MARKED out by their tragic tone, miserabilist screenworks depict the lives of addicted and often violent anti-heroes or “hard men”, set against the backdrop of post-industrial hopelessness, urban squalor and decay. Where redemption and forgiveness seem impossible and the white, working class hero struggles to develop tools or strategies to ultimately overcome his misery or “temptations”.

This self-defeating narrative can be found in works as diverse as the Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972-78), long-running comedy series Rab C Nesbitt (1988 – 2014), the Trainspotting franchise (1996-2017), Ken Loach’s feature film, Sweet Sixteen, (2002) and BBC

Scotland’s documentary series, The Scheme (2010). As well as being entertaining, powerful and award-winning, these works perpetuate a doom-laden narrative which has been embedded into Scotland’s film and media culture for five decades. What started as an important protest movement that gave a “real” voice to the disenfranchised working class evolved into an exportable cultural commodity that is now long past it’s sell-by date. There are signs, however, that the stories Scotland tells about itself are changing. With the slow demise of miserabilism, space is now being created for the emergence of new voices who can freely imagine Scotland’s future as a diverse and hopeful nation.

There’s a much-quoted and telling sequence in the film Trainspotting (1996), the popular adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s best-selling novel. In it, the athletic and clean-cut Tommy (Kevin McKidd), takes his heroin-addicted mates on a train ride hoping to tempt them away from their self-destructive urban lifestyles by showing them the great outdoors and instilling in them a sense of pride in their own country. The miserabilist hero, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), takes one look at the breath-taking view of the hills and tells the beleaguered Tommy exactly what he thinks: “It’s shite being Scottish, we are the lowest of the low ... the most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some people hate the English, I don’t, they’re just wankers. We on the other hand are colonised by wankers, can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by ... It’s a shite state of affairs ... and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any f**king difference.”

Renton’s definitive casting of Scotland as a “victim” culture triggers Tommy’s tragic descent from a healthy optimist to a heroin addict, ravaged to death by worms. Renton escapes this grisly fate by taking the only other way out for the miserabilist hero – self-imposed exile, a path beaten in reality by many of Jock Tamson’s most gifted bairns, such as comedian Billy Connolly, film director Bill Douglas and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh – who at 56, after the completion of the ground-breaking Glasgow School of Art, was forced into exile, unable to secure architectural commissions in Scotland. The message here is that there no escape and no matter how hard a Scottish miserabilist hero tries to change he is doomed to failure. The only alternative to survive/change is for the hero to live in an exile.

Ironically, Trainspotting’s Renton escapes to the country he blames for the state of his own nation. England is both his salvation from the hopelessness of being Scottish but also, its cause. The colonisation Renton describes began many generations earlier when Scotland’s skilled working men were dispossessed of their land, and then their jobs. The once skilled, once proud working man was left impotent, consigned to the industrial slag heaps and later the misguided modernist ghettos along with their long-suffering wives and their rudderless offspring. The only escape from this crushing fate was to flee their motherland on the boats they sweated to build or lose themselves in a protracted adolescence – in sectarianism, football, knife crime, alcohol or drugs, a path well documented in Peter McDougall’s hard-hitting screenplays such as Just Another Saturday (1975) and Just a Boys’ Game (1979).

This new sensibility began to emerge in Scotland as things declined, a close cousin of naturalist literature and British social realism. “Clydesidism” oozed out of the pens of Scottish writers like William McIlvanney, James Kelman as well as screenwriter McDougall, exposing the plight of these proud, forgotten men. Clydesidism was identified by film theorist Duncan Petrie as an important reaction to the other extreme, the over-idealised depictions of a rural Scotland, the quaint, the twee, the world of Brigadoon and Para Handy, a land of tartan, shortbread and “the Kailyard”.

By the peak of Thatcher’s reign, miserabilism had seized Scotland’s fictional imagination and the miserabilist hero loomed large. Born as a fearless protester fighting for his dignity, by the late 1990s he had become a macho stereotype, a cultural victim, caught in a cycle of hopelessness, an urban Scotsman with little to be proud of and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Queen Mary cruise liner. Most significantly the influence of miserabilism has resulted in a lack of diversity in the way in which Scotland has been represented in both film and television, particularly within TV drama. One of the reasons it is attractive to TV commissioners is that it is cheap to produce. Miserabilism needs the anonymity of the unknown or lesser-known actor to add to the veracity of the world it creates. Using actors who are either untrained or lesser known is significantly cheaper than using “stars”, who generally expect large fees and decent working conditions.

The urban wastelands and down-at-heel domestic settings, which dominate the trope, are box-ready in Scotland’s central belt, which is also conveniently located close to broadcast production bases, saving on travel and overnight expenses. Miserabilism’s “realist” aesthetic also requires less “stage craft”, often favouring available light and documentary style camerawork which makes filming schedules shorter and also harder to see that the film is a construction.

As well as neglecting the rich geography of Scotland’s towns, villages and rural landscapes miserabilism also bypasses the stories of the rich diversity of its populous. Where are the “independent women, queer fishes, culture vultures, bold explorers and hopeful children” depicted in the great late artist Alasdair Gray’s microcosm of Scottish society on display in the entrance of Glasgow’s Hillhead Subway station?

