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.
An Irvine Welsh book set in Edinburgh adapted into a film? It can only mean one thing… Glasgow once again making an appearance as the Scottish capital.
The book The Acid House is a collection of over 20 short stories by Leith’s best known novelist and the 1998 movie adaptation – supported by the Glasgow Film Fund – groups together three of the stories, namely “The Granton Star Cause”, “A Soft Touch” and “The Acid House”.
Trainspotting and Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy offered views of Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle as contrasts to the seedier sides of the city portrayed within those films. However there is no such imagery in The Acid House – just pure, unadulterated bleakness, certainly in the first two stories (funnily enough Glasgow appears most in the third one) which are played out on practically derelict yet still populated housing estates. There’s not much sign of the character redemption that is evident in Trainspotting and Ecstasy either – we are presented with some pretty grotesque characters and indeed some pretty grotesque imagery, from a close up of a fly transplanting matter from a dog’s mess onto a chicken korma in “The Granton Star Cause” to the pretty horrific looking baby “Tom” (a puppet that resembles a Terrahawks cast off and makes Chucky of Child’s Play fame look angelic by comparison) in “The Acid House”.
I may be wrong but “The Granton Star Cause” appears to have been filmed exclusively in Edinburgh – in a panoramic view of the housing estate the capital’s skyline is visible in the background. There is little to suggest to me in which city “A Soft Touch” was primarily filmed, but there is at least one brief scene – in which Michelle Gomez’ character Catriona staggers along a street at night – that is exposed as Glasgow by a glimpse of an “Evening Times” sticker in a shop window. As mentioned above, the third story – “The Acid House” – features some unmistakable Glasgow locations in quick succession. We see Jemma Redgrave’s middle class Mum Jenny and baby Tom inside the Kibble Palace at the Botanic Gardens, then walking along Dumbarton Road and going into what is in real life The Quarter Gill pub. Coco (Ewen Bremner) and Kirsty (Arlene Cockburn) are meanwhile on a shopping trip, which includes a bit of window shopping at The Diamond Centre in the Argyle Arcade.
There is a handful of actors who are neither Glaswegian or Scottish, but who have nonetheless found themselves working on films in Glasgow on more than one occasion. Emily Mortimer (Dear Frankie, Young Adam) is one, Bob Hoskins (Doomsday, Unleashed) another. Then there is Jamie Bell – the Teesside-born actor who first shot to fame at a young age in Billy Elliot. As previously documented here, Bell spent time in Glasgow during the production of The Eagle and more recently was in the city to shoot the forthcoming Filth. Like The Eagle, 2007’s Hallam Foe features Jamie Bell, was directed by David Mackenzie and used the fantastic Film City Glasgow in Govan as a production base and to shoot some scenes.
Bell plays the titular character in this charming and quirky film and is joined by a strong cast that includes Sophia Myles, Ciaran Hinds (who made his acting debut on stage in Glasgow), Jamie Sives, Claire Forlani and – no stranger to this blog – Ewen Bremner. Hallam is a somewhat troubled young man with a penchant for spying on people and serious stepmother issues following the death of his mother a couple of years previously. He leaves his father (Hinds) and the stepmother (Forlani) behind in their countryside home and heads to Edinburgh, where he spots and follows hotel HR executive Kate – who happens to be a dead ringer for his late mother – and ends up being employed by her. As the film progresses we see the eccentric Hallam come of age in various ways.
While all outdoor scenes and key indoor scenes were filmed in Edinburgh and Peeblesshire, studio filming for parts of the movie took place at Film City Glasgow, and in the DVD commentary David Mackenzie mentions that a staircase seen as the entrance to Kate’s Edinburgh flat is in fact in Glasgow.
Trainspotting could be regarded as one of the most significant British films of the modern era, and in Scottish terms is probably the most significant film full stop. Glasgow on Film has already studied the successful careers of Glaswegians Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald, while the item on Perfect Sense just scratched the surface of Perth-born Ewan McGregor’s cinematic journey and the Shallow Grave article alluded to director Danny Boyle’s rise to legendary status. All of these inspirational stories and more are linked to the movie Trainspotting.
