Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014: A guide to the work of John McGrath

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014: A guide to the work of John McGrath

The timely, Independence-themed work of the political playwright is given a festival retrospective

John McGrath was one of Britain’s most prolific writers, directors and producers. Born in 1935, he was a passionate socialist theatremaker. He’s particularly noted for setting up theatre company 7:84 in 1971, which became known around Scotland and England for its left-wing, agit-prop productions.

Why 7:84? It was named after an article in The Economist, which stated that seven percent of people in Britain owned 84 percent of its wealth. Think of it as being like the Occupy movement … but on stage.

Wait, isn’t this a film festival? Yep – McGrath wanted his radical ideas to reach as wide an audience as possible, so he started writing for TV and cinema in the 1960s too. He even wrote episodes of the BBC’s landmark police show Z Cars, an episode of which will be screened at the festival.

What else is at the festival? A few screenings of his major theatre works, including 7:84 classic, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Also showing are two of his major films: The Bofors Gun (1968), adapted from one of his own plays, and spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain (1967), which is loosely based on a Len Deighton novel, directed by Ken Russell and starring Michael Caine.

That last one sounds like The Ipcress File. Yes it does, and for good reason – in it, Caine plays Harry Palmer, the same intelligence agent he portrayed in The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966). Billion Dollar Brain wasn’t as big a hit, but it’s since gained a cult following.

So why are the festival looking at his work now? Many of McGrath’s works tackled the question of Scottish independence, so it’s a timely occasion to revisit his films, plays and TV shows. Sadly, he died of leukaemia in 2002, but his influence continues to be widely felt.

Border Warfare: John McGrath’s Work in Television, Theatre and Film is part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 20–Sun 29 Jun.

Billion Dollar Brain - Trailer