10 great films set in Glasgow

Scotland’s biggest city has provided the backdrop to everything from Ealing comedies to dystopian sci-fi. With Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling now on BFI Blu-ray/DVD and BFI Player, we pick 10 of the best Glasgow movies.

Updated: 17 April 2014

By Pasquale Iannone

That Sinking Feeling (1979)

Scottish Reels, a special collection of archive film and TV exploring life in Glasgow and Scotland across the past century, is available to view free at BFI Mediatheques around the UK, including Glasgow’s Bridgeton Library. This collection was curated in partnership with the Scottish Screen Archive.

Near the beginning of Bill Forsyth’s feature debut, That Sinking Feeling (1979), earnest though hapless ringleader Ronnie Munro (Robert Buchanan) rounds up some friends to plan a heist and tries to explain what their prize will be. “What’s this area famous for?” he asks, expecting a serious answer. “Drunks?” says one of his friends, “Muggers?”, “Multiple social deprivation?”

Here, with his tongue firmly in its cheek, Forsyth touches upon a few tired stereotypes that persist to this day when it comes to Glasgow on film: hard-drinking, crime, kitchen-sink drama. What makes That Sinking Feeling different is that while it was shot on location in decaying, neglected areas of the city in the late-70s, it has a real lightness of touch. In this respect, it feels like a Scottish cousin to Mario Monicelli’s heist comedy I soliti ignoti (1958). That film too, is about a ramshackle group and their endearingly inept leader (Totò’s ‘expert’ safe cracker Dante Cruciani) and – as in Forsyth’s film – the action unfolds in a dilapidated urban setting (postwar Rome).

“I wanted to get to the idea that the film was a fairy story” Forsyth says in the commentary track on the BFI DVD/Blu-ray release of That Sinking Feeling. “It wasn’t a Ken Loach movie – it was a fantasy […] almost a dream of the characters in the film.” This also explains opening intertitle: “The action of this film takes place in a fictitious town called GLASGOW. Any resemblance to a real town called GLASGOW is purely coincidental.”

In its long history as a film location, but perhaps most strikingly in the past 25 years or so, Glasgow has provided filmmakers with endless flexibility. Whatever the genre – social realist to historical drama, crime thriller to science fiction – the city appears to have the solution. This versatility also allows it to double for other locations, even major American cities. Recent high-profile Hollywood productions to have shot scenes in Glasgow include Cloud Atlas (2012), World War Z (2013) and Fast & Furious 6 (2013).

Taking in films by five Scottish filmmakers and five ‘outsiders’, here are 10 of the city’s most memorable starring roles.

Madeleine (1950)

Director: David Lean

Madeleine (1950)

The year before her breakthrough role in Compton Bennett’s film The Seventh Veil (1945), Ann Todd appeared on the London stage in Harold Purcell’s The Rest Is Silence. It was based on the story of Madeleine Smith, the Glasgow socialite who went on trial in 1857 accused of murdering her lover Pierre Emile L’Angelier. So captivated was Todd by Madeleine’s story, she suggested to husband David Lean that they make a film version which he would direct and she would star in.

Madeleine was the second picture Todd and Lean made together after The Passionate Friends (1949) and while most of it was shot at Pinewood, Lean filmed the opening exteriors in Glasgow. When the cast and crew visited Madeleine’s family home of 7 Blythswood Square, Todd felt a presence. “I attract spirits” she wrote in her 1981 memoir, The Eighth Veil, “and in that house Madeleine Smith came and visited me […] I felt most of the time we were making [the film] that she was there.”

The Maggie (1954)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

The Maggie (1954)

Born in Boston, Massachusetts to Glaswegian parents in 1912, Alexander Mackendrick returned to Scotland as a six year-old to live with his grandparents. He went to school in Glasgow and then attended the famous Glasgow School of Art for three years before moving to London to work in advertising.

Mackendrick’s first forays into filmmaking were as screenwriter and storyboarder. During the Second World War, he made educational and propaganda films for the Allied forces. After the war, he found work at Ealing Studios where he spent the best part of a decade, making classic comedies such as Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Arguably the lesser known of his Ealing films, 1954’s The Maggie is the story of the eponymous Clyde puffer boat. Its skipper Mactaggart (Alex Mackenzie) tricks American airline magnate Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas) into letting him transport precious cargo from Glasgow to a Scottish island where Marshall has bought a house. “Here indeed is a fine picture capturing the spirit of the West of Scotland” wrote the Glasgow Evening News in a contemporary review of the film, “[it shows] that men north of the border don’t run around in kilts waving claymores all the time.”

