River City: Leith’s Shore was original setting for hit BBC Scotland soap reveals show’s creator

He may be from Fauldhouse but Stephen Greenhorn, creator of River City and writer of hit musical Sunshine on Leith, admits that the Capital's port is a place close to his heart, so close in fact, he originally set River City there.

By Liam Rudden
Thursday, 19th May 2022, 1:17 pm

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Right now, Greenhorn is working on the first professional Scottish production of Sunshine on Leith since the original Dundee Rep shows some 15 years ago, updating it with elements of the screen adaptation ahead of it coming to the King's, from June 7 to 18, the venue’s last show of the season before closing for refurbishment.

In many ways, Sunshine on Leith, which is very recognisably a snapshot of life in the port, brought Greenhall full circle. For it was in Leith that he originally set River City, the river of the title referring to the Water of Leith.

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The Shore, Leith Pic: William Blair

He recalls how it very nearly happened, only to be relocated to the fictional Shieldinch at the very last minute.

“I was working with the BBC drama department when they were in the process of trying to find the basis of a new soap opera. They were chatting to me casually, saying the obvious place to set it was Glasgow but they were worried Glasgow was overexposed and were exploring other options.

“I said, ‘Well, your only other option is Edinburgh’, but they were worried Edinburgh wouldn't connect emotionally. A short time later, I was sitting outside The Shore Bar on the Shore when I found myself thinking how much Glasgow was like Leith and I suddenly thought, ‘This is where they should set the new soap’.

“Back in the office I said, ‘I know how to solve your problem, set it in Leith’. They weren't familiar with the port and asked me to write a page explaining about Leith, about what Leith was, and about how it was changing - from red light district to Michelin starred restaurants.

Susan Boyle makes a guest appearance in River City which was originally to be set around Leith's Shore Pic: Alan Peebles

“As I wrote that page about the Shore, where you have Malmaison at one end and at the other the Banana Flats, I got really excited about it and six pages later, I handed it in.”

Impressed, the BBC asked Greenhorn to write it up as a proper proposal.“That began the journey of fleshing out my idea of looking at a community, of the changes taking place there and of the kind of characters that would give you access to. It wasn't just a choice of setting with a whole bunch of stories about affairs and pregnancies, thematically it was always about a working class community trying to deal with change.

“The BBC liked it a lot and decided to develop further... further down the line, and at a point when the show had been quite widely fleshed out, whether on a broadcasting, economic, or political basis, they decided it would have to be set in the West Coast.”Greenhorn admits, “However, in my head it was still set in Leith, there's still that sense of the river just beyond The Tall Ship, that's a legacy of the original concept of setting right next to the Water of Leith.”

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River City creator and Sunshine on Leith writer Stephen Greenhorn

Greenhorn finally got his opportunity to explore life in the port when he wrote Sunshine On Leith, and says, “When the idea came along about doing a musical using the songs of The Proclaimers it was obvious it had to be set in Leith, which just has such a rich world to draw on. It's so vibrant”.

The writer himself first experienced that vibrancy as a teenager.

“I grew up in West Lothian but my dad worked for the Co-op and was based in the Co-op warehouses, just off Leith Links. Whenever I came into Edinburgh to get a record, I'd kick around Princes Street and then walk down Leith Walk to get a lift home from my dad. My first job was working there too, deep in the bowels of that building.“When I was older, although I was living in Glasgow, I'd go clubbing in Edinburgh and most of my pals were either from Leith or lived there, so I was hanging about there a lot - Leith was always the part of Edinburgh that felt most Glasgow-ish.”

That regular trip down Leith Walk for a lift home is replicated by the two main characters in Sunshine on Leith, although the ever-changing nature of the thoroughfare linking Edinburgh and its port has proved a bit of a challenge.

Sunshine On Leith cast members Rhine Drummond, Blythe Jandoo, Keith Jack and Connor Going on Leith's Shore Pic: Greg Macvean

“I've been tweaking, tightening and adjusting the script... I can't leave it alone. One of the worst things is that every single time I do, I have to change the names of the shops of Leith Walk - that scene when they walk down it for I'm on My Way, every time we've done the show there's been a shop that's shut or changed, even the Boundary Bar disappeared!”

Other changes to the show include swapping out some of the songs as well as making sure pub names are up to date.

A fan of The Proclaimers from the moment he saw Paula Yates introduce them on Channel 4's The Tube - “It was like a Damascus moment, they had a punky attitude and acoustic guitars and were singing in my accent. It was gob-smacking" - Greenhorn reveals, “The biggest change came when they brought out the album with Life With You on it.

“When I saw how that song worked live and how the crowd reacted to it, I knew that was what we needed at the start of the second act. There are also more little snatches of songs throughout the show and in the 'Let's Get Married' scene, when they're watching the game, it's always set in a Hibs' pub but they kept closing down. I was forever having to change the name... so the show is always been evolving.

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Keith Jack and Anna Fordham in Sunshine on Leith rehearsals Pic: Fraser Band