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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stuart Heritage

Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit review – the amazing real life story of Shuggie Bain is ruined by Alan Yentob

Why must this film fetishise working-class life? … Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit on Imagine, BBC One.
Why must this film fetishise working-class life? … Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit on Imagine, BBC One. Photograph: Carlo D’Alessandro/BBC/BBC Studios

If you ever want to see Alan Yentob uncomfortable, bung him in a sweet shop. This was the takeaway message, although not the one intended, of the latest episode of Imagine. Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit (BBC One) was meant to be a profile of Stuart; an extraordinary man who spent a decade distilling his childhood into an 1,800-page manuscript called Shuggie Bain. After trimming it down, the novel – his debut – sold 1.5m copies, won the Booker prize and is being adapted (by Stuart himself) into a TV series. Not bad for a man who didn’t read a book until he was 16.

Shuggie Bain has already been absorbed into the fabric of Glasgow, to the extent that a building in the centre of town bears a giant mural of some of its text. Standing in front of it at the start of the film, Stuart tells Yentob about the time he was passing nearby and caught two men relieving themselves on the mural. “I shan’t be peeing there,” Yentob replies with impressive solemnity.

And this, rather than the usual authorly biography, is what propels Love, Hope and Grit. Much has been made about Stuart’s working-class upbringing, and his subsequent escape to the world of New York fashion. The problem is, though, that Alan Yentob spends the entire hour palpably terrified of anyone remotely working class.

This is where the sweet shop comes in. At one point, Stuart takes Yentob to the Barras market, and the host spends the whole time alternately cowed and spooked by the locals. In his defence he at least attempts to look the part. By this, I mean he is wearing braces, in what is presumably a cackhanded attempt to pass himself off as an undercover cockney chimney sweep from a 1950s picture book. By the time they arrive at the sweet shop – more of a stall, lined with plastic jars – Yentob can’t help himself. He asks for some sweets and, as they tumble into the metal scales, falls into such an elaborate reverie that he might just as well be holding up a sign reading “HELLO POOR PERSON I AM A TOURIST AND I FIND YOUR SIMPLE WAYS CHARMING”.

This attitude infects the entire film. Stuart is (obviously) an impressive writer, and this is down to the masterful way he can walk the tightrope between fiction and autobiography. The relationship between parent and child in Shuggie Bain, for example, is explicitly drawn from his own life. He cared for his alcoholic mother as a boy, as did the book’s protagonist. Both mothers, Stuart’s own and the book’s, even share the same name. The story is ripped from his own life so violently that the personal authenticity roars through every page. But he wrote it from New York, where he has lived all his adult life.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course – there is a long tradition of authors writing about their childhood homes from a distance, and Stuart was so thorough that we hear of a local cab driver who has pieced together a route through all of Shuggie Bain’s main locations – but the film is more slapdash in its approach. Instead of actual footage of Glasgow, we get grainy documentary footage from the past. Market traders, people smoking in pubs, jumpers for goalposts. Like Yentob in the sweet shop, the film seems so scared of the real Glasgow that it has chosen to fetishise its past as dramatically as possible.

Throughout the film, celebrities pop up to read passages from Stuart’s work. But, again, they only underline the howling disconnect from the book’s setting. The most prominent of these is the singer Lulu. Lulu, for crying out loud, who sits reading passages of Shuggie Bain from her giant house in Kensington. For Stuart’s second novel (this year’s Young Mungo) Yentob picks Alan Cumming, who reads wonderfully despite spending most of the time in the US these days.

Later in the film, we travel to see where Stuart’s life has taken him since escaping Glasgow. Only there, pacing the sterile confines of New York’s Whitney Museum to gaze at an Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor for some tangential reason, does the show start to relax. Yentob, free of the fear that some market trader might jump out and spook him, finally exhales. Back in its comfort zone, Imagine became Imagine again.

Chalk this up as a wasted opportunity, then. Douglas Stuart still has an amazing story to tell. Luckily for Alan Yentob, he’s more than qualified to tell it himself.

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