Paddy Higson on her trailblazing career in the Scottish screen industry

In 2019 we were very fortunate to have had a young graduate student from the University of Glasgow working with us to help on comms – Alexandru Contras, and earlier this year he learned from our newsletter that I was retiring, so he sent me a copy of an interview that he did with me while he was working with us. – Paddy, October 2022

It was a fascinating experience to speak to Paddy Higson, GMAC Film CEO. With experience in film and television over 40 years, and a continuing interest in cultivating new talent, Paddy’s strategy for the future of the Scottish screen industry is clear: take more risks and support young people.

During our interview, Paddy reflected on the early days of a young Scottish film sector, remembered some of her favourite film and TV projects and talked about the importance of funding in the Arts sector.

First of all, what film you have enjoyed in 2019?

“Sorry We Missed You” (2019), Ken Loach’s new film, is wonderful! I was so thrilled to see it because I have a huge admiration for Ken anyway. I know and admire Paul Laverty too. To me, what they’ve managed to create with that story is something so totally believable. It’s painful to watch. I wrote a note to Ken to say how much I… “enjoyed” is not the right word, but you know, how much I appreciated it. You can’t actually see any acting, the characters and the situations are totally believable.

Ken and Paul are extraordinary people. What Ken wrote back to me was that he was so lucky to have found Paul to collaborate with. He’s found somebody who writes exactly what he wants. It’s a brilliant team.

Since February 2019 you are GMAC Film’s CEO, but your history with the organisation is longer than that. Can you tell me what some of your earliest memories of GMAC Film are?

The GMAC Christmas parties I remember more than anything else, back in Albion street days. They were legendary, taking over the whole floor – totally crazy parties! I knew quite a few of the people who worked there, they had two or three proper cutting rooms with Steenbecks and I think I used to go in to watch cutting copies that we were working on at the time.

Then in 2014 that I was asked to go on the board of GMAC Film. I hadn’t been into the current building up until then. And from then I’ve just kind of fallen into it…

What does your day-to-day job entail? What does it mean to be the CEO of a third sector arts organisation?

I think what the word CEO simply means “where the buck stops”. It’s taking the ultimate responsibility for making sure that the organisation is run as safely as possible. I try to have a broader view of what needs to happen; I don’t usually get involved in the projects. I’m treating the job very much as if I were making a film – I look after the budget and try to make sure that the team is working properly together. Making films is all I know about, I don’t have any qualifications for anything, really. Building teams… I used to think I was quite good at doing that, I like making sure that people feel valued and that they actually understand that everybody has to collaborate to make things work. Film is, as you know, a very collaborative medium. You can go and make films individually, but to make a decent production is difficult without collaborating with other people. That’s the way I try to work here.

You have been called “a trailblazer of independent film in Scotland”. When you were presented with your BAFTA Scotland Award, David Hayman called you the “mother of the Scottish film industry”. Given your synonymity with the Scottish screen industry, I would like to go back and ask you what the origin story is – what first brought you towards film?

I got involved in film by accident, if you like. I was working at the BBC as a production secretary and the producer I was working for at the time got involved in doing some early television programmes. I went along as his assistant. Through that, I met my husband who was a film editor. Later he had a company with another film editor and director, Murray Grigor – Viz Ltd. They made documentary films for an organisation called Films of Scotland. They wanted somebody to organise things for them. I seemed to be quite good at it, so I got involved. I got a huge amount of pleasure from facilitating and making things happen.

I was very lucky because it was a very small industry… Everybody knew everybody. I knew Bill Forsyth quite well. He was wanting to make a film called “That Sinking Feeling” (1979) and I got involved in that. That project led to “Gregory’s Girl” (1981), then to all sorts of other films. That’s how it happened.

What did the industry look like at the time?

The films we were doing for Films of Scotland, going back 40 years, were mostly films that went for cinema release. That was the way money came into the Films of Scotland organisation. At the time, there was a tax on seats called the “Eady Levy”, if a short film was shown along with a feature film, and the short film was a British film, then the film got a percentage of every seat sold in the cinema. If the feature was American – the tax returned on the British short was eligible for a two-and-a-half-times multiplier – for instance, we had one film that went out with “The Sting” (1973) – and made huge amounts of money back for Films of Scotland, who were the producers.

