The dance floor is like a Rubik’s Cube: all flashing coloured squares arranged around a silver DJ booth. I imagine it’s changed a bit since the Queen danced here in the 40s, though I wonder if her heels stuck to the floor, too. I feel far too old to be in a nightclub, but this isn’t just any club. This is the Cav; Edinburgh’s largest nightclub, which stars in T2 Trainspotting.
I’m here for an alternative tour of the city that inspired Irvine Welsh. T2 is an adaptation of his book Porno and the follow-up to Trainspotting. Edinburgh features in both films, but plays a much bigger role in T2, with over 50 locations filmed over a three-month period.
Of all the locations, it was the Cav that attracted the most attention. The club was used for the dance floor flashback to the Trainspotting cast in their youth. Thousands of people queued in the rain to be extras, and those that made it were coached by the director himself, Danny Boyle.
“He was like a big, friendly headmaster”, says the Cav’s general manager Mark Cameron. “They couldn’t get the second verse of Radio Gaga, even though we had the words on the screen. Danny got on the microphone and said ‘Is this really the best you can do? Come on guys, this is forever. You’ll be showing this to your grandkids.’”
My hotel beckons, but before I go there’s one more location to visit – one that made it to cinema billboards across the globe… the toilets! The inspiration for the official T2 Trainspotting poster, and the scene where Begbie recognises Renton’s voice. They’re possibly the most famous toilets in cinema.
Begbie and Renton enjoy a reunion in the Cav’s toilets
As I leave the Cav, I think back to the original Trainspotting where Renton gets a cab home with Diane. Imagine my surprise when I return to the literary-themed Hotel Indigo to find that very scene printed on the wallpaper above my bed.
“Where are you going, Diane?” asks Renton. “I’m going home,” she replies. “Where’s that?” “It’s where I live.” These are the last words I read before I drift off to sleep. Who needs a Kindle?
The next morning I wake to a view of Edinburgh Castle and rows of grand Georgian buildings that spill down the hillside into Princess Street Gardens. I meet with tour guide Onya Attridge, who takes me to the location at the very top of Danny Boyle’s wish list; the first place he asked Film Scotland to find. Not the Royal Mile or Holyrood Palace. No, somewhere far more important – it’s Castle Terrace car park, where Begbie chases Renton after leaving the nightclub in T2.
“Danny Boyle looked at every car park in the city, but he said it absolutely had to be this one,” says Rosie Ellison of Film Edinburgh. “He loved the stairs and the shape of it.”
Rosie liaised with Danny and his team of location scouts for several months. He already knew what Edinburgh looked like, so it was the more unusual places that required her assistance, including “the worst pub in the world” to play Sick Boy’s bar the Port Sunshine.
“I got quite competitive with that one because I knew they were also talking to Glasgow film office,” she says. “I was going, ‘this is ours, this is ours. Come on, we can do it!’. In the end it was a composite, but they did use one out near Edinburgh prison and a little bit of the Central Bar down in Leith.”
Throughout filming, Danny Boyle tried to keep everything as natural as possible, though there was one scene – where Spud is almost hit by a car on Calton Road – when he asked a crane to stop work for an hour. None of Edinburgh’s streets were closed, and the locals became accustomed to Ewan et al sprinting through their city.
Onya was one of the many locals to watch Robert Carlyle negotiate the circular staircase of Castle Terrace car park. She lost use of her resident’s parking permit during filming and not for the first time.
Castle Terrace isn’t on most tourist itineraries
“I used to live in the Old Town, which is used a lot for filming as it’s so bonny,” she says. “One Valentine’s Day I remember them filming Filth – another Irvine Welsh. My boyfriend woke me up with a bottle of champagne and I sat by the window watching James McAvoy running up the street. It was a lovely day for me!”
With so many narrow side streets branching off the Royal Mile, Edinburgh is great for filming chase scenes. Begbie and Renton split at one of these, then meet again at Cockburn Street, where filming also took place recently for the new Avengers movie.
