July 31, 2004
By now we are thoroughly familiar with the stock ingredients of Scottish social realism. Drink, drugs, criminality, unhappy families, gang violence, boozy sentimentality, heavy-breathing in dank alleys… Pop into Blockbuster and you’ll find several examples of the genre. Richard Jobson’s 16 years of Alcohol, just out on general release, ticks most of the boxes, but without the grim literalism we have come to expect. The cinematography is lush and dreamlike, a series of beautifully shot tableaux linked by a narrative voice-over that aspires – not always successfully – to poetry. The effect is at once painterly and naive, emotionally sure and just a little pretentious. Autobiographical content aside, it’s very Richard Jobson.
Jobson has had many careers. Minor pop star, actor, performance poet, model, television presenter, film critic, and now director. It’s a respectable CV, but in his native land he’s something of an Aunt Sally. Mentioning his name to Scotsmen of a certain age elicits a particular smirk. Some have gone so far as to set up websites for the pleasure of being facetious at his expense.
In his teens, Jobson fronted the punk group The Skids, belting out floridly obscure lyrics to a generation of hormonally tormented misunderstood youth. The smirks and the facetiousness are for what the smirkers used to be, as much as for what their erstwhile hero has become. Or rather, they’re for the tormented small-town adolescent who still survives inside Richard Jobson.
Not that you’d know it to look at him. A broad-shouldered, square-jawed smoothie with a toothpaste smile and a gift for eye contact, he has always had presence. In the 1990s he graced fashion shoots in glossy magazines and presented countless forgettable television shows. It brought him a reliable living and minor celebrity status, but – at least, the way he tells it now – he despised every minute of it. He didn’t want to read the autocue on afternoon TV – he was an artist. The problem was, what he struggled to say was so convoluted even he didn’t understand it.
It’s one thing to be an aspiring artist in the suburbs, quite another to attempt it in working-class Fife. Jobson wasn’t unique – down the road in Cardenden Ian Rankin harboured similar ambitions – but Dunfermline’s intelligentsia numbered precisely two: Jobson and his older brother Francis. Local life revolved around football, violence and drink. Jobson had the presence, and the presence of mind, to fit in, joining a teenage gang.
The AV Toi (named after the Abbeyview council estate) had their “uniforms” made by a Glasgow tailor. They’d go to football matches in Edinburgh: 35 skinheads marching through the city, striking fear into all who saw them. On the promotional trail with 16 Years of Alcohol, Jobson has spoken of the fun of mob violence, reminiscing happily about how it feels to be stabbed or to strike an assailant with a hammer, but he has also described his youth as “claustrophobic” and “completely isolated”.
His father was a miner; his mother worked in the docks: young parents with a social life they were reluctant to give up for their five sons. Jobson didn’t have a particularly strong relationship with either of them. Instead he looked to Francis who, after a spell as a skinhead, became a hippie and joined the Hare Krishna temple in Edinburgh. Jobson used to visit him there.
Francis introduced his younger brother to the music of Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed, and took him to movies and exhibitions. They sampled the Edinburgh Fringe, saw Joseph Beuys in a cage. It was a world unimaginable in the mean streets of Dunfermline, and Jobson coveted it. At 16 he took the first step towards escape. By then Francis had moved to London. Jobson met Stuart Adamson and formed The Skids.
If Francis was Jobson’s surrogate father, Adamson was his surrogate Francis. They shared a flat in Edinburgh, wrote songs together, hit the town every night, and had three Top 20 hits between 1978 and 1980. The grandiose obfuscations of “Into the Valley” may seem risible today, but the record captured the mood of the times. For a couple of years Jobson had the heady conviction that there were people out there who understood him, and even loved him.
Then Adamson got married. Feeling abandoned, Jobson moved to London where he met the journalist Mariella Frostrup, later to become his wife. Jobson and Adamson continued to meet up in the rehearsal studio to write and record together, but the alchemy was gone: they were just a couple of professionals doing a job.
Jobson was 21 when The Skids broke up. At a stroke he lost his surrogate family, his artistic outlet and his confidence. He felt the pressure to succeed, not to become a 22-year-old loser whose best days were behind him, but he didn’t know what to do next: he didn’t know what to be. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed as epileptic.
