The GFT hosted a screening of my film about Alasdair Gray on Saturday 22nd February, and I was asked to do a short introduction to this. It was a lovely event, and I was pleased to see so many people and for the film to be experienced with such warmth. I thought for those that didn’t make the event it might be of some interest to read how the film came about and how it finally came to a conclusion. I ad libbed a bit and dropped some bits but these are the notes I worked from.
Thanks for coming along today. It still seems strange that Alasdair has died – he’d survived so many illnesses over the latter part of his life I don’t think anyone was expecting it. Since his death it’s been a revelation to see work that I didn’t know about – such as the prints at the print studio and also last week getting a tantalizing glimpse of his notebooks spanning his whole life when I was taking some video of his flat before it’s sold. It’s all reminded me that the film you are about to see is a partial account albeit one that his friends and family have told me captures the Alasdair they knew, who could be by turn exasperating as well as fascinating and charming.
SO this is not a eulogy – just a brief description of how I started working with Alasdair, and my own hazy recollections on why it went on for so long!
I started working with Alasdair in about 1997, when he recorded the voice over for a short film that I made. It set a precedent in that, although the film is only 5 minutes long, it took about 2 years to make – mainly because of a bout of ill health, during which, via a local library, I worked my way through Alasdair’s books. So I asked him as a fan but more than that as a fan of his voice.
Not being a west ender, getting to Alasdair was rather involved in the days before internet and mobile phones, this was done through my wife Gillian Steel who had known Alasdair’s friend the painter Carol Rhodes through their mutual work at the free university.
On the morning of the recording I was incredibly nervous and vomited before leaving the house. I needn’t have been quite so anxious: Alasdair was accommodating and chatty and I told him about some of the other projects that I had been involved with before becoming unwell. These included an hour long film about RD laing and a short film for canal plus in France. He said that we would like to see them but that he didn’t own a tv, let alone a video player.
When the film was finished Alasdair came over to my flat in the east end on the Gallowgate. He was very late and by way of an apology he brought a bottle of whisky and a large stuffed Winnie the pooh (not for me, but for my daughter Rosa who was then six weeks old). We watched a few more of my films and he roared with laughter that I had misspelt his name – a common occurrence he said. Anyway, I think Alasdair must have felt at this point that I had passed some kind of test as shortly after this I received a very nice letter praising one short film I had made in particular and adding something like I would surely go onto great things….which was news to me because at that precise moment I was making weather maps part time for the regional pages of teletext!
Then in 2000 Alasdair sent me a hand written page about an idea for me to film his mural work. Ken Neil, then head of Arts at STV, had seen the short I had made featuring Alasdair’s voice and on being approached with the idea commissioned it for Artery, an STV series of 30 minutes with tiny budgets but lots of freedom for filmmakers. As a twist to all this Alasdair decided that he wouldn’t be in it as a talking head, which morphed into that he wouldn’t be seen in it at all…a not insignificant complication – the programme after all was mainly about one wall in a west end flat – myself and Gillian Steel filmed the sequences of him working on a wind up 16mm camera as a playful response to Alasdair’s challenge of not appearing in it. It was at this time I thought there could be a longer film in this that might at a push be filmed over a couple of years. It was also around this time that I consciously stopped reading Alasdair’s books as I wanted to find him for myself as a filmmaker rather than as a fan of his books.
After this Alasdair would call when he was thinking about starting a new mural refurbishment. I enjoyed hanging out with him and would fit this around other projects. Despite the enthusiasm for having his work documented there was always a bit of difficulty and grumpiness when it came to the bit of doing anything like a formal on camera interview. Of course I can’t complain: his head was awash with all kinds of information, and could happily expound on the various schisms of the 19th century church of Scotland or anecdotes about the filmmaker Bill Douglas in a manner that would make any line of questioning banal by comparison. I did however feel an irk of hurt pride when sometimes referred to me as his videographer.
The second tv commission was 0-70 for the BBC. I really didn’t think that was going to happen as I had received very negative feedback from the executive producer about the more experimental work that had been the result of the mural refurbishment in Palacerigg. So how it came about that I was sitting in the canteen discussing the project in Queen Margaret Drive was really down to Graham Macrae Burnett, then a development researcher and John Archer producer at Hopscotch and former head of Arts at BBC Scotland. So with my access to Alasdair it was agreed that I would make a film to celebrate Alasdair’s 70th birthday and that the film would reflect Alasdair’s experimental approach to his own work.
A key part of this film was the huge work at Oran mor – despite my at that point terrible vertigo. Alongside this there was footage shot by Neville Kidd. This was also when we shot the sequences when Alasdair interviews himself– it’s fair to say that Alasdair was not immediately taken with the idea feeling it to be a bit gimmicy, and we weren’t sure if he would do it even up to the day before we were schedualed to do it. Although Alasdair liked the idea of performing, I don’t think he liked being thought of as a performer. Anyway he did it, emerging from his bedroom clean shaven and suited, every bit the model of an establishment critic. Even with the recent screening of the film on BBC Scotland people asked me who the interviewer was.
I still somewhere had the idea of doing something longer and this was something Alasdair was keen on, although I think we had quite different notions of what that longer thing would be like. I think Alasdair’s favourite sequence of a film about him would probably be from Under the Helmet which has an extended sequence of images from one of his big church murals set to handels messiah. Which was probably my least favourite bit of the film.
I realized I needed to bring this to a close, or Alasdair might out live me. John Archer at Hopscotch offered to support a rough cut and support some final bits of filming: Alasdair on Start the Week on Radio 4 as well as performance of the play Fleck in Oran Mor. I should thank John with sticking with the project and supporting it when there wasn’t actual institutional support. Also for suggesting Scott Twynholm as the composer for the film who added a whole new dimension to the film by using Alasdair’s voice as a sample on the soundtrack.
Anyway a rough cut of the film was sent to Allan Hunter at The Glasgow Film Festival 2013 principally to get some feedback, they suggested screening it as a work in progress. I did another cut for the Dunnon film festival, and finally it was premiered as a complete thing in September at Sheffield.
I should add that having shot the film on numerous formats and cameras, the final stages of the editing where absolute torture –the film drifted in and out of synch in new and unexpected ways with each attempt to do a final mix on the sound. John Cobban who did the final mix was super human in his patience!
I should leave the last word to Alasdair…in an email dated Monday 7th October 2013…I should add that he followed this up with a further email of around 800 words of notes on the film on how it could be “improved” which was Alasdair’s way of saying completely changed!….he told me what he would say at a planned screening, I won’t do Alasdair’s voice “I will mention the many things I like in Kevin Cameron’s documentary later, but state my main criticism now:- A Life in Progress shows far too much of Alasdair Gray the fat old endearing slob and far too little of his work, which is why he exists…………………………………….