Stereotypes and our relationships with them is a thorny business, and this seems to apply particularly to Scots. For instance, our image in football terms has gone from marauding drunks who all have a square of Wembley turf in our back garden, to ‘the best fans in the world TM’ who are still drunk, but, apparently, charmingly so. Both of these ‘types’ have been embraced by Scottish mythology, and there does seem to be an odd sort of pride in the good, the bad and the ugly of our imagery. Our love/hate affair with all things tartan is another example of such cultural confusion, but if such an attitude applies to Scotland, then it applies to Glasgow with bells on.

The stereotypes of what has come to be known as Clydesideism are as strong as any that Scotland has had to offer. This is a 20th century mythology that always has the accompanying terms ‘gritty’ and ‘urban’ attached. There are tales of the shipyards, sawdust floored boozers, tonic wine, and gang culture. The most influential text in establishing this reputation was, and still is, Alexander McArthur’s 1935 novel No Mean City, but the imagery can be found in the fiction of George Friel and William McIlvanney, the plays of Joe Corrie and Ena Lamont Stewart, and more recently on TV in the dramas of Peter McDougall, in Taggart, and in the comedy of Rab C. Nesbitt. Even Trainspotting is partly based around this mythology, highlighting that this is wide-spread urban mythology rather than a purely Glaswegian one.

This week’s film Small Faces is set in1960s Glasgow and concentrates on the gang culture of the time, a mythology that many in Glasgow grew up with. Names like Young Team, Skull, Himshie, Fleeto and Tongs may not mean much to some, but to many Glaswegians they are part of the language, and culture. I’ve a theory that Glasgow is the most schizophrenic of cities, happy to see itself as a place that will welcome all with open arms, but also enjoying its reputation that casual violence may erupt if you’re not careful. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s no wonder that an affinity with the Wild West took hold.

The film is based around the choices facing young Lex McLean, played by Iain Robertson. There are two areas of Glasgow life that fascinate him; the style and violence of the local gangs that his brother Bobby has been involved in and the world of art that his other brother Alan opens up to him when he goes to The School of Art. Both offer respective glamour and the chance to meet women. Lex is Glasgow’s dichotomy personified; The City of Culture v’s No Mean City in a battle for his soul. Director Gillies MacKinnon, who wrote the script with his brother Billy, knows that worlds overlap, particularly where families are concerned and he has the rather simple, but effective, technique of having Lex have a brother on each shoulder whispering in his ear. Robertson’s performance captures that time when childhood still has a hold, but adulthood is approaching far too quickly, with all the confusion that entails. Here’s the trailer; one where once again the American voice over does the film no favours:

The cast of Small Faces is one of its best features. As well as the young Iain Robertson, who is astonishing in his first film role, there is Kevin McKidd, Joe McFadden (as in ‘what ever happened to…?), Colin McCredie, Steven Duffy and Clare Higgins. Laura Fraser once again plays a character who is the moral centre of the film (see also The Flying Scotsman, 16 Years of Alcohol and Nina’s Heavenly Delights). Fraser is a really underrated actress who I last remember seeing in the BBC Burns’ Night comedy No Holds Barred. She deserves better. This is the opening of the film and it gives a better impression of what is on offer than the trailer:

Small Faces is nostalgia for a land that time never quite forgot. It is a really stylish, accomplished, well acted and, in the main, enjoyable film. But there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable. The lingering shots of guys getting malkeyed, blood on the ice of a skating rink, and the sheer joy and energy of the violence on screen seems to cross a voyeuristic line. But then I’m aware that I don’t feel the same when I watch Scarface, City of God, The Firm or Once Were Warriors, at least not to the same extent. Small Faces is a good, entertaining, film but for once I find the glory taken in violence unusually unsettling. Perhaps it’s just too close to home.


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Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.


  1. Great article Ali. As you will remember, I am very easily unsettled by violence in film but for some reason I wasn’t as disturbed by Small Faces as I have been by films like Scarface. Small Faces is genius as I really didn’t see the twist from comic to tragic coming in the way that it did. Definitely one of the films that will stay with me.

  2. Cheers Jennie. I think the thing about the violence in ‘Small Faces’ is that it feeds into that particular image of Glasgow, and I think that unsettles me. You only have to walk around the city for an afternoon to see the terrible results of this love affair with blades etched on many faces. But I’m all for realism, and I realise the glamorous aspect is seen through Lex’s impressionable eyes.

    I admit mine is not a consistent position. I watched the trailer for Peter Mullan’s ‘NEDS’ this morning, which, although set in the 70’s, deals with similar topics. I can’t wait to see it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Small Faces, it just unsettles me, which is probably a good thing, but it’s definitely a visceral thing,

  3. I love this movie and I always wished there was a soundtrack for it because it has the best 60s tunes. The scene when they’re running through the museum to Georgie Fame’s “Sunny” is so memorable. In fact, I can recall most of the scenes just by hearing the particular song. Spencer Davis Group “Keep on running” is another one of my faves, even though I’ll forever associate it with the iceskating scene.

  4. That’s a good point to make. The soundtrack is superb. It places the action exactly, and was obviously compiled by someone who knows their musical onions.

    As an aside, re: Laura Fraser; when I first wrote this a couple of weeks ago it was true that I hadn’t seen her in anything for some time. In the week this appears she turns up in two BBC dramas; ‘The Single Father’ and ‘Lip Service’. They really sums up Laura’s career. She has been in some great stuff (such as Small Faces) and some not so great (‘The Match’ was mentioned in a previous post comment on ‘A Shot at Glory’).

    But whatever she appears in she is always worth watching, sometimes standing out because she is so much better than what is going on around her. There will be a post on her and her career appearing soon over at my place so keep ’em peeled.

  5. Thanks for the info on Laura Fraser, I’ll be checking your blog for that article.

    Not sure why my comment above is from Anonymous – thought I entered my name.

    I agree about the violence being unsettling but think it’s effective. I had heard of the Glasgow gangs of the 60s and 70s but didn’t realize how frightening they were until I saw this film (and then read a bit). Perhaps it’s so disturbing because this is how Lex himself sees or remembers it?