On 17th May the British Film Institute (BFI) released a 3 Disc Blu-ray box set to celebrate fifty years since the first transmission of the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’. David Archibald has written an accompanying essay for the two Peter McDougall plays which appear in volume 2 of the set. Archibald’s piece is a retrospective on a way of life and the art it produced -in special arrangement with the BFI we bring the essay to The Drouth readers’ attention.
Towards the end of Just a Boys’ Game, there’s a scene in which two rival gangs enjoin battle in Greenock. Following a swift departure from a local snooker hall, Jake McQuillen (Frankie Miller), the town’s twentysomething top hardman, and his associates Dancer (Ken Hutchison) and Tanza (Gregor Fisher), are moving stealthily through the town’s docks when they are confronted by opposing forces. Shot in group profile, the three men stand in the black of night against a yellow freight container, the colours connoting a sense of imminent danger, their faces cast in pools of industrial light. ‘Alright then. Back the way we came,’ says Dancer. Slowly and with authority, Jake responds: ‘You don’t go back.’ The camera then cuts to a frontal mid-shot of the trio and Jake advances a step, stops and stares towards his opponents. We encounter the enemy from Jake’s perspective: five long-haired youngsters, fronted by Dunky McCafferty (Billy Greenleas). The youthful pretender to Jake’s gangland throne, McCafferty’s green combat jacket seems suitable sartorial and battle attire for the evening’s entertainment. Quickly, the camera cuts back to a close up of the man of the moment, Jake, his shoulder-length hair conjuring a sense of the seventies. In tight, we survey the contours of his face: we’re close enough to discern the gap between his top two front teeth; if he was wearing aftershave we could smell it. Preparing to enter the fray, he cries out: ‘McCafferty, your tea’s oot.’ An enthusiastic response follows, ‘Come ahead, McQuillen.’
The phrase ‘Your tea’s oot’ might have limited resonance beyond Scotland. In the immediate aftermath of the play’s transmission on 8 November 1979, however, these words flew around the streets of West and Central Scotland like a pre-internet meme, appropriated for all sorts of situations, some comic, some violent, some no doubt tragic. A Britain-wide equivalent of the period might well be Yosser Hughes’ ‘Gizza job,’ the refrain popularised by actor Bernard Hill in Boys from the Blackstuff (1980-82). Yosser’s phrase spoke to the period of Thatcherism marked by mass unemployment, now largely a memory. ‘Your tea’s oot,’ however, has had a significantly longer shelf life. Four decades after Just a Boys’ Game’s release, it remains a staple phrase in Scottish cultural life, signifying the extent to which the language from this play has entered the national consciousness.
Prior to the 1970s the most prominent cinematic and televisual representations of Scotland had focused on tartanry – think Hollywood’s Brigadoon (1947) or the Kailyard, literally garden patch, exemplified by the couthy sentimentalism of the wily Highland villagers in Ealing’s Whisky Galore! (1949). By contrast, Just a Boys’ Game was an explosive 71 minutes of Scottish working-class life: urban, raw, sexual, dark, handsome, funny, and violent as fuck.
The violence is present from the opening scene: as local band The Cuban Heels perform to a well-oiled audience in a packed social club, a take-no-prisoners brawl breaks out. Captured in a wide shot of the club, McCafferty and his gang move through the mass of bodies with open razors. Jake has a man on the floor, laying into him with his feet when McCafferty attacks, lacerates his hand, and flees. The young usurper theme is set when he stops at the club door, gazes back at Jake and yells, ‘Young team ya bass!’
Just a Boys’ Game, however, is far from celebratory in its depiction of gangland culture. The night ends with the death of Dancer in a watery grave but it is the emotional violence inflicted on Jake by the older generation that wounds deepest. After seeing off his youthful opponents in the dockyard battle, in the play’s denouement Jake returns to his grandparents’ council home, taking up position beside his grandfather’s (Hector Nicol) sick bed. Here, in a series of close ups, Jake admonishes the old man for killing his father in a gangland act: ‘I know the game,’ he says, an Elastoplast covering a battle wound on his left cheek. ‘I’m like yourself.’ Seen from Jake’s point of view, the old man leans forward, and, as he struggles to breathe, says, ‘I’ve never been fond of you,’ before adding: ‘And when I was younger, I could have taken you any time.’ The play concludes with a close up of Jake’s face: the camera initially zooms in and the image is held in freeze frame as a blood-red wash appears over his face, and black horizontal stripes move from top and bottom to frame Jake’s eyes. Then, the closing credits appear: ‘Just a Boys’ Game by Peter McDougall’. As the rest of the credits roll, we hear the title song, written and performed by lead actor Frankie Miller, conclude with the words: ‘Boys will be boys and men will be men/Boys will be boys but it’s all just a game,’ accompanied by a solitary acoustic guitar. The ending takes a razor to Jake’s understanding of his own life, his own part in the game; but it also invites the audience to revisit and recontextualise all that has been played out before.
