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Lord Of The Flies, Or The Lady’s Not For Turning? Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Leadership Raises Questions About The Kind Of Political Leader We Want – Column 16.10.15.


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 16.10.15.

TO THE FESTIVAL THEATRE, EDINBURGH, this week, to see a touring stage version of William Golding’s iconic 1954 novel Lord Of the Flies, about a group of British schoolboys who rapidly revert to savagery, when they are stranded on a Pacific island following a plane crash.

I’m not quite sure what, exactly, makes this particular version of the story seem like such a pertinent commentary on current UK politics. Perhaps it’s the frequency with which the Westminster parliament, under David Cameron, is described as being like a boys’ boarding school, full of Tom Browns and Flashmans; or perhaps it’s just the huge Union flag on the tailplane of the wrecked aircraft that dominates the set.

What’s clear, though, is that in an intensely topical way, Golding’s great novel dramatises the confrontation between two different styles of leadership. Quiet, thoughtful Ralph, the elected leader, believes in democracy, debate, and building a consensus around the effort to improve the group’s chances of survival and rescue. Posh, high-handed Jack, though – furious that he is not leader – embarks on a vicious wrecking project, training up his followers into a gang of blood-spattered hunters, and using the supposed existence of an enemy “beast” in the forest to justify an ever-more-extreme cult of unthinking violence, and obedience to his will.

And while no-one at Westminster has yet taken – at least in public – to stripping off, bathing in blood, and demanding that all loyal supporters dance a wild, rhythmic dance of triumph, it’s not difficult to detect the smartly-suited shades of these two different leadership styles in the current confrontation between David Cameron’s government, and the new Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. “U turn? You turn if you want to – the lady’s not for turning,” Margaret Thatcher famously boomed at a Tory conference in the 1980’s, setting a template for “strong” political leadership that has lasted a generation.

This week, though, we saw Labour’s new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell frankly proclaiming from the dispatch box his own “embarrassing” U-turn on his promised support for George Osborne’s “fiscal charter”, binding future governments always to run a surplus while the economy is growing. And although the conventional Westminster media were soon in full cry, dismissing this policy shift as a sign of Labour weakness and division, the new Labour leadership seemed less than bothered by the small backbench rebellion that ensued, or by the entrenched idea that politicians should never change their minds.

Jeremy Corbyn, after all, says he wants a more open, discursive type of leadership, in which policy can be freely debated, instead of being dictated by text message from on high. And if exasperation with the control-freakery of recent party management was one contributing factor to Jeremy Corbyn’s election, so was the undoubted usefulness of the internet in contradicting the official versions of recent history so assiduously promoted by those in power. As the great Czech writer Milan Kundera put it, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting; and no sooner had the Commons debate on the fiscal charter begun, than twitter was alive with a short video clip of George Osborne’s withering and very witty speech against the similar fiscal responsibility measure introduced by the then Labour Government in 2010 – dismissed by Osborne as “vacuous and irrelevant”, and “an instrument to con the public.”

Now of course, there are limits to how far this quest for openness and flexibility can go; for every voter who watches the Osborne video, and notes his own U-turn on the subject, there will be ten who only hear the media mood-music about Labour confusion and disunity.

It’s also clear, though, that when politics becomes too tightly controlled, too much concerned with the superficial presentation of a largely fictitious unity, then even the most casual of telly-watching citizens eventually becomes bored and alienated. The truth is that no party in power can really avoid U-turns; the Justice Minister, Michael Gove, executed a highly significant hand-brake turn only this week, when he withdrew the UK Justice Department from a contract which would have involved it in the running of the Saudi prison system. And when those U-turns come to light, then it might be better, as John McDonnell suggested this week, for politicians to own up and show some humility, than to embark on one of those familiar logic-chopping attempts to suggest that a complete reversal of policy is actually nothing of the sort.

