The Gorbals Story - The Glasgow Unity Theatre

The Gorbals Story - excerpts from the Blu-ray booklet written by film journalist Brian Pendreigh.

   In 1949, when The Gorbals Story was filmed, cinema audiences were familiar with Scotland as a land of history and romance, with wild landscapes, populated by wilder natives, who talked in some unintelligible, often comic dialect, and by dashing heroes and beautiful heroines, who spoke with reassuringly cut-glass English accents. David Niven had wrapped himself in tartan the previous year as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Brigadoon was a hit on Broadway and the London West End and a film version would soon be delighting audiences around the world. And about the closest cinema came to a contemporary Scottish drama was Whisky Galore!, which was based on a real incident in which islanders helped themselves to the cargo of a grounded ship, except in real life they went to jail, whereas in the film they get away with it.

   The Gorbals Story presented a very different image of Scotland. It was set not in the heathery Highlands or misty Islands, but in the slums of Glasgow. Its characters were not Jacobite princes or  young romantics seeking love and a simpler way of life, and liquor was not merely a comic plot device. Its characters were the men and the women packed together in the teeming tenements just south of the Clyde, sharing their living space with rats whose presence in the bed may offer some warmth on a cold night, according to one character.  Alcohol destroys dreams and incites violence.

   Several years before “kitchen sink” dramas began to make an impact on stage and screen in England and half a century before Ken Loach presented a realistic and resolutely working-class vision of Glasgow in the film My Name is Joe, The Gorbals Story offered an urban, proletarian alternative, some might say antidote, to Bonnie Prince Charlie and Brigadoon. Not that anyone paid much notice at the time - despite its success as a West End play and the presence of a young Russell Hunter and Roddy McMillan in leading roles. It is the earliest film listed for either star on the Internet Movie Database. 

   The Gorbals Story did not simply materialise out of nowhere. Glasgow Unity Theatre had been performing and touring with it for much of the 1940s, eventually taking it to the London West End, where it shocked and delighted audiences by offering them a glimpse into a world that was less familiar to most than that of Bonnie Prince Charlie or Brigadoon, perhaps even less real for some. The “Unity Theatre” movement developed in England in the 1930s to unite left-wing amateur drama groups, with the aim of exploring social and political issues through theatre. There were Unity Theatre companies in London, Liverpool and Manchester and the Glasgow company was formed in 1941, bringing together the Workers' Theatre Group, Clarion Players, Transport Players and Glasgow Jewish Institute Players.

   But The Gorbals Story was to prove Unity Theatre’s swansong. It got mixed reviews and because it did not fit easily into any existing genre, there seemed some uncertainty about exactly what it was or how to market it –The Wicker Man faced similar problems years later, albeit a very different film. The Gorbals Story got only a limited release in 1950 and by the end of 1951 Glasgow Unity Theatre had collapsed. 

   A critical reassessment began when the film was included in the historic “Scotch Reels” retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival of 1982 (the year of ET and Blade Runner). It was admired by some as one of the few films of its time to resist the pressures of “tartanry” and “kailyard”. It was screened again at the festival in 2013 as a precursor to a session entitled “What Kind of (Scottish) Film Culture Do We Want?”. Although little seen on its initial release, The Gorbals Story helped launch the screen careers of several notable Scottish actors. And it was the forerunner of a new wave of British dramas, with contemporary settings, often outside London, and featuring working-class characters. It was a wave which gathered momentum with Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Ken Loach’s Kes and would in turn be followed by the more stylised reality of Trainspotting and by Loach’s own Scottish films. Loach returned to Glasgow time and again. By then the tenements that had inspired The Gorbals Story had long since disappeared. 

Brian Pendreigh is an Edinburgh-based freelance film journalist and author. He reviews films for Radio Times, writes film obituaries for The Times and contributes regularly to various other publications. He is a former cinema editor of The Scotsman and associate editor of Hotdog film magazine and has written a number of film books. His most recent full-length book is the novel The Man in the Seventh Row.

The Gorbals Story has been restored in high definition by Panamint Cinema from 35 mm master material at the BFI National Archives, and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.