From Trainspotting to the TV series of Crime: the Irvine Welsh interview

Crime TV series by Irvine Welsh © ITV

Crime TV series by Irvine Welsh © ITV

I may have started this with some punk quotes that only Trainspotting fans would get – you know, something like “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact discs…” that would strategically end up with “Choose great UK TV series. Choose Crime by Irvine Welsh”, but that’d feel fake as hell after having consciously endorsed the fucking big television side of things.

At the end of the day, even though the purpose of this article is to discuss a television adaptation of a novel, what matters the most here is the man, not the medium, because whatever this man does will look and sound great on every screen, every page and every theatre stage: over a career that spans three decades, legendary Scottish novelist and playwright Irvine Welsh got twelve novels published, ten screenplays written, six film adaptations made and five theatre pieces done – and counting.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

The Edinburger first became renowned worldwide for his 1993 masterpiece novel Trainspotting that three years later was adapted into an enormously successful film of the same title directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor as the heroin-addicted Mark Renton.

The cast of Trainspotting, 1993

The cast of Trainspotting, 1993

Set in Edinburgh in the late 1980s, Trainspotting is possibly the only story about addiction that transcends addiction to transform into a damn universal narrative, something that even the people who never did drugs, never went to Edinburgh and never saw Margaret Thatcher’s face will relate to.

Trainspotting the novel sold over one million copies in the UK alone and was translated into thirty languages, while the movie was ranked tenth by the British Film Institute in its list of Top 100 British films of the 20th century. The last scene of the film, soundtracked by Underworld’s electronic hit Born Slippy – and the following quote by Mark Renton resonated to the hearts of millions, and there it stayed forever:

So why did I do it? I could offer a million answers – all false. The truth is that I’m a bad person. But, that’s gonna change – I’m going to change. This is the last of that sort of thing. Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m going to be just like you: the job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electrical tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisurewear, luggage, three-piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine-to-five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead the day you die.

Crime by Irvine Welsh

Crime by Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh is still and will always be in the hearts of everyone who’s ever bumped into his writing, although he enjoys repeating that, well, you know, whatever you ever got out of Trainspotting or any other book was all about yourself and it’s all different for everybody and it’s basically not “his business”, and that the same applies to all his works, including Crime.

As a sequel of Irvine’s 1998 novel Flith, Crime was first published in 2008 and follows the steps of cocaine-using, alcoholic Edinburgh detective Ray Lennox investigating appalling cases of child abuse.

The cast of Crime by Irvine Welsh © ITV

The cast of Crime by Irvine Welsh © ITV

This acclaimed fiction book, often regarded as Irvine Welsh’ best work since Trainspotting, has now been turned into a 6-episode TV series being produced by David Blair for Buccaneer Media and Off Grid Film and TV and aired in November 2021 exclusively on BritBox UK, which is the paid digital video subscription service created by BBC and ITV that you can actually watch on any screen, not just on TV.

Starring Mission Impossible actor Dougray Scott as detective Lennox who deals with the disappearance of a schoolgirl whilst trying to overcome his own personal problems and getting into trouble while on vacation in Florida, Crime is the first TV version ever of a book by Irvine Welsh and was adapted for the small screen by the man himself alongside his long-standing screenwriting partner Dean Cavanagh.

By having the huge honour of interviewing Mr Welsh about what it is like to adapt novels for the telly, what impact his work had on different generations and what he is going to do next, not only did I find out how deep his sense of humanity is, but also how humble, down-to-earth, intellectually honest and profoundly sweet a man of Scot letters can be.

Irvine Welsh official website

Irvine Welsh’s official website that has not been online for a while now and so I used a trick to steal a screenshot

Irvine, I believe Crime is your first TV adaptation; was the process any different from adapting your books for cinema?

With TV, there’s a lot of people involved, but there are people in cinema, as well. I think the good thing is that when you do most of the adaptations with teams as I do, this gets you used to work with someone else, as you’ve got to get used to working with loads of people, while if you’re writing novels, you write on your own, you’re just there by yourself. Working with loads of people is something I got used to through cinema, so it didn’t feel too strange to do it for TV as well. And when you’re working with other people, I think it’s always good. You learn so much. Because with novels, you get to that stage when you’re writing novel after novel, and you can only really learn about yourself and you get sick of yourself in a way, whereas if you’re writing TV and film stuff you really learn loads through other people, and it’s much more interesting.

What do you think when you hear people saying that screen adaptations deprive the book of its authenticity?

