Trainspotting: that's just the way it is

Some people are saying that `Trainspotting', the screen version of Irvine Welsh's novel, glamorises drugs. The people in this photograph think those people are wrong. And they should know. They are former heroin addicts who acted as technical advisers to the film. By Rebecca Fowler
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The Independent Culture
It was a question of hype control. The makers of Trainspotting, a film portrait of a group of Scottish heroin addicts, were drinking coffee at the National Film Theatre with the chief booker from a cinema chain, pondering the wording for the poster. Andrew Macdonald groans uncomfortably at "the best British film of the decade", and opts instead for "Hollywood, your time is up".

The team, whose debut was Shallow Grave, have acquired a Britpop status in the film world, and they are anxious to prevent disappointment by controlling the hyperbole surrounding the new film in glossy reviews and youth magazines. But Trainspotting, based on the cult novel by Irvine Welsh, also carries a greater weight. The film, starring Ewan McGregor, who lost two stone for the lead role, has already been accused by more conservative critics of verging perilously close to glamorising the drugs culture.

Although it shows the consequences of heroin addiction from the agony of withdrawal, it also shows the ecstatic high of a "hit" in vivid detail, has a compelling black humour, and sets the world of "smack" abuse against a soundtrack of Blur, Pulp, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.

John Hodge, a qualified doctor who adapted the novel for screen, is dismissive of the criticisms. He insists it is a straightforward account of a culture, the dangers of which are well known, that neither glamorises nor denies the reasons why people take heroin.

"There was no censoring in terms of what people would call taste or decency. It's an honest portrayal of the highs and the consequences, neither of which are controversial," he says.

The director, Danny Boyle, says Trainspotting would have been patronising and meaningless if it had avoided showing both sides of the drugs culture. "It's about the force that makes you want to take drugs. We take more responsibility for showing what is positive about drugs, so the film can speak to people who are familiar with drugs use, and are intolerant of the patronising attitude that drugs are just bad for you, which we all know is not the whole story," he says. "It shows the highs, but it also shows the consequences, and it shows some people do escape, for no great reason other than they just managed to."

But the film-makers are also anxious to stress the role of their "technical advisers" on the film. At the end of Trainspotting, in the closing credits, they make a dedication to Carlton Athletic Recovery Group for "their inspiration and courage". Macdonald and Boyle took on the group after attending sessions and being introduced to former addicts at the headquarters in Glasgow, which offers seven-day services to recovering addicts in Scotland. When the film premiered in Glasgow this week, its members were among the guests at the party.

"We wanted to do our own research," says Boyle. "Then we met the Carlton Athletic. They sit round tables, working-class guys, pouring out what they've done as a result of addiction. They support each other. They say, `I did this terrible thing,' then someone else says, `That's nothing. I did worse than that.' We asked them if they'd help us make the film. They were there every day."

At the club's headquarters in Glasgow, in a warm, shabby, double-fronted house, the weekend before the premiere, most of the clients have already seen the film and must be among the best qualified to judge it. But their greatest concern is the weather, heavy snow, which means no football. Since the club was set up 11 years ago, its remit has been simple. Support addicts through a brutal withdrawal, without any help from methadone, and fill every waking hour from then on with activities, from football to parachuting over Scotland.

The telephone doesn't stop ringing. Most calls are from optimistic players eager for the game against Possil Park's team - which includes former dealers who used to supply members of CA - to go ahead. "Only the penguins are playing today," says David Bryce, founder of the club.

There are also the routine calls from troubled addicts and their families. A young woman rings up in a state because her sister is going through withdrawal, and she wants to know if she can giver her hash or alcohol to ease the process. "She may feel better for a while, but you're just going to make it worse for her when she comes round," says Eamon Doherty, project leader.

Doherty, 27, was the main adviser on Trainspotting. For the six weeks of filming he was present, attending to the details of "cooking up", in which the film crew used flu tablets and cocoa powder to imitate heroin being prepared for injection. He also went into painstaking detail on how the withdrawal scenes should be portrayed: muscle spasms, constant sniffing and sweating, racing thought-processes.

When he was growing up in Sighthill, one of the soulless estates in Glasgow, Doherty, whose brother died of an overdose earlier this year, became part of the world Trainspotting presents. He started smoking hash when he was 13, moved on to other drugs, snorted heroin, and was injecting twice a week by the age of 15. "Everybody was getting into it. But junkies were just Starsky and Hutch, people you saw on cop shows. I didn't know anything about addiction. I didn't know about withdrawal, or the long-term consequences. I just knew about the effects. I wouldn't have cared anyway," says Doherty. "We never had a thing that jagging, that's injecting, was any worse than smoking. It was just another route of taking drugs, a different route."