Since the mid 90’s, when miserabilism was entrenching itself as a national brand among the London-based network commissioners, a few indigenous Scottish creators managed to secure intermittent commissions, particularly in the area of TV comedy, that attempted to bring diversity to our screens. Despite their artistic excellence and/or popularity, examples either tended be one-off commissions or series that didn’t return such as Hardeep Singh Kohli’s Scottish Asian comedy for Channel 4, Meet the Magoons (2005), Annie Griffin’s New Town (2009) set amongst the cut throat Edinburgh elite, sell-out Doric comedy ensemble Desperate Fishwives (2010), and Forbes Masson and Alan Cummings’ camp airline spoof The High Life (1994-5), now being re-run as a cult classic on BBC Scotland.

The High Life was not re-commissioned after the first series despite its popularity. A safer bet was a re-commission of the well-established Rab C Nesbitt, which ran for nearly three decades, satisfying both the London-based commissioners and English audiences’ preconceptions of Scottish working-class culture.

SUNSHINE on Leith (2013) offered a glimpse of hope as Scotland approached the 2014 indyref. A feel-good musical based around the wholehearted songs of pop – folk group The Proclaimers, the feature-length film follows Ally and Davy, soldiers returning home to Edinburgh from duty in Afghanistan. Far from being “hard men” toughened by war, they are assimilated back into their community while they adjust, fall in love and overcome their mistakes. Rather than hold on to historical wounds, this is a Scotland where – as the Proclaimers lyrics remind us – the past is “over and done with”, depicting a culture which can finally move on.

This paradigm shift away from a miserabilist narrative was further confirmed with the release of T2 Trainspotting. The narrative centres around Renton’s return from exile and on “hard man” Begbie’s, (Robert Carlyle) release from prison after 20 years inside. As an archetypal miserabilist anti-hero Begbie takes no responsibility for his crimes which include pathological violence, sexism, racism, bigotry and homophobia. Like Rip Van Winkle, Begbie emerges into a Scotland which has moved on without him. Begbie finds that crime still thrives in Auld Reekie, but the black-market economies have shifted away from hard drugs to sex. The boozer staggers onwards but, under 10 years of SNP rule with stricter drink-drive policies and minimum-unit pricing, its clientele are migrating to coffee houses, bistros and Polish delicatessens.

As a prisoner, Begbie was absent from his son, Frank’s, formation. Unable to pass on to him the narrative of miserabilism, Begbie still tries to lure his son into a life of crime by including him in a badly planned heist. Not surprisingly Frank Jr’s, heart is not in it. He confesses to his disbelieving father, Begbie, that he is applying to go college where he hopes to become a hotel manager.

Unlike his father, and as part of Scotland’s new generation, Frank Jr has chosen to break away from his ancestral cycle of being defined by a narrow definition of masculinity and a pattern of hopelessness and self-defeat. By choosing higher education and work in the service industries, he will have an opportunity to connect with and welcome outsiders who can enrich the Scottish nation financially and culturally. As long as he can afford the fees, and there are jobs available, his generations break from miserabilism may be complete.

In February 2019, BBC Scotland finally won the long-term battle with the network to launch its own channel. Almost a year on, despite its critics and its modest operational budget, it is currently bucking the trend of the BBC network by attracting younger viewers. Partly due to its online presence and links with social media platforms, and partly due to the freshness and diversity of its output, Kevin McKenna has dubbed it the “shoestring revolution”.

Featured documentaries include the emotive political documentary about Scottish workers protesting against a Chilean dictatorship, Nae Pasaran (2018), the highly entertaining, Getting Hitched Asian Style, and fly-on-the-wall documentary The Children’s Hospital, which takes us north of the central belt to Aberdeen. Indigenous drama, being expensive to produce, is thinner on the ground and will have to rely on a 50/50 split of new commissions, such as the episodic black comedy Guilt and re–runs of past classics, such as John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti.

The nation’s economic health will always play a central role in the rise and fall of the miserabilist ethos. The level of public funding both within communities and broadcasting will have direct bearing on motivating this potential sea change towards expansion, growth and renewal.

Scottish editorial independence comes at a cost for indigenous producers and filmmakers who need to work harder for less.

Available film funding in Scotland is half of its Danish equivalent and the BBC Scotland channel will be hard pushed to keep innovating on a shoestring, which considering the current financial pressures on the BBC, will be ever diminishing.

The new broadcast film fund from the recently reformed Screen Scotland has, however, enabled the commissioning of three new TV comedy pilots for the channel which claim to reflect “modern Scottish lives ... with families and relationships at the centre”.

Daily Grind promises a protagonist who is a “mother and multi-tasker” but it is writer and director Annie Griffin’s and best-selling author Denise Mina’s, Group, which helps us to come full circle.

Group follows addicts struggling with their temptations but, unlike their miserabilist counterparts, this small community of diverse characters are after a solution to their problems. Could this finally be miserabilism in recovery?