Glasgow on screen: The story of Cinema City
Comfort and Joy
Allan Hunter, film critic and co-director for the Glasgow Film Festival, looks back at Glasgow’s rich cinematic history.
Glasgow has produced more than its fair share of world-class filmmakers over the last century, from Glasgow-born Frank Lloyd, an early Best Director Oscar-winner for The Divine Lady (1929), to the prolific David Mackenzie, director of Young Adam (2003), Perfect Sense (2011) and this year’s Oscar contender Hell Or High Water.
Affectionately known as the Cinema City, Glasgow was home to more cinemas per person than anywhere else in the UK back in the 1930s. When Green’s Playhouse opened its doors in 1927, it was the largest cinema in the UK, seating a staggering 4,254 people. Glasgow cinemagoers would often see three films in a week during this period, and the Glaswegian love affair with movies continues to this day; Scotland’s biggest city regularly records the best box office attendance figures for films outside of London.
As well as eager audiences, Glasgow has given birth to many eminent filmmakers. Glasgow-born self-taught filmmaker Bill Forsyth came from humble beginnings, finding his feet as an apprentice making short sponsored films. For his first full-length feature, That Sinking Feeling (1979), he turned his creative attention to his local community, bringing Glasgow’s untold stories to the screen, and by the 1980s was being celebrated as “the face of Scottish film”. Forsyth’s search for actors for That Sinking Feeling led him to work with young people from Glasgow Youth Theatre.
Forsyth once recalled: “There was huge unemployment in Glasgow, heavy industries closing and strikes. The city wasn’t looking or feeling its best, and the youth theatre was in Bridgeton, which was in bad shape; it didn’t feel right to ask these kids to make a fluffy fantasy in Cumbernauld. I thought, let’s make something a bit more real and we’ll show the world that.” The film was hailed as a “fable for the workless”, and Forsyth went on to enjoy an incredible run of success, scooping BAFTA wins for Gregory’s Girl (1980) and Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984).
Gillies Mackinnon, a contemporary of Forsyth’s, captured a different facet of Glasgow in his underrated autobiographical feature Small Faces (1995). Steeped in urban decay and evoking the city’s suffocatingly macho gang culture of the 1960s, Small Faces follows a trio of brothers grappling with different life choices. Mackinnon doesn’t shy away from the violence that is part of the city’s reputation but there is a larger-than-life quality to the film that pushes it beyond the bounds of social realism, and John De Borman’s cinematography is reminiscent of the films of Fellini and Visconti.
Glasgow’s filmmakers have often focused on the city’s reputation for violence, poverty and social deprivation. Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature Ratcatcher (1999), set during the summer of 1973, again captures the city in transition, as one family await a move from the cramped squalor of a run-down housing scheme to a modern purpose built estate.
Glasgow’s dramatic skylines have also provided directors and writers with an evocative backdrop for their films. Screenwriter Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach collaborated on several films set in Glasgow, from Carla’s Song (1996) and Sweet Sixteen (2002) to The Angel’s Share (2012) and My Name Is Joe (1998), for which Glasgow-born star Peter Mullan took the Best Actor prize at Cannes. As a director, Mullan’s blistering, coming-of-age drama Neds (2010) follows a bright teenager in 1970s Glasgow trying to find his own identity as he struggles against his family and the prevailing gang culture of his neighbourhood. Mullan filmed in Cardonald in the city’s Southside, on many of the locations that had been important in his own youth. All of these films, and many more, have built an image of Glasgow defined by struggle, hardship and poverty.
However, French Filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier clearly saw something very different in Glasgow when he chose to shoot his prescient science fiction drama Death Watch (1980) in the city. Tavernier’s adaptation of the David G. Compton novel is set in the near future and imagines the stirrings of a sensationalistic reality television era, in which the last days of a dying woman are exploited for prime-time entertainment. In one interview, Tavernier confessed: “I thought that the story called for an Anglo-Saxon setting. I liked Edinburgh, but Glasgow came as a shock. I liked its many different colours, the beautiful Mackintosh buildings. I loved the atmosphere, the feel of a working-class city.”
For his 2000 adaptation of The House Of Mirth starring Gillian Anderson, Terrence Davies transformed some of the city’s most beautiful Victorian and art deco buildings into early twentieth century New York. More recently, Hollywood has come calling and borrowed Glasgow locations to stage scenes in some surprising international places. Cloud Atlas (2012) used some of the city centre’s steep, twisting streets to pass for San Francisco. World War Z (2012) used George Square in the very heart of the city to pass as Baltimore in the scenes of mass hysteria as the zombie infection takes its grip.
Jonathan Glazer also used the city to spellbinding effect in his science-fiction story Under The Skin (2013) in which Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial femme fatale prowls the streets of Glasgow in search of her prey. Glazer and his crew filmed covertly in areas like Parkhead where Johansson’s provocative interactions with unsuspecting members of the male population gave the film an edgy, awkward authenticity that no amount of professional acting would have supplied.