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St Andrews in Movies and Books

For a small coastal town in rural Scotland, St Andrews has made a remarkable footprint on global popular culture.

Our beloved university town has made cameos in a range of global blockbusters including Never Let Me Go and The Railway Man, and in genres as diverse as sporting epics, crime dramas, and romantic comedies.

However, its most iconic spot in the Hollywood limelight comes in the opening scene of the 1981 drama, Chariots of Fire. This tells the story of two British runners in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, each pursuing athletic glory and motivated by their different faiths as Jewish and Christian. Full of heart, drama, and a soundtrack still heard around the world, the film has become a modern classic, and has taken home four Academy Awards, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe, among widespread critical acclaim.

This is in large part due to its instantly recognisable opening scene: a slow-motion sequence of athletes running along the shoreline of our very own West Sands while the moody silhouette of our town sits on the skyline.

As the 2012 Olympic committee considered how best to showcase our British cultural identity to the world, it’s no wonder that they arrived at this opening sequence on West Sands. As a result, St Andrews once again took to the global stage at the London Olympics opening ceremony, this time with Rowan Atkinson as British icon Mr Bean participating in a brilliantly clumsy parody of the opening scene.

The sporting legacy of the town in books and movies goes far deeper than the 2012 Olympics, however. As testament to its world-famous history as “the home of golf”, St Andrews plays a key role in many recent big-screen sporting epics.

In 2004, it took to the big screen as the setting for much of the drama in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, a powerful biopic about golfing legend, Bobby Jones. With an A-list cast including Jim Caviezel and Malcolm McDowell, St Andrews serves as the backdrop as Bobby goes on to become the only player in the history of golf to win all four golf championships in a single season—all filmed on location at the Old Course.

Along the same theme, 2016 saw the release of Tommy’s Honour, a Scottish BAFTA winning film which tells the tale of one of the first heroes of golf, Old Tom Morris. Starring the likes of Sam Neill and Peter Mullan, Tommy’s Honour explores the relationship between Old Tom and his son Tommy, as Tommy goes on to match his father’s four Open victories and the pair pave the way for today’s golf scene. The drama unfolds against the familiar backdrop of the St Andrews links, a setting which Mullan testifies is key to the heart of the film, as “this town alone gives you so much more than you would ever get on a film set.”

St Andrews’ mark on popular cultre also extends to the world of fiction writing, most notably in forming the genre known as “tartan noir”. This is in large part due to the influence of “queen of crime fiction” Val McDermid, and her continual feature of small Scottish towns including St Andrews as settings for her novel.

Anyone who has been in town over Summer may have noticed the presence of film cameras, roadblocks, and even some elaborate stunt performances. This is all due to filming for a new ITV series based on McDermid’s best-selling Karen Pirie novels. These psychological thrillers tell the tale of a young Scottish detective determined to unravel the truth behind a 25-year old murder, discovered by a group of students in St Andrews—let’s hope this one isn’t based on a true story.

The town’s crime drama legacy extends even further than this, as last year saw Dundee native Marion Todd release the first in her series of detective thrillers, See Them Run. Set in St Andrews, Todd’s novel is a raceagainst-the-clock drama which sees Detective Clare Mackay of the St Andrews police force attempt to track a serial murderer, identifiable only by the seemingly random numbers left on their victims. As this debut novel has earned Todd the “Scottish Crime debut of the year,” we look forward to the rest of her page-turning thrillers unfolding against the backdrop we know so well.

If you’re in need of a laugh after such gritty murder mysteries, the debut rom-com novel of university alumna (and former editor of The Saint) Melissa Steel could be the perfect solution. Described as having “the wit of Frasier at the pace of the Gilmore Girls,” Bae for Pay is a hilarious comedy set in a small university town based on Steel’s Scottish alma mater. In her interview with The Saint earlier this year, she explained “I think there’s definitely elements when you read it that are inspired by my time in St Andrews.”

As Steele is allegedly working on a sequel to the novel, who knows how St Andrews could feature next — and who knows when our town will once again return to the big-screen?

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