So if Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor have set out on a genuine if risky journey to see if they can free British politics from the PR-driven straitjacket of recent decades, then we in Scotland finally have to ask ourselves where that leaves our governing party, the SNP, as it gathers in Aberdeen this weekend. For almost a decade, after all, the SNP have been able to bask in their image as the refreshing new kids on the block of British politics, while at the same time retaining a party structure with a very Blairite flavour, top-down and tightly controlled.

Now, though, the party’s claims to represent a radical force are being tested in at least three ways: through the increasingly ovious failure of its centralising policies in areas like local government and policing, through the arrival in the party of scores of thousands of people energised by the grassroots democratic upsurge of last year’s referendum campaign, and through the emergence of a Corbyn Labour Party with a real apparent interest in presenting a day-to-day challenge to the recent Westminster way of doing politics. You turn if you want to, said the lady; and there are now several obvious areas where the SNP should be turning, and fast.

Like the Labour Party of the 1990’s, though, the SNP’s leaders are still Thatcher’s children to the extent that they take her model of leadership largely for granted, even if they reject her policies. And if Scotland wants to see the kind of radical change in local empowerment and engagement foreshadowed by last year’s referendum campaign, it will therefore have to look far beyond the SNP for inspiration – including, perhaps, to Jeremy Corbyn’s experimental leadership of the Labour Party, however long or short it proves to be.


Scotsman Fringe First Winners 2015

Here are the winners of the 2015 Fringe First awards.  Congratulations to them all!


Week 1

THE CHRISTIANS      Gate Theatre at the Traverse
A GAMBLER’S GUIDE TO DYING       Gary McNair at the Traverse
GOING VIRAL      Dan Bye at Northern Stage@Summerhall
SWALLOW      Traverse Theatre Company at Traverse Theatre
UNDERNEATH     Fishamble at Dance Base

Week 2

CITIZEN PUPPET   Blind Summit Theatre at Pleasance Courtyard
THE GREAT DOWNHILL JOURNEY OF LITTLE TOMMY     Theater aan Zee & Richard Jordan at Summerhall
LABELS   Worklight Theatre at Pleasance Courtyard
LIGHT BOXES    Grid Iron at Summerhall
RAZ   Assembly Festival and Riverside Studios at Assembly George Square
TAR BABY   Desiree Burch and Platt Productions at  Gilded Balloon
TRANS SCRIPTS     Paul Lucas Productions at  Pleasance Courtyard

Week 3

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING   Corn Exchange, Dublin at Traverse Theatre
OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR   NTS & Live Theatre, Newcastle, at Traverse Theatre
PENNY ARCADE: LONGING LASTS LONGER     Penny Arcade at the Underbelly, Cowgate
A REASON TO TALK   KunstZ, Big In Belgium and Richard Jordan at Summerhall
WHAT I LEARNED FROM JOHNNY BEVAN     Luke Wright at Summerhall



As Tributes To Charles Kennedy Pour In, Is It Time To Reconsider The Ugly, Personalised Vehemence Of Our Day-To-Day Political Debate? – Column 5.6.15.


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 5.6.15.

CALL NO MAN HAPPY, until he is dead.  It was the ancient Greek poet and lawmaker Solon who first formulated the thought, two and a half thousand years ago; and something about the phrase began to haunt me, this week, as I listened to the great wave of heartfelt tributes – from friends, colleagues, constituents, and political opponents alike – that swept across the British political scene, following the sudden and much-mourned death of the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, at the age of only 55.

For when it comes to politicians, it seems that we can call no man – or woman – either beloved, or even much respected, until he or she is suddenly no longer with us.  Death always transfigures reputations, of course; but with politicians the transition seems exceptionally stark.  In life, they belong to one of the most reviled of all professions, widely abused for everything from chronic bad faith to naked self-interest, and believed by millions of voters to be entirely “in it for themselves.”  And if you add to that general sense of disillusion with politicians the sheer venom of day-to-day political debate – with politicians on all sides bitterly attacking not only the policies but the character and motives of their opponents – then the idea that most politicians are actually, in themselves, quite decent and normal human beings begins to seem downright far-fetched.

