Cosmo looks as menacing as ever in it, but it’s rather disconcerting to hear him talking with a Cockney accent.

 

(c) Spotlight Pictures

 

Unexpectedly, Cosmo has a further speciality, which is for playing Santa Claus.  According to his IMDb profile he’s now filled the furry boots of Saint Nick on three different occasions, most famously in the 2005 Disney version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

 

Though he’s well into his seventh decade, James Cosmo looks as daunting as ever.  His visage, bulk and general demeanour suggest a man to whom you definitely don’t want to show any disrespect.  And if you are foolhardy enough to be disrespectful, he’ll probably kebab you on a long rusty medieval pike and simultaneously slash your throat with a sgian dubh.  That’s the sort of guy I’d like to be when I become eligible for my bus-pass.