But perhaps the most memorable running scene in T2 Trainspotting is when Spud and Renton jog up the dramatic basalt cliffs of Salisbury Crags towards Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh.
“It was the most beautiful day,” recalls Rosie. “They were slapping the suncream on Ewan Bremner and Ewan McGregor and all the crew got sunburnt. Everyone was out running that day, I thought: do they realise they’re running into a film set – they’re running right past Danny Boyle!”
Arthur’s Seat seen from Salisbury Crags
After a walk up Arthur’s Seat to admire the city views, it’s time for some refreshment. When I find out that Harvey Nicks makes it onto the T2 itinerary, I say a silent thank you to Danny Boyle. My clubbing days might be over, but there’s always room for cocktails. We head for the fourth floor and take a table with views overlooking St Andrew’s Square. I learn from the waiter that the cartoon crime spree sequence featuring Renton and the gang is actually repurposed from a Harvey Nichol’s ad campaign. The store’s 2015 advert used security footage of real-life thieves with cartoon heads under the slogan “Love Freebies? Get them legally.”
But that’s not why we’re here. Harvey Nichols’ Forth Floor restaurant is where Renton delivers his “Choose Life” monologue, a scene that apparently took 18 takes and lots of discussion.
“You’re an addict, so be addicted. Just be addicted to something else,” says Renton in the scene, a reminder of where Trainspotting began all those years ago – in the dark, drug-fuelled tenement buildings of Leith.
The port town of Leith has undergone the biggest transformation since Trainspotting was released in 1996. As well as being the hometown of Irvine Welsh (he wrote his first book there whilst working for the council), Leith is where tour guide Onya grew up.
“I’ll never forgive my parents for making me live here,” she says the following day as we walk down Great Junction street. “You could count the drops of blood on the pavement between pubs.”
Leith is enjoying a revival. Harbourside penthouses are shooting up near tenement blocks and Michelin-starred restaurants near working men’s pubs. The old whisky storage warehouses have been converted into flats, and new-builds are made to look like warehouses. Nowadays Onya prefers it to Edinburgh’s Old Town and considers herself a “Leither” through and through.
We stop at the modern apartment building where Sick Boy lives with Veronica in T2. I’m surprised to see the scrapyard really exists and a crane is busy crushing cars outside, the only noise in an eerily quiet part of town. From there we pass the Tesco that used to be Leith Central Station, the lifeblood of the town. “It was just a four-minute train journey into the city centre,” says Onya. “When they closed it down they ripped the heart out of Leith.”
Nearby is the Central Bar, whose cellar is used as the location for Begbie and Sick Boy’s reunion in the Port Sunshine. Onya looks concerned when I pop my head in. I gather this isn’t a pub for outsiders, but I can’t help but admire the red bricks, long mirrors and tiled artwork that are virtually unchanged from the late 19th century. It’s 11am on a Tuesday morning and it’s busier than my local on a Friday night. Enough said.
The exterior of the Port Sunshine in T2 is actually a pub in Glasgow, but the name is a nod to another nearby Leith drinking institution, the Port O’Leith, which recently closed down, breaking many a local’s heart.
“It was a very rough pub. You’d have to be extremely drunk to enjoy yourself and not feel terrified,” says Onya fondly. “It’s the kind of place where you’d find Begbie.”
All is calm at upmarket Leith Shore
We finish our tour of Leith on the cobbled streets of the Shore, which is home to a creative community, independent galleries, shops and cafes. Lunch is at Cafe Tartine, a chic brasserie with wingback chairs, screen-printed cushions and fairy lights hanging from green steel joists. The restaurant was used to film an argument outside between Renton and Sick Boy, which attracted the attention of passersby.
The customers are perfectly behaved today – there’s a business lunch, a couple of guys with laptops and us eating baked fillet of ling. It’s hard to imagine that the tenements just 10 minutes away were heroin shooting galleries, their users the victims of an HIV epidemic, and the inspiration for one of Britain’s biggest cult movies. This is one city tour I’ll never forget.
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