SOFT TOP, HARD SHOULDER FEATURE
The surprise hit of the London Film Festival was a low budget British road movie that could only belong to Glasgow. Alan Morrison talks to PETER CAPALDI and ELAINE COLLINS about Soft Top, Hard Shoulder.
f it’s true that Christmas festivities top
the list of reasons for domestic tiffs,
then long car journeys can’t be far
behind. So a 412-mile road trip in a
clapped-out Triumph Herald isn’t
exactly the kind of pastime that most married couples would revel in. Nevertheless, that is just what the husband-and-wife acting duo of Glaswegian Peter Capaldi and Motherwell-born Elaine Collins set out to do last year. Or more precisely, what Gavin Bellini and his hitchhiker companion Yvonne got up to in Soft Top, Hard Shoulder, a new British comedy penned by Capaldi.
Gavin is an Italian Scot, a would-be illustrator who is down on his luck in London. Promised a slice of his family’s ice-cream fortune if he can make it to his father’s 60th birthday party in his native Glasgow, Gavin splutters onto the M1 and into a series of misadventures that would confound even the hardiest Basil Fawlty. Escaped psychopaths, car breakdowns, motorway service station prices and a ; former balloon twister all add to his woes, as does the mysterious but engaging young hitch-hiker he picks up on the way.
A simple premise perhaps, but already Soft Top, Hard Shoulder has run off with the new, but much sought after, Gold Bier Audience Award for best British feature at the 1992 London Film Festival. In the process, it beat off the likes of Leon The Pig Farmer, Wild West and Peter’s Friends, the latter bringing about inevitable comparisons.
‘Yes, we’re now referred to as the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson of Scottish film,’ says Collins.
‘More like the Jack Milroy and Mary Lee,’ counters Capaldi. O
While hardly an old music hall couple , the duo did meet while treading the boards on tour with The Paines Plough Theatre Company’s 1985 production of Songs For Stray Cats. Three year later, with their professional and personal relationships now going strong, they co-starred in The Tom and Sammy Jo Show, a play based on Jim and Tammy Baker, written by Capaldi and staged by Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. Soft Top, Hard Shoulder marks the first time
they have appeared together on the big screen.
Capaldi had come to prominence in the early 805 in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero; after finishing art school he had spent a period on the dole, getting only the odd bit of work as an illustrator. Legend has it that one night, slightly inebriated, he returned to the ﬂat he shared with the costume designer on Forsyth’s Gregory ’3 Girl to find his flatmate and the director rather dejected after a poorly received local screening of the film. In an attempt to cheer them up, Capaldi babbled away, leaving a lasting impression on Forsyth, who promptly cast him in his next project. More lucrative theatre, television and film work followed, necessitating a shift down south (and even a brief foreign trip while shooting Dangerous Liaisons alongside Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer).
‘When I moved to London, I found myself drifting away from my family a bit,’ he admits. ‘It was only when I met Elaine that I came to realise the value of the family and all that stuff. When writing, you use your own life as a trigger to think up an idea and then embroider it. What I wanted to do, in effect, was to make Gavin go through a similar experience to the experience I had been through with Elaine — ie how she had matured me in certain ways and taught me certain things. I’d just been driving up and down to Scotland a lot because Elaine was working up here, and the journey seemed to me to be an ideal structure on which to hang something. And also because the road from London to Glasgow means something slightly different if you’re Scottish — there’s another culture at the end, a mythological Glaswegian golden city. It really came down to wanting to do something economically viable and being on the motorway a lot.’
Capaldi had already written a number of screenplays, none of which had reached the production stage (although his debut as writer/director - a short comedy called Franz Kafka ’3 It’s A Wonderful Life, starring Richard E. Grant — is due to start shooting soon thanks to a grant from the Scottish Film Production Fund). As soon as debut director Stefan Schwartz and producer Richard Holmes read an early
draft of Soft Top, Hard Shoulder, they saw its potential as a character-based comedy playing out against an ever-changing landscape.
Budgets may well have been tight once the cameras started rolling, but the cast and crew enjoyed the luxury of several weeks of rehearsal beforehand in order to define the characters. ‘We were very conscious of the fact that Elaine and Peter know each other so well, and yet as characters they had to meet each other again ,’ continues Schwartz. ‘A lot of the rehearsals were gauging, in terms of the love story, where they start liking each other and how much they like each other.’
This familiarisation period, coupled with the bonding that can occur when everyone is committed to such a low-budget production, meant that, once on the road, the cast and crew worked together more closely than is usually the case. It also helped that many of the additional characters were played by friends — such as Greenock-born Richard Wilson (of One Foot In The Grave fame), Frances Barber, Phyllis Logan and Simon Callow — who were more than willing to lend their support. And all the time, the excitement was rising as the route wound its way closer to the Clyde.
‘We’d spent the whole journey saying “Oh, wait till you get to Glasgow, Glasgow people are so wonderful,” explains Collins. ‘Which, of course, they are. But because the location manager - who was great — was English, the locations that he’d arranged were on a Friday afternoon and evening in Buchanan Street and George Square. So we attracted, I’m afraid, rather a lot of very typical Glasgow drunks. It was just bad luck that that was the way it had been arranged.’
Ah, well, who can blame the English if they don’t understand the more peculiar of our weekend habits? But that’s by no means the only example of a lack of comprehension from south of the border: at one point while trying to secure finance in order to turn the
‘The road from London to Glasgow means something slightly ditterent it you’re Scottish - there’s another culture at the end, a mythological Glaswegian golden city.’
script into celluloid, it was suggested that, not only would making the leads come from Edinburgh make them more Scottish, the capital would provide a more picturesque backdrop. A helpful tip that still raises Capaldi’s hackles: ‘We went absolutely crazy, because they were saying Edinburgh was more photogenic, which is nonsense. And we felt that they didn’t really understand the characters if they felt it could be transposed so easily. I think you start to erode your own respect for the work that you’ve done if you start compromising all over the place — where does it end if they come from Edinburgh? Could they not be English? Do we have to go all the way to Scotland?’
Yes, you can take the boy out of Glasgow. but you can’t take Glasgow out of the boy.
Soft Top, Hard Shoulder opens across Scotland on Friday 15 January.
The List l5 - 38 January IW.‘ 7