If Alex Salmond is Scotland’s Mussolini, after all, Nicola Sturgeon a cross between Miley Cyrus and Rosa Krebs, Ed Miliband some kind of weird alien who can’t eat a sandwich, Jim Murphy a sinister representative of the undead, and David Cameron a beetroot-faced child of extreme privilege bent on driving Britain back to Dickensian levels of poverty and inequality, then by definition they are not normal human beings; from day to day, we increasingly think of our politicians – or at any rate the ones we don’t support – as psychopaths and criminals, bent on destroying all that normal people hold dear.

Except when they die; and then suddenly – with the speed of a fast theatrical lighting-shift – we once again see them whole, as complex human beings with huge talents, deep flaws, genuine ideals, and a mixture of good and bad judgments.  In Charles Kennedy’s case, of course, both the talents and the flaws were always supremely obvious.  Even at the height of his career, when he led the Liberal Democrats to their best-ever electoral performance in 2005, he was more loved, and less hated, than most high-profile politicians; and his principled decision to stand against the Iraq War, in 2003, attracted much admiration even in his lifetime.

Yet still, it would have been difficult to imagine the sheer passion of the tributes that have been paid to Charles Kennedy since his death on Monday, the evident love for the man felt by so many, or the exquisite, heartfelt lyricism of Steve Bell’s now famous Guardian cartoon, showing Charlie Kennedy’s spirit as a glowing version of the Liberal Democrat’s yellow bird symbol, hovering over the coastline of his much-loved constituency.  Of course he was imperfect, as a politician and a man; he was famously slapdash about the detail of policy, his problem with alcohol was well-known, and – perhaps most seriously – he stuck to his party long after it had gone into a right-wing Coalition he detested, destroying his lifelong dream of a UK-wide centre-left alliance genuinely committed to democracy and reform.

None of that meant, though, that he was not loved, appreciated and admired; and just for a moment, last week, I wondered whether his untimely death might not mark a moment when we could pause to reconsider the ugly, personalised vehemence of  our day-to-day political language, and perhaps start hating individual politicians a little less, and debating ideas and policy a little more.

It is a forlorn hope, I suppose, and for good reasons as well as bad; sometimes, the issues that arise in politics are just too important to be debated without strong personal feeling.  When Nye Bevan, back in 1948,  called the Tories “lower than vermin” for what they had inflicted on working-class people in Britain during the 1930’s, it is hard to argue that he was insulting people unnecessarily; in the end, politicians are responsible for the harsh human consequences of their decisions, however they justify them to themselves.  When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, I found – like millions of others across Britain – that I could feel no sorrow; she and her allies had simply done too much damage to the Britain I grew up in and loved, for me to feel anything but hatred for the politics, and a indifference to the woman herself.  And in the last analysis, there are a few politicians who truly are psychopaths; war-mongers and self-aggrandisers who do untold damage to others, and who fully deserve every insult unleashed against them.

Yet even when all that is taken into account, there is something to be said for a little kindness and courtesy, even to those whose actions and views we most detest; last week no less a Tory than the preposterously patrician Jacob Rees-Mogg was to be seen in the Commons chamber glowing wth comradely affection towards the new SNP contingent, as he congratulated them on their impressive maiden speeches.  Loving your enemy can be a trap and a seduction, of course; Nye Bevan’s steely spirit is more necessary today than ever, in the long battle against inequality and unearned privilege.

Yet there is also wisdom to be gained in the neverending  struggle to hate what seems to us like a sin, while stll loving the sinner.  And although many memorials to Charlie Kennedy will begin to spring up in the coming months – to his humour, his intelligence, his gentleness, and his passion for true Liberal politics – perhaps one of the finest would be a new resolve, from all those involved in the daily game of political detraction and insult, to take an occasional pau to imagine how those phrases and images would look, if that person were suddenly taken from us; to check that our judgment could survive that harsh test, and that most sudden change of perspective, before we finally dip our pens and keyboards in vitriol, and begin to write.


Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show


JOYCE MCMILLAN on ALLAN STEWART’S BIG, BIG VARIETY SHOW at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 11.4.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

ALLAN STEWART’S BIG, BIG VARIETY SHOW shoots across the Edinburgh night sky like a slightly nostalgic comet, stuffed with familiar songs, rude jokes, and eye-popping novelty acts.  It plays for four nights only, to packed audiences, and vanishes, leaving just one question in its trail; why, if audiences enjoy Allan Stewart’s variety show so much, are there so few similar shows around?

Perhaps the answer lies in a shortage of the right kind of talent, rather than in any lack of audience enthusiasm; for it’s true that the success of Stewart’s formula depends on the extraordinary comic chemistry – built up over years together in panto – between Stewart, the King’s Theatre’s beloved panto Dame, and his comic sidekicks Grant Stott and Andy Gray.  It’s a long time since any live comedy routine made me laugh quite as much as Andy Gray’s antics on Thursday night, as a drunken barman listening to Stewart sing One For My Baby.

Around this comic core, Stewart wraps a series of other acts – this time around, it’s sexy female saxophone quartet Saxation, bold and cheeky pianist-comedian Kev Orkian, and lovely stand-up comic Jo Caulfield.  Then he adds a fine seven-piece show-band, and polishes up his own remarkable voice for satirical numbers like his final medley of big finales from classics by everyone from Elvis to Pavarotti; and there’s a show that perhaps few theatres in Britain could assemble so effectively – and that sends audiences home delighted, after an evening of joyous grown-up fun and foolishness, with just a touch of glamour.


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After The Referendum Earthquake: Unionist Parties Committed To Moving In Haste Through A New Landscape That Demands Thought, Caution, And Serious Grassroots Debate – Column 26.9.14.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.9.14

THE INDYREF EARTHQUAKE has come and gone; and now we find ourselves – perhaps for the first time since 1979 – in a completely new political landscape, full of deep, unexpected precipices, sharp new divisions, and unfamiliar alliances.  Mapping that landscape is a process that will take years, not days or months; it is the kind of moment, full of confused currents of grief, shock, triumph, anger and bafflement, in which wise political heads, from Confucius onwards, have always counselled caution, and the avoidance of hasty action.

Yet in one of the thousands of fascinating paradoxes thrown up by Scotland’s remarkable referendum debate, we also face a situation in which extremely hasty action is exactly what the nation was promised, in those panicky last few days before the vote.  I’m not sure that many voters in Scotland were fully convinced by Gordon Brown’s timetable for new powers for Scotland’s parliament, when he whpped it out of his back pocket just ten days before the end of a two-and-a-half-year campaign.  Yet within days, all three main Westminster party leaders had signed up to The Vow, pledging more powers for Holyrood by 25 January next year (Burns Night, that is), in the context of a continuation of the Barnett formula, the budget agreement which currently gives Scotland higher per capita public spending than England or Wales, in return for Westminster’s continuing control over Scotland’s territory and resources.

The problem, though, is that the way in which these proposals were produced, and the sheer speed of the implementation schedule, renders them all but useless, in terms of any real advance for democracy in these islands.  The hurried introduction of the proposals, at such a shamefully late date in the debate, itself epitomises everything that is out-of-touch and dysfunctional about Britain’s current system of governance.  The proposals themselves are vague to a degree; certainly, all of Scotland’s elected politicians should seek to avoid any system which makes them responsible for an even larger tranche of Scotland’s vital public spending, while giving them control only over income tax, a hugely exposed and politically sensitive tax which they could not vary upward without inflicting a huge comparative disadvantage on Scotland within the UK.

And within the wider politics of the UK, it was always clear that any package of this kind would have great difficulty in making its way through a Westminster Parliament currently obsessed with the power of UKIP to stir the sleeping forces of English nationalism.   Within hours, David Cameron was seeking to head off his angry back-benchers by linking new powers for Scotland to a simultaneous deal on “English votes for English laws”.  Meanwhile, the genie of possible constitutional change in England was well and truly out of the bottle, with a clamour of voices pitching for everything from a separate English parliament based in York, to devolution to England’s major cities on a scale to match the powers of the Scottish Parliament; in his closing speech to the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday, Ed Miliband could even be heard promising full reform of the House of Lords at last, a transformation of the Upper House into a 21st century Senate for Britain’s nations and regions.

The new debate on the UK’s constitutional future, in other words, is at best embryonic and confused, and at worst completely  incoherent.  The missing element, of course, is the kind of widespread grassroots movement for constitutional change that characterised the years before the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997, when a wide range of political parties, local authorities, and civil society organisations came together, over a period of almost a decade, to create what has proved a reasonably successful and robust scheme for the operation of a new Scottish Parliament.  Without this kind of long-term debate and consultation, successful constitutional reform is unlikely.  And although calls are now being made for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention to hammer out some of these issues – and Ed Miliband supported those calls in his Conference speech – there is no chance that any such Convention, even if convened, could reach any significant agreement on the complexities of UK constitutional reform within less than two or three years.

So for now, Scotland has to face the looming negotiation on its promised new powers alone, and deeply divided.  For Scotland’s politicians, the challenge must be to avoid the short-term trap of accepting new responsibilities without real additional power; the effort to achieve consensus on that will probably be one of the first and toughest tests of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership as First Minister.

And for the rest of us, out here in a Scottish civil society now  aroused and divided as never before, I guess we may do best if we bear in mind two basic rules.  First, that if the governance of Scotland is to be improved, over the coming years, then we cannot wait for politicians to tell us what they plan to do; we need to clarify and articulate our own demands, through every organisation or party we belong to, and to use every means we can to shift the agenda of change in a more radical and democratic direction – one that might, for example, include serious reform of Scotland’s sclerotic local government.

And secondly, we should not forget that for the vast majority of people, constitutional matters are never more than a means to an end.   The fact that it was “not about nationalism” was one of the strengths of Scotland’s historic “yes” campaign; it claimed to be about a fight for greater social justice, and often was.  And now that the referendum is over, that same truth demands open minds, among both “yes”supporters and left-leaning “no” voters, about how each of us chooses to pursue the cause of social justice, in the coming years.  Some will join the SNP and Scottish Green Party, some will soldier on with Labour, many will throw their energy into local campaigns and intiatives.  And for now, all we can do is be kind to one another, and look for a place to begin; as we re-start the long trudge towards social justice and greater democracy, across this new post-referendum terrain.


Fringe First Winners 2014 – Complete List

Here’s the complete list of Scotsman Fringe First winners for 2014 – congratulations to all of them!


CUCKOOED by Mark Thomas, at the Traverse Theatre
CONFIRMATION by Chris Thorpe, at Northern Stage @ King’s Hall
MEN IN THE CITIES BY Chris Goode at the Traverse
CHEF by Sabrina Mahfouz at the Underbelly, Cowgate
THE COLLECTOR by Henry Naylor at the Gilded Balloon
SPOILING by John McCann at the Traverse Theatre


THE CAROUSEL  by Jennifer Tremblay Stellar Quines at Traverse Theatre
THE DAY SAM DIED  Armazem Theatre Company at New Town Theatre
THE INITIATE  by Alexandra Wood Paines Plough at Summerhall
LIPPY by Bush Moukarzel with Mark O’Halloran Dead Centre at Traverse Theatre
THE OBJECT LESSON  by Geoff Sobelle Aurora Nova/ Geoff Sobelle at Summerhall
PIONEER    curious directive at Zoo Southside
SANITISE   Melanie Jordan and Caitlin Skinner at Underbelly Cowgate



HAND MADE IN CHINA: MOONS, MIGRATION AND MESSAGES  Hua Dan – Dumpling Dreams Theatre and Migration Project at Summerhall
LETTERS HOME by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kei Miller, Christos Tsiolkos and Kamila Shamsie Grid Iron and Edinburgh International Book Festival at Edinburgh International Book Festival
NO GUTS, NO HEART, NO GLORY   by the company   Common Wealth at Sandy’s Boxing Gym, Craigmillar
PONDLING  by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman Guna Nua at Underbelly, Cowgate
SPINE by Clara Brennan  FoolsCap at Underbelly, Cowgate .
TRAVESTI  by Rebecca Hill Unbound Productions at the Pleasance Dome.



Fringe First Winners 2014 – Week 2

Here they are, our seven superb Week 2 Fringe First Winners, awarded yesterday morning at the Assembly Rooms!

The Carousel by Jennifer Tremblay Stellar Quines at Traverse Theatre
The Day Sam Died Armazem Theatre Company at New Town Theatre
The Initiate by Alexandra Wood Paines Plough at Summerhall
Lippy by Bush Moukarzel with Mark O’Halloran Dead Centre at Traverse Theatre
Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle Aurora Nova/ Geoff Sobelle at Summerhall
Pioneer curious directive at Zoo Southside
Sanitise Melanie Jordan and Caitlin Skinner at Underbelly Cowgate


Fringe Firsts 2014 Week 1!

OK, so here’s our sparkling first week Scotsman Fringe First list!

CUCKOOED by Mark Thomas, at the Traverse Theatre
CONFIRMATION by Chris Thorpe, at Northern Stage @ King’s Hall
MEN IN THE CITIES BY Chris Goode at the Traverse
CHEF BY Sabrina Mahfouz at the Underbelly, Cowgate
THE COLLECTOR by Henry Naylor at the Gided Balloon
SPOILING by John McCann at the Traverse

Congratulations to all these terrific winners – and on to next week!

The Carousel, Unfaithful

The Carousel
4 stars ****
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)

IT WAS PHILIP LARKIN who said it, in his much-quoted poem about family, This Be The Verse.  “Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf…”   In the second part of her great female trilogy – first glimpsed last year in Stellar Quines’s award-winning production of The List – the French-Canadian writer Jennifer Tremblay focusses on mothers and daughters, rather than on the men of the family; and the rich range of emotions she conjures up, over  75 minutes, certainly goes far beyond misery.

She does, though, take a strongly fatalistic view of how difficult women find it to avoid living out the emotional patterns bequeathed to them by their mothers; and so, in Maureen Beattie’s stunning solo performance, we see a woman in her forties, with three young sons, travelling to sit by the deathbed of her mother Florence, while also trying to “talk” to her long-dead grandmother, Marie.  In Muriel Romanes’ magnificent production, she speaks against a background of domestic and religious detail – shoes, windows, archways, images of the virgin – superbly evoked by John Byrne’s softly gilded wall of a set, with exquisite lighting by Jeanine Byrne; and the story she tells is often a harsh one, of real or threatened abuse, betrayal or abandonment.

If betrayal by men helps shape these women’s lives, thought, they seem far from helpless in the face of it.  And in Maureen Beattie, Tremblay’s beautiful stage poem finds a performer who can conjure up all the faces of woman evoked in The Carousel, and more; child, mother, crone, victim, warrior and gorgeous seductress, all fully present in a fine text-based  performance that unfolds into a rich and glorious piece of total theatre.

Owen McCafferty’s Unfaithful, on the main stage of Traverse One, is also a 75-minute family drama, featuring a woman’s response to the possibility of betrayal; McCafferty’s theme, though, is a more strictly contemporary one to do with the nature of sexual boredom, and our 21st century response to it.

So in Unfaithful, we first meet 58-year-old Tam, standing in a hotel bar having a pint, and being chatted up – slightly improbably, but iresistibly – by the gorgeous twentysomething Tara.  Then we meet his wife Joan, who decides to take her revenge in the most vivid style; enter a young male “escort” called Peter, meeting Joan in a room in a the same hotel.

It has to be said that for all the energy and wit of the writing, the basic situation of McCafferty’s play is well-worn stuff, much less interesting than the charged political dialogue of his 2013 play Quietly; and Gary McCann’s design for the show seems correspondingly excessive, whirling whole fitted kitchens and bedrooms into place for ten-minute scenes of routine Afternoon Play dialogue.  Rachel O’Riordan production features a quartet of magnificent performances, though; and Benny Young and Cara Kelly are superb, funny and heartbreaking as Tam and Joan, a middle-aged couple on the cusp of disaster, somehow finding the creativity and wit to negotiate their way through.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24, 24.
pp. 290, 363


John McGrath at EIFF



LAST WEEKEND, with all the glamour we could muster, Scotland’s critics celebrated the 12th annual edition of the Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland, on the gorgeous stage of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow.  And as usual, it proved impossible to get through the day without reference to the huge legacy of John McGrath, the founder of the ground-breaking radical touring company 7:84 Scotland; not least because this year, our guest star was the superb stage and screen actor Bill Paterson, a founding member of the first 7:84 Scotland company who, back in 1973, created and toured McGrath’s legendary political ceilidh show, The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

McGrath, though, was not only a man of the theatre.  In 1973, he was already 38 years old, and had enjoyed a stellar career both as a “straight” playwright in London, and as a television and screen writer and director, most famously on early episodes of the groundbreaking television drama Z Cars.  Throughout his working life, he strove to combine his passions for stage, television and film, often transferring his stage work to the screen, and writing, directing or producing a huge range of films, from short documentaries to mainstream movies like Billion Dollar Brain and Carrington.  And now, McGrath’s work in film and television is set to be celebrated in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, with a programme of ten films which he wrote and/or directed, ranging from the 1968 version of his play The Bofors Gun, starring Nicol Williamson, through the acclaimed 1974 Play For Today film of The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Oil,  to later work like his elegiac 1993 drama The Long Roads, starring Edith MacArthur and Robert Urquhart as an elderly couple from Skye travelling round a changed Britain, on a final visit to their five children.

“We hadn’t initially thought of this season in terms of doing something relevant  to the referendum,” says EIFF director Chris Fujiwara, who has given the McGrath season the overall title Border Warfare. “But Dick Fiddy of the British Film Institute put the idea for a McGrath season to me, and the more I learned about his work, the more excited I was by the strength and timeliness of it, and of McGrath’s thinking about the relationship between television, film and theatre.

“As for the politics of the work – well, for me, it’s less about the particular ideology McGrath was proposing, than about the feeling that he was creating work out of a deep involvement in the culture of the people around him, and that the audience was a dynamic, active part of that same cultural process – not just some anonymous global public waiting to be entertained or manipulated by some  “universal” product.  McGrath is widely known as a great man of the theatre; but this is a chance for people who are primarily interested in film to think again about how he experimented across the media of stage, television and film, and about the deep cultural distinctiveness of his work, which is something we try to celebrate in all the films we show here.”

Chris Fujiwara adds that the overall theme of this year’s Film Festival is Transformation, and it’s hard to think of a single word more relevant to McGrath’s work; Bill Paterson says that he still thinks of 1973 as “the year of the Cheviot” – the year that changed everything, creatively and politically, for all the members of that company, and for thousands who saw the show.  And what’s clear is that McGrath’s passionate drive to combine popular forms of entertainment with powerful drama that addresses real underlying issues of politics and power, is as relevant to film and television as it is to theatre; and as relevant today as it was back in 1955, when young John McGrath completed his national service, and set out on the Long Road that ended only with his premature death, in 2002.


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