Stairs, to Nowhere Climb: Queens Park in the Spens Cup
Official Selection: Un Certain Regard, Festival de Cannes, 2023
1. EXT. BUSY STREET – DAY.
Stirring violin music plays. In black and white times, a group of well-dressed men confidently push their way through crowds of supporters to enter a grand municipal building.
NARRATOR (Ewan McGregor): The year: 1936. The city: Perth. 14 of the country’s strongest chess masters, with thick beards and steely glares, have gathered to fight for ultimate glory, in the final of the Spens Cup.
2. INT. PLAYING HALL – DAY.
The men are locked in battle over chess boards. One man tips his King over, the heavy wooden ‘clack’ resounding with an echo. He offers his hand to his opponent. The opponent removes his pipe and nods deeply. The game is over. They firmly shake hands.
NARRATOR: Queens Park Chess Club fight valiantly but are ultimately overwhelmed. Dundee lift the trophy amid wild celebrations.
Cut to: A close-up of a Scotsman newspaper clipping, dated 24 March 1936. The main headline reads: Glorious, Glorious Dundee. Further down the page: Misery, Failure – The Queens Park Curse Continues. A small article at the bottom is headed: Unrest, Instability in Europe.
NARRATOR: It is Queens Park’s third consecutive loss in the final. The pain, the toll, the heartbreak. It is all too much.
The newspaper fades out, ghost-like, and vanishes altogether with an understated ‘pop’.
NARRATOR: The Club disappears, and is never heard from again.
3. EXT. QUEENS PARK BOATING POND – DAY.
A pre-war black and white scene in Queens Park. Slowly, a subtle hint of green creeps in to the grass at the edge of the frame. Blue flecks in the boating pond follow.
NARRATOR: Decades pass.
The scene gradually transforms into full technicolour.
NARRATOR: 87 long years.
Through the winter mist, we can just make out, the grey silhouettes of several men.
NARRATOR: In the 21st century, five brave warriors have emerged. The rumours are true. Queens Park Chess Club is back. And once again, they will compete in the Spens Cup.
The men strut closer into the frame, their features snapping into sharp focus. One man, younger and shorter than the others, oozes confidence. He parts his hair and looks intensely into the camera through his John Lennon glasses.
NARRATOR: One question forms on the nation’s lips: are these the men to restore their ancestors’ pride?
4. EXT. QUIET STREET – DAY.
We hear the violin music from scene one, which segues into a royalty-free song with more than a passing resemblance to ‘Little Green Bag’ by George Baker. In slow motion, close-ups-on-faces, five men walk towards a Georgian Townhouse, Reservoir Dogs style. Several take their glasses out of cases and put them on. Ready for business.
NARRATOR: The year: 2023. The city: Edinburgh. Bank of Scotland Chess Club host Queens Park in the Preliminary Round of the Spens Cup. It is the first edition of the tournament since the global pandemic.
The music fades out. We cut to a wide street view. There are no crowds, no attention, apart from that of a lone seagull staring down from a lamppost. The seagull watches the men enter the building. It squawks once, and flies off over the New Town cityscape.
5. INT. EDINBURGH UKRAINIAN CLUB – DAY.
The chess match is underway. The men lack the impressive beards of their forebears, but match them in focus and intensity. The camera lingers on our protagonists in turn.
NARRATOR: On board five for Queens Park, is Team Captain Derek Rankine. Demonstrating the leadership skills of a wailing toddler lost in a supermarket, he walks his Queen straight into a trap. Game over.
We move up to the next Queens Park player, frowning in contemplation.
NARRATOR: On board four, Club President Graeme McKinnon has made a strong start. But the game has taken a sour turn, and the only thing he is presiding over today, is his own defeat. Check. Mate.
The camera pans on, the next player removing his cap to scratch his head, looking puzzled.
NARRATOR: On board three, poker expert Paul Cumming goes all in with a reckless gamble. The house wins.
We pass by as Paul offers his resignation.
NARRATOR: On board two, young Rhys McCrosson is bucking the trend. Sporting his trademark cheshire cat grin, his creative fires have burned brightly today. He is rewarded with a fine draw against an opponent ranked almost 500 points higher.
Moving up to the final player.
NARRATOR: And on the top board, grizzled veteran Craig Thomson. After a horrible start, Craig has been in wounded bear mode, swinging his claws around furiously, lunging desperately, and inflicting some damage. He has put up a magnificent fight. But it’s simply not enough.
With stoic reluctance, Craig turns his King sideways. The camera moves for a final time, coming to rest on a thick, wooden table with an official Chess Scotland scoreslip. Bank of Scotland’s captain scribbles down the final result and briskly walks out of frame.
NARRATOR. As you may have guessed by now, this isn’t the story of a plucky underdog overcoming wild odds. No. This is the real, gritty world of Scottish chess. The strongest teams don’t take a moment’s hesitation to brutally crush the hopes and dreams of the small, the weak, and the low rated.
We zoom in closer and closer to the score slip, and rotate until the entire screen is filled with two scrawled numbers.
NARRATOR: Bank of Scotland have won with four and a half points, to Queens Park’s half a point. The Spens Cup has barely started, and Queens Park have already been sent packing.
The scene closes with the Queens Park team in the foreground, heads in their hands, while at the far wall the Bank of Scotland players engage in a group hug.
NARRATOR: Bank of Scotland progress into the quarter finals. Cumming and co. are going home.
A single tear rolls down Paul’s cheek.
6. INT. CRAIG THOMSON’S CAR – NIGHT.
Our dejected heroes sit in silence on the journey back to Glasgow. The passengers gaze miserably out of the windows either side of the M8. Darkness has fallen. Rain pounds on the car.
NARRATOR: On the way home, the atmosphere was equal parts despondency, exhaustion and shame. The call of history had rung out, but they had failed to answer.
A horn sounds in the distance. The rain continues to lash down.
NARRATOR: And yet, unbeknownst to the others, each man was looking deep inside his heavy heart, and was astonished to find there, a quietly burning ember of hope.
A close-up of each player’s face in turn.
NARRATOR: All were independently dwelling upon the very same, very powerful idea.
If we pay very close attention, we can just about see their eyes narrowing ever-so-slightly, their brows furrowing faintly.
NARRATOR: What, they asked of themselves, if this wasn’t the end of Queens Park’s Spens Cup journey?
We settle on Craig, peering thoughtfully at the road ahead from behind the wheel. He reaches into the glovebox and puts a cassette into the car stereo, returning his attention to the road. The camera turns to follow his gaze through the windscreen wipers. We fade to black looking out upon the bleak, wet, dark motorway.
The noise of the rain grows louder and louder, as the screen goes completely black. Then – abrupt silence. And a long pause.
NARRATOR: What if it was only just the beginning?
Huge, sharp white text cuts aggressively through the blackness: “Fin”.
We hear the satisfying click of the car stereo’s play button, followed by deafening Finnish death metal.
The credits roll.
Based Upon Real Events (a little). Exclusive distribution rights are available for sale: the Club will accept two budget chess clocks, or nearest offer. Good luck to our opponents in the quarter finals. Top image created with artificial intelligence using DALL-E.