Just Another Saturday (1975)

Director: John Mackenzie

Just Another Saturday (1975)

Former Glasgow shipyard worker Peter McDougall was one of the most important voices to emerge in British TV drama of the 1970s. When he was living in London, he was encouraged by actor/writer Colin Welland (Kes, Villain, Chariots of Fire) to write a play based on his experiences as a young drummer in Glasgow’s Orange Marches.

Edinburgh-born John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday, The Fourth Protocol) started his career working as assistant to Ken Loach on Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966) before making his feature debut with One Brief Summer (1970) starring Clifford Evans and Felicity Gibson. Shortly afterwards, Mackenzie came across McDougall’s script for his Orange March play, was bowled over by it and put himself forward as director. The BBC, however, concerned that filming on the streets of Glasgow would cause riots, shelved the piece until 1975 when it was finally filmed as Just Another Saturday and included in the Play for Today strand.

The film takes place during one Saturday in the life of 16-year-old John (Jon Morrison). Initially excited at being part of the Orange Parade, he is exposed to its ugly side as the day unfolds. Soaked in typically dark Glaswegian humour, the film was a major critical success. McDougall and Mackenzie went on to make several more films together, including 1979’s A Sense of Freedom, centering on the life of Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle.

Death Watch (1980)

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Death Watch (1980)

A dystopian science fiction picture shot in cinemascope, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch is based on David G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, a 1974 novel about a not-too-distant future in which audiences feast on voyeuristic TV. The protagonist, Rod, has a camera implanted in his eye so that he can follow the last days of a terminally-ill woman for a prime-time series called Human Destiny. “After visiting Glasgow, I immediately bought the rights to the book,” Tavernier told Sight & Sound in 2012. “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.”

The lead roles went to Harvey Keitel (Rod) and Romy Schneider (Katherine) and the film features a Bernard Herrmann-esque, strings-only score by Antoine Duhamel (Weekend, Pierrot le fou).

My Name Is Joe (1998)

Director: Ken Loach

My Name Is Joe (1998)

Director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have been regular collaborators since the mid-1990s when they made the Glasgow-set drama Carla’s Song (1996) starring Robert Carlyle. So far, they have returned to the city for four more feature films, most recently, 2012’s The Angel’s Share.

In 1998, Loach and Laverty made My Name Is Joe, the story of Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan), a working-class recovering alcoholic who embarks on a relationship with a middle-class woman, Sarah (Louise Goodall). However, his friendship with (and loyalty to) debt-ridden friend Liam (David McKay) puts their relationship under strain. Like most of the Loach/Laverty collaborations, humour plays an important part in the film, notably in scenes featuring the football team that Joe coaches. This tongue-in-cheek focus on football is also seen in Loach and Laverty’s contribution to the portmanteau film Tickets (2005), as well as their Manchester-set comedy Looking for Eric (2009).

Orphans (1998)

Director: Peter Mullan

Orphans (1998)

1998 was a remarkable year for actor/director Peter Mullan. Not only did he win the best actor award at Cannes for his performance in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, he also picked up prizes in Venice for his own directorial debut, Orphans (1998). The latter is the darkly comic story of four adult siblings – Thomas (Gary Lewis), Michael (Douglas Henshall), Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) and John (Stephen McCole) – coming together the night before their mother’s funeral in Glasgow. Each sibling is seen to react to the loss in different ways; while eldest brother Thomas holds a strict vigil over his mother’s coffin in a storm-battered church, Michael gets involved in a pub brawl.

Mullan would return to Glasgow for his 1970s-set, intensely personal third feature, Neds (2010), in which he plays the violent, alcoholic father of the film’s protagonist, John McGill (Conor McCarron).

Ratcatcher (1999)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Ratcatcher (1999)

In Orphans and Neds, Peter Mullan laces bleak realism with moments of formal experimentation and abstraction. For her extraordinary 1999 feature debut, Ratcatcher, director Lynne Ramsay takes this approach further. Set during the Glasgow garbage men’s strike of 1973 – a period that left streets swamped with rubbish bags and swarms of rats – the film focuses on James (William Eadie), a 12-year-old boy who becomes increasingly introverted after witnessing the drowning of his friend Ryan (Thomas McTaggart).