I think the thing you have to remember is that the book is out there, it’s not going to change, there’s never been a single page of a book that changed or a single word in a book that changed as a result of somebody doing a film, or a TV show. And I do think that films should be different because there’s lots more opportunity to do different things on screen that you can’t do on the page, so you should kind of accept that. And it should be exciting to a writer to try and change it themselves, you just don’t want to regurgitate the same thing and say things like: “This was true to me”. This was true to you and this was how you felt at the time you wrote it, but this could be years ago… and I mean, if you don’t see it as an opportunity to do something different… I just say, what’s the point of trying to transpose a book verbatim to cinema or TV? Let it just breathe.

Writers are always complaining that films are never as good as their books…

Books by Irvine Welsh

Books by Irvine Welsh

That’s the writers doing all their boring things… you know, when somebody does a film or a TV show of your book, you can’t really lose, because if it is brilliant, you can say “Yeah, they got the best material and so they couldn’t go wrong with this wonderful material presented to them” – and if it’s shit, you can say “Oh, they fucked up my beautiful book”. It’s a win-win situation, you just have to see it in that way.

Is there a difference in the expectation for this TV series that the people who have read the book should have compared to those who didn’t read the book?

You should not have any expectations at all when you watch or read anything, you should just get in there and enjoy it and see what hits you. You know, everybody’s different. Some people watch a TV show and expect it to be like what they’ve seen before. Some people won’t watch it because they think that they’ve read the book and so they’ve seen it before, and other people will think that they want it to be different from the book. So you really have to let people immerse. And that’s part of the conversation, isn’t it? You know, when someone has read a book and they watch a TV show or a film, they want to have a conversation about how different it was and so on. And that’s part of the niceness of doing something like that, that you can have that kind of conversation and these arguments and discussions about that. Most people will say the book was always better, and I think in some ways it is, because when you read the book you make your own film in your head, and your film is always gonna be better than anybody’s else’s. So the big thing we have to do is to understand that if we read a book, it is not just a person’s book that we read, it was full-on in your head, and you have to reconcile that with the film or the TV show that someone else has made.

Was it intentional not to adapt your work for TV before? 

No, I mean, I wrote lots for television, I’ve worked on three shows in America, three HBO shows and none of them got made, so it was just a nice apprenticeship, I got well-paid but we never got anything made. There were great people there and so I’ve always got that ambition, I’ve always been involved in that, but I think that once you get one thing made, things tend to kind of cascade, and so there’re going to be a few other things that are going to be in the pipeline, and hopefully we’ll get them done as well.

Is there any difference between British cop drama and American cop drama, in your opinion?

Yeah, traditionally there is. And I mean, I’m not interested in traditional British cop drama, it was too procedural for me: it’s all about catching the criminal, the good guys, the bad guys, and the nice people getting to sleep easy in their beds. I don’t see it like that at all, I see about the fucked-up guys catch the more fucked-up guys for the rest of us, and we enter into this uneasy sort of truce with them. And so yeah, I really want the cops to be as fucked up as the criminals, basically. And I think that’s what American drama does really well, it makes the cops in proper characters, and they’re barely two-dimensional, because, honestly, nobody’s perfect. You know, nobody is this kind of big thing in life, and if you’re a cop or you’re a gangster, you lead quite a stressful life, and you might just be an ordinary guy, but you’re living an extraordinary life and that puts demand, incredible demand on you, so why not to reflect that on the screen?

Is there a message in Crime the public should get?

Um, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really do messages…

Oh, you do. Trust me.

[Smiles] I mean, I just think that there’re lots of things that people could take out of it, but I don’t really like to say anything because I think that everybody’s different, so everybody’s going to take a different thing out of that. I think as long as people are entertained and see some kind of truth in it, some kind of realism and authenticity, then that’s all you’re looking for, really. I mean, to me it’s like everything I do has overwhelming messages that we’re all entering into this time, this phase of social and environmental changes, things are changing, everything’s changing so rapidly. And ultimately, all we have is each other. You know, we’re moving into very uncertain times. So we should be looking after each other and being kind to each other and not doing the job of the powerful people and controllers for them – we should be kind and take care of each other. And that’s really sort of what I hope comes out through most of the stuff that I do and comes out of Crime.

What achievements are you most proud of at this stage in your career?

I mean, I don’t know. I think that you never really… I mean, I don’t have any kind of pride in anything I’ve done. I think that the thing I’m most proud of is have been able to write for 30 years, now. I’ve just been able to afford the luxury of not needing to do another job. I’ve just been able to write and to make money from writing. And that’s the thing that I’m most proud of because that’s what you want to do if you’re a writer, you just want to write and you don’t want to be distracted. And, you know, some of the things that you like best aren’t always the things that are the most commercial or that people kind of appreciate the most, while with some of the things that people really appreciate and love and become kind of big things, you are just like, well, alright… so you never really know. All you want to do is to do the best thing you possibly can for every project, and then forget about it and move on to the next one.

