Glasgow becomes Gotham for Batgirl as Scottish film industry booms

Culture minister says country is at a ‘critical mass of screen production’ that will keep jobs in Scotland

Icicles were glued on to vintage streetlamps as Glasgow was transformed into a wintry Gotham City over the weekend, as Batgirl became the latest blockbuster to take advantage of Scotland’s versatile urban locations and glorious scenery.

Last summer the city was draped in US flags and bunting to simulate a New York parade for the latest Indiana Jones movie, while the stars of the Amazon Prime series Good Omens 2 have been spotted recently in Edinburgh.

For Screw, the flagship new-year drama by STV Studios for Channel 4, the inside of Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall – now host to a £11.9m television studio jointly funded by the Scottish government and Glasgow city council – was transformed into a prison wing.

“Scotland is now at a critical mass of screen production, both for television and cinema,” says the Scottish government’s culture minister, Angus Robertson, who declares he is the first in his role to be able to say to a younger generation interested in screen careers “that they will be able to work throughout their lives in film and TV production in Scotland”.

Industry figures acknowledge a significant change from the previous decade, when there was deep frustration at a lack of funding and infrastructure, institutional neglect and a talent drain when compared with competitors in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The funding body Screen Scotland, formed in 2018 and helmed by the much-admired Isabel Davis, is credited with leading the change. As a result, Scotland is now far better placed to participate in the global post-pandemic content boom. But how does this frenetic activity affect homegrown Scottish film, and the development of talent and skills over the coming generation?

“My optimistic take is that this influx of bigger international productions will have a positive effect”, says Ben Sharrock, the writer and director of the award-winning Limbo, a comedy-drama about a group of asylum seekers waiting out their claims on a remote Scottish island, and one of the most successful independent Scottish films of recent years.

“It could lead to more skills training and more studio space, and will allow the Scottish industry to grow in a sustainable way. But it is important that smaller independent productions don’t end up being bottom-feeders.”

It’s a concern shared by the film-maker Hope Dickson Leach, whose stage-and-screen hybrid of Jekyll and Hyde will be livestreamed from Leith theatre in Edinburgh next month. She says the local industry is “at a crunch point”.

“There’s masses going on, which is great, but these massive productions which are staying in the country longer do cause a resource issue for crew, cast and even equipment for smaller budget and independent films,” she says.

A Gotham Globe sign on King Street in central Glasgow
A Gotham Globe sign on King Street in central Glasgow. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Dickson Leach, a founder of the campaigning organisation Raising Films, which support parents and carers in the sector, says any expansion in Scotland must go hand in hand with moves to address inclusion. “[The trade union] Bectu is working on job sharing, and there are discussions about shorter working hours, but it’s a long haul.”

“This is the busiest I’ve know it in 30 years in the industry,” says Dave Arrowsmith, a production designer who was part of the team that secured the Cumbernauld unit that became the studio for the series Outlander in 2013, and recently built the set for Screw. “But the flipside is we still need more studio space.”

Scotland has four studios, as well as the Kelvin Hall development, but Arrowsmith says this is simply not enough to cope with demand. “The boom is great, but Scotland is missing out of so much more additional work. Big productions come and do their Scottish bit in Glasgow city centre or landscape locations, then go back to England to complete the studio filming. We need public and private investment in a big 10- or 12-stage studio space.”

The veteran producer Chris Young, who achieved huge success with The Inbetweeners before relocating his company to Skye, where he now champions emerging talent and Gaelic-language work, says there remains “a lack of ambition for promoting our own talent and stories in Scotland”.

“It’s no easier to get new talent and writers off the ground,” he says. “If you look at Scottish prose and poetry, there’s an incredible amount of new work, so why is the equivalent not happening with film?”

For Ben Sharrock, there’s also the hope that visible film-making will spur young Scots to tell their own stories.

He says: “For me growing up, I didn’t know anyone that had a job making films. So if people on the streets of Glasgow or Edinburgh are seeing these films being made, maybe it will make them think ‘I could do something like that’.

“But grassroots education is important, so kids aren’t growing up thinking film has to be a massive CGI-fest. They need to understand there are other stories and different forms, and there has to be support for the independent cinemas that show those to a younger audience.”


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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