As somebody with a general interest in the arts and awareness of the dearth of Scottish culture on both the big and small screen, my interest was piqued last year by an invitation from Patrick Harvie MSP to an event arranged by Equity titled “Make It In Scotland”. To some, this title, or the idea that we should be actively promoting more Scottish productions, may seem insular or parochial. However, if anything, it’s that very attitude which to me appears insular.
When I pay attention to TV listings, or have the opportunity of going to the pictures, I am aware of how little is on offer that is made in Scotland by talented folk who are resident here. The recent success enjoyed by Danish broadcasters, including the success of Borgen, has been the perfect riposte to those who believe that small nations can’t make a cultural impact beyond their own borders.
It’s certainly not the case that Scotland lacks the talent, skills, or the locations to attract broadcasters and film-makers. The wild landscape, rolling hills, ancient cities and varied towns and villages all provide fantastic backdrops and filming locations for films and programmes of any genre or size. Access to the most remote parts of Scotland has improved immeasurably in recent years. Travelling from my home in Ullapool to Inverness used to take 2 hours rather than the hour it does now, opening up the Highlands for tourists, businesses and, yes, film-makers too.
It’s certainly not the case that Scotland is short of acting talent, either. Peter Capaldi has featured on both the big and small screen, most recently as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It; Karen Gillan has been propelled to stardom by her performances in Dr Who; Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan’s double act in Still Game won critical acclaim across the UK, and Robbie Coltrane, Elaine C. Smith and Billy Connolly still regularly feature in cinemas, theatres and living rooms across the land. Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor, Kelly McDonald, Sean Connery, Alan Cumming, Ashley Jensen and Gerard Butler are all A-list names in Hollywood, and come from across Scotland.
These are just a few of the most famous names to have come from Scotland, and should give every Scot cause to pause and consider why this rich vein of talent, which I know runs as deep in local and national theatre as it does in TV and film at all levels, is not matched by Scottish broadcasting output.
The problem appears to be what Equity has identified as “a historic deficit of Scotland’s share of UK spend when compared to population”. In a 2011 discussion paper on the issue, Equity dissected the half-hearted attempts by each of the major UK broadcasters to invest in Scotland, with Channel 4 coming under particular fire as a public service broadcaster for only spending 4.5% of its first-run budget on commissioning across Wales, Northern Ireland AND Scotland. Across all public service broadcasters, this figure rises to 4.6% in Scotland, 2.6% in Wales and 0.4% in Northern Ireland, compared with 61.8% within the M25– hardly a proportional share.
The BBC was also criticised by Equity for its lack of ambition in Scotland, as well as its “inability to commission without permission from London”. Although the BBC’s big-ticket move of many productions to its new offices in Salford and its initial heavy investment in the Scottish headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow suggest a recognition of the need to move beyond its entrenched preference for London-based programming and commissioning, both of these have come under fierce criticism for various reasons, and a huge broadcasting deficit remains.
For those programmes that are commissioned, the trouble does not end there. Greg Hemphill has recently pointed out the difficulty for the Scottish diaspora in accessing Scottish programmes such as Burnistoun and Gary Tank Commander as they are not included on the BBC’s world service. With commissioners like these, who needs enemies? Certainly not the legions of Scottish film-makers that struggle to be heard and to have their work reflected by their public broadcaster. It almost seems as if the BBC is embarrassed to be seen commissioning ‘parochial’ work, indulging in the worst excesses of the Scottish cringe that has been shed in so many other aspects of Scottish public life. Only that which is truly parochial can ever be truly international. Burns, a poet whose work is known and celebrated this week around the world but could not be more rooted in rural Scotland, is evidence of that.
Making the kind of investment in writers, producers, directors, actors, is paramount if we are to see the ambition of ‘Make it in Scotland’ become a reality; at the very least we should demand that Scotland secures its proportional share of broadcasting. A more visible Scottish presence on our televisions would encourage young people to explore the world of broadcasting as a viable career option, and lead to modern and varied programming output that truly reflected 21st Century Scotland.
More Scottish broadcasting would also lead to yet further rejuvenation of Scotland’s cultural scene. Why are we seeing (I believe) the third version costume drama of Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ when we have yet to see any dramatisation of the Waverley Novels by Walter Scott? There are rumours from time to time that ‘The Cone Gatherers’ by the late Robin Jenkins might be filmed and publicity last year that James Robertson’s ‘And the Land Lay Still’ might be televised; but don’t hold your breath. The truth is, there is no shortage of ideas, of relevant topics, or of talented film-makers.
In case you get the idea that I am only promoting the idea of broadcasting programmes with a tartan tag, I am not. It would be an insult to the artists who live here. We have seen successful translations of Moliere and Ibsen plays in a Scottish context and many, many collaborations in theatre and radio drama. The point is, we know how to do this; the frustration is not getting on with it.
Economically speaking, breaking the gravitational pull of all broadcasting and media jobs (as was the argument for the BBC’s move to Salford) would be a tiny step forward in rebalancing the sector and its benefits across the country. An increase in filming on location could also have a tremendous effect on local businesses across Scotland. But we need to invest in the infrastructure that is required for film-making if we are to take programme making and film production seriously. We have everything else- let’s use it!
Achieving these goals will undoubtedly require a lot of work, both in the industry itself and in Parliament. Independence, I believe, can and will make a difference as we engage with the world and we will undoubtedly depend on the artists to articulate the nation.
Let’s Make It In Scotland.
Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands region