No Edinburgh Filth for McAvoy

Jan 24 2012 | By More

Welsh’s Filth starts shooting in Glasgow

McAvoy at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2010

James McAvoy – Is this man Filth? Photo credit: gdcgraphics

By Thom Dibdin

Glasgow is being used, once again, as the main location for a film adaptation of an Edinburgh-set Irvine Welsh novel, as principal photography begins there on Filth, staring James McAvoy as a racist, homophobic policeman.

Trainspotting was largely filmed in Glasgow, the famous opening sequence along Princes Street apart. According to the press release for Filth, Scottish shooting will primarily be in Glasgow – as well as on location in Sweden, Belgium and Hamburg – with McAvoy joined by Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt and Imogen Poots.

Filth, like Trainspotting, began life in the theatre in an adaptation by Harry Gibson. Back in 2000, Tam Dean Burn took on the role of the vile, splenetic, D.S. – soon to be D.I. – Bruce Robinson, and a fine visceral performance it was too. Although the subject matter somehow didn’t attract the usual punters to the King’s when it toured to Edinburgh.

Indeed, two of Lothian and Borders finest had to be called to the theatre on the opening night to eject a member of the audience who seemed to be of the impression that Filth is a simple, anti-police diatribe.

Filth might play with our own fears, prejudices and personal experiences of a certain kind of policeman,” I wrote in the Evening News. “But this particular member of the audience’s selfish rantings and inane heckling were not suited to a play which is attempting to examine the nature of the pain and hurt carried by one man.”

Tam Dean Burn put in something of a tour-de-force in this solo version. He got to play everyone from a farmer who supplies  Robinson with hardcore porn to the wife of a friend, who Robinson harasses on the phone, to the tapeworm in Robinson’s gut and the underage girlfriend of a drug dealer – who Robinson first busts and then blackmails into ministering to his most basic urges.

Scabrous stuff it might have been, but in revealing successive layers of Robinson’s character, he became increasingly vulnerable as an actor – and the people he was portraying become more vivid and disturbing. You can see the production on Vimeo in a performance at Big Secret Theatre, Calgary, Canada on February 20 2003.

Morally divisive portrayal of incest and the abuse of power…

While Filth was dividing audiences (such as they were) at the King’s, Stellar Quines were tearing themselves apart with a production of Quebecois play The Reel of the Hanged Man at the Traverse. It was not only a morally divisive piece to watch, in its portrayal of incest and the abuse of power in an impoverished family, but it split founding member of the company Gerda Stevenson from director Muriel Romanes.

Screenshot of Tam Dean Burn in Filth, Performed at Big Secret Theatre, Calgary, Canada and available on Vimeo.

The reason for mentioning The Reel of the Hanged Man is that it featured a young James McAvoy, who played Gerald. As I noted in my review for The Stage at the time, he gave a “strong and suitably understated performance” as the half wit brother of the young girl molested by her drunk father.

McAvoy didn’t enjoy the experience much, if his comments to the Guardian in 2009 are to believed. In one of those Q&A pieces containing such penetrating questions as what his super power would be (“To enable me to help the Scottish football team get to the finals of any international tournament,” was his heartfelt reply), he was asked what the worst job he’d ever done was. To which the answer was: “A touring production in Scotland – it was so badly written that when the director jokingly suggested we cut all my lines, I took the note and ran with it. I played him as mute.”

It was enough to impress Kenny Ireland, artistic director at the Royal Lyceum just around the corner from the Traverse where Hanged Man opened before going on tour. He told me, when he announced the new season just a few weeks later, that he had found the perfect couple to star in his Romeo and Juliet. His Juliet was Kananu Kirimi, who was quite the flavour of the month at LAMDA at the time, and came to the Lyceum straight from performing Miranda at the Globe theatre in Vanessa Redgrave’s production of The Tempest.

And for his Romeo? “I’ve got a young guy, I don’t know if you saw him in The Reel of the Hanged Man, the Stella Quines show: James McAvoy? He played the mentally handicapped kid in that. He is just finishing at the RSAMD, I have got two novices really, who have both got great ability with speaking Shakespeare, because Romeo and Juliet is about language, even the film, the latest film, they focus on the language. The language is as sensuous or as violent as the setting.”

Sadly for Kenny Ireland – and for the Lyceum audiences – McAvoy’s Romeo was not to be. He went off to London rather than stay in Edinburgh while Garry Collins took on Romeo. According to my review at the time he was the Montagues’ weakest asset: “he easily conveys the character of a fickle youth whose brains are in his pocket. But he is unable to bring any subtlety to his lines.”

An impressive mover and always on the go…

Quite how Ireland assessed McAvoy’s prowess with Shakespearian language from playing a mute was not clear. Maybe he had seen him up at the Kirkcaldy pantomime of Beauty and the Beast at the Adam Smith the previous December, playing Bobby Buckfast to Alan McHugh’s dame: Betty Buckfast. He was good, too, an impressive mover and always on the go. All told, a consistently entertaining sidekick to McHugh and convincingly good companion to Beauty.

Cover of the first edition of Filth.

Neither of which attributes – entertaining sidekick or convincingly good companion – are ones you imagine McAvoy will be needing to bring to Detective Sergeant Robinson in Filth. A bigoted and corrupt policeman he is in line for a promotion and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Enlisted to solve a brutal murder and threatened by the aspirations of his colleagues, including Ray Lennox (Jamie Bell), Robinson sets about ensuring their ruin, right under the nose of unwitting Chief Inspector Toal. As he turns his colleagues against one another by stealing their wives and exposing their secrets, Robinson starts to lose himself in a web of deceit that he can no longer control.

The question is whether, with his past is slowly catching up with him, a missing wife, a crippling drug habit and suspicious colleagues all starting to take their toll on his sanity, he can he keep his grip on reality long enough to disentangle himself from the filth.

According to Jon S. Baird, the film’s writer and director: “Filth is filled with irreverent comedy and some extremely surreal moments, but ends with a sharp twist of poignancy. The character of Bruce Robertson has to show such a wide range that it could only take an actor as talented as James McAvoy to pull it off with the necessary charm and humanity.”

If he succeeds in doing as good a job as Tam Dean Burn did, a decade ago, then it will be an immense performance indeed.


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  1. Tam Dean Burn says:

    Thanks for your kind words Thom. Filth was something really special for me. To take it from the tiny Citz Stalls Studio to the wonderful main stage there then on tour to the Kings and Newcastle Opera House was amazing. I well remember the cops coming down the aisle at the Kings. I couldn’t believe they’d been called to deal with a bit of heckling. It was also funny that the Evening News ran the hecklers apology in it the next night!