Various interviews from The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday – click the blue links to read the original web version of the articles
‘McIlvanney: Sir Sean in my own words’, Scotland on Sunday – In the spring of 2013, a series of novels released by Canongate enjoyed a flurry of critical and commercial success. In an age of discounted cookbooks and celebrity memoirs, here was a distinctive voice articulating life in Scotland. It belonged to 76-year-old William McIlvanney, a writer regularly lauded as one of this nation’s most gifted artists, yet subject to a strange indifference for the past two decades. It was a pleasure to spend time with him – an experience recounted in my blog post, An Afternoon with William McIlvanney – and witness a man enjoying, in his words, a “genuine resurrection.”
AT 76, William McIlvanney is enjoying a “genuine resurrection.” The author of Docherty and the Laidlaw triology has been discovered by a new generation of readers after publisher Canongate reissued his earlier books, and fans will be delighted to hear that he is now putting more of his unpublished work online. In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, McIlvanney revealed that he plans on building a “substantial archive” online, which will include several chapters from his latest work-in-progress, a book about Sir Sean Connery.
The unconventional biography called Almost A Book About Sean Connery, has encounted resistance from publishers who rejected it as not “properly mass-market” and “uncategorisable.” Undeterred, McIlvanney, who has collaborated with Connery on a number of film projects and interviewed the actor, has posted online an introduction and four chapters, totalling nearly 12,000 words of the 90,000 penned to date. “I wouldn’t offer a book to the public without being sure it’s what I want,” he explained. “This is a halfway house. I’ve put a lot into writing it, and what I’ve written I believe in. It’s just that I felt it lost direction. I might finish it and I might not.”
Besides the Connery book, McIlvanney will publish another work, billed as a dictionary of personal experience, on the website called Personal Dispatches. The website, which is run by McIlvanney’s nephew, Neil, draws upon work never before seen as well as a gamut of poetry, essays, journalism, and television reviews.
Also included are MP3s of readings, scans of longhand drafts, and photographs. Only recently set up, the online canon already totals more than 47,000 words. McIlvanney said: “I’ve got stacks of material at home, I’ve been writing notes manically since I was about 17. It’s mainly shite but there are acres of the stuff. Sometimes they expand into a piece, sometimes they don’t. I think there’s quite a healthy backlog of work. Just putting it on the internet will allow me to crystallise a lot of very vague ideas. It has made me look at what I have written more carefully, and it may come to something more significant.”
Neil, an English teacher at Kilmarnock Academy, said his uncle has never used a word processor or computer, but proposed the idea of a website while they were having a drink. He said: “I thought that Willie’s idea to feature unpublished work was really quite bold. However, I also understood the rationale that his unpublished writing would be better on a website being read by people than in a desk drawer in his study being read by no-one. I also thought that if the unpublished work got a good reaction it might lead to some of it being published in book form.”
The new venture, along with the new audience for his earlier work, has reinvigorated McIlvanney. “It’s been stunning, a genuine resurrection for me,” he said. “Last year at Edinburgh Book Festival, I was in a wee tent with three other writers and we got 120 people, and I thought, ‘Aye, this is where we are’. But now is a transformative time. It’s like discovering folk like you. Where I come from, you don’t assume that.”
In addition to his writing, McIlvanney is involved in tentative plans to bring the Camus-reading Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, to the small screen. He is currently in discussions over a three-part adaptation of the original trilogy for television. Having explored an abortive attempt to turn Laidlaw into a film with Connery, the author is optimistic, explaining: “I’m at the stage of talking about it with people, and I would like to see it realised, I’m very fond of it.”
One project that McIlvanney says he is not involved in is helping to write the white paper on Scottish independence. Last month it was reported that senior figures in the Scottish National Party had put the novelist at the top of their wish list of writers to add a literary flourish to the white paper due out in November. But McIlvanney says he has not been approached. “It’s news to me,” he said. “Nobody has asked me about it.”
Although he is almost sure of how he will vote in next year’s referendum, McIlvanney is critical of the “obfuscation” which has characterised the independence debate. “I think I know how I’m going to vote, but I don’t know if I’m confident enough in my decision to try and persuade others to do the same,” he said. “I would mainly just want people to vote. It’s a ‘come ahead’ moment for Scotland, and whatever the decision, a massive silence wouldn’t impress. For several generations, this is the last throw of the dice. This is not going to recur for a long time.”
“The main feeling I have so far is obfuscation. Like most punters, I’m getting so many contradictory messages. I would like some kind of authoritative clarification of where we are. I doubt that will come, but that is what people deserve; not the decoration of an argument to support a case effectively, but a serious, neutral attempt to define the issues, the problems, and the possibilities. The country deserves as much honesty as can be mustered.”
