Spent the week shuttling between teaching and editing, and also managed to see a movie-themed musical (of which more later) and visited the Bill Forsyth Archive, in the keeping of Edinburgh University Library. I wasn’t able to leaf through the treasures therein at this stage, but I chatted with the librarian and a vague plan of action was devised.
If I can come up with a project which justifies searching the archive — and this meets with Mr. F.’s approval — I could then get some funding from the university or maybe elsewhere, which could partly go towards paying to have the archive properly catalogued and stored. It’s all in banana boxes right now, and there are delicate items such as, for instance, all the continuity Polaroids from LOCAL HERO, which are chemically fragile and could do with being more carefully preserved.
I was very interested in the correspondence, including perhaps the notorious but little-seen “Dear Bill” letters, which practically toppled the Scottish Film Production Fund. It’s a tale of long-ago and the principles involved may not want to see it hashed out again, but if the true hiftory of Scottish cinema ever comes to be written it would make a juicy chapter.
Basically, Bill was invited to sit on the board of said august organisation, a prestigious but under-funded body (in those pre-National Lottery days) dispensing small amounts of development and production money to Scottish films. Disturbed by what he saw, Bill began a correspondence with Eddie Dick, the board’s chairman and “gatekeeper,” the one who decided, as I recall, whether projects should even be considered by the board. After a while, Bill felt he wasn’t getting anywhere and went public, releasing the “Dear Bill” letters to the press. I never saw any extracts, only the summaries provided in The Scotsman and elsewhere, but they appear to have been Hot Stuff. The key phrases, as interpreted by the newsprint hacks, were “cronyism” and “a lack of transparency.”
This was greeted with a certain amount of glee by those of us who had not been allowed to feed at the trough. It was I, it can now be revealed, who had first dubbed the origanisation “The Scottish Film Prevention Fund,” which caught on fairly fast and may have eventually led to them changing their name to Scottish Screen. The initials made that one too easy. It’s now part of something called Creative Scotland, and nobody has bothered to spoof that name, they just say it in a depressed, vaguely sarcastic way.
Now, a lack of transparency does not mean anything fishy is going on, it just means that from the outside, nobody can tell. I would have to say that this charge was completely justified. It’s difficult for a funding organisation to be fully transparent — nobody will ever know why Ken Russell and Spike Milligan never got BBC commissions in their later years, even if rejection letters were written giving reasons. But Scottish filmmakers were deeply suspicious of the SFPF. Nobody except Bill Forsyth was going public about it, because everybody else hoped they might one day be given funding, and didn’t want “to bite the hand that might one day feed them,” as I recall The Scotsman putting it.
“Cronyism” is a more concrete charge. The problem was that it was considered perfectly OK for a senior Scottish film bod to sit upon the board, making funding decisions, while also applying to that board for money. If you did this and your project came up for discussion, you simply stepped out of the room while the rest of the board weighed the projects’ merits, then you came back in and were greeted by smiling faces. Nothing untoward about that, surely?
The reason this had happened was that the Scottish film industry was and still is very small, so it would be impossible to find qualified people to consider applications if being on the board prevented you from applying for funds for your own project. My producer at the time, Nigel Harper, suggested a very simple solution to this would be to have a one-year moratorium, if moratorium is the word I want, and a rapidly-changing board so that people could keep their projects active AND be on the board but not at the same time. This would also mean that if your worst enemy was on the board, nixing all your movie epics, you could console yourself that they wouldn’t always be there.
I think the problem is now solved by having the decisions made mainly by full-time bureaucrats…
Curiously enough, Eddie Dick, the victim of the Forsythian ire, is now a film producer, and responsible for the Scottish side of LET US PREY, the horror film Fiona and I co-wrote. I did ask him about the “Dear Bill” Affair once, but he just muttered something about Bill being “not like his films.”
I just did an interview with Mr. Forsyth and found him exactly like his films — gentle, funny, wry, intelligent, a touch melancholic, thoughtful and generous. Still, I suppose nobody can be like that ALL the time.
I hope somebody gets into the Forsyth Archive and gets it all catalogued and produces a really good project. This blog post might prevent it from being me, I don’t know.
I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the banana boxes, but I did snap Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Josephine Baker. (Paolozzi was an Edinburgh-born sculptor who also starred in the early Free Cinema short, TOGETHER.)