In 1979, rock singer Frankie Miller landed the lead as Jake McQuillan in Peter McDougall‘s brilliant play Just A Boys’ Game. It was an incredible piece of casting for what was one of the best dramas produced for British TV in the seventies.
Indeed, it is fair to say McDougall, along with Dennis Potter and David Mercer, wrote some of the greatest and most powerful dramas produced during this time:
There can be no better justification for the modus operandi of the BBC drama department of the 1960s and 70s than the discovery of Peter McDougall. The most original Scottish voice of the era, McDougall might never have been given a break at any other time in broadcasting history.
McDougall started work at 14 in the Clydebank shipyards, alongside Billy Connolly. After a few years, he left and moved to London, where he became a house painter. One day, while painting actor and writer Colin Welland’s house, the young McDougall impressed the future Oscar-winner with his tales of marching and mace throwing in an Orange Walk. Welland encouraged McDougall to write his story down, which became the Italia Prix-winning drama, Just Another Saturday:
Just Another Saturday was first broadcast on 7 November 1975, as part of BBC2’s Play For Today. Britain, then as now, was a place of great inequality. Sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height. Issues of Scottish independence/devolution were in the spotlight, with the collapse of traditional industries such as shipbuilding on the Clyde, and the associated poverty, mirrored by vast wealth promised from North Sea oil in Scottish waters.
The script, screenplay, direction, film stock, lighting, photography, sound recording and editing of Just Another Saturday combine to give an understated, real-life appearance; making the emotional impact of picture and dialogue all the more intense. The use of brief close-ups of very human details add hugely to the emotional effect; faces in the crowds tell, evocatively, of Scotland’s pride and sadness. Outdoor shots especially show powerful visual imagery. The Duncan Street violence is that much more disturbing because much of it is hidden from view.
The play is about beliefs and innocence, and the desire to escape. As Lizzie tells John, “at least you believe in something”; Dan despises all “the organisations” on both sides of the Glasgow Protestant/Catholic divide: he ridicules what he sees their moral hypocrisies, like “suffering for the cause”. There is pointed irony in the fact that the only injury John incurs over the whole day is from a confused drunk. Dan points out the divisions that the organisations cause and the many contradictions from Scottish history that make their positions absurd. His quiet socialist conviction is delivered with great pathos.
Director John Mackenzie was flabbergasted at McDougall’s raw talent, and claims the finished film barely contained a single change from the original draft of the script. However the Glasgow police blocked filming on a drama they feared would cause “bloodshed on the streets in the making and in the showing.”
There wasn’t bloodshed, but considerable outrage that McDougall had highlighted so many of Scotland’s ills. McDougall was undeterred by the controversy, going on to write: The Elephant’s Graveyard (1976), with Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly; Just A Boys’ Game (1979), with Frankie Miller, Ken Hutchison, Gregor Fisher and Hector Nicol; A Sense of Freedom, the story of Scotland’s notorious gangster, Jimmy Boyle: Shoot for the Sun (1986) with Jimmy Nail, and told the dark story of heroin dealers in Edinburgh; Down Where the Buffalo Go saw Harvey Keitel as US Marine stationed at Holy Loch naval base, and the slow disintegration of his life; and Down Among the Big Boys the story of a bank heist with Billy Connolly.
These days, McDougall’s work is rarely seen on TV, as those now in charge of drama commissioning are but mere “civil servants”, more interested in focus groups, audience figures and mediocrity, than genuine talent. It’s a shame, for McDougall is the best and strongest voice to have come out of TV over the past few decades.
McDougal’s Just a Boys Game is an equal to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and contains some of the finest performances put into a TV film - watch out for comedian, Hector Nicol’s sly performance as the elderly hard man, whose respect Miller wants to earn, as well as brooding Ken Hutchison (from Straw Dogs) as Dancer and a young Gregor Fisher (who later starred as Rab C. Nesbitt) as Tanza, and Katherine Stark as Jane. It is an brilliant, brutal and unforgettable film.
The astounding Just a Boys Game (Play for Today, tx. 8/11/1979), was another ‘play in a day’, pursuing hard man Jake McQuillan, whose life of alcohol, violence and emotional impotence is threatened by the arrival of a younger, razor-wielding thug. Jake’s casual ‘boys’ games’ ultimately result in the death of his only friend.
Featuring some of the strongest violence the BBC had ever dared broadcast, it was stunningly photographed by Elmer Cossey and featured McDougall’s most crackling dialogue and richest characterisations, all brilliantly evoked by a cast headed by blues singer Frankie Miller in a performance that melts the camera in its intensity.
Miller sadly suffered a brain hemorrhage in New York in 1994, while working on new material for a band with Joe Walsh of The Eagles. Miller spent five months in a coma, after which he went through rehabilitation. In 2006, Frankie released his first new material in almost twenty years, Long Way Home.
The rest of McDougall’s ‘Just A Boys’ game’ plus ‘Just Another Saturday’, after the jump…