McIlvanney’s website is at www.personaldispatches.com
‘Whole Lotta Memories’, Scotland on Sunday – AC/DC are a curious beast as far as the media is concerned. They are one of the best selling bands in history, capable of selling out aircraft hangar sized venues from Aberdeen to Adelaide. Yet for years, they were deemed a derisory sideshow, tagged as a heavy metal anachronism according to the lumpen analysis of broadsheet popular musical critics. I can see why their constancy and subtle reworking of Chuck Berry’s oeuvre might jar with some, but it is those qualities that make me an unashamedly obsessed fan. As such, I thought I’d try for an interview around the time of the band’s mammoth Black Ice tour. I was astonished when word came back that Brian Johnson, the lead singer, would be only too happy to chat. It took considerable discipline to muffle my squeaking 14-year-old inner child – and find fitting adjectives to describe Jonno’s voice – but in the end, it was great to come away with a pen portrait of an ordinary Geordie’s unlikely ascent to rock stardom … I’m still hopeful of getting Angus and Malcolm.
AT THE age of 32, Brian Johnson thought he would rock no more. He’d enjoyed modest success with the band Geordie, but their fortunes were on the wane. “I went off the radar,” he recalls. “I thought I’d had me shot. Dinna be greedy, Jonno, ya know?” Already responsible for a 12-year-old daughter, Joanne, he moved back under his parents’ roof in the Gateshead village of Dunston, and set about building up his own business, North East Vinyls, fitting windscreens and repairing car roofs. Above his home telephone number, North Shields 78105, his business cards featured a caricature of what might have been, had Geordie broken the US – the stocky figure of the company founder, thick black curls poking out from under his flat cap, poised at the wheel of a Cadillac.
Events nearly 9,000 miles away ensured such fanciful daydreams would soon become reality. In the western Australia port city of Fremantle, Chick and Isa Scott were saying goodbye to their loveable vagabond son, Ronald ‘Bon’ Scott. The singer with AC/DC had died at the age of 33, his body no longer able to cope with its owner’s insatiable appetite for bacchanalia. His distraught bandmates considered splitting up, but Isa convinced them otherwise. “Go out and find a new singer,” she told them. “Bon would have wanted it that way.”
So it came to pass that one afternoon in February 1980, North Shields 78105 rang out, but the caller was not enquiring about a cracked pane in the passenger window. Johnson was in two minds about auditioning for another band. “I didn’t think I’d be bit again,” he said. “In the end, I only went cos I had other work lined up in London, a Hoover advert jingle! That ad got me £350, the most money I’d had in one go in me life!” He stops, before breaking into song: “It’s the new Hoover, ooh! She such-a-sweet little movurgh, ooh, yeargh!”
Nearly three decades on, Johnson’s audience has expanded well beyond house-proud gadget lovers. Currently midway through a two-year world tour to promote Black Ice, AC/DC’s 16th studio album, his place is assured in the annals of rock history. “If I was in me thirties looking at myself now, the first thing I’d have thought is, ‘What an old fart!’, ya know?” he says with a gurgling laugh from his Dallas hotel room. “Quick, evacuation! What the f***? Old fart on stage! Remove him immediately!”
Yet Johnson has acquired that ageless quality common to the international rock star. The AC/DC entity itself is Peter Pan with an Asbo, a band that has seldom strayed from the musical formula devised in 1973 by two Scottish émigrés, Angus and Malcolm Young. Growing up in Australia with a sparse musical diet of blues and rock, they concocted a horse-drawn rhythm section of blood-throbbing bass and blunderbuss drumbeats, layered with choppy, zig-zagging riffs, the like of which first rang out a half century ago in the downtrodden Chicago recording studio of Chess Records.
As they rose to prominence, critics assumed a disdainful acceptance, first labelling the band exponents of punk, and later heavy metal. Yet their songs have always been so cheeringly frivolous as to defy both categories. AC/DC simply play prelapsarian rock’n’roll boogie, each lick just different enough to distinguish it from the one before. As Johnson puts it: “Someone said to Angus the other day, ‘Hey, you’ve made the same album 15 times.’ Angus said, ‘No, man, we’ve made the same album 16 times!'”
Born on 5 October, 1947, Johnson was the eldest of four children. His father Allan was a foundry worker who served as a sergeant major in the Durham Light Infantry, while his mother Esther was a native of the Italian village of Rocca di Papa. Bewitched by John Mayall and Cream, he formed his first band aged 16. “The Gobi Desert Canoe Club,” he laughs. “We thought we were so clever, but man, we were shit! The drum solos lasted 27 minutes!” His formative years on a Tyneside council estate, while not impoverished, were testing. “The first time I tasted meat was when I bit me tongue.” Whenever he couldn’t afford the tax disc for an Austin Maxi that resembled a “matchbox with an erection”, he would fashion a replacement from the label of a Newcastle Brown Ale bottle.
