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Best Of British Biographies – Danny Boyle

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I’m sure that I’ve said somewhere else that, way back in the nineties, I bought a house based mainly on the proximity to the Davenport Theatre. It was couple of hundred metres away and I could walk around, get a pint or two, and watch a film. As the name suggests, it was originally a theatre and the main auditorium had a large stage with a projection screen which dropped down when it wasn’t being used for showing films.

There was also a smaller studio which was probably a converted staff room or suchlike. This meant that they could show two films or a film and a live show. I remember one particularly hairy evening when I went to see Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country on the small screen while The Chippendales were performing on the main stage. Going to the toilet or the bar was quite a nerve-racking experience and I don’t just mean the risk of slipping on the œstrogen that was running down the corridors.

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Danny Boyle – Debut Feature

I remember this was an interim period between the old days when a trip to the cinema took up a whole evening and the modern method of twenty minutes of adverts and trailers and straight into the main feature. The last time I saw a film with an intermission was a fiftieth anniversary showing of 2001: A Space Oddity. The intermission used to see the arrival of the cinema staff with illuminated trays full of choc ices, lollies, tubs, and Kia-Ora orange juice. Unfortunately this new performance schedule meant that they would turn the lights back on after the adverts and trailers; twenty minutes after you’d walked past the bar and concession stand they’d rock up in front of the screen and try and flog ices!

1994 – Shallow Grave…Obi-Wan meets The Doctor

When 1995 rolled around I remember going to the Davenport and buying a ticket for a film called Shallow Grave. I can’t remember if there was something else on the big screen or I’d already seen whatever was on but I went to see this total unknown. And, now,  it’s hard to imagine a film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston as being unknown. Nowadays the inclusion of any of that trio would guarantee that, whatever the film, it would be riding high on the publicity bandwagon.

New Faces

There were names I recognised though. Keith Allen (Hugo) was quite well known from his time as a member of The Comic Strip and Ken Stott (DI McCall)  was “a face” who had done loads of TV work. Actually, Chris Eccleston was quite well known too. He’d just spent a couple of years as DCI Bilborough in the first couple of series of Cracker. If you get the chance to watch those first two series, I thoroughly suggest you do so. As well as being a marvellous police procedural programme it also gives Mr Eccleston the opportunity to show off his acting chops. The Bilborough character really gets put through the mill.

The Beginning…

So, there I am with my cup of squash and a packet of Revels wondering what I’m going to be spending the next hour and a half watching. Then it starts. The whole screen is filled with the face of Christopher Eccleston. He doesn’t move but appears to be on a turntable as he is slowly rotating. He is reading out a VoiceOver on the subject of friendship. Then the music kicks in and we just to a high speed race around the streets of Edinburgh. It looks like the camera has been strapped to the front bumper of a car, driven round, and then the footage speeded up.

While we’re racing around, the names start popping up on screen: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor…in that order! Then there is a sudden cut to a slow walk through a heavily wooded area where the title, Shallow Grave, appears on screen. Fast action streets and slow woods interchange for a bit while the music thumps along relentlessly. Suddenly the car stops and we cut to a shot of a chap walking up a spiralling staircase which seems to go on forever. Honestly, it wouldn’t look out of place in a lighthouse.

Snappy Dialogue, Sharp Editing

The chap finally makes it to the top flat where there is a door mat that says “Not today thank you” and a name plate for the three occupants. He rings the bell. The door opens. The music stops. And it transpires that Cameron (Colin McCredie) has come about a vacant room to let. He is interviewed by the three flatmates but doesn’t get very far before being shown the door. There then follows a montage of other interviews usually following similar lines; one wonders if they really want a fourth person living with them or not!

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Within five minutes we’ve had action packed kinetic camera work, suspense, humour, surrealism, and intrigue. If your pulse isn’t racing and your mind isn’t bouncing around like a pea in a drum then you must be dead! And it went on from there. Twists and turns throughout. There are times when you laugh out loud, times when you jump, times when you squirm, and times when you just wonder what will happen next. Shallow Grave was one of those films that you went into work the next day and drove everybody made by going on about it.

Danny Boyle – Early Days

So that was my introduction to Danny Boyle. Also to Ewan McGregor but that’s a story for another time. It was my introduction anyway but Mr Boyle had had his work on view before that. He had studied English and Drama at Bangor University. As is the way with these sort of courses, Danny had a go at directing and ended up in the hot seat for several productions. Following graduation he got a position at the Joint Stock Theatre Company before moving across town to the Royal Court and, eventually, the RSC.