Some journalists have come away from screenings of 16 Years of Alcohol under the mistaken impression that the director himself was an alcoholic. The film is certainly semi-autobiographical (the central character, Frankie, is a composite of Jobson and his brother Francis), but drink is used as a metaphor for a more pervasive problem: what Jobson calls “total despair”.
Between the ages of 18 and 25 he had a very bad time. His marriage to Frostrup fell apart. He was dividing his life between London, Edinburgh and Belgium, worlds very different from the one he had grown up in. As a pop star, too, he had been out of his depth, but energy and enthusiasm had carried him through. Now he was surrounded by people who found his enthusiasms odd, intimidating, even scary. He dabbled in acting with the theatre company Paines Plough, formed the band The Armoury Show (“anthemic art rock” is the kindest description) and read his poetry in obscure Belgian clubs. He even cut a poetry disc, which was pilloried mercilessly on its release in Britain.
The labels “pretentious” and “poseur” have dogged Jobson for two decades now. Indubitably he has his vanities: narcissism was part of the job description for presenters of 1980s “yoof TV”. Though no longer a model, he still dresses like one. But Jobson is the real deal – one of those people who don’t feel complete unless they’re making art. It’s just that for a long time he wasn’t any good at it.
Deep down he knew he wanted to write, but the knack of plucking words out of his subconscious and striking a chord with others had deserted him. He has talked of lacking the necessary skills and confidence to find a voice, but the problem went further: into the vexed territory of meaning itself. “I felt like a person who really didn’t have anything to say,” he told an interviewer last year. “The thing that was in me just ran dry. I couldn’t find what it was that made sense.”
Even today, words can be problematic for Jobson. Or for those listening to him. He’s hyper-articulate, happy to answer any question, but the more he talks, the less comprehensible he becomes. The sentences are fine – subject, object, verb: all present and correct – but, when strung together, their import grows elusive. And yet encounters with him are not empty. There’s an engaging quality about him: an emotional openness and intelligence which translates well to film. He has something to say, but for years he was speaking the wrong language.
A middle-class boy from the suburbs would have picked up a camera at art school, but Jobson took two decades to find his metier. He became a film critic and, by thinking about movies day-in, day-out, began to understand structure and storytelling. He put his theories to the test, in a small way, producing movie documentaries for Sky TV. At the same time he was making contacts. Half-hoping, he gave the Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar Wai (director of In the Mood for Love) a copy of a long poem he’d published in 1986 called 16 Years of Alcohol. But Wong Kar Wai thought Jobson should adapt and direct it himself.
The resulting film has picked up a clutch of awards: a special commendation at the Edinburgh Film Festival; best director at the Festival of British Film in Dinard, France; and best new director at the British Independent Film Awards. The story follows Frankie (Kevin McKidd) from boyhood to premature and violent death, via membership of a skinhead gang, first love, alcoholism, redemption through art, a second shot at love, and the transcendence of the past even as that past catches up with him.
Here and there details betray the tyro director (a tendency to overdo the ticking clocks and tapping heels), but Jobson handles the emotion beautifully. From the first glimpse of Frankie, holding his whisky glass like a communion chalice, there’s a lump in the viewer’s throat. Though Jobson is 43, it’s very much a young man’s movie, immersing its audience in the heightened sensitivity and exquisite agonies of adolescence. The three-Kleenex ending has no direct parallel in Jobson’s life, but it was informed by two deaths: that of his brother Francis, four years ago in India, and Stuart Adamson’s suicide in 2001.
For Jobson himself, the desperate years seem to be over. He lives what he describes as a simple life in Bedfordshire with his Italian wife Francesca and their two children. The lack of metropolitan distractions allows him to control his epilepsy without drugs, and to work non-stop on his movie projects.
These include adaptations of the Gregory Burke play Gagarin Way and the children’s story The Night Before Christmas, and a car chase movie set in Glasgow. There’s also talk of him directing The Contract, a David Mamet script set in New York. The Purifiers, his martial arts B-movie, is to be premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Like 16 Years of Alcohol, it was shot on a tiny budget.
Keeping things small reminds him of his teenage days with the Skids: the same feeling of confidence and excitement. And, so far, similar success. At long last he’s found his voice. Asked to describe himself recently, he said: “I’m partial to lyricism, I’m melancholy, I have a visual grammar, music’s very important…” It would be hard to come up with a neater definition of quivering adolescence. Fortunately for Richard Jobson, and for his career as a film-maker, there’s a bit of that in all of us.