Today, Johnson is wealthy beyond his dreams. AC/DC have sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, a haul bettered only by The Beatles. With their latest LP debuting at No1 in 29 countries, the five-piece has made £58 million in the past 12 months alone. Resident in Sarasota, Florida, he nonetheless places great weight on privacy and humility, returning to the north-east of England at least four times a year to visit family or catch up with friends for a pint. “You’ve gorra keep the f***ers away, me son,” he tells me. “You have to stay grounded.”
Johnson’s diversions during the recording of Black Ice saw him write his memoirs, Rockers And Rollers. Focusing mainly on his passion for cars, it boasts a collection of bawdy, Spinal Tap yarns. One chapter, for instance, details an episode on the AC/DC tour bus when he tried to boil a haggis purchased in Edinburgh using an electric kettle. The results, unsurprisingly, ended up splattered on the walls. His choice of dinner that evening points to a love of all things Scottish. “I love driving about up there. I used to go up a lot to Loch Lomond and Loch Ness, but you know my favourite place now? Melrose in the Borders. Driving around there is fabulous. I tell ya, it’s beautiful, me son.”
Scotland, too, has been the scene of many a seminal gig, from the beer-soaked nooks of Glasgow’s Apollo to the city’s Hampden stadium earlier this summer. “I f***in’ love Hampden,” Johnson explains. “This band is a bullshit-free zone, but that Hampden roar, that’s not a myth. I swear to God, the hairs on the back of my arms stood up, and me old ticker was twitching like a rabbit’s nose. Every now and again, you get that… that f***ing thing.”
That thing is what propels Johnson onwards. Few sexagenarians need to cope with the demands placed on his voice, one of the most distinctive in rock. Encouraged to hit the high notes by Mutt Lange, the producer of the Back In Black album (“I didn’t know I had it in me”), its upper register resembles a pride of hyenas on heat. Lower down, he coaxes out a guttural battery acid gurgle.
Life on the road is hard on his larynx, and increasingly, speculation has suggested retirement is imminent. “Well, I’m 62, but I have to sing like I was 32,” he cackles when I float the idea. “People have been talking about it, but it’s not me that wants to retire. I’ll go as long as I keep going, but I only have one gear as a singer. Other people can go into cruise control, but not me, and I dinna want to break down in the middle of a set, or only perform for half the show. I pride meself on my strength and doin’ a full gig.”
He pauses, and reconsiders. An alternative career, he admits, would be to “licence me voice to every fire brigade in the world”. Another silence, a burbling laugh, and he has another answer. “To be honest, I can’t see us stopping. It’s our life, all of us in the band. It’s something… I don’t know… I wish I was f***ing smart enough to work it out!” But Johnson knows that AC/DC have made a career out of refusing to “work it out”. As long as he keeps hitting the notes, that cartoon Cadillac driver will keep roaring down the highway to hell. These days, he just needs a few more rest breaks.
‘Bagpipes and Bloodshed’, Scotland on Sunday – In July 1976, Britain broke diplomatic ties with Uganda, the first time it had ever done so with a Commonwealth nation. The decision was sparked by the increasingly erratic and bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin. The abduction and murder of a British grandmother proved the final straw and the British High Commission was closed. Only a handful of Britons remained in the country, among them diplomat Robert Wyper, originally from Montrose. It was he who was summoned to Amin’s sprawling presidential residence in the wake of the break. Forty years on, he recalled how Amin called him the “most dangerous man in Uganda.” It is rare to have anyone from the FCO speak on the record about their postings, particularly one as fraught as Kampala in the mid 1970s.
WHEN Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Uganda in the summer of 1976, it was the first time it had severed ties with a Commonwealth nation.
With the bloody military dictatorship of Idi Amin becoming increasingly erratic, the murder of Dora Bloch, a British grandmother, proved an outrage too far for an exasperated Callaghan government.
Now, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the break, a Scottish diplomat who played a key role in the fraught severance has revealed for the first time his remarkable face to face meetings with the notorious mass murderer, during which he was accused of being “the most dangerous man in Uganda” and threatened with Amin’s notorious death squads.
Robert Wyper, from Montrose, was one of a handful of British High Commission officials left in Kampala that July following the dramatic rescue by Israeli commandos of more than 100 hostages being held at Entebbe Airport.
The flashpoint, known as Operation Entebbe, humiliated Amin. Convinced the British were complicit in the raid, he instructed his officers to abduct and kill Ms Bloch, a 74-year-old who held dual British-Israeli citizenship, before expelling several British officials. At one point, Wyper, who became second secretary in the commission, was the only diplomat left, reduced to hiding in an office with a terrified visitor from the Foreign Office inspectorate.
“We spent two nights sleeping on the floor in the High Commissioner’s room, trapped inside because Amin had sent two tanks with their guns trained on us,” Wyper told Scotland on Sunday. “He liked to play cat and mouse.”
It was a provocation befitting a dictator who killed around 300,000 people during his eight year reign. Amin’s chillingly named secret police factions, the Public Safety Unit and the State Research Bureau, murdered his tribal and political enemies, including Supreme Court judges and cabinet ministers.
Those spared execution were routinely forced to bludgeon others to death with hammers in the hope that survival would secure their freedom. That none were seen again made clear Amin was not a man to keep his promises. In his five years in the country, Wyper realised the dark deeds Amin was capable of. He is in no doubt that bodies of his victims were thrown into the Nile. “Nobody ever saw anything and yet it was hard to meet a Ugandan who didn’t have a cousin or uncle or some family member who had disappeared,” he said.
An already fractious environment became increasingly perilous when Britain formally announced the break in relations on Wednesday 28 July 1976, closing the commission and establishing a British Interests Section, a de facto embassy that came under the protectorate of the French.
Convention stipulated that such an arrangement depended on Ugandan approval, but for 72 hours, Amin gave no reply. Then, on the Saturday morning, as Wyper was hiding in the official residence of Pierre-Henri Renard, the French ambassador, the phone rang. It was ‘Big Daddy’. “Bring that British spy out here,” Amin told Renard. “I want to have a look at him.”
The two men made their way to State House, a grand colonial building in Entebbe Amin had taken as an official residence. On their arrival, Wyper realised the imposing former boxer was intent on picking a fight. “Two sides of the room was lined with guys in black suits and ties, and Amin, who was normally so punctual – he was British Army trained – was a half hour late,” he said.
“Eventually, in he comes wearing a floral shirt and black and red striped trousers, walking round us in a circle, not saying a word. When the French ambassador started to speak, Amin shouted ‘Shut up!’ at him. He pointed at me, screaming, ‘He is the most dangerous man in Uganda! He’s a vicious crook! He’s a spy!’.
“Amin then pointed to the guys in the suits, saying, ‘These are members of my secret death squad and will be following you every single step you take, every minute of every day’. But I knew they they weren’t, I’d seen the leaders of his secret police. The guys in suits and shades were probably his gardeners.”
Some, not least the newly arrived Monsieur Renard, may have viewed Wyper’s intuition as a reckless gamble, but understanding Amin’s combustible nature, he says, was the key to unpicking Uganda.
“There was something of the bipolar to him,” he recalled. “He was confident but at the same time fearful, yet also fearless. When he said A, he meant B, and for people accustomed to doing things by the diplomatic book, he was a handful. Amin enjoyed putting the cat among the pigeons.
“He was a showman, but he was no fool. He had no formal education but he could hold his own. I used to call him a ‘bush genius’. But he became increasingly difficult. He’d make impossible demands, starting conversations with, ‘Now you tell the Queen …’”
Now 69 and living in rural Brazil, the retired diplomat believes the fact he is Scottish allowed him unprecedented access to one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century; the two met face to face seven times.
“Amin made no secret of the fact he loved Scots. For the Foreign Office, it was convenient, if not comfortable, to have me there. He somehow trusted me and knew that I got him,” Wyper reflects. “I’m sure that’s why I was allowed to stay after the break.”
Amin’s obsession with all things Caledonian also provided for rare moments of levity, such as the occasion he summoned Wyper to discuss sending a Ugandan army regiment to Scotland to learn the bagpipes.
“I tried to dissuade from the idea – you can’t pick up bagpipes for a half hour and play Marie’s Wedding. But he sent the whole regiment over,” Wyper said.
When they returned only a few weeks later, Wyper was invited to observe one of Amin’s beloved military parades. What he saw – and heard – came as a surprise.
“The regiment were all dressed in kilts, playing note perfect,” he added. “It was a hell of a sight – the pipes and drums of the Ugandan massed killers.”
For a leader who became one of the most murderous dictators in history, it seems incredulous that Britain welcomed the 1971 coup with which Idi Amin deposed the regime of President Milton Obote.
Yet Obote’s nationalisation programme posed a threat to British business interests. Amin was a former assistant cook in the King’s African Rifles who rose through the ranks to become a commissioned officer. The British viewed him as a pliant and conveniently witless successor, evidenced by the notes of one mandarin. “Amin is a splendid type and a good rugby player,” he wrote. “But virtually bone from the neck up.”
The image of the 6ft 4in former light heavyweight boxing champion as an affable buffoon became a prevailing caricature, but it took only a year for Amin to disabuse his suitors in London of their notions when, in September 1972, he expelled Uganda’s 55,000-strong Asian community.
More than half, refused compensation, came to the UK for fear Amin would make good on his softly-spoken ultimatums. It signalled the start of the deterioration in relations between Uganda and its former colonial ruler. Amin seized British assets and wore his version of the CBE – “Conqueror of the British Empire”.
