Arts and Culture

Trainspotting — the film that changed my life

As a young Scot, Hugo Rifkind found Danny Boyle’s 1996 film spoke directly to him (even if it did poke fun at his dad)

Among my extended family, there rumbles an unresolved argument about whether or not my cousin Jonny is in Trainspotting. Not Jonny Lee Miller. Different Jonny. This one was working in John Menzies on Princes Street, which is the shop out of which Ewan McGregor’s Renton bursts in the opening scenes. Employed as an extra, he maintains that you can see him, for about half a second, standing at a bus stop. Although we’ve all freeze-framed it, a million times, we’ve never quite been sure.

This is what Trainspotting was like, if you came from Edinburgh. Our city has never been a cultural backwater, but until then it was famed for Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Edinburgh Festival, but not yet its bohemian the Fringe and, oh my God, I’m falling asleep. You cannot know, you kids of London, Manchester and even Glasgow, how far from all things trendy and pop-culture we felt. Yet here was a thing, a great noisy orange thing, bursting from our shops and running down our streets. Suddenly it bestrode the world, and it sounded like us.

In Boyle’s hands, Welsh’s bitter nihilism becomes optimistic

Well. A bit like us. I am not so blind. I knew full well, even then, that Irvine Welsh’s story, of a Leith underbelly populated by skagheids and bampots, wasn’t really much to do with me. Still, Edinburgh was a stuffy city back then, and it was stuffy even if you, yourself, were a scion of that stuffiness. My friend Ali had given me the book of Trainspotting three years earlier, and it had been a revelation; an antidote to the hinterland of Georgian terraces and Faculties of Advocates that stretched out ahead of me, and felt like it always would. There’s even a bit in it (page 348, I just looked it up) where Sick Boy tries to sound posh by “disguising his voice, Malcolm Rifkind merchant-school style”. Aged 16, although proud of my dad, I was already pretty bored with people assuming I’d turn into him.

This was not just a book about heroin and despair, of which I mercifully knew nothing. It was also about another world I was just discovering, of nightlife and rebellion, and that classless spacey fraternity you’d find in God knows whose flat, at God knows which hour, after a night at God knows which club. Welsh’s characters, more to the point, were only rarely portrayed as the inevitable victims of their circumstances. “Choose life,” sneered Renton, with “life” meaning a mortgage and a career, and a “f***ing big television”. For Renton and Sick Boy, if less so the rest, the whole point was that they’d seen that future — and yawned, and chosen not to. Any teenager can identify with that.

Even by the time the book came out, though, Welsh’s darker Edinburgh was already fading. The Aids epidemic was over and Leith, while hardly Morningside even to this day, was already becoming a budding property hotspot. Football violence, its second, neglected theme, was in sharp decline. Plus, nobody still listened to Iggy Pop. With the film, though, Danny Boyle shunted everything a generation along. “The world is changing, music is changing, even drugs are changing,” sighs Kelly Macdonald’s Diane. “You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop.” And then she adds, devastatingly: “He’s dead, anyway.”

Welsh’s Renton had shuffled around in shellsuits and donkey jackets, but McGregor’s dressed like me. They’ve mocked up a photo for this article, I know, but if they’d been able to find a real one they really needn’t have bothered. The 9st frame, the too-tight T-shirt, I had it all. The mid-1990s — post-recession but pre-Tony Blair — were not all about Britpop. There was another, concurrent youth culture going on and I probably spent more time in it. We wore combat trousers and trainers, danced to techno and drum ’n’ bass, and didn’t have mobile phones. Drugs were optional but everywhere, as Ecstasy, speed and hash. Nor, unlike Britpop, was it all about London. King’s Cross had an edge of it, true, but you could leap around in a club in Nottingham, Sheffield or even Edinburgh and never once feel like you were missing out. Perhaps it was just called “being a student”. Still, Trainspotting spoke to that world.

It was also very Scottish, and in a way you perhaps had to be Scottish to recognise it. Only after I left Edinburgh, for example, did I realise how violent traditional Scottish nightlife was. I have three scars on my mouth, one from a punch-up in the Grassmarket and the other two from a properly savage mugging in Holyrood Park. Boyle’s Trainspotting caught Scotland’s exasperation with all that — Welsh called it “swedging” — as seen by the way that Robert Carlyle’s psychotic Begbie was neither hero nor quite horror, but just this ever-present, enormous hassle.

Ewan McGregor as Renton

Ewan McGregor as Renton

Somehow, the film also tapped into a new sort of Scottishness, or perhaps helped to create it. It came, remember, a mere six months after Mel Gibson’s absurd, wonderful Braveheart, which even Alex Salmond credits with giving nationalism a shot in the arm. Trainspotting’s great tribal soliloquy, though, is anything but patriotic. “It’s shite being Scottish,” hollers Renton, shivering on a scenic mountainside. “We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the f***ing Earth!” On the page, for Welsh, this is pure, bitter, self-loathing nihilism. In Boyle’s hands, though, it somehow becomes both hilarious and optimistic; a clarion call that things need to change, but a new path must be found. Today, indeed, if you’ll find true progressive, civic nationalism anywhere in Scotland, you will find it in Leith. The rest of Edinburgh voted to remain part of the UK in 2014. Leith did not.

