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Twenty years after Trainspotting, is it still ‘shite’ being Scottish?

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Channel Four Films

This month will see a continuation of the Trainspotting saga – reuniting the original characters 20 years on for the release of T2 Trainspotting. Fans of the film and author Irvine Welsh may be excited, but the 20 years that have passed since the original movie hit our screens means the sequel arrives in a very different time and a very different environment.

For one thing, Trainspotting launched many of its stars into successful movie and television careers. Since the original, Ewan McGregor has portrayed young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels. And Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly Macdonald have all appeared in TV shows such as Once Upon a Time, Elementary and Boardwalk Empire. Success hasn’t been a stranger to director Danny Boyle either, who won a best director Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

The conditions of film production in Scotland have also changed a great deal since the first Trainspotting was made. In the early-to-mid 1990s, Scottish film productions received public lottery funding from the Scottish Film Production Fund.

This was then supplemented by sources such as Channel 4, BBC Films and the Glasgow Film Fund. The collaborations were an essential part of the funding, as generally none of these sources could provide enough money to finance an entire film – Channel 4’s involvement with Trainspotting being a notable exception.

But following the back-to-back successes of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, in 1997 the Scottish Film Production Fund was combined with other film-related public organisations into the overarching body known as Scottish Screen.

What you been up to for 20 years?

This organisation was designed to address filmmakers’ complaints about the Scottish Film Production Fund – and to stop those who oversaw the lottery-based funding from only supporting film productions they had interests in. But not long after its inception, the newly formed Scottish Screen quickly drew criticism for its perceived favouritism towards more mainstream productions – which were often taken on because it was believed they would be able to compete on an international level and achieve the levels of success seen by Trainspotting.

Unfortunately, though, many of the films supported by Scottish Screen turned out to be financial and critical failures – and the funding agency was dissolved by the end of the noughties. Many Scottish filmmakers at this time began to turn to other sources of film financing, particularly European co-production. This meant Scottish cinema often took on a more continental feel in terms of both style and subject matter.

One example of this in Zentropa Entertainments, the production company belonging to Danish director and leading figure in the Dogme 95 movement, Lars von Trier. The movement saw filmmakers stripping cinema of its illusions, by making directors ascribe to a set of restrictions known as “The Vow of Chastity”. Von Trier made Breaking the Waves in Scotland, and his company also produced films such as Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and The Last Great Wilderness in Scotland during the early 2000s.

Zentropa also paired with Glasgow’s Sigma Films for The Advance Party project, which aimed to give first-time feature directors a chance to produce three films using the same set of characters. The first of these films, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2006.

Creative Scotland

By July 2010, Scottish public funding for film production fell under the rubric of Creative Scotland – a new developmental body for support of the arts and creative industries in Scotland. Though drawing criticism, much as its predecessors had done, Creative Scotland has had a hand in the production of several feature films such as Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut The Legend of Barney Thomson and the recent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender.

Actors Ewan McGregor and Ewan Bremner running through the streets of Edinburgh in T2. PA

Over the past few years, there have also been a number of high-profile populist films coming out of Scotland, such as the Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith and Filth – another Irvine Welsh adaptation.

But despite this popular streak, production of more art-house fare remains strong in Scotland, with offerings such as Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which starred Scarlett Johansson.

Domestic talent

Given all the changes over the last 20 years, it’s easy to wonder if Trainspotting’s Mark Renton would still agree with his declaration, “It’s shite being Scottish”? Because it isn’t just the industry that has changed in 20 years, Scotland itself has changed since the 1996 release of Trainspotting. Just one year later, in 1997, Scotland voted in favour of devolution, and in 1999 the Scottish Parliament was restored after a 292 year absence.

Devolution has given Scotland the ability to make some policy decisions – not only regarding arts funding but also in areas such as education, housing and health and human services – separately from the United Kingdom.

And there is a markedly increased interest in the political side of Scottish nationalism as well. By 2011, the Scottish Nationalist Party held a majority in Holyrood. And although the 2014 Independence referendum was defeated, it was by less than 11% of the vote. Then, of course, there is the result of EU Referendum, in which Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain.

So, with a changing political climate and with Scotland named as the number two country in the world in 2017, 20 years on, maybe Scotland isn’t looking so shite after all.

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