His infatuation with Scotland – the legacy of successive promotions by Scottish army officers – saw him proclaim himself king of the country. It was a relatively benign dig at the British establishment, but his anger was sincere.
Dennis Hills, a British academic who described Amin as a “village tyrant,” was sentenced to death for treason in 1975. Only the intervention of a strategically obsequious James Callaghan, then Foreign Secretary, spared his life.
If the Hills crisis convinced Britain of Amin’s danger, the Entebbe hostages affair of 4 July, 1976 showcased his erratic yet calculating character on the world stage. Having supported the perpetrators – members of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – a rescue operation by Israeli commandos left Amin humiliated and volatile. His soldiers murdered Dora Broch, a British grandmother, and Amin expelled swaths of British diplomats. The crisis led Britain to break off relations on 28 July.
Isolated and enraged, Amin acted upon a grievance against neighbour Tanzania in 1978, but it backfired and he fled, first to Libya and then Saudi Arabia, where he remained in exile until his death in 2003.
‘My Story’, The Scotsman – The nature of the celebrity interview is intrinsically transactional, and ordinary readers now know what to expect from the formula; the star turns up to fulfil their contractual obligation to promote his or her new project and offers a few anecdotes. McGuigan, however, is far removed from that hamster wheel. Indeed, although he’s reached a new plateau of fame in recent years thanks to his work on Sherlock, he’d shirk at being called a celebrity, and it struck me he has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Hollywood. It was hugely refreshing to hear how he places great importance of maintaining an everyday life in Scotland, and works hard at finding a balance between the personal and the professional.
PAUL McGuigan cannot remember a time when he did not want to tell stories. It just took him a few years, and a few false starts, to determine how best to turn his passion into a vocation. Decades ago, as a young Catholic growing up in the North Lanarkshire town of Bellshill, he flirted with the idea of the priesthood as a means of connection. In the end, though, he was advised against a life in the clergy from one of its own. “I was basically told by the priests that I’d find it very hard to communicate with people, which seems quite ironic given what I do,” he says. “I’m not a practising Catholic any more, but that’s not because of anything other than I’ve found different ways to understand myself.”
Fortunately, McGuigan was not put off by the priest’s advice, and throughout his career has proved himself an eager and elegant chronicler of fact and fiction. One of Scotland’s most respected film and television directors, he has worked with the haut monde of Hollywood, such as Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Josh Hartnett. Spanning critically and commercially acclaimed features such as Lucky Number Slevin through to the hit BBC 1 series Sherlock, his work has resulted in an offer from Steven Spielberg to return to the US to direct more episodes of Smash, a hit drama based around a Broadway musical of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Such accolades are the fruit borne of nearly two decades in the director’s chair, during which time he has accrued a reputation for visual flair and thoughtful cinematography. Yet he can easily remember his first day of film work in the 1990s, when he was asked to adapt The Acid House, Irvine Welsh’s collection of short stories.
He says: “I remember going into the set in a taxi on the first day and thinking, ‘Okay, act like a director’. But nobody had actually told me what a director acted like, so I panicked a little. All I had was these images of crazed, jumper-wearing mental people, and I acted like that for about 20 minutes before I decided the actors wouldn’t stand for it. There was a certain amount of bravado because I hadn’t gone to film school, and I think that little bit of ignorance on my part helped because I didn’t know what was expected of me. I’ve tried to keep that innocence.”
Innocence was not a term readily associated with McGuigan when he burst on to the mainstream 12 years ago with Gangster No 1, offering an uncompromisingly stark and violent insight into London’s shadowlands. Allied to his work with Welsh, it ensured him a reputation as a talented young director with a flavour for extreme subject matter. Now aged 48, he has jettisoned such tags, and in recent years has been best known for helping bring to the screens several episodes of Sherlock, which has become a much-loved slice of BBC primetime entertainment.
Speaking from his home in Glasgow ahead of his appearance at a Bafta Scotland event designed to encourage young filmmakers, McGuigan made it clear that has been one of his most fulfilling jobs to date – so much so that, come next year, he will be back at the helm for several episodes of a new series. “It was a no-brainer for me – working with Steven Moffat, Mark Gattiss and Benedict Cumberbatch,” he says. “The best thing about Sherlock is that it feels like we all belong to it. As a small group we always challenge each other. It’s a very satisfying job developing a visual style, and having so many people watching it is great. We’re starting filming new episodes in January. I had dinner with Steven the other night and we were talking about three stories for the series, and I got really excited.”
The medium of television, he reasons, is increasingly becoming home to big-name talent courtesy of the travails of the film industry. The trend is most evident in the US, but McGuigan says that of late he has received “lots of great quality scripts” from British broadcasters. “People are only making big-event films like The Avengers,” he says. “The market for directors like myself, for mid-budget films that are more story-based, has shrunk, and there’s been a big shift to television. Worlds which would normally be part of a 90-minute story become part of entire seasons.”
