Glasgow on Film: An Update

New Look

If you’ve visited this blog before you’ll notice a bit of a change. After putting off for ages what I thought would be a long and complex task, a few clicks on the WordPress control panel gave Glasgow on Film a bit of a makeover. I think it looks a tiny bit more stylish now, but more importantly I think it will be easier on the reader’s eye (the previous all-orange background was maybe a bit much).

Summer’s Here (Kind of)

My posts have again become less frequent than I’d like them to be, but that’s something I aim to work on as there is plenty more of Glasgow’s film story to tell. In fact, it’s a story that keeps growing arms and legs so I really should keep up!

While I’ve got a significant catalogue of well established Glasgow-set films waiting to be written about (God Help the Girl and That Sinking Feeling among those I have viewed and prepared notes on), lots of things that set our great city apart from many of its peers have been popping up so far this summer…

pacinoI like to keep a tally on here of the big Hollywood names to visit Glasgow (another seemingly endless list with plenty more tales to be told) and this roll of honour added a big hitter in May when the legendary Al Pacino appeared at the Clyde Auditorium. This wasn’t a highly guarded film shoot or a private getaway, but an up close and personal opportunity for a Glaswegian audience to hear the star talk to them about his career.

Last month also saw the cinema release of Spooks: The Greater Good, the unexpected spin-off from one of my favourite television series. This wasn’t so big a story for Glasgow but – you know me – I like a good mention of our town on the big screen and this movie delivered that more than once in a dramatic scene.

Look out in future for full “Glasgow’s Global Visitors” and “Cameo Appearance” posts on these two snippets. I wanted to finish by looking in more detail at a couple of bigger recent stories relating to Glasgow and film…

The Legend of Barney Thomson

Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week, and this is a movie I am very much looking forward to seeing. With an impressive cast that includes Carlyle himself, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Martin Compston, Tom Courtenay and Stephen McCole, the dark comedy looks fun and riotous. As you will see in the trailer below it wears Glasgow distinctly on its sleeve too. A review post will follow at a later date, including my own experience as an extra for a day on the film. (We’ll soon find out if I made the final cut – no barber pun intended).

Florence Foster Jenkins

This was one that came out of the blue on Friday night. I’d actually gone to bed and was just scrolling through Twitter when Daily Record journalist Bev Lyons’ Tweet about a Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant movie filming in Glasgow caught my eye. After initially resisting curiosity I was soon fully dressed again and in the car to Hillhead’s Kersland Street, which had been transformed into 1940s New York.

Bev Lyons’ article confirmed that Stephen Frears’ latest biopic – about American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins – had relocated from its main Liverpool base for the day to shoot some scenes in the Dear Green Place. Whether Streep was present in Glasgow or not is unconfirmed, but press photography showed Hugh Grant in Hillhead and earlier at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – reportedly doubling for Carnegie Hall. It would appear that this day and night shoot was a flying visit as no further filming in Glasgow has been reported. I did take a couple of pictures on Kersland Street – not the sharpest as I had flash off for obvious reasons, but you get the general idea…


Starring Role: Under the Skin

under the skin 1Released in early 2014, Under the Skin is perhaps the most remarkable feature film to have used Glasgow both as a filming location and a setting. Remarkable not least in that – despite being a science fiction movie and starring one of the biggest names in Hollywood – it presents the city at its most pedestrian.

under the skin 2Contemporary Glasgow is captured without grim gangland violence or sunny comedic romance – we hear snippets of everyday conversations and see real Glaswegians heading to work, shopping, enjoying nightlife and going to the football. Change is handed over the counter in Greggs; ladies try on makeup in John Lewis; a Big Issue is bought outside Oran Mor, where “A Play, a Pie and a Pint” is advertised.

under the skin 3This snapshot of Glasgow life is so genuine due to director Jonathan Glazer’s hidden camera approach to the production – filmed discreetly from a distance and with Scarlett Johansson disguised in a dark wig, the star was able to walk among crowds in busy locations like Buchanan Galleries and the Trongate without passersby batting an eyelid.

