Film Feature: …And Glasgow Plays Itself

There’s a certain thrill to spotting your home on film. You nudge your friends excitedly, pointing out exactly where in the city the scene was filmed, whispering that you’ve been in that same pub, or walked that same street a million times! Your favourite places are being beamed onto big screens across the whole world, and everyone will be able to see how lovely they are, how vibrant, how cool!

In the film world, Glasgow is no New York, or London, or any of the other me tropolises around the world that seem to be the setting for every other huge Hollywood production. But we’ve been lucky enough to see our city appear time after time on the cinema screen.

Thanks to the city’s great architecture, it’s been cleverly disguised as other places: it famously hosted Brad Pitt when it doubled for Philadelphia in World War Z.  Films set in our supposedly much more beautiful neighbour Edinburgh, like Trainspotting, Filth and even Sunshine on Leith, were actually filmed in Glasgow.  

God Help the Girl takes the city not only as a setting but as inspiration, and turned the leafy, autumnal West End into a twee hipster paradise, where everyone is trendy and creative (and nobody has a Glaswegian accent).

In The Legend of Barney Thomson, Glasgow feels somehow timeless, the Barrowlands becomes a gaudy neon paradise where old biddies play bingo, and the empty and derelict Red Road flats provide a startling backdrop to the film’s most unsettling scene.

To me, though, the most fascinating films set in Glasgow are the ones that confront the city’s darker side. Britain has a great history of tackling social problems through film, from the kitchen sink realism of the 1960s to Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows.

With its past reputation as a hard, “mean” city, Glasgow has appeared in its fair share of these films. Lynne Ramsay’s criminally underrated debut Ratcatcher reminds us of the horrible living conditions in the city’s slum areas as late as the mid-1970s, and the promises of a better life for families who moved to new housing estates. One of the masters of the genre, Ken Loach, has returned to the city several times in his films, as well as heading over to Greenock in Sweet Sixteen.

Arguably, these “social problem films” do Glasgow no favours. The city looks rough, deprived, and dangerous, its residents all junkies or alcoholics who live in dreary flats by rubbish-strewn canals or parks. Our only redeeming feature might be that dark sense of humour and one gratuitous shot of the spires of Park Circus or the Cathedral. If this is what would-be visitors see of the city, it’s no surprise they all head to Edinburgh instead.

But as much as the grim Glasgow stereotype can start to irritate, these films can force us to confront the reality that still faces far too many people in our city. Glasgow is the most deprived local authority area in Scotland, and in 2012 a third of children in the city were estimated to be living in poverty.

While statistics in a newspaper can elicit a shake of the head and a sigh, they’re not as striking as a film where we can connect emotionally with the characters and their environments. We all know that living in a damp, cold house in an isolating, dangerous area is bad. But our emotional connections to characters, our sympathy for them as they battle their issues, are what can really drive home the reality of some of Scotland’s biggest social problems. These aren’t real stories – but the people who feature in them do exist. The lead role in Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share went to Paul Brannigan, a newcomer from the East End who had spent time in juvenile detention centres. If watching a film can awaken someone politically and open their eyes to the very real poverty that people battle every day, then it might encourage them to start fighting and campaigning against it, too. If the same films can change people’s lives, too, as in Brannigan’s case, then even better.

Besides, it’s not all doom and gloom in Glasgow’s films. Just a bus ride away from the city centre lies Cumbernauld, 1960s New Town, the paradise that could have been for families moved from Glasgow’s slums, and the setting for the teenage love story Gregory’s Girl. Featuring some fantastic 1980s haircuts, it’s the story of a boy nearly kicked off the school football team, who falls in love with the girl who is replacing him. It’s daft, heart-warming, and hilarious – perfect chilled-out viewing after a long day in the library.

[Lauren Cummings – @_laurenC]

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