McGuigan’s creative pursuits were in large part defined by a severe speech impediment he endured in his formative years. That stutter was the reason the priest told him he would be a poor communicator, and can explain why he sought refuge behind a lens, learning the “hard, technical” skills of photography at the former Glasgow College of Building and Printing. “As a photographer, you lead a solitary profession, and I liked that because I felt in control of things and I didn’t have to present myself. It was more about the camera. I became more of an observer.”
An unsatisfying spell in the advertising industry saw him progress to documentaries. The products of that mid- 1990s period, in particular his Channel 4 programmes exploring sectarianism in Scotland (Football, Faith and Flutes) and American youngsters living with HIV and AIDS (Playing Nintendo With God) are among his best work, and allowed him to find his voice and vision. “The great thing about documentaries is you don’t know what’s going to happen, and your camera is always a beat behind the action as a result. I like to use that technique in my film and television work.”
After breaking into Hollywood – achieving critical and commercial success with Lucky Number Slevin in particular – McGuigan acknowledges that his decision to remain based in Scotland may have impacted on his choice of work, but says he would not change a thing. He admits: “I’m sure if I stayed in LA my career would have taken a different path. I’d probably have got bigger films. But my family are here. I’ve always been quite adamant about staying in Scotland, it informs who you are.”
Along with Sherlock, and Spielberg’s job offer, the father-of-two hopes, longer term, to bring to the big screen his “passion” project – an “epic love story” exploring the life of photographer Robert Capa, yet acknowledges it will be far from easy. “People don’t want to make big dramas any more. When I’ve pitched it, I don’t think I’ve had anyone get overexcited. It’s expensive, but you can’t give up on it.”
So too, he aims one day to stamp his mark on the James Bond franchise, having come close to directing Daniel Craig in his debut as 007. “I was down to the last two for Casino Royale,” he says. “Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson [the producers] had asked if I would be interested, and I’ve always been a major fan of Bond. But I think because they were bringing in a new Bond, they didn’t want another unknown factor in me. I still haven’t given up on that dream. I’ve given up on the dream of scoring the winning goal for Celtic in the European Cup final, but Bond is one thing I want to try and achieve.”
Closer to home, he is also continuing to pursue Bonnyland, an intriguing television project from the pen of Grant Morrison and starring Stephen Fry, which McGuigan describes it as a “cross between Brigadoon and Trainspotting”. He is, however, not holding out for support from Creative Scotland. Having been a vocal critic of Scottish Screen, he has yet to be convinced that its successor is making a positive impact. “It’s no longer the honeymoon for Creative Scotland, they’ve had time,” he says. “It upsets me when I get e-mails saying, ‘Come along to an audience with Creative Scotland.’ Is this an audience with Ken Dodd? It can’t be about the people running the industry, it should be about the people making the films.”
‘Sound of the Crowd’, Scotland on Sunday – Geoff Ellis, DF Concerts, and King Tuts have become the pre-eminent force in Scotland’s music life over the past two decades. Not everyone agrees with the hold his empire has over the scene, but his zeal for music was beyond doubt when I met him for a chat in his office.
THERE are innumerable anecdotes from Geoff Ellis’s two decades at the helm of the Scottish music industry which would aptly demonstrate his dedication and love for his profession – not least the occasion he turned chef, rustling up soup and baked potatoes for a fledgling support act at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut who went by the name of Radiohead. Perhaps the most convincing testimony, however, is the fact he pursued a career in the industry at all, given his rather pointed introduction to the often raucous realm of live performance.
Ellis was still in short trousers when he descended on Manchester Apollo to see Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Giddy at attending his maiden concert, he rushed to the stage door in the forlorn hope that a roadie might gift him the fleet-fingered rocker’s guitar, but ended up getting stabbed in the buttock in the melee. “I didn’t put that down to the people who go to gigs, I just put it down to Manchester,” he recalls, grinning widely. “It was quite rough around the Apollo at that time.”
The chief executive of DF Concerts & Events toyed with other possible diversions. A career in the building trade, for instance, or the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the Royal Engineers. Music, however, won through. “I love every day I do this job,” he says. “I live and breathe it.”
This month he is celebrating 20 years with DF, the powerhouse behind Scotland’s most successful festival, T in the Park. The 44-year-old would be forgiven for using the anniversary to reminisce, but when I meet him at his headquarters in Glasgow’s St Vincent Street – located above the company’s iconic live venue, King Tuts – his focus is on the future.
Wearing a black shirt, tie, and jumper, topped off with a dark green flat cap, I find him bashing out an email while conducting a telephone conversation in his rasping, Mancunian burr using a hands-free set. It is a voice capable of stripping wallpaper, but fortunately his modestly proportioned office is already peppered with signed guitars, posters and NME covers. In one corner sits a framed photograph of his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, which serves to bookend the dizzying journey enjoyed by a promoter whose first major coup was a gig by East Coast hip hop duo, Gang Starr (sample lyrics: “Our firepower will devour, bitch you’ll chew on dust”).
