Oursels As Ithers See Us: King Creosote and Virginia Heath on From Scotland With Love

Compiled from hundreds of hours of archive material, From Scotland With Love narrates Scottish history and heritage through the lives of everyday people, to a soundtrack by King Creosote. We speak to KC and director Virginia Heath about the project

Feature by Chris Buckle | 01 Jul 2014

Watch From Scotland with Love closely and you might just spot Wayne. He’s there somewhere in the dynamically edited archive footage; in one of the long-gone dancehalls or nightclubs, making the most of the weekend’s limited opportunity to cut loose. The nightlife section occurs early in director Virginia Heath’s film – a poetic documentary painstakingly compiled from the contents of the Scottish Screen Archive. During the sequence’s busy cavalcade, faces from the past flit by: powdering their cheeks, queuing for picture shows, sinking drinks and spinning each other across polished floors. Different eras melt together, building a composite vision of the country’s preferred night-time entertainments across the first several decades of the 20th century.

Helping to thread it all together is the unmistakeable voice of Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) whose soundtrack provides the film’s rhythm, heart – and its characters. 'Now it’s the weekend, we’re spending our money / Wayne is appearing for one night only,' Kenny croons, raising a glass to an unknown Good Time Charlie, inspired by one (possibly all) of the sequence’s merry-makers. As the song whips onwards, clever editing causes the onscreen figures to twist, twirl, and tap their fingers in time with the music.

Speaking to us a fortnight after the film’s unveiling at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, Virginia discusses the project’s conception. “I really wanted to tell history from below, to look at ordinary people’s lives,” she says, before cataloguing ambitious themes: “love, loss, work, play, resistance, migration, war and death.” With a background in fiction filmmaking, she was also keen to discover “characters in the archive that people might relate to – and that’s where my collaboration with King Creosote really was fantastic, because he had a similar interest when writing the songs. You’re never quite sure exactly what person he’s singing about, but they’re in there somewhere.” As well as Wayne (aforementioned star of the song For One Night Only), there’s the ice cream queen of Largs, the fisher lassie of Cargill, the homesick voyagers of Miserable Strangers, and more – each tale carefully matched to evocatively grainy and inherently romantic archive material.

"I’m not saying I could go wherever I wanted with these songs, but I certainly had a pretty wide viewpoint to start from” – King Creosote

Previously only familiar with KC via 2011’s Diamond Mine, Virginia first considered him for the job on the recommendation of the project’s music supervisor David McAulay. “I started to listen to a lot more of his material,” Virginia explains, “and was really struck by his lyrics. I just thought that he would add an incredible amount – because we didn’t want to use interviews or voiceover, so it really was a question of me shaping the visual material and working with a composer who could help to bring out the stories.” At this point, Virginia journeyed to Anstruther to strike a deal with the “quintessentially Scottish” songwriter – only to find him reticent to get involved.

Taking time out from watching the World Cup (“I’ve got the wall chart and everything!”), Kenny explains why. “I was in a weird frame of mind last summer, what with ankle breaks and…” He takes a breath: “Er, other breaks…” – a thinly veiled reference to the rifting of Fence, following which former cohort Johnny Lynch departed to set up Lost Map. Additionally, Kenny continues, he doubted his ability to produce tracks to someone else’s remit. “I know I’ve written a lot of songs, but I’m actually quite a lazy songwriter,” he sighs. “I kind of write songs when they arrive. Also, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences of suggesting music for film, or of sitting down and looking at a blank sheet of paper with that ‘Right, I need to have this done by tea-time’ feeling, and that combined with the mood I was in… I just felt I didn’t want to take the thing on and then make a total arse of it.” Eventually, however, McAulay prevailed on him to accept. “Him and [producer] Paul Savage had talked about it at length, and they reckoned I could do the job. So I sort of went ‘Well, if you guys think I can do it, then game on…’”

“I have to say, we collaborated incredibly closely right from the start and throughout,” stresses Virginia. “It really was such a two-way thing: he would do a sketch of the music and I would do a sketch of the visuals and feed back to him, backwards and forwards.” Kenny similarly emphasises the closeness of their working relationship. “She didn’t have the film all ready to show me,” he explains, “so she wrote a synopsis, split up into three-minute sections, where she described what she was looking for and what sort of stories she wanted to tell. And then beside that I had a list of existing KC songs that she liked and thought would fit. So it was never as simple as rewriting, say, You Are Could I with different lyrics, but at least I had a handle on the kind of mood that she wanted, and a rough idea of where I could go lyrically.”

