(Reflections of Tommy Flanagan in the 1999 Film Ratcatcher, written and directed by Lynne Ramsay)
One of Tommy’s relatively early roles was Da (George Gillespie) in Ratcatcher, a film set in 1970s Glasgow, against the backdrop of the bin men’s strike, a social commentary of that generation. Reflecting what little I know of his own life, it depicted what it was like to live in the grim housing tenements of the era, some with no indoor bathing facilities, running hot water or indoor toilets. Glasgow had some of the poorest schemes in Europe and Ratcatcher showed the stark reality of living in those bleak and harsh conditions. It told the story from 12 year old James’ perspective (played by William Eadie), a narrative of the austerity of the time, a political, social and economic statement, amidst the somber overtones of family life where abuse, addiction and struggle were rife. These schemes were the pre-cursor to places like Easterhouse, where Tommy himself grew up during a similar period to the one reflected in the film.
Although Ratcatcher never received a wide cinematic release, it was critically acclaimed, winning numerous awards for its debut director Lynne Ramsey. Once again Tommy played a selfish, arrogant man, father of the main character, with an inclination towards alcoholism and domestic violence. It was another powerful performance, a blatant, unadorned and telling insight into a flawed father, and a barren portrayal of a time and place. As a film, it caught my attention completely, resonating with its bluntness. Again, Tommy was amazing, and his depiction of that Da character hit home at least as strongly, possibly even more so, than his more recent characterisation of another Dad, that of Woods in the recently released film, Winter. Da was an unadulterated, undiluted exposé of the individuals who dominated an era. Once more, it completely took me back to my childhood, and struck a monumental chord with me. If I wasn’t in awe of him previously, when I saw this portrayal in Ratcatcher I felt a very real sense of wonder and respect for the actor and the power of his performances.
Ratcatcher affected me not just because it reminded me of what I’d experienced, of the feelings and emotions I’d had growing up through similar events, but it also transported me back to the time and place of my childhood. I could almost smell it. I became nostalgic for the era and familiarity of the surroundings. There’s a scene where the boys are talking about the mythical reputation and notoriety of the canal. They tell tales of a giant perch that inhabits the water, and Kenny looks to catch it with his fishing net, walking towards the canal with the net over his head. I wondered if the writer of those scenes had actually shared my childhood and had an invisible camera on my youth. There was a brook that weaved its way across the fields beyond the back of our houses. When I was about 12 our grubby little group of friends used to walk up there most days through the long, hot summer and on one such day, whilst jumping across the rocks, we saw a monster of a pike sheltering itself from the sun. We ran back home to get our nets, and returned, walking with them over our heads, to try and catch the mighty fish. That image on film, so captured the essence of my own childhood, and that of many others from the same era. It was a spookily accurate portrayal of both the time and the mood, of our lives and our family relationships and dynamics.
When I tweeted about a personal history tour it was an intimate reflection of exactly where it felt Tommy’s performance had taken me while I was watching, and in my reflections afterwards.