The opening line of Trainspotting is still arguably one of the most recognisable pieces of dialogue that anyone has heard since its cinema release in 1996. But yet how did this cult-classic, albeit highly controversial, film about a group of Edinburgh ‘junkies’ become so well remembered? Here’s my theory. 

By Jonathan Foley 

History of popular culture shows us that the most celebrated persons in things like music, sport, art or film are often the most controversial. 

Muhammad Ali branded a traitor for refusing to fight in Vietnam, John Lennon being tagged as a blasphemour for misconstrued comments and, almost comically now, Elvis Presley only being shown from the waist up when his performances were aired on television because he could allegedly cause too much excitement to young ladies watching.

Ewan McGregor.

The point is no matter how truly talented or independently-minded someone may be, there will always be detractors. This has destroyed confidence and ended many a blossoming career, but thankfully, the likes of Irvine Welsh (author), Danny Boyle (director) and Ewan McGregor (actor) stood up to unjust criticism and, in turn, their careers flourished beyond expectation.

Upon the film’s release, political talk shows like Newsnight and Question Time lambasted the film for what many felt was a positive depiction and glamorization of antisocial behaviour; mainly through its images of violence, theft and, above all else, narcotic abuse. All of which was set to a dark comedic tone involving ‘toilet humour’ (literally.)

Despite the calls to have the film banned, it went on to generate a staggering £6million in revenue from its opening month and the creators and stars of the show have gone on to achieve much greater things in their respective fields. 

Welsh has long moved away from his upbringing in the rundown tenement estates of Muirhouse. He now lives very happily writing and promoting his work full-time in the more plush surroundings of Miami, Florida. 

Boyle’s artistic vision has seen him go on to become one of the most celebrated directors as he can put his name to such other well-known works like 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games; a production where even Queen Elizabeth II herself made a genuine cameo in a humorous James Bond parody. 

With Ewan McGregor going on to star as Obi-Wan in Star Wars, as well as great careers for the other actors in the film, it seems surprising that their success is derived from something that so many people wished to be banned. In truth though, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. 

While the film does portray a grittier side to life in a beige and dull looking Edinburgh of the time, it also creates a sense of understanding as to why people have fallen into addiction. 

The character of Renton epitomises this. Twice in the film he tries to quit his habit and lead a better life, only to fall back in through his own personal anxieties about his future, his experiences of bereavement and his succumbnation to peer-pressure. And the film didn’t shy away from showing the horrors of his addiction either. So much for ‘glamourisation’ then.

Author, Irvine Welsh.

More to the point however, and overlooking his addictive tendencies, his personal issues and emotional turmoils were very relatable to the audience. That’s what the heart of this story was about really. It’s a study of people and how they relate with each other. 

On a more gleeful note, the long-awaited sequel was filmed in 2016 and this holds memories for me personally.

I was living in Edinburgh back then and I used to spot camera crews and technicians traipsing around the Scottish capital. I even caught a glimpse of the exterior to my old flat on Jeffrey Street with the help of the pause button during a viewing of the film itself.  It was all terribly exciting, I must say. 

In a nutshell, T2 Trainspotting was a much happier and vibrant film. Despite the odd scrap scene and use of use of choice language, it depicted Edinburgh beautifully as the much more cosmopolitan, colourful and welcoming city that it had become since the writing of Irvine’s original stories. 

The characters’ addictions had been largely overcome, the schemes the guys got up to were more genuinely comical and the message to the audience is a lot more hopeful. 

Through Boyle’s direction again, his astonishing use of camerawork and soundtrack proved just why he’s gained the esteemed reputation he has since he made the first one. T2 is also full of heartwarming nostalgia that nobody upon nobody felt the need to question or query this time around. 

What made these stories and films so successful was not the shock factor they caused. It was their ability to, like it or otherwise, speak to the generation of young people during the late eighties, the nineties and right up to the modern day. Not many people nor works of fiction can do that.

These stories spoke to them not through preaching, fear mongering and condemnation, but by the wonderful everlasting art that is storytelling, audio and visual engagement and a highly potent mixture of drama and humour. 

Trainspotting also created a better understanding of society. Personally speaking, when I taught in Edinburgh, I loved it. A most beautiful city that I do sometimes occasionally miss, but it wasn’t always strolls in Inverleith Park and sipping coffee on the Royal Mile. 

The family home lives of the pupils sometimes came our way via social services and, let’s just say, maybe watching this film and reading the book helped me understand and sympathize with these kids that little bit better after I’d learned what they were seeing when they got home from school everyday.

Trainspotting also taught us that the people we sometimes fear or avoid, are still very much, people nonetheless.

T2 Premiere: Edinburgh.

And yet the father of these stories, Mr Welsh, only had to glance around and listen to the everyday people of the Leith pubs, street corners and fellow supporters at his beloved Hibernian Football Club, in order to pen a story that so many now thank him for. A man who understood his society, his people and became a local and global hero out of it. 

A wee disclaimer here folks. Being a lover of film production and creation was what drove this article and as much as I love these flicks for how they create a sense of Edinburgh nostalgia for me personally, I’d still not recommend viewing them to youngsters even now. Granted, I just may have taken a cheeky sneak-peek of an old VHS of the first film when I was twelve, but remember kids, don’t be at it.

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