On Saturday night I was one of the few brave souls who threw caution and snow warnings to the wind and drove out to the Farr side of Inverness, also known as Farr Hall, to listen to a talk by film director, academic and horror consultant Eleanor Yule.
Her presentation was a bit rushed, beset by a dodgy laptop loading clips and a palpable desire from some audience members* to hurry up and get to the tea and magnificent blueberry cake awaiting us at the interval.
That would be me*
The talk was on the above mentioned Scottish Miserabilism, a term coined to exemplify the collection of Scottish film and TV drama that has somehow become the Scottish identities sole commodified representation via the moving image medium.
Eleanor took the audience through the history of our bleak stories where our protagonists are all too often defined by poverty, illness, crime, booze, drugs and the all encompassing Scottish ‘hard man’ psyche. The clips were akin to a trawl through my seventies childhood. Just Another Saturday, Just A Boys Game, all violent discontents poised for a life on the post industrial slag heap aided and abetted by a bottle of Eldorado and a Malky Fraser…
Eleanor spoke at length of Peter Mullan and how it appears that if you want a menacing, growling Jock to add some ball clenchingly scary moments to your movie, Peter’s the man to call. As an actor and a genuinely brilliant director,Mullan, it seems can not attract funding for his features unless they focus on the above mentioned city hard man/bawbag with a tendency to lash out with fists, feet tongue and whatever handy jaggy bottle is about…
The talk carried on past our nation’s token Scotsman, Ken Loach by way of a diversion into Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Filth and back out again with a touch of Braveheart.
Being a smartarse both in person and formerly by profession, I had of course known most of this and nodded along like a parcel shelf dug as Eleanor hit off the bullet points with great aplomb. It was only when she began to talk about how others see us, via the Brigadoon’s of this world that my interest was piqued. We all know that Vincente Minnelli had visited Scotland and it didn’t live up to his imagination, so with some gaudily painted back drops, a collection of ‘Scottish’ accents that veered from Star Trek to Timbuktu, he presented his vision of Scotland to the world, in song and dance. He was an outsider, who was not interested enough to change direction away from the Harry Lauder kailyard stereotype. The same could be said for the diminutive Melvin Gibson and his documentary on William Wallace as seen through an overdose of shortbread and 1000 Caledonia clubs. He came, he saw, he waffled.
It was only when Eleanor, began to talk about New York born director Annie Griffin, who has chosen to live and work in Scotland, that my gander was firmly up. The tv and film literate among us will remember her excellent series on C4 ‘The Book Group’. Set in Glasgow, with a mostly aspirational middle class and diverse cast. Two series of exceptionally funny, poignant, of-the-moment comedy, sBAFTA winning drama that was light years removed from the forced acceptance of two decades of poverty porn for laughs Rab C Chuffing Nesbit.
This is the point in my missive, where I veer off in another direction and hopefully get to the so far missing point.
Annie’s next commission was for a series set in Georgian Edinburgh, ‘New Town’. It had a fairly eclectic cast riddled with subtle satire and beautiful performances. BBC commissioned the eight part series. The pilot was played to great applause and ratings. Here was someone who chose to live among us, who ignored the hard man exceptionalism and found a host of characters to skewer in the Edinburgh world of minimalist architecture, estate agents, Western Isle waifs and Jonathan Watson as a somewhat sinister church jannie. All the elements of a great Scottish murder mystery comedy series with our own brand of magical realism thrown in. So what happened after the pilot aired? Nobody remember?
At this point I’ll let Annie Griffin take up the story and tell it straight. She wrote to the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee at the Scottish Parliament last year. I was living in Spain at the time and it completely passed me by, if you all know about it and I missed the memo, then I apologise for repeating the tale, but this is new to me and if I hadn’t attended Eleanor Yule’s talk, I’d have never known.
Her letter also touches on one of the most important issues surrounding the current cringe over the Scottish Six and the complete lack of balls shown by the senior management at the branch office BBC Scotland in their dealings with the bosses at London HQ. Be it the chuffing weather map or our perceived lack of ability to look at the world for sixty minutes a night through Scottish eyes.
So the time has come for change, handing over editorial control of news and current affairs to the staff at the big shiny BBC building, then the keys to the drama department, set River City aside (if people really want to watch Eastenders with consonants let them crowdfund it…) Maybe then, can we start to create world class film and TV like we used to and as we still do to universal acclaim in other the other arts.
Of course, responsibility for Scotland’s creative moving image industry doesn’t depend entirely on BBC Scotland. STV remain pretty damn woeful,and given the number of people SKY employ in Scotland, wouldn’t it reflect better on their company to, Oh I dunno, start commissioning Scottish storytellers to create dramas for their global audience, boy did you guys miss a trick with Outlander… The elephant in the room of course, is the Scottish Government, soon to enhance its behemoth like status with just about every seat in the Scottish parliament. Gone are the days of minority government, when Patrick Harvey pushing the wrong button could fnurk up the Scottish budget, a majority 2011 -2016 and presumably again 2016 – 202… You have the backing of the Scottish electorate to shape our devolved government into something many of us might quite like when Independence is ultimately restored.