He continues, “I was just hoping that I could pen songs about universal themes – universal with a small u – and she could find the footage to stack them up. So it was like letting my imagination run riot, really – so long as I kept the lyrics away from, you know, satellites and mobile phones...” He reflects on the breadth of connections offered by the visual material. “When you watch archive footage, you can pretty much look at a crowd and pick out your own leading lady or leading man,” he suggests. “So from looking through these films once, I had to just trust my judgement; trust that the character that my eyes fell on would be one worth writing of. I mean they’re all worth writing for,” he adds, “but I’m more likely to spot the guy in the background who’s up to something, or the one who’s a bit nervous about a camera being on them… So I’m not saying I could go wherever I wanted with these songs, but I certainly had a pretty wide viewpoint to start from.”

One thing in shorter supply, however, was time. “I was approached last July, and they were only just starting to trawl through the archive,” Kenny recollects. “By the time I actually got to see any footage it was the third week in September, and we had a rehearsal space in Loch Fyne already booked for October, and then the studio booked for November. So it was all pretty tight – I wrote all the lyrics on a train journey to London and back, pretty much.” As new footage trickled in, adjustments were made: verses dropped, perspectives adjusted and so forth. “It was like a game of table tennis, backwards and forwards, right up to the final edit – and even then Dave and I were making some really cavalier decisions... We had to just go with whatever was there with this blind faith that it’d somehow make sense. It probably sounds like we didn’t really have much of a plan,” he laughs, “but in actual fact we didn’t have any plan. We just kind of went for it…”

As well as soundtracking From Scotland with Love, the resulting songs also constitute a new KC album of the same name. “At the start, Davey pretty much said ‘look, you can’t think of this as an album because not only will the songs get edited in weird and wonderful ways, but the order of the songs will not be down to yourself.’ It wasn’t really until Domino got to see the first cut with the music that they offered to put it out as an album. At that point I was a lot more at ease with the way the film was cutting up the tunes, because I just thought ‘Well, I can go back and redo it.’ We had just one day to put this album together, so I didn’t get the luxury of going back and making it the KC album that I would have made in other circumstances. But I’m glad that Domino did hear it as an album – although I’ve purposefully not listened to it that way yet, because we still have to play the soundtrack live.”

The first full soundtrack performance set a high benchmark. “The reaction was phenomenal,” he says. “People really got absorbed. Apparently there were folk crying and laughing... I think it really caught people emotionally – because it’s a real emotional hurly burly. But as a band playing live, you never really hear how it sounds out front, and you certainly don’t see the film in all its glory.”

The next such performance will be in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games, as part of an all-day event on Glasgow Green; that’ll be followed by shows in London, with a low-key cinema tour planned for autumn. Looking further ahead, there are hopes that the film will find audiences overseas. A New Zealander by birth, Virginia is keen that her film not be seen as parochial. “I think there’s lots of interest, particularly in countries with a Scottish diaspora, so there’s potential for touring,” she states. “I’ve always hoped it would have an international perspective, because I do think that it has very universal themes. We always wanted it to have themes that people in any kind of industrialised country could relate to – the big themes of the 20th century I suppose.” Love, loss, work, play, resistance, migration, war and death; plus, of course, the giddy pleasures of a Friday night on the dance floor. On yersel Wayne.

From Scotland with Love is released on 21 Jul via Domino. The film and score will be performed at Glasgow Green on 31 Jul. http://www.glasgow2014.com/culture