1996 – Trainspotting…the breakthrough

The late eighties saw him directing a few made for TV films, and the early nineties saw him making episodes of a variety of TV series. Shallow Grave, though, was his cinematic feature debut. And what a debut it was. It was the most commercially successful British film of 1995 and did well in Europe. America was not so enthused; they decided to wait before jumping on the Boyle bandwagon. Two years later and along came Trainspotting. 


To say that Trainspotting got Boyle noticed is something of an understatement. It made £48m against a budget of £1.5m which is, most definitely, not to be sniffed at. To be honest, though, the most surprising thing is that it was made at all. The original source novel is presented in the Glaswegian vernacular…

The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the c*nt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.

1997 – A Life Less Ordinary with Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz

That’s the opening paragraph of Trainspotting by Irvine Walsh. I really like Scottish programmes such as Still Game, Two Doors Down, and Rab C Nesbitt. I also have a close friend who lives in Glasgow (Hi Melanie!)  so I find it fairly easy to follow, much easier than when I read A Clockwork Orange back in the sixties.  But whereas A Clockwork Orange had to be, essentially, translated into English, Trainspotting was already in English…just with an accent.

From Holyrood To Hollywood

It’s at this point that you could think that Danny Boyle had a definite style and was going to stick with it. Both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting start with racing camera work and a main character narrating. Electronic music is prominent in both as well. There are also crawling babies; in Shallow Grave there is a creepy toy baby crawling around their flat and Trainspotting has an eerily effective scene of a character imagining a deceased baby crawling on the ceiling. 

2000 – The Beach…where’s Ewan?

There was a leading role for Ewan McGregor as well as a bit part for Keith Allen as a drug dealer perhaps hinting at him being an incarnation of Hugo? It was a bit before Chris Ecclestone regenerated as Doctor Who so we can’t ask him about the wibbly-wobbly nature of time. Besides all that there is the same humour, intrigue, suspense, action packed kinetic camera work, and  starring roles for Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

It’s Grim Up North

I must admit that I was quite surprised the first time I actually heard Danny Boyle speaking and I realised he came from Greater Manchester and not the Gorbals. I mean…first film set in Edinburgh, shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with Scottish actors. Second film set in Edinburgh, shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with Scottish actors.  I assumed he was a Scotsman. Anyway, turns out he comes from nearer my neck of the woods; Radcliffe in the northern part of Greater Manchester.

2002 – 28 Days Later with Cillian Murphy

So what was next? A remake of Whisky Galore? Turns out that it involved a trip across the pond and involved the casting of some proper Hollywood stars. He was offered Alien Resurrection but turned it down in favour of A Life Less Ordinary. Jean-Pierre Jeunet had big names like Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, and Ron Perlman to work with, but he also took along his lucky mascot Dominique Pinon. Similarly, Danny had Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, and Delroy Lindo but brought his mascot, Ewan McGregor…he also had Ian Holm for a home-style comfort blanket. Funnily enough, both films are held to be less than stellar when it comes to audience appreciation. Hey ho!

Mistakes Were Made

Next was really a case of Hollywood came a calling. He passed on Fight Club to make The Beach. Once again, Ewan McGregor was cast as the main character…yes he was! However, I have heard that he was offered squllions of cash to use an American actor in the lead. Enter Leonardo DiCaprio, flushed with success after being kicked off a wardrobe by Kate Winslet. Apparently, this whole thing was not handled well and the two fell out…big time! 

2004 – Millions

Ewan McGregor said, “It was a mis-handling and a mis-understanding over the film and it’s a big regret of mine that it went on for so very long.” Danny Boyle stated, “I handled it very very badly and I have apologised to Ewan for it. I felt a great shame about it and how it was handled.” So that little episode led to a decade-long falling out between the two and didn’t do a lot for Leo! He was nominated for a Golden Raspberry award and only lost thanks to the John Travolta vanity project, Battlefield Earth.

Back To TV

A couple of made-for-TV films came up with the unedifying titles of Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Naked In Paradise. I can’t say much about these because I haven’t seen either of them. Strumpet saw Danny working with Christopher Eccleston again while Vacuuming Completely Naked In Paradise saw him directing the ever wonderful Timothy Spall.