Keep this in mind, we look to our Nordic cousins for the way ahead, the Danish government, fresh from seeing another Oscar nomination for ‘A War'(their fourth in the past five years) invest approximately £50 million per year in Danish film making. The Scottish government via whatever the hell is left of Scottish Screen invest circa …£5 million per year.
SUBMISSION FROM ANNIE GRIFFIN
For Scottish Government – what it’s like trying to be a filmmaker in Scotland
8th January, 2015
I am a writer/director/producer, originally from the US. I lived in London for fifteen years, and moved to Scotland in 1997. Having heard about Channel 4’s new Nations and Regions office, I thought the time was right to be able to have a career in TV and film and live in Scotland.
Initially, it went well. The Glasgow Film Office helped me find office space for my company Pirate Productions. I hired an office manager, worked on some scripts and got a series commissioned from Channel 4. This was COMING SOON, a three part comedy drama. This led to another series – two seasons/twelve episodes of THE BOOK GROUP, also for Channel 4.
I then made a feature film, FESTIVAL, with producer Chris Young. The new head of BBC Drama, Ben Stephenson, told me he liked my work and I developed a series set in Edinburgh called NEW TOWN, writing eight one hour episodes.
We produced a pilot for NEW TOWN in 2008, and this is where I started to realise that despite the network’s public commitment to spending more money in the regions, it was a real disadvantage to be based in Scotland. The Drama commissioners said they loved the pilot, but the new head of BBC1 didn’t like it, and there were no slots for one hour dramas on BBC2 or a sufficient budget on BBC4. At this point, as I had the support of the Drama team, I thought BBC Scotland would step in and fight for the project, especially as no large- scale drama had been made in Scotland for some time. Based on the £850k budget of the pilot, the series commission for the additional seven episodes would have been at least five million pounds, all of which would have been spent in Scotland.
I received no support from BBC Scotland whatsoever. In trying to understand why not, my assessment is that the only way people keep their jobs at BBC Scotland is by NOT challenging London. The organisation is largely impotent with respect to network (across the UK) commissioning, and does not have the autonomy to challenge decisions made in London. Specifically, Scottish commissioners are not allowed to meet with Channel Controllers to pitch projects – rather, they have to pitch to London heads – who are themselves developing their own projects, and trust that the London commissioners will represent their projects well to Channel Controllers. When TUTTI FRUTTI was commissioned, this was not the case. Commissioning became very centralised in the 2000s. This has been disastrous for regional commissioning, and now is the worst time ever for Scottish scripted work getting network commissions.
The BBC and Channel 4’s strategy to spend more money in the regions has mainly meant transplanting projects from London and shooting them in Scotland. This means we are not getting Scottish talent on screen.
In trying to run a TV and film production company here in Scotland, the worst problem I would identify is lack of network support. Channel 4’s support has been quixotic, and I believe the team in Glasgow finds it easier to work with factual based companies rather than scripted. To develop scripted content, you need executives with specific experience there, and C4 has not had any Glasgow based drama or comedy development people.
The other problem is Creative Scotland and Scottish Enterprise’s lack of understanding of how to work with our industry. Pirate received support from SE in the 2000s to move our office from Glasgow to Edinburgh and hire a part time Business Affairs person. This was much needed and much appreciated, but happened at time when the company had a slate of commissions. Once things got harder, when we really needed support, the company’s turnover had fallen below Scottish Enterprise’s threshold for working with us.
It’s not difficult to understand that a TV company may have a multimillion pound turnover one year, when we’re producing a series, and then a fraction of that a year later, when we’re developing a script and not in production. I have no trouble finding work – I directed two seasons of FRESH MEAT in Manchester, and have been offered two series for the BBC, both shooting in London, one after the other, this year. But what seems near impossible is to develop projects in Scotland.
We need a Scottish network that answers to Scottish audiences. We need specialist TV and film support by people who understand the industry. The best thing to come out of this bottoming out of the industry is the formation of IPS to represent producers’ interests. Scottish filmmakers have realised we are in crisis, and we have to work together to find solutions.
We need your support, Scottish Government! Let’s make Scotland a film friendly place. This has to start with the indigenous industry. There is so much talent here, and so little of Scotland on our screens. Please work with us! We need you!
Please find below Youtube links to the entire pilot.
New Town Part 1
New Town Part 2
New Town Part 3
New Town Part 4
New Town Part 5
New Town Part 6
New Town Part 7