The reason for the sorties by Johansson’s unnamed alien character is to seek out single men to seduce and ultimately kill for some presumed mission that is never explained. The film is incredibly atmospheric – I was naturally drawn to this feature due to the filming in Glasgow, but wintry scenes shot on Scotland’s east coast, in the Highlands and in nearby locations like Wishaw and Port Glasgow are equally striking. An eerie soundtrack and limited conversation throughout the movie complete the atmosphere.

There’s a particular scene in Under the Skin which is one of the most intense – and I would go as far as saying distressing – moments I have seen in film, and despite some pretty disturbing imagery of the alien nature elsewhere this particular scene revolves around something that could ultimately be an everyday occurrence. I won’t give anything further away but I am sure anyone who has seen the movie will know the bit I mean. If you haven’t seen Under the Skin… see it.

Starring Role: Death Watch

death watch 6I can’t believe that it’s only in the past few weeks I’ve seen Death Watch for the first time. I’ve had various opportunities to catch the film previously, but I’ve somehow always managed to miss them – much to my frustration. But missing screenings isn’t really a decent excuse, as Glasgow’s own Park Circus released the film on DVD back in 2012.

death watch 5I first heard about it in the late 1990s, when Glasgow’s film-making scene was gathering pace: when the Glasgow Film Office was established and when The House of Mirth brought the likes of Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd to town the newspapers naturally spoke of the city’s cinematic past and 1980’s Death Watch was often mentioned. In such articles it stood out in particular due to its main star being a big American name – and in the late 1990s Harvey Keitel’s stock was high with the likes of Pulp Fiction and From Dusk Till Dawn under his belt. Of course, a lot has happened since then and the papers now tend to make a beeline for a certain zombie movie when summarising Glasgow’s relationship with the big screen.

Keitel is television company employee Roddy, who has a camera implanted in his eye and is tasked with befriending and documenting – without her knowledge – the day to day life of terminally ill Katherine, played by Romy Schneider.

death watch 4His output is for the television show Death Watch, an extreme of reality television. Despite the relatively unaltered setting of late 1970s Glasgow, the show is a nod to a slightly dystopian future. Other subtle touches that take the story beyond 1980 include the out of place looking videophone in an otherwise old fashioned doctor’s office, and the mention by Roddy’s ex wife of a “Saturday market card” – implying that citizens are allotted certain days on which they can buy their groceries.

death watch 3Another thing notable about the unusual world of Death Watch is the semi-anonymity of the setting. As with a film previously featured here – Unleashed – there is a near absence of Scottish accents. American, English, French, German and Irish voices pop up with Paul Young’s police officer the only distinctly Scottish character to appear. The company behind the television show, NTV, seems to be a global affair, with American boss Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) referring to audience share in Germany. Yet NTV’s exterior is Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and its interior City Chambers – surprisingly old world locations to represent a global television network creating cutting edge programming.

death watch 2Glasgow and Scotland are by no means drowned out in Death Watch however – in fact at one point we hear children singing “Coulter’s Candy”. Glasgow buses, a branch of Clydesdale Bank and road signs for places like Dumbarton are visible, and in a moment of contrast we see Ferriman’s American car drive past The Wee Mann’s pub – an establishment to have carried a number of names over the years, most recently The Clutha.

death watchOther Glasgow locations to appear include the Necropolis (which, accompanied by a dramatic overture, provides a fitting opening to the film and its subject matter), Glasgow Cathedral, the Royal Infirmary, West George Street, Charing Cross, Bothwell Street, the University of Glasgow and even the Makro cash and carry. A particularly striking setting is Stobcross Quay as a kind of psychedelic riverside version of The Barras. But it’s not so much the weird and wonderful market that’s striking, but the Clyde backdrop of a big ship, multiple cranes and the imposing Meadowside Granary. 

If Death Watch has passed you by too then I would recommend checking it out – I found the last third of the film a little slow in pace, but it is an interesting and original movie worthy of its cult status.

