Terri Paddock confronted her own squeamishness about needles to research and write this feature about the phenomenon that is Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. As Trainspotting Live officially opens tonight (29 March 2018) for a second, extended London season at The Vaults ahead of a New York transfer, gen up on your cultural history – and then get booking! (Read more about Terri’s personal quandary on her website here.)
“Trainspotting was not only my first novel, it was my first real attempt at writing, so I’m very proud of it,” says Irvine Welsh with what one hopes is false modesty. How could you not be proud of a novel that became a cultural phenomenon continually rediscovered and regularly renewed more than two decades on? Particularly considering initial expectations.
Welsh started writing Trainspotting, while working by day as a civil servant in Edinburgh but drawing on diaries and his own drug-centred experiences as an out-of-work twenty-something in the city the decade before. Parts of Trainspotting were published as short stories in magazines including Rebel Inc and New Writing Scotland. On a recommendation, Welsh pitched these to Robin Robertson, then editorial director of Secker & Warburg, who decided to publish the novel despite believing it wouldn’t sell: the initial print run in 1993 was 3,000 copies.
Although some commentators were shocked by Welsh’s graphic and non-judgmental depiction of heroin addiction – it was long-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize but reportedly dropped from the shortlist by two offended judges – most literary critics lauded Trainspotting.
The initial print run of the novel in 1993 was 3,000 copies
“The best book ever written by man or woman… Deserves to sell more copies than The Bible,” pronounced the possibly partial Rebel Inc. “The voice of punk, grown up, grown wiser and grown eloquent… Welsh writes with a skill, wit and compassion that amounts to genius. He is the best thing that has happened to British writing for decades,” opined The Sunday Times.
The stage version of Trainspotting – written by Harry Gibson, who would go on to adapt four further Irvine Welsh novels – followed within months of the book’s publication. First mounted as a studio offering at Glasgow Citizens Theatre in 1994, it received a full-scale production at the Traverse Theatre during the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe, and then transferred to London’s Bush Theatre and the West End.
Danny Boyle saw the play, which led to the 1996 film that took Trainspotting to another stratospheric level of cultural phenomenon. Boyle hired John Hodge, his collaborator on 1994 Brit flick Shallow Grave, to adapt Trainspotting for the screen, eschewing the episodic, multiple narrator structure of both the novel and play for the more linear demands of a feature film. (It also omits the reference to the metaphorical title.)
Shallow Grave’s Ewan McGregor was cast as central protagonist Renton, while Ewen Bremner, who originated Renton on stage, swapped into the role of hapless fellow addict Spud. The now-famous film cast also featured Jonny Lee Miller as Sean Connery-obsessed ladies’ man Sick Boy, Robert Carlyle as violent bully Begbie, Kelly McDonald (then an unknown newcomer) as Renton’s teenaged girlfriend Diane and, in the cameo role of drug dealer Mikey Forrester who sells Renton the suppositories that drive him in desperation to “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”, Irvine Welsh himself.
Boyle’s film, shot on a budget of $1.5 million, went on to gross more than $72 million at the global box office and, like the book before it, sparked critical acclaim and controversy in equal measure. During the 1996 US presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole condemned the film for its perceived “moral depravity” and glorification of drugs.
Irvine Welsh, a former addict himself, played drug dealer Mikey Forrester in the film of Trainspotting
Twenty years after the film’s release, its original stars reunited to shoot its long talked-about sequel. T2 (Trainspotting 2), released in January 2017, found Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie back in Edinburgh where they’re now attempting to conquer the porn industry. It seems that – despite years of protesting that they could never tamper with the legacy of the original – Boyle and the film stars couldn’t resist. Resistance has also proved futile for Welsh. T2 is loosely based on Welsh’s own 2002 sequel novel Porno. More recently, in 2012, he released Trainspotting prequel Skag Boys, charting the friends’ “journey from likely lads to young addicts”, and in the intervening years, the characters have popped up in some of Welsh’s dozen other novels.
In whichever form they appear, the characters’ exploits seem to feed the phenomenon that is Trainspotting. The first novel has, to date, sold more than one million copies in the UK alone and been translated into 30 languages. The play won The Sunday Times Award for Best New Play, was named one of the Top Scottish Theatre Events of All Time by The Scotsman, and continues to be performed around the world in different versions (including a 2012 American makeover, which relocated the addicts from Edinburgh to Kansas City).
The movie was the highest-growing British film of 1996, and was ranked tenth in the British Film Institute’s list of Top 100 British films of all time. Amongst its many accolades, it was nominated for an Oscar and three BAFTAs, and it garnered Ewan McGregor numerous Best Actor prizes, catapulting him into the major league of British screen stars.
In addition to sequels and reprints, DVDs, soundtracks, streaming and new stage interpretations, like this return of In Your Face Theatre’s immersive production, keep Trainspotting very much alive to new generations of audiences.
Trainspotting Live runs from 27 March to 3 June 2018 at The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN. Performances (75 minutes) run Tuesdays to Sundays at 7pm, plus Thursdays to Saturdays at 8.45pm and late night at 10.3pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are priced £20 to £35. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!