A native of Ashton-under-Lyne, as a teenager, Ellis played drums in a band. “We would talk about what was happening in Nicaragua and how we could reflect that in our songwriting,” he remembers. “But we never did anything as a group.” What, I ask, would you say to your former self if he asked for a support slot at Tut’s? He lets rip a gravelly laugh. “I’d say learn how to play the drums!”
Instead, he took his first tentative steps as a promoter during a media studies course at Middlesex Polytechnic. Assuming the role of entertainments manger, he arranged for The Stone Roses to play in the institution’s canteen, and upon graduating, promoted events at London venues such as the Marquee and the Forum. “I didn’t have any promoters as a mentor, probably because I didn’t know I wanted to become a promoter,” he says. “I wrote to a couple of people asking for a job, but only got one reply. Now I realise people in the industry get loads of those letters every week.”
In late 1991, he noticed a small advert in Music Week, placed by Stuart Clumpas, the Dundonian founder of DF, who was looking for someone to lure bands north to Tut’s. Ellis secured the post, and upon his arrival in Glasgow, discovered a relatively barren musical environment.
“The scene probably was in bit of a lull. Everyone was trying to imitate Teenage Fanclub and BMX Bandits,” he reflects. “Glasgow seemed small after living in London, but somewhere like that’s a good breeding ground. I could see people were supportive of each other. One of the first people I met was Gerry Love from the Fannies. I met Stephen Pastel soon afterwards and got to know people.”
His first gig at Tut’s was The Charlatans, followed soon after by acts who provided the soundtrack for a generation, Blur, Oasis, The Verve and Coldplay among them. He is proud of helping nurture a scene which is today the envy of cities throughout the rest of Britain. However, he speaks candidly about the aloof nature of certain aficionados in Glasgow: “Sometimes they can be too dismissive of people who get success, who they think are selling out because they’re selling records. There’s a negative side, and sometimes people can be a bit too sniffy.”
The status of Tut’s notwithstanding, the father-of-two is best known for helping cement the reputation of T in the Park, an event which is now worth around £40m to Scotland’s economy. This year, The Stone Roses will play the main stage at Balado – a far cry from Middlesex Polytechnic – for the festival’s 19th incarnation. Asked to sum up T in three words, Ellis fires back: “Community, belonging, and passion.” Planning is already under way for the 20th anniversary, and Ellis has ambitions to promote the Rolling Stones and Kraftwerk, as well as staging a festival in China.
He says he has survived in the industry by learning “not to take things personally. You get people telling you you’ve no respect for their artist. But it’s water off a duck’s back because you know they’re getting it in the neck. You can get frustrated too, over things like the ticket touts issue, and if a Labour government won’t help, a Tory government’s not going to. We’ve got to look at dynamic pricing models and ways of clawing money back from the secondary market.”
Significantly DF underwent a rebranding exercise this month to make clear it is an events company, not just a concert promoter (it was long known as DF Concerts), and Ellis is mindful of the need to diversify. “We’re in the middle of a very, very deep recession, and our shows are all selling well, but we’re probably doing people in smaller venues,” he says. “The festival is still strong but we’ve got to have some fee-paying work to get the balance, because if a lot of bands decide this autumn that they’re not going to tour or release a record, we’ll have a fallow period.”
DF’s role in Pope Benedict XVI’s open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park helped secure work from local authorities for smaller events, and Ellis talks fondly about the day, the logistics for which were “almost identical” to a rock concert. “We weren’t booking the Pope through an agent, but you could take every role from a rock’n’roll gig and there’d be an equivalent,” he says. “For example, there was a musical director from the Catholic Church, someone else dealing with the liturgical side of things, and we were making sure the headline artist got in and out safely.
“We salvaged it from the point where the Mass probably wouldn’t have happened. We took everything back to the bare bones. I designed the route for the Popemobile, a figure of eight around the park which meant the people furthest from the stage got to see the Pope.”
It is an anecdote which would easily grace the script of This Is Spinal Tap, but if you are to prosper, let alone survive, over the course of two decades in the music business, Geoff Ellis knows better than anyone to expect the unexpected.
Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, The Scotsman – The Russian may have spent little over ten minutes in space, looking down on earth, but he has spent the rest of his life contemplating that precious slither of time. He proved an eloquent cheerleader for science, mindful of the vast investment required to further mankind, yet so too, a sweet romantic.
HE WAS the first man to step out from a craft into the dark of space, where, backed by technology beyond the comprehension of previous generations, Alexei Leonov viewed Earth from the vantage point of the gods. Yet today, one of the most down-to-earth scientific advancements is beyond the grasp of the first man to walk in space.