Starring Role: Ratcatcher

ratcatcherOften when I’m watching films for the purpose of writing about them on this blog, I’m sitting taking a lot of notes. I also find myself frequently pausing the movie to take a closer look at a location, or skipping back to catch a bit I’d missed because I was too busy scribbling down notes.

ratcatcher 3I had my pen and paper at the ready for Ratcatcher, but it is such a captivating film that I found myself giving it my full attention – only going back to take notes once the closing credits had rolled.

ratcatcher 4The 1999 movie – the first full length feature film to be directed by Glaswegian Lynne Ramsay – is set in Glasgow in 1973. The film opens with a tragedy in which central character James, a young boy played by William Eadie, is involved although his part in the incident is not revealed to the other characters. What follows is something of a snapshot of life in a run down Glasgow housing estate in the 1970s – through James’ eyes we see the strain placed on a low income family living together in such small quarters, the unusual friendship with the slightly older schoolgirl Margaret Anne and of course the backdrop of a city undergoing change with the added complication of a binmen’s strike.

ratcatcher 5At points in the film it seems like there is no obvious plot as such – just people plodding along with life – but ultimately the socially awkward James’ guilt about the opening incident is always hanging over him.

ratcatcher 6Glasgow locations include the banks of the Clyde canal, with areas such as Dennistoun, Maryhill and even the spires of Park Circus providing the backdrops along its route. The housing estate scenes are always atmospheric – despite their decline and depopulation, a sense that they are still living and breathing communities is tangible in the film. Perhaps one of the most striking images to be presented on these streets is the sight of army trucks sweeping around a corner – not to drag people from their flats or to protect them from zombies, but simply to clear up the rubbish.

Talking of striking images – more unusual features that contrast against the grey estate and the dark canal are the view of a vast cornfield from the window of an under construction housing development and a dream-like sequence involving a mouse travelling to the moon.

Last word on this post goes to a great cameo appearance – when James’ father (Tommy Flanagan) is collecting a bravery award, the man presenting it to him is legendary Glasgow Lord Provost (who was in office at the time of the film’s production) Pat Lally.




Starring Role: Not Another Happy Ending

not another happy ending a1Not Another Happy Ending is one of the more recent films to have been shot and set in Glasgow, premiering at 2013’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and going on general release later that year. It is a romantic comedy that sees a French publisher set out to make his star writer’s life a misery when he realises that she works best when despondent, and that a recent run of happiness in her life is the cause of a case of writer’s block that is preventing her from laying the next golden egg.

not another happy endingKaren Gillan leads the cast as the aforementioned writer, Jane, with Paris-born Stanley Weber as publisher Tom. The production attracted much attention for being Gillan’s first major film role since taking the high profile part of  “companion” Amy Pond in Doctor Who, and pleasingly it’s a good start for a movie career that is continuing to gain momentum with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy being the next release due to carry her name in its credits. She delivers a good, solid performance and most importantly a likeable character. Weber’s Tom is a good character too – an easily riled, lovelorn Frenchman is something different for a Glasgow-set feature.

not another happy ending 1aThe strong cast also features Iain De Caestecker, Kate Dickie, Freya Mavor, Gary Lewis and Henry Ian Cusick. Lewis – as Jane’s father, Benny –  gives a more subtle performance than he has done in a number of things I’ve seen him in recently, and Cusick is very convincing as a smarmy and obnoxious screenwriter. The prominence of Freya Mavor’s billing on the film is somewhat surprising in relation to the fairly limited amount of time she has on screen compared to Dickie, Lewis and Cusick.

not another happy ending 2I have a couple of minor criticisms for what I believe is an otherwise very decent film. I felt that the character of Roddy (Tom’s closest friend, played by Iain De Caestecker) was perhaps a bit too cartoonish, even for the quirky environment that the rest of the film paints. And the relationship between Jane and Willie (Henry Ian Cusick) does not seem believable in my opinion.

not another happy ending 3Let’s get back to the positives though, and a massive green tick for the way in which Glasgow is used in Not Another Happy Ending. There are frequent montages of city views – look out for plenty of landmarks and businesses, including: the Gallery of Modern Art; Jane and Tom in Delizique on Hyndland Street; Graphical House and the Mr Ben retro clothing store on King Street; Hutchesons’ Hall; the Barrowlands; the Necropolis; the Kingston Bridge; Jane running through the rain past the Co-Operative Building on Morrison Street; Jane and Tom standing with Glasgow Cathedral in the background… Given the subject matter there are also a number of book shop appearances – including the real life Voltaire and Rousseau and Waterstones stores, and the former Borders (now Zizzi’s restaurant) building on Royal Exchange Square bearing a “Mocha Books” sign. And a special mention for original locations goes to the use of the Glasgow Vintage Vehicle Trust in Bridgeton, where some of the city’s famous old green and orange buses provide the backdrop for a book launch scene.

not another happy ending 4But the love letter to Glasgow goes beyond simply showing off the city’s architecture and green spaces. There are nice little nods throughout, from the touristy Glasgow mug on Tom’s desk to Benny’s City of Culture T-Shirt and a soundtrack that includes the likes of Huevo & The Giant and Twin Atlantic.

Starring Role: The Maggie

I am pleased to write about a black and white film on this blog for the first time. It’s the oldest film I’ve featured on here, a film that does Glasgow a pretty decent service, and is a production of the legendary Ealing Studios no less.

Released in 1954, The Maggie is a gentle comedy which follows the journey of an American airline tycoon’s precious cargo from Glasgow to the remote island of Kiltarra aboard a puffer boat that has seen better days. The caper begins when the ‘Maggie’s’ ragtag crew overhear Pusey (Hubert Gregg), the American’s uptight English sidekick, in a Clydeside shipping office pleading for a boat to take his boss’ goods. With no reputable vessels available the crew offer Pusey their services and when he agrees on mistaking another boat in much better order for theirs, they don’t point out his error.

Overnight the reputation of the old puffer and its lovably roguish skipper (Alex Mackenzie) are brought to the attention of the London based airline executives, triggering a sequence of events that sees the American – Calvin B. Marshall, played by Philadelphia born Paul Douglas – board the boat, join the passage to Kiltarra and ultimately go on his own journey of self discovery.

It’s a charming film and one that surprised me for the following reason. The boat’s crew feature prominently on the DVD cover and on its reverse the descriptor describes The Maggie as being “…about a skipper who tricks a wealthy American…”. I had assumed that this was going to be a Para Handy style story with the skipper at the centre of it, but while Mackenzie’s character is certainly a key player it is the character of Marshall that the audience is most intimately engaged with (another assumption of mine was that this would be a blustering, unsympathetic character – the unwelcome foil to the crew’s exploits).

I actually found myself comparing The Maggie to 1987’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles: the Marshall character is Steve Martin’s Neal – a serious businessman who wants to do something for his wife (and family in Neal’s case) but is hindered in doing so; the skipper is John Candy’s Del – culturally the opposite of Marshall/Neal, who wants to help the latter in their journey but not in a way that they approve of; the more straight laced character ends up taking some life lessons from their new travelling companion, although in The Maggie it’s perhaps fair to say that Marshall gets more of this from the boat’s ‘Wee Boy’, played by Tommy Kearins, than he does from the skipper. If you don’t find this to be a particularly convincing comparison between these two films, well… Marshall does have to travel by plane and automobile to reach the boat, and makes plans to take a train back to London!

The film was shot at Ealing Studios and on location around Scotland. Glasgow’s starring role is during the earlier part of the film, and while some scenes here – including interiors – were filmed in the studios, there is some live action in the city. This includes the ‘Maggie’ getting stuck on the raised riverbed of the Clyde above the subway next to the South Portland Street suspension bridge, and Marshall’s arrival on Gordon Street at the Central Hotel – which gets a few name checks. Also mentioned by name are the Broomielaw and Pollokshaws, while a sign outside a pub reads “Yorkhill Quay”.

