Screening the Obscene: Irvine Welsh on Filth
Ahead of its big screen adaptation starring and produced by James McAvoy, we speak to Irvine Welsh about his third novel Filth, a delightful tale of a dirty copper and his foul-mouthed tapeworm
As yours truly sits to write this article, Irvine Welsh tweets to his 93,597 followers: ‘Maybe I should get a little sun on dem long Leith limbs. Maybe it's time to say 'fuck work' today. Maybe it is. Yes sir, Mr IRS man.’ When we met earlier this year, he’d just flown in from the Cannes Film Festival (“bunch of kids spaffing their inheritance on rosé,” is his summary). He promoted Filth for a few days, and then did the rounds at the Hay festival. Then he returned to his new adopted Miami, his retirement home in the sun.
Welsh’s skin has a leathery permatan to it; he flirts with the girl applying his on-air make-up like a veteran of the whole charade, and there’s a bit of a beer belly poking out from his leather jacket. He looks, just a little, like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Charles Bronson. But don’t be deceived. The great gatecrasher of British literature, the lad that – in his own words – ‘went to London, made some money, but in the good Scots tradition, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’ isn’t packing up yet. Nor has he forgotten where he’s come from: he’s still the mohawked punk of the 80s intent on scaring the shit – by looks and by argument – out of any Thatcher-loving suit. He’s still as committed to the skagboys of post-industrial Scotland as he is to Hibernian FC. He’s still the guy who knows, as well as anyone, what it’s like to have the 'best orgasm you’ve ever had... multiply it by a thousand' as you plunge the needle and lie back on the floor of a squat.
And he’s still the basis of great movies. The author of Trainspotting, The Acid House, Porno and Ecstasy is rightly proud of Jon S. Baird’s adaption of his third novel, Filth, in which Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh policeman, does everything in his power to abuse any power he has. As he writes in the book: ‘That’s the beauty aboot being polis: it doesnae really matter whether or not everybody hates you, as long as they’re civil tae your face and can put up a good front. You can only live in the world you ken. The rest is just wishful thinking or paranoia.’
“I wrote Filth at the crest of that wave of fame that came from the success of Trainspotting,” Welsh says. “The last book had gone straight to number one, and then Filth went the same way. Commercially, I was at the top of the pile, so I was writing the book from a position of strength. I wasn’t an unknown. But it made me want to write a novel that was completely incendiary, totally crazy. Trainspotting and Ecstasy were about skinny drug-lovers. So I started with the guy on the other side of the coin – who was putting these poor lads in jail.”
But when news filtered through that Baird and James McAvoy, Filth’s star and producer, were to adapt the book, Welsh was concerned:
“I couldn’t really imagine it as a film to be honest. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But the whole thing wouldn’t have been possible without James. A character on a page can be as bad as you want, but an audience needs to engage with a character on screen, in spite of all the things he does. James is capable of putting empathy into the character; you can actually see him fighting against it. Bruce is actually quite a decent guy going through a really hard time. He might be a bit of a bastard y’know, but he’s having it tough. James pushes that out there.”
A bit of a bastard? Film titles are rarely so accurate; unless cinemas start providing live tapeworms to share your popcorn, it’s difficult to imagine how Filth could be more filthy. Because Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson – Filth’s hero – is not a man you’d want protecting your town. A homophobe, a racist, a misanthrope and a misogynist, he upends whisky, snorts his way through thin white lines, and plays his mates off against each other while working through their wives – and that’s when he’s not stealing from old ladies and raping young girls. Full-blooded, casually heinous, elegantly wasted but weirdly heartfelt as well, McAvoy is perfect for the role: he makes you almost want to have a pint with Bruce. Even as he commits the most disgusting crimes. Even as he wakes the next morning not knowing who he is, guilt hanging off him. Even as he accepts advice from the tapeworm living in his intestinal tract.
‘Bruce,’ the tapeworm says. ‘You’re an ugly and silly old man. You’re very possibly an alcoholic and God knows what else. You’re the type of sad case who preys on vulnerable, weak and stupid women in order to boost his own shattered ego. You’re a mess. You’ve gone wrong somewhere pal.’
“I THINK SOCIETY IS ILL; BRUCE IS A CHARACTER THAT CAME OUT OF THE THATCHERITE, EXTREME-INDIVIDUALISTIC, VERY ENTITLED, HUBRISTIC ATTITUDE” – IRVINE WELSH
McAvoy’s opinion of Bruce is rather more compassionate. When we speak, he describes his take on the character as a study of psychosis:
“Bruce is mentally ill, stemming from his self-esteem issues, his inferiority issues, his fear of everybody, which manifests itself in a superiority guise and a reality he writes in his own head,” explains the 34-year-old Glaswegian. “He’s terrified of being weak. So he drinks and does drugs to keep that sense of power intact. And he’s just gone deeper and deeper and deeper into it, until he can’t remember what it was like to be normal.”
Welsh has never written his characters with sympathy. The author’s stance in Filth is evasive, ambiguous about Bruce at best. Does he accept McAvoy’s socially-minded take on the character?
“I was interested in mental illness, yeah,” says Welsh. “It’s an ongoing issue I see with people who have bipolar disorder. They have their medication, they take it and everything’s fine, but they don’t feel they’re living life right on the edge or right to the full. So they skip back on the medication and have a breakdown. I’ve seen that happen with quite a few people I’ve known over the years, so it’s something that’s always interested me.
“But I wanted to look at mental illness in a broader sense,” continues Welsh, who seems destined to always return to the “shared universe” of lower-rung Edinburgh, to his love-torn fascination with Scottish community and the ravages upon it that veins its way through his work (the characters from Trainspotting make cameo appearances in The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Ecstasy and Filth, although Baird is careful not to overplay the references in the film). "I think society is ill," he says. "Bruce is a character that came out of the Thatcherite, extreme-individualistic, very entitled, hubristic attitude. That’s a mental illness in itself, in much the same way the extreme collectivism of 1984 was a mental illness. How does someone from a traditional working class background deal with cognitive dissonance? How do they deal with society’s beliefs being out of step with its actions? Bruce’s personal pathology is as much about social pathology."
Irvine Welsh shakes hands and moves on to his next interview. The self-made lad from Leith is now a celebrity, only popping home occasionally – but no one’s going to hold it against him. He could have had a quiet time of it. He could have chosen a fucking big television, washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. He didn’t. He chose life.