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Niall Greig Fulton and Tam Dean Burn - Electric Contact: The Visionary Worlds of Tom McGrath

Making connections was everything for Tom McGrath, the late poet, playwright, jazz pianist and all round seeker of artistic and spiritual enlightenment, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 68. This is something Edinburgh International Film Festival senior programmer Niall Greig Fulton recognised as a young actor in the 1990s. Then, McGrath took Fulton under his wing after seeing him play his old friend and fellow traveller of the 1960s counter-culture, novelist Alexander Trocchi, in a one-man show.

This came at a period when a new wave of Scottish writers, actors and thinkers were exploring counter-cultural thought and reinventing it in their own image through a fusion of punk-inspired lit-zines such as Rebel Inc and a free-thinking rave scene. Theatrically speaking, in Edinburgh this manifested itself in what would now be known as a pop-up venue, where Fulton first crossed paths with McGrath.

“Tom turned up at the first performance,” says Fulton, “and someone said there was someone who wanted to talk to me. That was Tom, and the first thing he said to me was 'This is an evening of great triumph.'”

McGrath went on to work closely with Fulton to develop the show, giving notes, telling old stories of the sixties involving himself, Trocchi and R.D. Laing, the radical psychiatrist who formed the third part of Scotland's counter-cultural un-holy trinity.

“My clearest memory is of being in the Lyceum with Tom,” says Fulton, “and him saying, okay, you're Alex, you're at a party in New York in the 60s, and there's a woman on the other side of the room you want to get to, but you have to negotiate with room full of people to get there. I'd act it out, and then Tom would say, there's quite a few things Alex wouldn't have done. There was a generosity there, a gently provocative mentoring.”

More than two decades on, Fulton is squaring the circle with Electric Contact: The Visionary Worlds of Tom McGrath, a programme of play readings, screenings and talks either by, about or inspired by McGrath. The former will feature a new look at The Hard Man, McGrath's controversial prison drama co-written with former Glasgow gangster turned artist Jimmy Boyle. This will be given a new twist, with director Tam Dean Burn casting acclaimed actress Kate Dickie in the title role. Also on show will be a look at The Android Circuit, McGrath's rarely seen science-fiction play, which was seen at the then Grassmarket-based Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where The Hard Man had premiered the year before.

In keeping with a science-fiction theme, the season will feature a screening of The Nuclear Family, McGrath's 1982 TV work for the BBC's short-lived Play For Tomorrow strand of stand-alone dramas. With its mind-expanding look at both dystopian and utopian futures, science-fiction was as much a liberating force for change adopted by the hippy underground as sex, drugs, poetry and jazz.

A programme of TV interviews with McGrath will be seen alongside a screening of Wholly Communion, Peter Whitehead's film of the 1965 gathering of the counter-cultural clans at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where a young McGrath read his poetry alongside Allen Ginsberg in an event hosted by Trocchi.

Two lectures see historian and lecturer Angela Bartie look at McGrath's 1960s and 1970s past, while Scott Hames analyses how McGrath used language in The Hard Man. McGrath's poetry comes under the spotlight in a concert by jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. As well as playing work by Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, both of whom McGrath brought to Glasgow in the 1970s while director of the Third Eye Centre, now the site of the CCA, Tam Dean Burn will read some of McGrath's hard to find poetry. Linking all this together with suitable looseness will be a screening of Shirley Clarke's film of The Connection, Jack Gelber's jazz and drugs steeped 1959 play, first produced by Julian Beck's beat-inspired Living Theatre.”

“I first saw the film in 1996, when Tom was launching his book, Birdcalls,” says Fulton, “and he was asked by the Shore Poets, who were putting on the event, to choose a film to go with it. That introduced me to the work of Shirley Clarke, and I ended up programming a season of her work at the Film Festival. So there are all these links that all come back to Tom.”

Another link in the chain comes through Burn, whose role in proceedings stems from appearing in McGrath's version of Quebecois writer Daniel Danis' play, Stones and Ashes, at the Traverse.

“It meant so much to Tom to get that play on,” says Burn. “He was all about being in the moment, and was enthusiastic for whatever was going on there and then. He was enthusiastic for other writers as well. He was very selfless.”

Burn's work has straddled several generations of the counter-culture, ever since he was a young punk fronting Edinburgh band Dirty Reds, who, with Burn departing for an acting career, later morphed into Fire Engines. How things connect up is illustrated further by the fact that Fire Engines records were released by Bob Last. Now the producer behind successful films including Terence Davies' version of Sunset Song, Last co-founded concept-based record label Fast Product. A few years earlier, he had been the set designer of the original Traverse Theatre production of The Hard Man. McGrath would have loved such connections.

“Music was such a driving force for Tom,” says Burn. “That was where he came from, and that was what we had in common. In that way he wasn't of the same ilk of a lot of people in theatre at the time.”

Fulton concurs with Burn's observation, particularly in relation to jazz.

“There were traces of jazz in everything he did. It was all about rhythm, and one thing leading to another without you ever being quite sure where you were going with it.”

Fulton tells a story which McGrath related to him about when he brought Miles Davis to Glasgow, and how he was heartbroken when Davis refused to acknowledge him, leaving all niceties to a middle-man while he just stood there smoking. This continued until just before Miles' departure, when, on the way up the stairs as Miles and his middle man were going down them, he heard a voice.

“Hey,” said Miles, who had stopped and turned to face McGrath. “It's not a bad suit for a white man.”

Electric Contact forms part of The Future is History, a post Brexit nod to the 1970s and 1980s through the filmic identities of Great Britain, Scotland and the grandly named Western World of the Future. This will feature screenings of key films made by former Beatle George Harrison's HandMade Films, including A Sense of Freedom, John Mackenzie's take on Jimmy Boyle's life story, and Bruce Robinson's ultimate look back in languor, Withnail and I. A season of science-fiction films will feature the Glasgow-shot Deathwatch.

“It's very personal to me,” says Fulton about the season. “Tom did so much, and trying to draw all those things together has been quite a job. What fascinates me about Tom is what he could see that others couldn't. Whether he ever fulfilled what he wanted to fulfil creatively I'm not sure, because everything he did fed into something else. He couldn't stop creating. I used to say playing Trocchi changed my life, but actually it was changed by Tom McGrath.”

Electric Contact: The Visionary Worlds of Tom McGrath runs as part of The Future is History at Edinburgh International Festival from June 21-July 2.
www.edfilmfest.org.uk


The Herald, June 13th 2017

ends

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