We mostly shot on 35mm, even for documentaries and short stories. You had a good basic training, even as an assistant, because we didn’t have big crews. When I started out, I was really fortunate – I learned to pull focus, I learned to swing a boom, I carried equipment. You got to know an awful lot about filmmaking.

Among many of your credits, at one point you worked on the iconic “Taggart” (1983-2010). Can you share any memories from the set?

“Taggart” was an interesting time. I worked on two series of it. Mark McManus, who was Taggart, was actually very ill on one of the series that I worked on. He ended up in the hospital. We had a director called Alan Macmillan. I remember sitting with Alan and the writer around my kitchen table, rewriting the script overnight. We had to work out how we needed to change the story, because we were halfway through three episodes. It was complicated.

Mark was actually an extraordinarily lovely man, who I didn’t think was looked after as well as he should have been by Scottish Television.

How come?

Well, in a way. At that stage I had already worked on quite a few feature films. The thought of an actor of the standing of Mark McManus not having a trailer… I couldn’t believe that. They were doing his make-up in a pub. He didn’t get to sit comfortably during breaks. He was in his late 50s, early 60s at the time. As Taggart he brought in a lot of money into STV, it was huge around the world…. It just seemed to me counterproductive, you can’t do that to people. If I did anything for Mark, I managed to get him a trailer, and one for the other actors too.

Do you have a project you call your favourite?

I’m quite proud of a series called “Brond” (1987). It was directed by Michael Caton-Jones and it was his first project after film school. In fact, he left film school early to do it.

It was a very difficult project, but Michael was fun to work with.

And I loved doing “That Sinking Feeling”! I have always liked working with Bill Forsyth. It’s to do with the people, more than anything else.

Another project I was really proud of was a television series called “Cardiac Arrest” (1994-1996). It was written by the then unknown Jed Mercurio, who is one of the most astonishing writers I’ve ever worked with and he was still practicing as a junior doctor at the time. It was doubly gratifying, because we managed to get questions asked in the House of Commons about the number of hours junior doctors were having to work. It was at that stage the law was changed. I think it was only brought down from 72 to 60 hours, but it was at least a change… That was an extremely good project to work on.

Did you know that there’s a photograph of you with Stuart Cosgrove and Don Coutts that is for sale on Amazon? Can you tell me about the photograph?

Really? It must’ve been at the time that I had a studio in the East End of Glasgow called BlackCat Studios. Don and Stuart came to work there to do a series called “Halfway to Paradise” (1988). I suppose that must’ve been a publicity still.

It was lovely, I actually saw Stuart the other day, I haven’t seen him for ages. And I worked with Don again five or six years ago on “Katie Morag” (2013-2015), the children’s television programme, which they dragged me out of retirement for – to mentor a lovely young woman Katy Engels in her first job as Line Producer. In fact, it was just before I came back and started doing bits and pieces here.

Since you have both creative and administrative experience in film, could you describe the current state of the industry as you see it? Is it easier or more difficult now for a young person starting out?

Much more difficult. Like most other things in the world at the moment, everything seems to be more polarised. You either have the very low budget end of the market and settle for that or you do short films and hope to be able to get funding for a feature.

That’s one of the reasons I’m here at GMAC. Right from the ‘70s I’ve been involved in training and bringing new people into the business. Of the television stuff I’ve done, for a lot of it I’ve been able to use first-time directors and writers.

Since that interview – a lot has happened – we had the pandemic, we were shut down for a lot of time; we have made some strategic changes, and we have taken on new staff. It has been a difficult, but also an exciting time with huge support from Screen Scotland; the success of Little Pictures, the beginning of Screen Start, GMAC Film Action being completed and sadly the departure of some of our tenants – we do miss them. But in this the fortieth anniversary of GMAC Film – we are still here and thriving. The most recent and exciting progress has been the appointment of Euan Platt as my replacement – he is completely wonderful and is certainly able to do all the things that I have struggled with! GMAC has an extremely active and gifted Board of Trustees – currently led by one Kieran Howe, who has been involved in GMAC Film since 2012 when he took part in the first BFI Film Academy that GMAC Film ran – and has been a mentor, and volunteer on many projects since. His record is very much an exemplar of the ethos of GMAC Film. I am so proud to have been part of the organisation for the past four years.

Paddy Higson

October 2022