In stating ‘by Peter McDougall’ and not ‘written by Peter McDougall’, the credits highlight the importance the Play for Today series placed on the writer. So it’s with McDougall we’ll begin. He was born in Greenock, 20 miles down the Firth of Clyde from Glasgow, but it was in London that McDougall was encouraged by actor Colin Welland, then the star of TV’s Z-Cars, to write about the poverty, violence and sectarianism from his West of Scotland background. Welland suggested he put these stories on the page. McDougall was emboldened by this and, as he recalls in the introduction to this book, the result was Just Another Saturday. The script follows a teenage member of a Glaswegian Orange Order band during a day of marching, drinking and fighting, the lead role, based in part on McDougall’s experiences. BBC executives deemed the sectarian subject matter too controversial; however, they were sufficiently impressed by the material to commission Just Your Luck (1972), in which a young Protestant teenager becomes pregnant to an older Catholic sailor and a life of imprisoned miserabilism looms.1 Reportedly, based on McDougall’s own family dramas, the proximity to real life does not lead to conventional social realist depiction of working-class life; rather, the characterisation and plot has parallels with the Theatre of the Absurd. Aesthetically, Just Your Luck carries the hallmarks of a television play, looking like it was shot on video tape, mostly in the studio, and lacks the vitality of the later work. It was, nevertheless, deemed to be sufficiently successful for the BBC to put Just Another Saturday (1975) into production.
Thus began the short but successful partnership with Edinburgh-born director, John Mackenzie. In contrast to McDougall’s proletarian background, Mackenzie was educated at Edinburgh University and worked locally as a drama teacher before moving to London in the early sixties. Here, Mackenzie started his filmmaking career as assistant to Ken Loach on two episodes from the BBC The Wednesday Play series, Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966), working in various roles until he made his own cinematic directorial debut with One Brief Summer (1970) and a number of Play for Today episodes including The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, a celebrated experimental take on the eponymous play by John McGrath of the socialist theatre company 7: 84.
The McDougall-Mackenzie partnership hit gold with its first strike. Incorporating footage from real Orange marches, Just Another Saturday bursts out of the studio and onto the Glasgow streets with tremendous élan and vitality. An explosive depiction of the sectarian conflict that mars working-class life in the West of Scotland, nothing remotely like this had ever been witnessed on television screens. It also represented a significant step forward aesthetically, incorporating elements of docudrama and highlighting Mackenzie’s talents as a film director. Whereas the interiors and exteriors in Just Your Luck seemed from different worlds, the work directed by Mackenzie moves more smoothly between both, dispenses with the ‘playness’ of it all and enters cinematic territory. If the prominence placed by Play for Today on the writer problematises the dominant, and often simplistic, ‘director as auteur’ tendency in film criticism, the McDougall-Mackenzie projects highlight the importance of recognising both film and television as collaborative production processes.
Just Another Saturday was followed by a move into different terrain. The Elephants’ Graveyard (1976) opens with a static establishing shot of a housing scheme. Centre screen, we see rows of brown, post-war three-storey blocks. To the right, the back-courts nestle at the bottom of a slope of green grass, all sitting under a sky of a thousand shades of grey. The camera pans slowly to the right, and signifiers of town or city life appear in the background. It comes to rest and we see, far in the distance, a solitary figure making his way through the housing scheme, footsteps audible against the silence. We cut in tighter and see a man (Jon Morrison) emerge from a flight of concrete stairs. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, sporting long curly black hair. He proceeds to move upwards, ascending the hill, moving away from the town. A shipyard horn is heard. Dogs bark in the street. Then there’s an abrupt cut to a triptych of shots of the town’s yards: giant cranes, a half-built hull of a ship, six tower blocks sitting in the cranes’ shadow. There follows two shots of workers entering the giant IBM factory in Greenock before we cut back to the young man, seen far in the distance atop a large hill. A close-up of his face is followed by a slow leftwards panning shot across the industrial cityscape, the Firth of Clyde barely visible through the clouded sky. The play then turns its back on the world of work as it follows the young man into the hills and glens above the town. Here, in a 48-minute two-hander, transmitted on 12 October 1976, another world is conjured, a world beyond work, a world of other possibilities. If Just a Boys’‘ Game is industrial Greenock, this is Greenock pastoral.
