Monday, August 28, 2006

Square Go Time: An Encounter With The Great Scottish Actor/Director Peter Mullan:


Peter Mullan is a great actor and an accomplished film director, and a man with a keen interest in politics, but it is fair to say that he is no Kofi Annan. In Edinburgh to publicise his latest film, Cargo, Mullan was halfway through a funny story about an exchange of insulting letters with the executives of Scottish Screen when his conversation was interrupted by a figure in a dark suit and sunglasses. The Man in Black was Shane Danielson, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. “Stand up,” Danielson instructed.” “Oh Jesus,” joked Mullan. “He’s going to search me.” Danielson then directed Mullan to a shady part of Edinburgh’s Festival Square, where fifteen minutes of handbags ensued.
“Prick!” exclaimed Mullan on returning. Danielson, it transpired, had been offended by remarks Mullan had made onstage the previous night. Asked why he had chosen to premiere his film, The Magdalene Sisters, in Venice and not Edinburgh, Mullan had replied that it was like choosing between the Champions’ League and the SPL. Unfortunately, in telling the story, he had forgotten Danielson’s name, and referred to him as “the prick who’s leaving”. All of which led Danielson to haul Mullan to a dark corner of the playground.
“It was square-go time,” Mullan explains. “He was like ‘I finish on Monday, I’ll see you after’. I thought he was at it. Prick. I thought he was joking. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was. What a tube. ‘This is my festival, you don’t slag me at my festival.’ I said, ‘no, this is the people’s festival, comrade. It belongs to us. I pay for it.’”
To those who know Mullan, this is meat and drink. In films such as Orphans and My Name is Joe, he has established himself as a master of the patter. He is a passionate man and a fine storyteller, albeit one who is incapable of calling a spade a garden utensil. When one of your films has offended the Vatican, an attack by the director of the SPL of film festivals needn’t be a matter of grave concern.
But Mullan is also political, and a high profile supporter of the Scottish Socialist Party. He made the party’s television broadcast at the last election, and has been named as a potential supporter of Tommy Sheridan’s proposed new party.
After Sheridan’s sensational victory in his libel trial against the News of the World, some suggested Sheridan would join with George Galloway’s Respect party, but Mullan says this is impractical. “There couldn’t be any set up with George. He’s a unionist, he doesn’t believe in an independent Scotland, and Tommy does.”
The new party will not be significantly different from the SSP, Mullan says. In which case, why form it? “For those of us that are grassroots members, the court case became a seminal moment. We saw something that we suspected had been there for some time. For whatever reason, there’s a personal antipathy towards Tommy, and the relationships are irreconcilable. If it’s got to that stage, you’re probably better off setting up another party.
“My only concern about any new party is that it can’t be politically sectarian. I would never see someone, like those that remain in the Scottish Socialist Party, as my enemy. They ain’t my enemy. They’re comrades. If they choose that party, that’s fine by me. If we choose to go with another party, that’s fine by us. I hate that political sectarian stuff. We’re supposed to be fighting a much bigger enemy.”
Mullan says that feelings are running high on both sides of the SSP’s divide. “There’s been a lot of physical attacks on people. On both camps.”
All of which makes the circumstances surrounding Sheridan’s fall, and subsequent rebirth, all the more incredible.
“It was a libel trial, it wasn’t OJ Simpson. There’s wasn’t a corpse. There wasn’t a rape victim. There was no crime had been committed. And yet you wouldn’t believe it by reading the newspapers.
“It was one huge soap opera. But it became something much bigger, which was that thing with comrade-versus-comrade. I was dismayed by it. I never thought so many would have lined up, not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. And to volunteer information, or what they said was information, to the press.”
Mullan concedes that the majority of the SSP members who testified against Sheridan “thought they were doing the right thing. Personally, I thought they were politically na├»ve. I also felt that there are ways of interpreting anything. So when you stand up you really do have to ask yourself: what’s the context? They kept saying it was about truth, but somehow none of it was about truth. The whole thing was farcical. For any camp to stand up and say ‘but we represent truth’ it’s like… for me, and obviously this an extreme analogy, but if a Jewish man or woman is in front of the Gestapo, you don’t say they’re Jewish, and you don’t expect them to say they’re Jewish. Because within that context, so-called truth is obviously absurd, because you’re assigning a death sentence to yourself.
“For me, that’s what the truth’s about. You can never divorce it from its context.”
He takes a moment to reconsider the seriousness of this statement.
“It’s almost the politics of the schoolyard. Which is, if you’re with your mate and he puts a brick through the headie’s window, if the headie comes out, you either both done it, or none of you done it. You don’t turn round and go: ‘he done it’. You just don’t. Now, obviously if the brick goes through a window and it hurts somebody, then it becomes different. But even then, you would both have to put your hand up, because you stood next to him as he through the brick. You didn’t stop him.
“As regards that case, I never understood why they stood up and volunteered. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that some of them took pleasure in it. They strolled into that court room, with no great doubts on their mind. If anything there seemed to be pleasure in what they were doing. And that broke my heart.”
Mullan is no fool, so it’s hard to reconcile these views with his other observation that he wishes no ill-will to his former comrades. But the analogies are troubling in another way. Would he hold the same views if Sheridan had been guilty of the indiscretions alleged by the News of the World?
“Whether he did the right thing in going to court is more than open to debate – but as regards did-he-or-didn’t-he, I’ve never asked him. I would never turn round to a mate and enquire about their private life. If it was volunteered, obviously we’d talk about it, but I would never ask.
“I never understood why there was this weird allegation about hypocrisy. My understanding of hypocrisy is that you say one thing and do another. To my knowledge Tommy’s never stood on any moralist platform – he’s never said ‘this is how you should lead your lives’. What it brought to the fore, Galloway summed up quite nicely, when he talked about a Calvinist Trotskyism. It brought out a certain kind of puritanical outrage that masked itself as socialism – and for me the two are incompatible. I don’t see how you can stand up and be a socialist and want to peer in through people’s bedrooms. That’s totally inconsistent. It’s about tolerance. It’s not about imposing your own viewpoints, particularly as regard sex lives.
“I never asked because I never thought it was relevant. I only thought: you’ve decided to take them on. Then he won it, which was pretty damned amazing.”
Mullan concedes that Sheridan’s strength, his charisma, has been turned against him.
“He’s a great orator. There’s a charisma there. There’s no getting away from the fact that envy had a lot to do with it. I think some people within that party, felt he was getting all the limelight, which saddens me. On a film set, if you’re working with a great actor, you don’t go up the road and think about how you shaft that great actor. You’re just honoured to be around a great actor.
“For whatever reasons, certain people figured Tommy was bigger than he should be. That amazed me, because he’s good at what he does. And he’s in your party. You should be pleased.”
He says he is glad Sheridan apologised for calling his former colleagues “scabs”. “He was knackered and he was upset, but he should have taken more time to decide what he was going to say. He shouldn’t have said it, and he knows it. You can’t enter into that kind of slagging match. It’s not right.”
He pauses again. The wind whistles across Festival Square.
“And there’s me, slagging off the Edinburgh festival guy. To be fair to him, I couldn’t remember his name, and it was wrong to call him a prick.”