Released in 1996, Trainspotting is based on the novel of the same name by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh. It follows the lives of a group of heroin addicts living in Edinburgh, with McGregor’s Renton being the central character. He is joined by friends Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and the previously mentioned Begbie – played tremendously by Robert Carlyle. Kelly Macdonald completes the top billed cast as Renton’s schoolgirl lover Diane, while James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson and Peter Mullan are among the strong support. The film has been described as a dark comedy – a fair enough appraisal as there are plenty of laughs, many of them accompanied by a cringe or a disbelieving shake of the head (a particular scene involving Spud and some bed sheets sticks in the mind). The main strand running through the story is Renton’s attempt to leave his drug abusing life behind which, ultimately, he succeeds in as the film concludes with him relocated to London in upbeat form.
The film had and continues to have a hugely recognisable identity, which is what makes it such an important part of British cinema. Among other items of merchandise released, posters adorned bedroom walls around the UK and a memorable soundtrack brought (in some cases renewed) attention to artists as varied as Iggy Pop, Underworld and Blondie. It gained critical acclaim around the world and won awards, also being nominated for Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards. From a Scottish point of view Trainspotting shook up the “shortbread tin” image of Scotland and launched a number of young acting talents into the limelight.
As with Shallow Grave, it was in fact Glasgow that lent itself to the majority of filming despite the feature being set in Edinburgh. Among the Glasgow locations used were Crosslands pub on Queen Margaret Drive, Cafe D’Jaconelli on Maryhill Road, Jordanhill School and the since demolished Volcano nightclub in Partick. Perhaps as a thank you to the city, the Odeon cinema on Renfield Street was chosen as the venue for Trainspotting‘s world premiere. Among the cast and other celebrities in attendance was Jonny Lee Miller’s girlfriend of the time, a then little known actress who would later return to Glasgow in 2011 very well known – Angelina Jolie.
Glasgow on Film recalls, on a sunny October Sunday in 2009, returning a kilt to a hire shop in Glasgow city centre and then taking a detour to the Merchant City where filming was reportedly underway. On Wilson Street there was debris strewn everywhere – discarded luggage, waste paper and abandonded vehicles – and amidst all of this Scottish actor Ewan McGregor was wandering around.
The production being filmed was Perfect Sense, released in 2011 to critical acclaim (winning Best British Feature at the Edinburgh International Film Festival that year).
McGregor is joined in Perfect Sense by Eva Green – mentioned previously as one of “Glasgow’s Global Visitors” – and a supporting cast that includes his Trainspotting (another film with Glasgow links) co-star Ewen Bremner, his real life uncle Denis Lawson, Stephen Dillane and Connie Nielsen. The film follows the blossoming romance between McGregor’s chef Michael and Green’s epidemiologist Susan – the complication in this particular love story though is the epidemic that is sweeping the globe and robbing everybody of their senses: smell, taste, hearing and sight.
It is a unique film in a number of ways: most films involving viruses and epidemics follow a similar route, but in Perfect Sense there are no zombies, no screaming primates, no gunfire – instead, with the exception of some moments of high emotion that occur just before the loss of a sense, we see people in Glasgow and beyond doing their best to adapt to the sudden and shocking developments that appear to be affecting all human life; in the practically silent ending to the film – as Michael and Susan embrace just as they lose the power of sight – the idea of six billion people no longer able to hear or see hits the viewer as a more terrifying prospect than most of the “end of civilisation” scenarios that have been played out on screen before.
As for Glasgow’s role in Perfect Sense, this is one of the finest examples of the city being portrayed in film as a normal working and living city – just as the feature avoids many epidemic movie tropes, it presents Glasgow without relying on excessive grit or caricatures. The film also makes good use of locations around the city centre and west end.