Watching Trainspotting again, odd as it might sound, I was surprised to see how much of it really is about heroin. Terrible things happen, almost everybody is horrible and doomed, and women only exist to take skag, nag, or shag. Boyle, though, bathes it all in sunshine, making it at once cartoonish and profound. It made me think again of his wonderful Olympic opening ceremony, which also managed to be everything and its opposite, all at once. Scene by scene, Trainspotting is a morbid horror show. Yet the overall vibe transcends that by a mile. It chooses life.

Welsh’s own later work has occasionally been patchy, but I’ve loved all of it. I had a pint with him in 2014, after a television debate on the eve of the independence referendum. I suspect he could tell how overawed I was. The moment that stays with me, though, is of the debate itself, in which I said only one thing, about the sense of ownership I’d immediately felt when I’d first moved to London and had launched myself into Camden’s DayGlo pop-nirvana bustle. Welsh, who was pro-independence, hadn’t had much more time to speak himself, but that was the point he wanted to talk about. In retrospect, it’s not so surprising that my urban sentimentality should have struck a chord. Probably, I got it from him.

I have read Porno, the book on which the new film is based. Frankly, I’ve no idea whether it will make a good movie or not. In a way, though, it doesn’t really matter. All I’ll need to hear is the clangy, reverb of Underworld’s Born Slippy and I’ll be 18 again, in my tiny T-shirt and combats, wild on life — and not just life — and shrieking the words. Although to be honest, like everybody else, I still don’t really know what they are.
T2 Trainspotting is released on January 27

Trainspotting: then v now

THE DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle is now one of Britain’s leading film-makers

Then
Danny Boyle, a hot new director from Bury who had turned heads with Shallow Grave, a stylish thriller set in Edinburgh with a hip soundtrack and a sexy new star called Ewan McGregor. Why on earth did they think of him?

Now
Boyle again, firmly established one of Britain’s leading film-makers, with an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, another two nominations for 127 Hours and national-treasure status for masterminding the brilliant, barmy opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, complete with phallic chimneys and ranks of dancing Mary Poppinses.

THE SCRIPT

Then 
Adapted by Boyle’s regular collaborator, the Glasgow-born John Hodge, from Irvine Welsh’s at-times incomprehensible novel of 1993 about heroin addicts in Edinburgh. Hodge’s screenplay was thrilling, funny, sad and full of quotable lines such as: “I don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers.” Yes, the Leith dialect was incomprensible at times — at least to the Americans, who added subtitles and even dubbed sections — but that didn’t stop Hodge being nominated for an Oscar, the only category in which the film was recognised.

Now 
Hodge has remained a close collaborator of Boyle’s, having written A Life Less OrdinaryThe Beach and Trance, so it was no surprise that he returned for the sequel. An original draft cleaved close to Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, but it didn’t seize anyone’s imagination.

The final version (minor spoiler alert) catches up with the characters in their forties, as Renton sees his (former) friends for the first time in 20 years after returning from Amsterdam. It features elements from Porno — including Begbie and Sick Boy’s plans for revenge against Renton, who absconded at the end of the original story with the cash from their drug deal — but combines them with references to the original film and poignant-sounding new material about the passing of time. Carlyle has said that he cried when he first read it: “I’ve never cried when I’ve read a screenplay before. Ever.”

THE STARS

Then 
Fans can still recite the cast list like a favourite cup-winning football team: Ewan McGregor as Renton, the protagonist; Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy, the James Bond-obsessed narcissist; Ewen Bremner as the gormless but loyal Spud; Robert Carlyle as the psychotic, glass-flinging Begbie; Kevin McKidd as the wholesome, then corrupted Tommy; and Kelly MacDonald as Diane, the precocious schoolgirl.

Now
Everyone is back (except McKidd, whose character died from a heroin overdose in the first film). Miller is now a TV star in the US, playing Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. The one who needed the most persuading was McGregor, who had avoided Boyle, Hodge and the producer Andrew Macdonald for the best part of a decade after being dumped in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio as the star of The Beach. A bad move on many levels.

THE POSTER

Trainspotting poster from 1996

The original Trainspotting poster from 1996

Then
The image that graced a million student bedsits — soon-to-be-iconic orange graphics and black-and-white portraits of McGregor, Carlyle, Bremner , McDonald and Miller, who had to be coaxed into adopting his finger-gun pose by Carlyle. McKidd missed the shoot and the cult immortality that came with it.

Now
More orange, and more black-and-white portraits. This time they’re in adjoining toilet cubicles, and there’s no MacDonald (even though she is in the film). Begbie, fresh from prison, sports a buzzcut alongside his trademark moustache, while Spud, for reasons that will doubtless become clear, is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts.

THE MUSIC

Then 
A hip-as-you-like selection that drew on the burgeoning Britpop and club scenes of the mid-Nineties, combining indie (Blur’s Sing, Pulp’s Mile End) and electronic music (Underworld’s Born Slippy and Leftfield’s A Final Hit) with a smattering of countercultural classics (Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day).

Now 
Another mixture of bright young things (the leftfield rockers Wolf Alice, the drum’n’bass DJ High Contrast and Edinburgh representatives in the form of the Mercury-winning hip-hop group Young Fathers) and nostalgic oldies, from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Nods too to the original soundtrack, including the Prodigy’s remix of Lust for Life and Underworld’s Slow Slippy, a warped, more stately version of Born Slippy — middle-aged rave, if you like.