As Annette Kuhn has rightly noted in her 2008 monograph on the film, “the realism of [Ratcatcher’s] settings is constantly brought up against its poetic elements […] one of the film’s unique qualities is the way its various levels of reality imbue each setting in overlapping, and sometimes changing, ways.” Ramsay’s foregrounding of a child’s point of view makes for an impressionistic vision of Glasgow quite unlike any other.

American Cousins (2003)

Director: Don Coutts

American Cousins (2003)

Given the wealth of talent it has produced – Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Armando Iannucci to name a few – it’s surprising that there haven’t been more films set in the Scots-Italian community. Bill Forsyth’s 1984 comedy Comfort and Joy comes to mind, as well as Glasgow-born Capaldi’s feature debut, Strictly Sinatra (2001).

Working from a script by Scots-Italian screenwriter Sergio Casci, Don Coutts’ American Cousins is the story of New Jersey mobsters Settimo (Dan Hedaya) and Gino (Danny Nucci), who seek refuge in the Glasgow chip shop owned by their Scots-Italian cousin after a deal goes wrong in the Ukraine. United by their Italian heritage, the cousins are otherwise worlds apart. The classic fish-out-of-water narrative dovetails effectively with a romantic storyline as mild-mannered cousin Roberto (Gerald Lepkowski) struggles to express his true feelings for waitress Alice (Shirley Henderson). The film features an entertaining cameo from The Sopranos’ Vincent Pastore and it seems to have influenced another project featuring an alumnus from the Bada Bing, Steven Van Zandt’s Netflix series Lilyhammer.

Red Road (2006)

Director: Andrea Arnold

Red Road (2006)

The 30-storey Red Road flats in north-east Glasgow were in the news recently when it was announced that they were to be demolished as part of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The plan proved highly controversial however, with a petition of more than 17,000 people helping to force a U-turn.

Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road was part of the Advance Party project, a collaboration between Glasgow-based Sigma Films and Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainments. The initiative intended to produce three films by first-time directors, all of which would be shot on location in Scotland. The filmmakers would shoot on digital over a period of six weeks, each with a budget of just over £1m. Apart from strict stipulations over the production, there were also narrative constraints. For instance, the same set of characters was to be played by the same actors across the triptych.

Arnold’s film tells of Jackie (Kate Dickie), a widow still grieving over the loss of her husband and daughter, who works as a CCTV operative at the Red Road flats. She looks on idly at the lives that pass by the screens in front of her but is shocked into action when she spots a familiar face from her past.

Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin (2013)

In July 2006, director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) arrived at the Toryglen housing estate in Glasgow armed with 70,000 litres of paint and 1,700 detonators. He was there not to make a feature, but to film an advert for Sony Bravia TVs, a follow-up to the company’s famous Balls advert, where 250,000 coloured balls were bounced on the sloping streets of San Francisco. Glazer’s film is a 60-second firework display in paint. Thousands of litres are exploded inside and outside the estate to Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’ overture.

Seven years later, Glazer returned to Glasgow to inject an even greater sense of otherness into the realism of its cityscape. Never mind seeing Glasgow through the gaze of an outsider or foreigner, Under the Skin imagines the city from the perspective of an alien (in the form of a seductive young woman played by Scarlett Johansson). “The clash [between naturalism and oneiricism] is where it happened, the buzz of it,” Glazer told Sight & Sound’s Jonathan Romney, “putting the real world cheek by jowl with the surreal dream spaces. The dream space then takes on so much more of its own reality because of what’s preceded it.”

Your suggestions

Young Adam (2003)
  1. Young Adam (David Mackenzie, 2002)
  2. Small Faces (Gillies MacKinnon, 1996)
  3. Comfort and Joy (Bill Forsyth, 1984)
  4. Carla’s Song (Ken Loach, 1996)
  5. Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, 2011)

None other than Ewan McGregor stepped into the fray when we asked you on Twitter and Facebook what we’d missed from our list of Glasgow greats. David Mackenzie, whose prison drama Starred Up was recently released to much acclaim, has made a number of his films in and around the city. His brooding 2002 movie Young Adam stars McGregor as a young 1950s drifter working on a coal barge on the river and canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh, while 2011’s Perfect Sense is a sci-fi parable set in present-day Glasgow. Other nominations came in for Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy (1984), Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song (1996) and Gillies MacKinnon’s Small Faces (1996), about youth gangs in the city in the 1960s.

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Originally published: 17 April 0014