Starring Role: Heavenly Pursuits

This 1986 film, also known as The Gospel According to Vic in some parts, is a real gem in Glasgow’s film history. Starring Tom Conti and Helen Mirren as teachers Vic and Ruth, Heavenly Pursuits follows a very original storyline – at a time when school and church authorities are keen to see a sainthood bestowed on the namesake of the Blessed Edith Semple School, a series of potentially miraculous occurrences captures the attention of the whole of Glasgow and gets cynical Vic thinking twice.

The film opens in Rome – where Brian Pettifer’s Father Cobb is visiting the Vatican (in fact the interior is Glasgow City Chambers) to petition a senior figure in the Catholic church on the Edith Semple matter – before switching from the grandeur of St. Peter’s Square to the Glasgow skyline under a rather murky sky. But this is not setting us up for a “grim Glasgow” tale – some years before its City of Culture renaissance the city looks fantastic throughout and it is a cheerful and upbeat movie.

The cast is first class. Conti and Mirren are on fine form as always and the former in particular is really well paired with David Hayman as his friend and union rep Jeff. As mentioned above Brian Pettifer is the school’s chaplain, and he is joined by Dave Anderson as the headmaster. Other well known Scottish faces to appear include Juliet Cadzow and Ron Donachie. The school pupils are great too – there’s a particularly joyous scene when young Stevie, whose abilities are a cause for concern to some, beats Vic in an impromptu contest to list motorcycle brands. It’s a moment of glory for Stevie as the kids all cheer him on excitedly and it’s a defeat that Vic is more than happy to accept. Stevie – incidentally – is played by a young Ewen Bremner, and Tony Curran is also listed as one of the pupils in the credits. And one final note on the names to pop up in Heavenly Pursuits – Gordon Jackson appears as himself discussing the newspapers (in particular the Blessed Edith Semple School story) on breakfast television with broadcaster Sheena McDonald.

Glasgow is another star of the film and locations featured include Glasgow Cathedral, the Victoria Infirmary, Great Western Road, Sauchiehall Street, the Western Infirmary, Renfield Street, the Kingston Bridge and Queen Street Station. The exterior used for the school at the centre of all the action is that of Queen’s Park Secondary School on Grange Road – the school has since been demolished and a modern satellite building to the Victoria Infirmary now stands on the site.

The sight of Queen’s Park Secondary was a blast from the past and that is another enjoyable feature of Heavenly Pursuits – the nostalgia. If you remember Glasgow in the 1980s look out for glimpses of Wimpy on Sauchiehall Street and Pizzaland just across the road from it, the Odeon on Renfield Street, the Irn Bru clock on Union Street, John Menzies in Queen Street Station and orange buses galore.

Completing the package is an excellent soundtrack from BA Robertson. With Heavenly Pursuits writer and director Charles Gormley has presented a charming Glasgow feature that can sit comfortably alongside bigger budget Hollywood productions of its time.


Starring Role: The Flying Scotsman

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know too much about the story of Graeme Obree, one of Scottish sport’s more interesting characters, before watching The Flying Scotsman. I haven’t read his book of the same name on which it is based, so I am going to refrain from commenting too much on the storyline here and will focus more on the relevance of the movie to Glasgow – which is after all the primary purpose of this blog.

To summarise briefly before moving onto Glasgow matters, following a brief childhood back story we are taken forward to 1993 where Obree (played by Jonny Lee Miller) is working as a cycle courier. At the same time his Prestwick bicycle shop is closing down. However a spark of inspiration sees him set a personal goal of breaking the world hour record for cycling – a goal he builds up to in the short space of eight weeks, during which he constructs his own bike made of all manner of parts, including – famously – washing machine components. He successfully breaks the record – set by Francesco Moser in 1984 – although his own record is broken less than a week later by Englishman Chris Boardman.

The film has surprisingly little focus on the much hyped rivalry between Obree and Boardman, with the main villain of the piece appearing to be Steven Berkoff’s German World Cycling Federation official, who seems hell bent on preventing the Scotsman from glory. We also see Obree bullied in childhood, with the same bullying individuals rounding on him in adulthood – it is unusual in an “underdog story” biopic to see the hero treated with such malice even after the life-changing moment(s) in their story.