2007 – Sunshine

Next up came another choice; Danny was offered 8 Mile but, instead, went to do 28 Days Later. You do have to wonder how all these different films would have turned out with or without Danny Boyle at the helm. Others that he passed on were The Full Monty, American Psycho, X-Men, and Scream! As I said, you do wonder how things might have been.

Decisions, Decisions…

So far we’ve had crime, thriller, drama, fantasy, comedy, adventure, romance, sci-fi, and horror; obviously Danny Boyle doesn’t feel like he has to stay within a particular genre. Unsurprisingly, his next outing came from another area; Millions is a family film. It borrows some elements from Shallow Grave but applies them to a different setting. A large sum of money falls out of the hands of a criminal gang but this time it lands in the lap of a seven year old boy.

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

Damian (Alex Etel) has recently lost his mother and now just lives with his father (James Nesbitt) and his brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon). While out playing in a cardboard fort a bag of money comes crashing through the roof. Damian, despite the name, is quite a religious young chap who spends a lot of time talking to various saints and assumes the money came from heaven. Unlike the protagonists of Shallow Grave, young Damian wants to give the money to the poor. Everything is going reasonably well until the bad guys catch up with him.

No…The Other Brian Cox

For his next film Danny Boyle went to another genre. This time it was hard-core science fiction with Sunshine. While, obviously, being a work of fiction, Sunshine is one of the most factually based sci-fi films ever made.  Professor Brian Cox was on hand as an adviser when he wasn’t actively doing his day job which is split between Manchester University and CERN. As well as learning some of the science involved in the story Cillian Murphy also studied Professor Cox’s characteristics and mannerisms; all the notes on the walls of Murphy’s bunk are actually Brian Cox’s notes.

2010 – 127 Hours…need a hand?

In between Sunshine and the multi Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire there comes a Danny Boyle film that I and, I suspect, the majority of the rest of the world have never seen…Alien Love Triangle. In a similar fashion to Four Rooms, this was meant to be a segment in a longer film with another two parts being filmed by Guillermo del Toro and Gary Flader. The other two got made into the full-length features Mimic and Imposter, respectively, but Danny’s section went no further. It has had one public showing; for the final night of La Charette (the UK’s smallest cinema) the supremely wonderful Mark Kermode managed to arrange a screening. 

Bring On The Oscars!

The next feature that Mr Boyle made was Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t intend to go on too much about this as there can’t be much fresh to say.  Eight Oscars, took $378.1m against a budget of $15m, Dev Patel’s feature debut, etc. Not bad for a film that very nearly had a straight to DVD release!

After this fictitious life story, Danny went on to make a real-life biography – 127 Hours, the story of Aron Ralston who had to amputate his own arm in order to escape from a crevasse in the middle of the desert. This had all manner of extra publicity thanks to the eye waveringly accurate depiction of the self administered surgery.

2011 – Frankenstein alternating Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch

I saw Danny Boyle’s next project during the pandemic lockdown around a decade after it was made. As, along with the rest of the world, I wasn’t getting out much I took out a subscription for the National Theatre At Home. One of the plays on offer was a production of Frankenstein. When it was performed originally there were two main parts namely Victor Frankenstein and The Creature. These were played by Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. The wrinkle was that the two leads alternated the roles each night. At one point it was available through Prime Video; catch it if you can.

Back To The Stage

I suppose, by now, you might be wondering why I’ve included Danny Boyle in this series of British creative talent and their contributions to blockbuster franchises. He did, very nearly, direct the latest Bond film, No Time To Die…more on that later. However, he did get to direct Daniel Craig as he portrayed James Bond. Admittedly, it was just a five minute section of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony but, well, I’m writing this and Danny Boyle is one of the few directors who I like every one of their films.

2012 – The Olympics with Daniel Craig, Elizabeth Windsor, and Beigemantle Pursuivant or some such

I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about how successful the London Olympics were going to be but, like most of the UK population, I was pleasantly surprised right from the beginning of the opening ceremony which was directed by Danny Boyle. I do remember a lot of kerfuffle on international chat forums mainly aimed at the inclusion of a tribute to the NHS but, well, that’s an argument for another time.

Can You Jump On Three, Your Majesty?