Irvine Welsh Twitter by James Myet

Irvine Welsh Twitter by James Myet

Right, but this is from your personal point of view only. But you changed people’ lives with your books. For example, you retweeted yesterday somebody who said that Trainspotting changed everything for him, that he was never into books before and it made him realise how good they can be and opened up a whole world to him.

Really?

Yes, really. And there must be some kind of pride in having made a difference for so many people.

Yeah, I mean, you hope that what you do is appreciated, that people get something. I get people coming up to me and say “Oh, this book changed my life” – versus a film or a TV show or a theatre play that changed their life. And that’s good, you know, it’s great, it feels good. But I can’t take any responsibility for that because people are off on their own journeys, so if it wasn’t that it would be something else that resonates with them, so it’s basically them, it’s internal to them, and it should be, it should be about them. When you write something and you put it out there, it’s like an act of letting go: you’re giving that away basically, for people to use it or not use it as they see fit. So that’s what it is for me, I’m giving stuff away, and hopefully, people get something out of it.

The thing with your work is that it’s so very universal. Trainspotting is universal, it relates to everybody: to people who are not Scottish, to people who never did drugs, and even to people who weren’t around at the time. Why do you think is that?

Well, again, it’s because of the characters, because the characters tend to be archetypes that people recognise in their own place and their own culture, they know people like that. The other thing is that people might not have had experience with addiction, but everybody’s had the experience of going out and drinking too much or going out and sort of taking too many pills or whatever in a rave, or something like that. There are people who have been addicted to prescription drugs and all that, you know, I think that we are a very medicated society. I think people value that kind of discussion and they can relate even if they have not been junkies, you do not have to take heroin to be able to relate to drug abuse. We all have kind of seen people do it. We all have seen the most unlikely people do that kind of thing.

Did you attribute the smashing success of Trainspotting to this when it first came out?

Trainspotting the movie, 1996

Trainspotting the movie, 1996

No, I think the success of Trainspotting is really because we’re moving to a world without paid work, we’re moving into a world where we get paid less and less every year, and we’re moving to a world where we don’t get paid anything. That’s just technology, you know, and profits all go in as well. We are moving from the end of capitalism into conceptualism, so all the post-industrial world is our future, and the characters that are into Trainspotting are the first ones to experience that, and now everybody has experienced that, so I think everybody can relate.

What’s the legacy of your work in literature, in your opinion?

Oh, I don’t know!

I was sure you didn’t.

I mean, this is a thing you can’t really sort of think about, you always think about what the next one is, the legacy for me is that I’ve got enough money that I can just stay home and write all day and I don’t have to fill out shelves in a supermarket or anything like that. I’m really lucky, I can do what I want to do, so the legacy of every project is to get it done so I can do the next one. But for other people, for the society, I could never ever begin to say.

You kind of don’t want to acknowledge how important your work has been for millions of people, but it really is, you know?

[Smiles] Yes, but I mean, the thing is that within millions of people, every individual reacts to it in a different way, and it’s nice to know that it has touched people – but it’s not really my business. I only wrote the things, everybody’s got unique engagement and interface with culture and all kinds of things, and I realised that as I’ve got to know people who have been massively influential to me like writers and musicians, and so I would go up and tell them how much this has meant to me all that and how brilliantly this stuff has been done and all that – then I thought no, I’m not going to do that because it’s not about them, it’s about me. It’s about a process of listening to, mourning, it’s not really about the guy that has just written it, it’s not actually that important. I’ve taken this on for myself, so I’m not really that important. My job is done as soon as I’ve got the thing out there and that sort of engagement. With the writer thing, you kind of have to be looking outside, you have to get past yourself basically. And thinking about your own ego nourishment about these things isn’t good for you, you just kind of move on to the next project.

What does inspire you in literature and culture in general?

I’ve thought about this a lot and what I’ve always liked is when somebody you really like does a really shit novel. That’s brilliant, because you pick it up and you are like, hey, because this guy is brilliant at anything and this book is actually shit, I can do better than this. This is great, because you look at all the ways it’s not working and you think “I would have done this and that differently”. But when you get somebody who’s written a brilliant book, you’re just overawed by it, or when somebody has made a great film you are like “Oh fuck, I could never do anything as good as this”, so you just feel despondent, you’re not really inspired. I am not, anyway… I’m inspired when they fuck it up!

[We both laugh]

It’s never a great way to be as a person, maybe you should be more generous and inspired by what they really did well, but when somebody great fucks up is just a brilliant feeling because you think “Yes, I can do better than this, he didn’t pull that off, but I can pull that off!”