When Doherty had his first spell at a rehabilitation centre, Cardross, once the biggest in Europe and a former training school for priests, Carlton Athletic came to play their first game. He had no interest then. By the time Doherty was 17 he had hepatitis and arthritis, and finally collapsed from septicemia, and was admitted to hospital, put on a drip and pumped with antibiotics.

"They hated me at the hospital, and I hated them. I was shouting for jellies [a prescription sleeping pill abused by addicts], saying you better give me a jag. There were people dying in there, but you don't think about anyone. In the end, we had a deal that if I could walk to the end of the corridor I could leave."

Doherty finally gave up heroin in 1991, when he decided to join the Carlton Athletic, claiming "the hit had gone", and drugs had given him up. Since then he has taken up football, climbed Ben Nevis, run the London Marathon and parachuted over Scotland. He has also become actively involved in helping other former users.

It is a tough approach, which demystifies addiction and addicts. David Bryce, who arrived in Glasgow in 1963 when gang warfare and drink were rife and no one had heard of drug abuse, is dismissive of attempts to contain addiction through methadone clinics and the controlled prescriptions that are referred to in Trainspotting.

"We've no time with these hopeless mixed messages from defeatist social workers. They've been trying to teach addicts to use safely; there's no safe way to use drugs. It's a namby-pamby approach," Bryce says.

Bryce is anxious to stress that Carlton, which has a 75 per cent success rate, is as involved in helping women as it is men. The seven-day service includes group therapy sessions, discussion groups, individual sessions, and constant activities from football to running, daily gym sessions, evening outings and day trips.

On Saturday the Carlton Athletic bus takes a group of around 20 to Hollywood Bowling Alley in Glasgow. It is a disarming picture. The mixed group of ex-heroin addicts, many a sparkling picture of health from the endless physical activities and training, drink Coca-Cola and chat politely about why they believe Trainspotting does not glamorise the world they used to be part of.

They have all seen the film. Lorraine Fraser, 29, a smiley, fresh-faced woman, gave up heroin five years ago after a series of overdoses and a jail sentence for shoplifting, and is women's co-ordinator for Carlton Athletic. "I didn't see any glamour in the film. The tragic things that happen, you understand how something awful happens and all they can do to cope is get another hit, and the withdrawal, you remember what that feels like."

It is the most shocking moments of the film that make it measure up as an accurate portrayal of drug addiction, according to Carlton Athletic. They agreed that the scene in which a baby dies, and no one is able to deal with the situation, rings true, and everyone said they would have put their hand down "the worst toilet in Scotland" to retrieve two lost suppository tablets. They also agreed that the scene in which McGregor shoots up "turned their stomachs". It was so vivid, they could "taste" the heroin as the blood shot into the syringe.

If there were any criticisms, it was that the film had overdramatised friendships and human relations. Although Doherty likes the film, he says it does not capture how devoid of interest in the people around them addicts become. "They're acting like they're still pally, so it's only been a year or so that they've been using, but they look like they've been using for donkey's years. You can keep yourself smart for quite a while. But you don't stay friends with people, they just become associates," he says.

The creators of Trainspotting have stressed that it is first and foremost a film, based on a book. It is, whatever the debate may be on the portrayal of drug addiction, entertainment. Welsh, who has a cameo role in the film, and Hodge say it was never intended to be a piece of social realism.

"I don't think we need another Ken Loach. I would have been disappointed if it had been a kind of worthy piece of social realism," Welsh says. "To see it as just a kind of reaction to social oppression, to social circumstances, is to rip some of the soul out of it and make the characters into victims. I don't think that they really are."

Ultimately Doherty has a cheerfully cynical perspective on the whole process of making a film out of heroin addiction. He says Carlton Athletic would never have got involved if they thought the film was glamorising drugs, and they are satisfied it is not. But he says their role was "about giving them something to answer back the people who criticised them for using drugs for entertainment".

As the Carlton Athletic van drops off various members, and arrangements are checked for tomorrow's meeting at Marco's Gym, he is also dismissive of a friend's suggestion that the film has been left open-ended enough for a Trainspotting 2, which could be about reformed junkies. "No one wants to see a film about people who have given up drugs. Who's interested in recovering addicts?" Doherty says.

He adds brightly that they, in turn, are anxious to get as much publicity from this as they can: "The dedication to us is at the end of the film, isn't it. No one sees the end of the film. Can you get them to put it on the posters? We want as many people to hear about us from this as we can."

`Trainspotting' is on release from 23 Feb