Twice yesterday in Edinburgh, the Russian’s pioneering reminiscences were interrupted by the ringing of his mobile phone. To warm laughter from the audience, he hurriedly handed the vibrating device to an aide. “I don’t know how to switch my phone off,” he confessed, before adding with apposite, droll humour. “It doesn’t matter. They don’t work in space.”
For all the beauty he witnessed on that historic day 42 years ago, it is little surprise that Leonov is masterfully articulate, evident despite even the most basic translation into English. His time in space was brief – lasting only a dozen minutes – but the intervening four decades have given the former cosmonaut ample time to refine his vision of planet Earth. “Our planet looked beautiful. So fragile, and delicate, but beautiful,” he told The Scotsman, before pausing and allowing himself a grin. “But the first thing I thought was, ‘Yes, the Earth is round after all’.”
At the time of his trip on 18 March, 1965, it was feared Leonov would lose his mind altogether. Such was the concern that a mere mortal would be incapable of withstanding the shock of open space, sensors were attached to his skull to chart any decline into dementia. But, as he recalled, “cosmonauts and astronauts only get cleverer and cleverer after being in space”.
There were fraught moments, for example when, with his spacesuit too rigid to re-enter the airlock, Leonov was forced to bleed air so he could fit through. The landing of his Voskhod 2 craft was even more dramatic – a rocket malfunction forced him and his crewmate to land in the deep snow of the Ural mountains, their welcome party a pack of wolves, growling and scratching at the craft’s partly open hatch.
But the cosmonaut had trained for danger, death even. “I dreamed of being in the skies as a young boy, so I would do anything, take any risk,” he said. “There were times I thought we would die, yes, but what a way it would have been to die.”
ONE of nine surviving children of a Siberian coal miner imprisoned under Stalin, Leonov was the star attraction of the 20th Planetary Congress, which began yesterday at the capital’s Sheraton Grand Hotel – and offered a rare insight into the company he keeps. Side by side with Leonov and his Russian compatriots were their fellow astronauts, cosmonauts and experts from Europe and the United States, listening to a lone piper play the theme tune from Star Wars. In all, there were 73 “fliers” from 15 nations. An elite global band, united, as one astronaut put it, by the fact that all present “have sat on a rocket and reentered our atmosphere as a fireball”.
Marking the first time the congress has come to Britain, Leonov laid out an ambitious programme of debates, panels, and lectures, all designed to further mankind’s knowledge. No-one better exemplifies today’s international spirit of co-operation in space than Leonov. Now 73, he is co-president of the association’s executive, along with the US astronaut John Fabian, a lofty position from his beginnings as an ordinary pilot who in 1959, aged just 25, was picked as one of the first 20 cosmonauts. It is a partnership unthinkable just four decades ago, when the space race between the two countries was waged at a furious pace.
Leonov – who was to be the commander of the Soviet Union’s first Moon mission, which was cancelled after Apollo 11’s historic trip in 1969 – remains a much-loved figure in Russia. When his chauffeur-driven Mercedes travels through Moscow, he is saluted by the rank and file of the Russian police service. The car bears the registration ‘0011’ – Leonov was the 11th Soviet sent into orbit.
Yet with hindsight, he dismisses any notion of a lingering space-race hostility. “It was not about countries. It was humanity that became the winner,” he explained. “Space exploration was the beginning of the warming up of international relations, not just between the US and Russia, but of all countries. “We will remember the last century not as a sequence of revolutions and bloody wars, but as a time when we all conquered the unknown.”
LEONOV remains a supporter of space exploration, 50 years after Sputnik became the first artificial satellite. After he chose to embrace gravity again, he became the commander of the Soviet cosmonaut team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. As the Soviet Union crumbled, he entered the private sector. His goal nowadays is to curb global warming. “We have seen photographs from space of the deserts of the world growing larger all the time, and the forests getting smaller,” he said.
“The Earth is warming up and the seas are rising. It’s a dangerous phenomenon, but it could still be rectified. Thirty years ago, the governments did not consider the issue dangerous. But now, even in normal [life], sitting in our luxurious cars, we are heading towards a catastrophe. We need to think about new methods of transportation and new fuels, so we can leave a planet for our grandchildren. We teach children about these things, and we will teach pupils in Scotland while we are here. If you show a child the pictures from space of the fires in Greece this summer, they understand the terrible things people are capable of.”
Leonov also believes more must be done to curb the threat of a meteorite striking the Earth. “It’s impossible to change the trajectory,” he added, “but we can destroy it so it hits in smaller fragments.”
And he suggests one possibility of particular interest. “There maybe should be a headquarters for the Association of Space Explorers in Scotland,” he said. “The people are so wonderful and location is ideal, in between the US and Russia.”