SMALL EARTHQUAKE, NOBODY DEAD
Judging by the UK coverage – e.g. page 9 of Saturday’s Guardian and second last item on Friday’s national BBC Radio news - you’d never guess that Glasgow just won its bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But much as we Scots love to moan about southern bias and indifference, we could do with sorting out our own house when it comes to reporting on matters of national importance.
It’s a while since I last mentioned the Culture Bill, so long overdue I’m surprised the bailiffs haven’t been round. That, and a fully-fledged Creative Scotland, the body to replace both the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. Yawn all you want but the scrapping of these two agencies marks the biggest shake-up in the arts in Scotland in decades so it’s bound to have an impact.
Filmmakers, ignore the small print at your peril. That goes for SS boss Ken Hay too because if anybody ought to watch his back, it’s him. Even on their own website, buried in the news section you’ll find a recent speech by Scottish Culture Minister, Linda Fabiani, who gives glowing mentions to the National Theatre of Scotland, the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, Edinburgh’s festivals, the National Collections, National Museums and the National Library.
What she doesn’t mention is film, an omission that not only ignores every filmmaker in the country but also fails to acknowledge our one and only screen agency, an agency paid for out of government’s own coffers. Not a good sign, is it? In fact, her only film reference begins and ends with David Mackenzie, presumably because Hallam Foe opened this year’s EIFF.
It’s here you really begin to wonder about the future because if Ms Fabiani fails to talk up film as a cultural asset because the powers-that-be and advisors failed to remind her to talk it up, then we might as well give up now.
So what does Ken Hay have to worry about? How about Richard Holloway, chair of the joint board of SS and SAC, for a start. After years at the SAC, we can only guess where his loyalties lie and you can bet it’s not film since apart from turning up at a few gala screenings he doesn’t know the first thing about it. I’d have thought theatre, dance and opera was more his bag. Then you have the recent appointment of Anne Bonnar as director of the interim body set up to oversee the transition to CS. Her background? The NTS and Traverse Theatre. So no 'advocacy' for film there either.
It’s hardly an exaggeration then that it’s all beginning to look like the players here are a bit skewed in favour of the stage. Now I might be dead wrong but at a time when the National Theatre of Scotland is grabbing favourable headlines for Black Watch, its success is maybe less to do with the plays they put on than the fact their head of marketing is on a 55K a year salary. SS has no equivalent but then again, unlike the NTS, Scottish Screen isn’t a production company with untold riches at its disposal.
One obvious conclusion is for SS to hand over the keys to West George Street and its annual budget to the National Theatre since the NTS looks like it can claim success where SS can’t and so might be better at the job of getting films made. But you only have to look at the numerous stage plays adapted for the big screen over the years to know it’s a very bad idea.
The Life of Stuff, for instance?
“Devoid of any wit, humour or cinematic style” – FilmFour review.
Or The Slab Boys?
“As much enjoyment as slowly squeezing your finger in a vice.” – User comment on IMDB.
Or Blood Red Roses?
“Mind-numbingly boring, self-righteous and over-prone to the use of that terrible short-cut of having its characters reacting to world events on TV”. – Time Out.
All based on stage plays, of course. And just because a playwright might fancy getting into movies doesn’t mean they’re any good at it. In fact, I couldn't turn up a single Scottish stage play-turned-film that got a decent review.
Meanwhile those of us in Scotland who genuinely want to make movies are forced into entering competitions to make TV dramas at a time when telly is shedding jobs by the skipload. I’ve never heard of playwrights having to do the same thing, because in theatre it’s more a case of a cosy phone call and ‘here’s the cheque, away and write what you fancy’. And unlike theatre, our film producers and directors start from a base of no wages and no funding to treat themselves or writers properly. It’s more like ‘give me your draft and if we’re lucky I might get us a few grand’. No, in Scottish theatre the money’s in place from the start. Nobody ever goes hungry, not when the government and the joint SS/SAC board value theatre so much more than film.
In February next year a 3-day conference, The Cultural Summit, is due to take place in Edinburgh. Guess which cultural item is off the menu? If any or all of what I've written here doesn’t sound the death knell of film in Scotland, I don’t know what does. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime next year, SS and the idea of Scottish film will be quietly strangled and dumped. And if track record is anything to go by, our press and media won’t bother to tell us where the body’s been buried.