Funnily enough, this was very nearly the second time when I had seen an event with the Queen in attendance when there was a problem with fireworks! If it had rained during the ceremony, the pyrotechnic Olympic rings could not have been lit. It did shower a bit at the start of the evening but cleared up in time for the show. 

2013 – Trance with James McAvoy

Unlike 1977…that was the Queen’s silver jubilee and I was there in Windsor Great Park. I can’t say what I was doing there; some things have to stay secret for more than thirty years! Anyway, the highlight of the evening was meant to be a big firework representation of the Royal Standard. The fireworks started but, unusually, the air was completely still. As a result, the pyrotechnics started and a huge cloud of smoke developed. Which totally obscured the Royal Standard. Ah, well. At least it all worked thirty-five years later! 

On Your Marks…

While all the preparations for the Olympics were going on, Danny Boyle made Trance. The film was edited after the Olympics wrapped. I don’t know if it was intentional but Trance was a very twisty-turn type film. One of those where you don’t know if a character is a good guy or a bad guy. Who is on the same side as who else. What did they actually do and what are you supposed to think they did. In short, Danny Boyle channels Christopher Nolan which, for me, is never a bad thing.

2015 – Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender

Next film up was Danny’s take on the Steve Jobs biopic. He was beaten by Jobs in 2013 but he had been faffing around with that running and jumping competition so it’s understandable. His take on it came in 2015, Steve Jobs.  It was Ashton Kutcher vs Michael Fassbender. Danny had the official Walter Isaacson biography and the awesome Aaron Sorkin adapting it so, for me, that gives him the win.

Jobs Vs Jobs

Next up was Danny’s first proper go at a sequel…T2 Trainspotting. It’s over twenty years after the events of Trainspotting but we’re back with Spud, Renton, Sick Boy, and Begbie. Was it a wise move…yes! Alright, there wasn’t the shock factor that the original provoked, but it’s still the old team right down to the original source material from Irvine Welsh. What could possibly go wrong?

2017 – T2 Trainspotting…welcome to the world of sequels.

Which brings me up to his last film…Yesterday. Cards on the table, I loved this film! It was a marvellously silly concept and was brilliantly made. Why did the ‘blip’ in time happen? I don’t know but it doesn’t matter! Just accept that it did and go along for the ride.  There’s a twelve second global, temporal hiccup and Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) somehow manages to miss it. As a result, he’s, very nearly, the only person alive who can remember The Beatles.

What Happened? Who Cares!

Not only The Beatles but also Harry Potter, Oasis, Coca-Cola, and cigarettes, but they were little more than throwaway lines. Jack was a struggling musician on the verge of giving it all up when the blip happened and now he has the entire songbook of, in my view, the most creative pop music performers of the century. You can guess the rest! Oh, I loved Ed Sheeran in this and I love Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar in everything they do.

2019 – Yesterday

As I said, Yesterday was Danny Boyle’s last film but not his last work. He made the six part mini serial Pistol. That is based on the memoir of Steve Jones, guitarist with The Sex Pistols. This was one of those serials which I watched from start to finish and then watched again. It was one of those series that brings back so many memories; I was a student in the mid to late seventies and I stayed in London after graduation. I must admit, I wish I’d known that Chrissie Hynde was around at the time!

As I Remember It…

But there were so many memories. Jordan (Maisie Williams) was a celebrity in her own right. The Sex Pistols were infamous on so many levels. Was I a punk? No. Was I big fan of them? Not really. They were undoubtedly fresh and vibrant but were more of an opener for many more talented bands to come. Still, must see if I can find my 7” copy of Anarchy In The UK. You never know, it could top up my retirement fund.

2022 – Pistol

And that brings us up to date. There is a project in pre-production which sounds interesting; Methuselah with Michael B Jordan. This is an action story centred on a thousand year old man. He has used his time on the planet developing an unparalleled set of survival skills. Got me hooked already! But then just adding the name Danny Boyle after ‘Directed by’ gets me hooked.

So Far So Good

So, a reliable body of work covering thirty-five years, a successful global event (two if you count the opening and closing ceremonies as different items), and a chance to film a sequence with the Queen before flinging her out of a helicopter. Most people might be asking why isn’t he “Sir Daniel” or Danny Boyle OBE.

Well, truth is, he was offered a knighthood after the Olympics but refused it. He didn’t want to be anything other than an ordinary person. My sort of guy!

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