Grisly Victorian tale takes Welsh from 'Trainspotting' to grave robbing

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The Independent Culture

Irvine Welsh, the writer of Trainspotting, is to make a feature film of the grisly story of 19th century grave robbers Burke and Hare set in modern-day Edinburgh.

Irvine Welsh, the writer of Trainspotting, is to make a feature film of the grisly story of 19th century grave robbers Burke and Hare set in modern-day Edinburgh.

Filming of The Meat Trade will begin next spring starring Robert Carlyle, who also appeared in Trainspotting, Welsh's box office hit in 1996 about the lives of heroin addicts.

The chilling case of William Burke and William Hare has long fascinated readers of crime stories. In the early 1800s, the Irish labourers, who moved to Scotland to work on the Union Canal, became grave robbers to satisfy the demands for corpses at Edinburgh's anatomy schools.

Business was so brisk that the enterprising duo moved on to murder, supplying bodies to the doctor Robert Knox. But they were caught after their 16th strangulation, and Burke eventually went to the gallows on the evidence of his former accomplice Hare.

Welsh is updating the story so that Burke and Hare become small-time gangster brothers in the present day who steal human organs from corpses to meet the demands of the global transplant market - a subject recently tackled by the British director Stephen Frears in Dirty Pretty Things.

The company behind Welsh's black comedy, 4Way Pictures, believed the subject would have box-office appeal. "Combining Welsh's provocations and superb storytelling with horror and comedy, The Meat Trade introduces Sweeney Todd [the murderous barber] to Trainspotting," it said in a statement.

Robert Carlyle founded 4Way Pictures five years ago with Antonia Bird, a director with whom he has worked on several films including the Jimmy McGovern film Priest and the British heist movie Face. She will direct The Meat Trade.

Mark Cousins, the film's producer, said: "4Way Pictures was Antonia's idea and then she collected her colleagues. She collected Bobby Carlyle and she collected me and then Irvine was the last to come on board.

" The Meat Trade was his [Welsh's] idea. He wrote it and handed it to Antonia and said: 'Here's something for you to direct'. It's got fantastic characters, a bit like the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas, men who are both full of menace and threat but rather articulate and understand their place in society. But there's also Irvine's social awareness.

"It's a grand portrait of a beautiful city, in this case Edinburgh, which has a really sordid underbelly. It's about that relationship between the surface beauty and what lies underneath. "It's a really interesting project for us. It has commercial prospects but also has something to say."

Scottish Screen has provided £25,000 development money for the project. Carole Sheridan, development executive at the agency, said: "We believe in the writer and the quality of the script that we saw was interesting and impressive".

One of the core functions of Scottish Screen is to provide support for Scottish producers and Scottish production companies and to distribute £3m lottery money to develop and invest in films, Ms Sheridan said.

"Antonia has got a good track record. Obviously there's interest in Irvine Welsh as a writer and there's a market for his writing. Mark Cousins who is attached as the producer is a well-respected critic and incredibly knowledgeable about cinema. The whole package is interesting."

But asked whether it could repeat the success of Trainspotting, she would not be drawn.