There is plenty of focus on Obree’s positive relationships – with wife Anne (Laura Fraser), friend and manager Malky (Billy Boyd) and Douglas Baxter (Brian Cox) – a local minister who encourages Obree on his goal and lends him his workshop to build his bicycle. The film also acknowledges Obree’s bipolar disorder.

At the start of the film we are brought from Graeme Obree’s school days up to date with the caption “GLASGOW 1993” as we see the cyclist riding along Argyle Street at the “Heilanman’s Umbrella”. With both Graeme and Malky working as cycle couriers there are numerous scenes and views recorded in the city centre throughout, with other locations including Bothwell Street, West George Street and Scott Street.

Glasgow landmarks also double for a couple of overseas locations. A cleverly shot – although still identifiable – view of the Clyde Auditorium is used to represent the Hamar Stadium in Norway. I thought it odd that such a well known Scottish landmark should have been used when there are plenty of more generic structures around Glasgow and Scotland, but then I saw a picture of the real stadium and understood the choice – it has a distinctive armour plated appearance not unlike that which earned the Glasgow venue its “Armadillo” nick name. Meanwhile the exterior of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is used to represent the World Cycling Federation headquarters.

Starring Role: The Wee Man

The Wee Man was shrouded in controversy from the outset, as true crime films so often tend to be. The story of Glasgow gangland figure Paul Ferris, the film was refused assistance from Strathclyde Police due to the force’s troubled history with the man and his associates. As a result the feature could not be shot in Glasgow, with London streets standing in for the Blackhill estate and other parts of the city – an irony about this 2013 film, given that the last couple of years have seen Glasgow recognised as a logistically easier substitute for London, Philadelphia and San Francisco in other productions.

The Wee Man 6Despite the absence of principal photography in Glasgow, there are establishing shots of the city throughout and where possible local touches – such as Barr and Irn Bru logos on shops and Tennent’s beer taps in the pubs – have been added.

The Wee Man follows Ferris’ life from childhood through his formative years as a teenager and into troubled adulthood, where a culture of crime results in much bloodshed. Indeed there are some fairly violent scenes in the movie.

Martin Compston takes on the role of Ferris, leading a strong cast that includes fellow Scots John Hannah, Stephen McCole, Denis Lawson, Clare Grogan and Laura McMonagle. Irish actor Patrick Bergin also appears as the notorious “Godfather” Arthur Thompson, with Rita Tushingham playing his wife – coincidentally named Rita.

Starring Role: Donkeys

Donkeys – released in 2010, and winning Best Film at the 2011 BAFTA Scotland Awards – was the second release in a planned trilogy from the Scottish-Danish “Advance Party” collaboration. The first instalment was 2006’s Red Road and characters from that film Stevie (Martin Compston) and Jackie (Kate Dickie) return to play parts in a very different story. Tony Curran’s Clyde from Red Road also makes the most fleeting of cameo appearances.Donkeys 6

The most central characters are however old friends Alfred (James Cosmo) and Brian (Brian Pettifer). The film begins with the pair sitting in an empty looking Glasgow Airport, preparing to set off for a new life in Spain, however the plans stall and we soon learn that Alfred is not a well man. He sets out to straighten out parts of his life before it is too late – including trying to reconnect with his daughter Jackie and meeting and getting to know his illegitimate son Stevie, going about the latter in an unconventional way that causes awkwardness for all concerned. James Cosmo – rarely cast as a lead character – is excellent as Alfred, a man who is not a bad guy but displays some incredible stupidity that affects everyone around him.Donkeys 5

Donkeys is a fine example of a black comedy – there are some truly touching moments, but a number of hilarious lines. Malaga being described as “basically a warm Pontin’s” and Alfred using the phrase “they get things out” when telling his granddaughter about the birds and the bees are just two of the examples of the humour that features throughout.

A wealth of Glasgow locations all across the city are used in the film, including The Barras market, Queens Park and Anderston – where Alfred’s flat is located.