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Peter McDougall, the hard-man of British TV drama
06.17.2014
08:32 am

Topics:
Literature
Television

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Peter McDougall
drama

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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.
 
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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

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Writers on Writing: Martin Amis, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen and more

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Why I Write was George Orwell’s essay answering that perennial question asked of most authors and novelists.

Orwell was a 5-year-old when he first thought of becoming a writer. It was an idea he clung to throughout his childhood—writing stories in his head, rather on paper, imitating the styles of his favorite authors. Then, between the ages of seveteen and 25, Orwell attempted to abandon his vocation.

He joined the Imperial Indian Police. He affected a philistinism. Denounced literature, and literary magazines—in particular the Adelphi, which he considered ‘scurrilous,’ and used for target practice. Ironically, it was the Adelphi that later gave Orwell his first encouragement as a writer, publishing some of his early essays under his name Eric Blair.

It was only on his return to England that Orwell started writing in earnest. He apprenticed himself, writing every day, developing a style, and submitting articles to magazines.

Writing, he discovered, was something he had to do.

Most authors would say the same: writing is something they have to do.

It’s the having to do it that starts them off. But it’s the keeping to it that is the difficult part.

I once asked the playwright Peter McDougall, ‘How do you write?’ ‘You write about what you know,’ he replied. I told him I had been to half-a-dozen funerals before I was twelve. ‘There you go—that’s what you should write about.’

But I was scared, because it meant writing about how I felt, how I thought. It meant revealing something about myself that I didn’t necessarily want to share. And that’s a major hurdle for writers starting out—having the nerve to put down on paper their true thoughts and feelings.

The author Max Frisch once wrote, “a writer only betrays himself.” Which is true, for a writer must be honest enough to tell the truth no matter how painful. And that was something Orwell knew.

In this short selection of interviews conducted by Charlie Rose, authors Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen and Fran Lebowitz give their answers to the question ‘How do you write?’ They also answer that other favorite, ‘Where do ideas come from?’ and explain how best to write successfully.
 

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‘Cast and Crew’: Documentary on the making of the ‘The Long Good Friday’

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It started when producer Barry Hanson asked writer Barrie Keeffe, one night, what film he’d like to see? Keeffe said he wanted to see an American gangster film set in the East End of London. There was nothing like it on at the cinema, so Hanson told Keeffe to write it. The result was The Long Good Friday, a movie regularly voted the greatest British gangster film, and one of the best British films, of all time. High praise for a movie that was nearly re-cut, dubbed and pumped out onto TV by its original parent company, ITC, who hated it.

I was lucky enough to see The Long Good Friday, when it was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1980 as the highlight to a mini-retrospective of director John MacKenzie’s work. It had an indelible effect.

MacKenzie was established as a major talent, having made the films Unman, Wittering and Zigo with David Hemmings in 1969, and Made with Carol White and Roy Harper in 1972. He had also achieved further success directing Peter MacDougall’s brilliant dramas Just Another Saturday, which won the Prix Italia, Just A Boys’ Game, which starred rock singer Frankie Miller, and MacDougall’s adaptation of notorious hardman, Jimmy Boyle’s biography, A Sense of Freedom. Now he had just completed a film that captured the essence of 1980’s Britain under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Written by Barrie Keeffe, a former journalist who made his name writing political drams for TV and theater, Scribes (1976), about newspaper workers during a strike, .Gimme Shelter (1975–7), a powerful trilogy that dealt with deprivation, frustration and anger of working-class youth, and the tremendous BBC drama Waterloo Sunset, starring the legendary Queenie Watts.

Keeffe wrote The Long Good Friday in three days, over an Easter weekend. Originally called The Paddy Factor, the story dealt with East End gangster Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) who plans to go into partnership with the Mafia to redevelop London, only to fall foul of the IRA. The film co-starred Helen Mirren, (who battled to make her character, Victoria, stronger), a young Pierce Brosnan, and Eddie Consantine, as the Mafia don.

The script came from all the stories Keeffe heard growing-up and working as a reporter on the Stratford Express, as he told the Arts Desk last year:

The seeds were planted then; it was a very fertile time, just before the end of the Krays’ empire, and a lot of my plays, and some of the incidents in The Long Good Friday, came from my experiences. For instance, one of the gangland punishments, if you strayed into someone else’s territory, was to crucify you to the warehouse floor. As a very innocent junior reporter, a young 18, I was sent to interview a guy in hospital. He was covered in bandages and I asked him what had happened. He said, with that wonderful East End humour, “Do you understand English, son? Well, put it down to a do-it-yourself accident.”

Filmed the same year as Thatcher’s election, The Long Good Friday predicted much of the change Conservative rule would bring to London and the British isles.

The Long Good Friday was obviously about the transformation of the East End. The Bob Hoskins character was talking about the end of the Docks and mile after mile of territory for “profitable progress” - I think that was his phrase. I saw the film again about five years ago and it has a scene showing this model of how the area would look under the developers. It underestimated it completely - it ought to have shown Canary Wharf looking like Manhattan. Looking at it, I was taken by the fact that none of us had foreseen the enormous scale of change.

The Long Good Friday was a film “raging” at what was about to happen to the country, the story of gangsterism / Thatcherism / Captialism coming face-to-face with terrorism / idealism.

Cast and Crew: The Long Good Friday brings together John MacKenzie, Barrie Keeffe, Barry Hanson, actor Derek Thompson, casting director Simone Reynolds to discuss the film, its making and its legacy. There are also interviews from Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Watching Keeffe and MacKenzie around a table together, there is still the crackle of creative tension, as writer and director both lay claim to the film’s success.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

The ‘Get Carter’ Killing


Singer Frankie Miller stars in Peter MacDougall’s legendary gang film ‘Just a Boys’ Game’


 
More from ‘Cast and Crew’ plus bonus clip, after the jump…
 

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Peter McDougall’s Classic Gangland Film: ‘Just A Boys’ Game’ starring singer Frankie Miller

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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…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment