What do the following British films have in common: Twin Town, Human Traffic, Ill Manors and Spike Island? One answer is that they were all, on release, touted as the new Trainspotting. There can be no more certain confirmation of Phenomenon X's mighty status than endless spawning of "the new Phenomenon X".
Released in 1996, as the United Kingdom began closing the door on a decade and a half of Tory rule, Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle and adapted from Irvine Welsh's singular 1993 novel, both inspired and reflected a mild but unmistakable cultural conflagration.
We're not talking about the 1960s revolution, punk rock or even the second summer of love. Much of the baggage that attached itself to Britpop and the Blair ascendency now seems unimaginably silly: in March 1997 Vanity Fair published an issue – decorated with an image of Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit beneath Union flag sheets – that proudly declared "London swings again". All that was empty hype, but there were certainly new energies about the place.
More than two decades after Trainspotting premiered at Cannes, Boyle and most of the key cast return for a sequel entitled (with limited imagination) T2 Trainspotting. Older and even grumpier, none of the former Edinburgensian heroin addicts would look back with much affection on that media palaver.
Aside from anything else, they might, in this very different political climate, note how casually Trainspotting, a very, very Scottish phenomenon, was co-opted into a supposed British cultural renaissance. Nobody thought much about this at the time.
In the 1997 UK election, of the 72 Scottish seats, 66 went to parties that supported the Union. The Labour Party took 56. The Liberal Democrats won 10. The SNP got just six. The Tories were annihilated. Labour rose on promises of devolution, but few seriously contemplated the nationalist surge to follow. To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher on Northern Ireland, Scotland seemed as British as Finchley.
Scum of the earth
The film’s position on Scottishness has been misunderstood. In one of the most amusing speeches, Renton, played by a young Ewan McGregor, after being dragged unwillingly to the countryside, rants about the wretchedness of his homeland. “It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the f***ing earth!” he says. The twist is that what Renton can stand least about the Scotland is its status as a colony. “Some hate the English. I don’t,” he continues. “They’re just w***ers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by w***ers.”
Tony Blair was born and schooled in Edinburgh. Gordon Brown could hardly be more Scottish if he were deep fried. But you have to feel for Renton and his pharmaceutically befuddled friends.
Once its success was established Trainspotting became drawn into the century-long conversation about the rise and fall (and rise again) of the British film industry. You know how this goes. Cinematic royalty were on board. Andrew Macdonald, the film's young producer, is the grandson of the renowned producer Emeric Pressburger (and the older brother of Kevin Macdonald, who would go on to direct The Last King of Scotland). The Lancastrian Danny Boyle, then nearly 40, had cut his teeth at the Royal Court Theatre. The Glaswegian writer John Hodge, who adapted Welsh's novel, had trained as a doctor. Together they delivered a film that was expected to propel British film towards the new century.
The same whinges had been slung around since the 1950s. The nation's cinema was too obsessed with the past. It was time the UK moved away from polite adaptations of EM Forster novels and cosy suburban comedy. Trainspotting followed in the wake of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Performance (1967), Scum (1977), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and several dozen other supposed final breaks from that safe bourgeois past. The Madness of King George beat it to that year's Bafta for best British film. Make of that what you will.
In truth the film was not all that rough or innovative. Compared with something like Alan Clarke's Scum it feels positively glossy. Compared to Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance it seems entirely conventional.
It is hard to imagine Trainspotting existing without the then recent innovations of Quentin Tarantino. Like that director (and Martin Scorsese before him) Boyle choreographs action to pop songs with such fluency that the tunes are forever wedded to the films. Few opening scenes are so memorable as the opening sprint to Iggy Pop's Lust for Life. Underworld's Born Slippy .Nuxx became, thanks to its use in the film, the aural spirit of 1996.
Everything about the package was slick. The posters drew from the character-based promotion for Tarantino films, but Mark Blamire and Rob O'Connor's orange Helvetica-emblazoned designs, slyly referencing train station departure boards, were so strikingly original that they are parodied to this day. PolyGram, the film's UK distributor, was sufficiently impressed to spend an unprecedented £800,000 on domestic marketing. That amounted to more than half the production budget.
Hodge was ruthless in his rearrangement of Welsh’s cussed text into a neat shape that allowed each character a satisfactory arc. (Were the film released today a million Welsh fans would be tweeting angrily about the smallest deviations from the source.)
For all its undeniable smoothness Trainspotting did finally get one rarely spoken truth into mainstream entertainment. "People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit, which is not to be ignored," Renton says of heroin. "But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. After all, we're not f***ing stupid. At least, we're not that f***ing stupid."
For generations drugs-education material had lied (by omission, at least) about the real reason people begin taking hard narcotics. The leaflets suggested that it was about nothing but peer pressure. Once the new user had endured the undoubtedly horrible experience of their first hit – “If Johnny leaped off a cliff, would you?” – they would be immediately propelled into a state of joyless dependency. This seemed such an absurdly obvious lie that the target audience quite reasonably dismissed every sentence in the anti-drug literature.
team admitted that the heroin user felt pleasure. They also included dead babies, violent withdrawal symptoms and a famous immersion in the “worst toilet in Scotland”. The cinemagoing public proved intelligent enough to balance the interlocking arguments.
Trainspotting did trigger copycats, but instead of shooting up smack they made films like Human Traffic and Twin Town. People aren't stupid. At least, not that stupid.
Trainspotting boosted the careers of rising stars such as McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald. Danny Boyle went on to win an Oscar and direct the Olympics opening ceremony in London. The film reinforced the insecure notion that a new regime would inspire fresh creative energies.
But its greatest influence on the UK film industry concerned the power of skilful marketing. It eventually became the second most successful wholly British film at the world box office. Sadly, it couldn't quite get past Four Weddings and a Funeral. Nice frocks. Posh boys with fringes. Rain-sodden kisses in smarter parts of London.
For all the things that change, more remain very much the same.
T2 Trainspotting is released on Friday, January 27th