Where do you think worldwide culture is going? No, I didn’t really mean this. What I actually want to ask is: where do you think is the world going, these days?

It doesn’t seem to be going good right now, is it? Neither of them does. But you know, we live in a media culture, we do everything online and through social media, we don’t really experience the good things in the world. But again, we can’t really help it because that’s the way people are controlling the world… but not even controlling the world: people are controlled by the world, by the system that perpetuates this. And the people who could change it don’t really have any desire to change it, they are trapped. You have the very rich people thinking: I’m going to work hard, I’m going to make money, make money, make money. And then you ask them “Why are you going to do this?”, and they are like “Well, I want to retire, I want to have a cottage in Cornwall and then I can write a book about me”. And so the novel is going to be fuckin’ interesting, isn’t it? Because what have you done for the last 25 or 30 years? You looked at numbers on the phone, you phoned up people, you spoke on the phone, you typed in numbers on a screen. You’ve wasted your life. Who would want to do that? You have to be a fucking lunatic, but that’s what people do. That’s what people who’ve got money do. They sit at the opera, and their phone would be burning a hole in their pocket because they think that they should appreciate the opera but they can’t, because all they can think about is the money – the money they could be making if they were on the phone to somebody or be thinking about this commodity and that share price. And that’s all they do. They’re trapped in that horrible world. So they’re not rich people. They have loads of money but they’re not rich people, they’re very thin, very watered down, very anaemic, very bland, very dull and very boring. But they’re trapped, they are much victims of the system that we’ve created. And somebody who’s kind of struggling to get by, struggling on drugs and struggling on streets, they have it dictated by some addiction by some other force, but in their cases, they are addicted to screens and numbers. They think it’s money but it’s not actually money. They are not going to buy anything, and if they buy something they will never actually be there and be able to use it because they would be on the screen all time. So, yeah, I mean, I think the great thing about art is that if you’re doing art, you have to be free, and this is the only way you can be free, because the world has become so confining, and jobs have become so repetitive and monotonous and exploitative that all you can do to be free is to do art.

And where do you think the UK and Europe are going, in all this?

You don’t know, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. I mean, politically, I wish I knew…

[We stare at each other. We raise eyebrows. We start laughing out loud.]

I kind of preached Mr Nostradamus, you know, but it seems to be bleak times ahead and we all have our own survival strategies for them… to live well, basically.

Have your views on Brexit and Scottish independence changed as you lived in the US for a decade?

So many people in America thought Scotland was already independent, they were like “You really are from another country already, you must be fucking mad”, I never thought much until then, you know? So I saw a very powerful impact, in a way, as you see things a lot clearer when you’re away from home. And Brexit, again, it seems like the politics have become just so much poorer and so much corrupt and everything that the press and the media in this country used to accuse the EU of being it’s just all happened here, and much of it was fantasy, that was never a reality, they made all this corruption and all this exploitation, and all this ripping off of citizens has just become a complete and utter reality. So it’s like a hopelessly corrupt and increasingly poor country feels very poor now compared to what it did back then, and obviously, Covid has made everything and the economy fucked up, but you can see there’s been a massive impact of Brexit as well.

What are you going to do right now? What are you working on, what are the new plans?

I’m doing a lot of music as a DJ, I’m getting back into that again now that lockdowns are over. I’m doing music with my friend Steve McGuinness, we’ve done music for Trainspotting – The Musical, we’re going to put that into production, I’ve written another novel that’s coming out next year, I’m working on another TV show with Dean Cavanagh, so yeah, just loads and loads of stuff really.

And do you think Crime will ever be turned into a musical?

Irvine Welsh in Poland, 2006

Irvine Welsh in Poland, 2006, by Marius Kubik ©

Crime The Musical?! HA HA HA HA!

Yeah, why not?

♫♫♫ We’re hunting this sex offender these days… ♫♫♫ I mean, there are certain things that there’s no way they could be a musical… and even when you think about Trainspotting… but with Crime, the hunting of a serial paedophile might even be much, much producible, you never know. I mean, bad taste has no limits these days.

Are you going on a book-signing tour anytime soon? I want a dedication on my copy of Trainspotting…

Oh, well, hopefully anytime soon!

★ If you enjoyed this, you may also like our interviews with Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols, post-punk legend Jah Wobble, Skin of Skunk Anansie and Moby

★ Our interview with 1990s punk band The Offspring also covers prescription medicine addiction 

Irvine Welsh author Trainspotting and Crime

Irvine Welsh by The Shortlisted ©

About The Author

Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.