Just A Boy’s Game
Though there is a mass availability of choice most of today’s television dramas are cut to the same unimaginative pattern. Indeed, there are computer programs to help writers “craft” their material to fit a dramatic template. These writers are helped by script editors trained to implement politically motivated agendas and then focus group administrators who screen the “finished” dramas to selected audiences to gauge their responses, influencing the creators to make changes accordingly. The producers are usually more concerned with maintaining this farce rather than allowing originality and talent to flourish. In other words, the writer is secondary, or is part of a team of “professionals,” performing dogs who bark for the needs of their employers. In a world of off-the-peg TV drama, truly original writing is a rare thing.
Once, writing and writers were respected and allowed the freedom to create, to imagine, to write. One series, which allowed such freedom was the BBC’s Play for Today (perviously known as The Wednesday Play), which produced work by the likes of Dennis Potter, David Mercer, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton, Barrie Keefe, and Stephen Poliakoff. Play for Today offered imaginative, issue-based, social drama. One of the single most important writers to come out of this strand was Peter McDougall, whose plays put real working class experience on television for the first time—unfiltered from middle class agendas.
Peter McDougall at his home in Glasgow.
McDougall once gave me the simple advice that every writer should heed:
“Write about what you know.”
That’s what McDougall did—he wrote from his own experiences, writing down on wee bits of paper stories, dialogue, he was at first ashamed to show anyone until one day when he was working as a painter and decorator in London, the actor and writer Colin Welland told him to write about his life. This Peter did: starting with his adventures as an apprentice boy twirling the baton on Orange walks, those sectarian parades where Protestants in Scotland and Northern Ireland celebrate Prince William of Orange’s victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This he turned into the Prix Italia winning drama Just A Boy’s Game (1975), one of the most controversial plays ever screened on British television, as it questioned the brutality of sectarian violence then as now endemic in Scottish society. It was so controversial that the Glasgow police banned the filming of the drama;s central Orange walk from the from city in fear of “bloodshed on the streets.” The production was forced to relocate to more genteel Edinburgh to film.
Born in Greenock in 1947, McDougall left school at fourteen and started his working life in Glasgow’s shipyards, where he first met and worked alongside Billy Connolly. As McDougall has recounted, working in the shipyards was brutal, the conditions so cold in winter that skin stuck to the iron rungs on ladders. His experience in the shipyards and his knowledge of the people he worked alongside were incorporated into his most notorious drama Just A Boy’s Game (1979).
Just A Boy’s Game was a morally complex drama that starred singer Frankie Miller as the grandson of a local hardman, who wants to win his respect. The film was described by Martin Scorsese as Scotland’s Mean Streets, while playwright Tom Stoppard thought the script contained some of the best dialogue ever written. The play opens with a bloody razor gang attack in a small night club and ends with a brutal fight between Miller’s gang and an up-coming younger generation of thugs, before a powerful final scene between Miller’s character and his grandfather.
Not all of McDougall’s work is about violence—he wrote a beautiful, moving and funny drama The Elephant’s Graveyard (1976), a kind of modern-day ghost story, which starred Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly as two men running away from the own separate problems. He also wrote the powerful and harrowing drama on Edinburgh drug dealers and heroin addiction, long before Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, called Shoot for the Sun (1986), which starred Brian Cox and Jimmy Nail, and then a drama about the life of a US Navy shore patrol officer based in Greenock, Down Where the Buffalo Go (1988), which starred Harvey Keitel.
His last major drama, Down Among the Big Boys (1993), was originally intended as a three-part series focussing on different characters form the same story—a bank heist—which was eventually cut down to a single drama starring Billy Connolly and singer Maggie Bell.
McDougall still writes, though these days mainly plays for the stage, as TV wants dramas that will satisfy focus groups, advertisers and fit the constricting formatted structure of today’s programmes. Intelligence isn’t required, good writing isn’t required, and experience certainly isn’t necessary for today’s television dramas.
However, for those who are serious about writing, and serious about learning how to write, then this documentary on Peter McDougall will help supply the information and inspiration on how best to write.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Peter McDougall’s classic gangland film ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ starring singer Frankie Miller