FESTIVAL DIARY / Bad karma and the Big Yin: The Billy Connolly Affair and trouble and strife with The Bay City Rollers. Sheila Johnston reports from the 46th Edinburgh International Film Festival

Sheila Johnston
Thursday 20 August 1992 23:02

THE DUST had begun to settle on the Billy Connolly Affair and things were a little quiet around the Filmhouse. But now, eyes glittering with the prospect of another fine rumpus, the Scottish press was hot on the trail of a new story. The cause of the excitement: Inside My Head I'm Not the One You See, a documentary about The Bay City Rollers which had hitherto been of interest mainly as a curio - it was made by a German film student and former Bay City Rollers fan and is said to scrutinise the exploitation of the fresh-faced boys and the band's re-formation in 1989 with due Teutonic solemnity. This innocuous sounding piece had suddenly become newsworthy thanks to Les McKeown, the renegade member who left the group in the late Seventies and had issued a cease-and-desist letter against the film's screening. A wall of No Comments from the lawyers involved only stoked everyone's curiosity.

Eric Faulkner, the group's guitarist and singer, agreed to discuss the film with a string of provisos: 1) strictly no comments on the Les business; 2) the group to be called at all times and in full The Bay City Rollers (the name was the subject of yet another legal action earlier this year and McKeown is now allowed to call his rival band only The Rollers); and 3) any published photograph to be of the reformed and therefore safely Les-less BCR.

'It's very German,' Faulkner says of Inside My Head, 'full of obscure camera angles and things like this Thatcher's Britain shot of the high street outside our fan club which looks a complete wreck. It was quite refreshing because in Britain people have the idea that we're just a bunch of useless bozos. We're known for nothing but 'Shang-a-lang' and 'Bye Bye Baby' and it's difficult for anyone to see beyond the fan hysteria. The group has always had a lot more credibility overseas - the whole swathe of albums like Elevator never got released here, though every American college station would have them. A year ago there would have been many a wry smile at the thought of The Bay City Rollers at the Edinburgh Film Festival.' Now, on the contrary, everyone is hoping that the band will turn up here and even be persuaded to play a number or two. The film, incidentally, duly lawyered and pronounced perfectly harmless, was shown yesterday.

Now in its 46th year, Edinburgh has the longest unbroken record of any film festival in the world and has just published a weighty tome to prove it: Slightly Mad and Full of Dangers, a blow-by-blow account of the Festival's history. Today it must fight hard to preserve that status: faced with dwindling sponsorship and severe cuts in its funding, the new Festival director, Penny Thomson, has had to cut back the programme from 450 films last year to half that number. Frugality is generally the watchword and there have been no takers so far for the life-sized papier mache sculpture of Ronald and Nancy Reagan - a snip at pounds 3,230 - which everyone keeps tripping over at the entrance to the press-room. Even with this in mind, it was slightly alarming to see a Hobo Lunch advertised at the Festival pavilion earlier this week. (There turned out to be no food but plenty of wine, which was probably appropriate.) It transpired to be in honour of a documentary of that name about America's railroad tramps - an engaging film and a surprisingly elegant-looking one, considering that its director, John T Davis, shot it while living rough with the hobos on 16mm equipment small enough to hide in his bed-roll. Davis, incidentally, has some handy hints for Festival-goers on a tight budget: check out the missions and the local McDonald's (in America, surplus burgers are thrown out at closing time). And if you need to leave your backpack unattended for the day, scrunched up toilet paper scattered around its hiding place should deter marauders.

The Festival's problem, though, is not just what Thomson describes as a 'scandalously bad operating budget' - there are too many other festivals after prestigious feature film premieres and all insisting on their droit de seigneur. Thus one of Edinburgh's most distinguished premieres must not be trumpeted in case it jeopardises the film's participation in Venice next month; another intriguing entry, a Belgian comedy called Man Bites Dog, has fallen out of the programme, lured away by the chance of a fat cash prize in Tokyo.

No wonder that the documentary section has been feistier than the features. So far we have had a Dutch portrait of Roy Rogers The Singing Cowboy (not forgetting Trigger The Smartest Horse In The Movies) and a Finnish film called Daddy and The Muscle Academy, about Tom of Finland, whose drawings and comic strips of glamorised, tumescent superstuds became virtual blueprints for the leather and clone looks of the gay community. The draftsmanship of these works, each of which takes the artist a week to complete, is uncontestable but there is also something very disturbing about them - Tom says his fantasies spring from his early sexual experiences with German soldiers during the Second World War. The film blithely ignores his work's family resemblance to both S & M pornography and Fascist art: it is too busy celebrating Tom as a standard-bearer of the gay pride movement. Still, this is an interesting piece and, given the contents of the drawings, one which is highly unlikely to surface on British television (although in Finland they order things differently - the film was funded by Finnish television).

Acoustic Routes, a television film about Scottish guitarists and folk musicians of the Sixties, was an unremarkable succession of grizzled but still shaggy talking heads which mainly demonstrated that learning the guitar is an excellent preventive measure against hair loss. It became notable only when Billy Connolly, who presented the film and seemed to enjoy watching it (at least he sat in the back of the cinema laughing heartily at all his own jokes), suddenly underwent a sea change: piqued by some dark feud with Scotland on Sunday, he refused to take part in the press conference, heckling instead loudly and unfunnily from the bar. It seemed a churlish gesture towards a festival in sore need of celebrity support.

Still, the other guests are more congenial. James Wilby and the Pakistani director Jamil Dehlavi are here to present Immaculate Conception, a strong, complex drama of East-West confrontations set in Karachi. Working with a cast of eunuchs, gorgeous creatures extravagant enough to put Dame Edna in the shade, was no problem, apart from the difficulty of finding a hotel prepared to put them up. Dehlavi and Wilby had plenty of other sticky moments though - smuggling a copy of The Satanic Verses into Karachi, for instance, and then being advised to go home by the British Consul two weeks into shooting when the Gulf war broke out. They kept their heads down, and kept faith with the project; the results vindicate their persistence.

No doubt Newfoundland seems equally remote and exotic to many people and, indeed, the film director Michael Jones describes this island, 10 hours by boat off the Canadian coast, as a third-rate, Third World province with a wrecked economy and an unemployment rate of between 20 per cent (official) and 40 per cent (unofficial). His film, Secret Nation, is a conspiracy thriller delving into a murky episode of Canadian history which, many believe, started the island's decline.

After the Second World War the island held a referendum to choose between independence and joining Canada, and chose the latter with a majority vote of 52 per cent. Today many people believe the ballot was rigged: Newfoundland was too strategically important (there were four huge American bases on it during the war) to be allowed to cut loose. Jones and his producer, Paul Hope, admit they were unable to find a smoking gun; but while researching the film at the public records office in Kew, Jones was refused access to a number of key files under the Official Secrets Act, which certainly suggests something dubious.

The film, while not entirely successful as a thriller, presents a fund of fascinating detail on an episode that will come as a surprise to many Brits and will certainly go down a storm in Edinburgh with Scottish secessionists.

(Photograph omitted)

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