Amid the countryside, the young man is startled when he hears an unidentifiable whistling rendition of The Corries’ unofficial national anthem, ‘Flower of Scotland’, and takes a header down a steep embankment. Soon after, taking shelter in an old bothy, he encounters the source of the song: the long-haired, long-bearded drifter Jody (Billy Connolly). We learn that both characters appear to have left their wives in the dark, with both pretending to be at work: Bunny as a postman, Jody at IBM. The pair then embark on a day-long adventure, conversing on drinking, romancing, relationships, the joys or otherwise of labour; there’s even recourse to poetry and literature, an imaginary Apache ambush and the consumption of two bottles of stream-chilled fortified wine. In ways, The Elephants’ Graveyard bears the hallmarks of a play of ideas, relatively free of conventional narrative drive, with the limited cast allowing for an upfront explicit exchange on a range of philosophical and political concerns. There is even the possibility of a homoerotic engagement raised in their physical exchanges, which are beyond drunken bonhomie. In one scene, Bunny is lying back on the grass, manspreading, the camera positioned behind Jody giving the viewer his point-of-view of the young man’s crotch as Bunny reflects on teenage masturbation. Or perhaps it’s beyond homoeroticism. As the couple prepare to depart, Jody discusses the sperm oil sequence in Moby Dick. Walking together through the countryside, Jody carrying a near-empty wine bottle, notes that Herman Melville’s novel suggests that the sailors got drunk on the scent. On the contrary, he suggests that ‘they got drunk on each other’s company. They kinda floated and formed a kinda bond.’ In an exchange that echoes the concept of the camerado in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of the Open Road’, Jody continues, ‘Something like that happened today, Bunny. Did you feel it? Between us, I mean.’ ‘Ah felt it,’ Bunny replies, softly. ‘When we all start to share and feel that,’ says Jody, ‘then we’ll start moving again.’ ‘Up until then?’ enquires Bunny. ‘I doubt it,’ comes Jody’s brusque reply before he hurls the empty wine bottle into a stream below.
McDougall is celebrated and critiqued as the writer who brought violence and sectarianism to the Scottish screen; yet, as this account makes evident, The Elephants’ Graveyard depicts something entirely different. Who would have thought it would be McDougall’s work which, when the camera quite literally turns away from the workplace to move towards this urban-but-rural space, another set of possibilities emerges, not least the possibility of becoming other in sexual terms? Who would have thought that it would be McDougall that would raise the possibility of building a world that aspires to a broader sense of human love formed through communal activity?
As with the ending of Just a Boys’ Game, the conclusion calls into question all that has gone before, for the characters and the audience. Carousing over a hilltop overlooking the Firth of Clyde, the pair prepare to bid their farewells. Jody indicates that he’s ‘hitting 40’ and that the elephants’ graveyard beckons, and then departs, heading off along a grassy clearing. The camera then cuts to a close up of Bunny as if following his new-found pal’s steps before cutting to a shot of the space into which Jody headed, with Bunny appearing in long shot, his back to the viewer. There is, however, no sight of Jody in the frame. We then cut into another close up of Bunny. This time a quizzical look appears on his face, rapid editing cuts back between the wider shot and the close up to reinforce the sense of Jody’s absence and Bunny’s puzzlement. It’s as if Jody has disappeared into Scotch, or perhaps Greenock, mist. As he stares, is Bunny pondering whether Jody was some kind of stravaiging spirit? Was he real? Was their day imagined? A wide shot of Bunny on his own reinforces a sense of his solitude before he turns and heads down the hill; back to Greenock, back to life, back to the wife. As he does, we hear the strains of Carl Davis’s atmospheric score and the audience might also ponder: What is real? Who is the ghost?2 The conclusion brings to mind Jacques Derrida’s invocation of spirits in which he suggests that the ghost figure invites reflection on that which has gone before, and that which is yet to come: ghosts are for the future not simply the past. Is the ghost of Jody asking Bunny, and the audience, to ponder: ‘What does it mean to live well?’
Following the two Greenock plays, there was another hard-hitting engagement with Glasgow’s crime scene in A Sense of Freedom (1981), an adaptation of Glasgow gangster-turned-artist Jimmy Boyle’s autobiography, which proved the final McDougall-Mackenzie collaboration. Mackenzie continued to move successfully between television and cinema with numerous productions, including the television series Looking After Jo Jo (1988), Ruby (1992) and When the Sky Falls (2000), before his death in 2011 at the age of 83. He is best known for The Long Good Friday (1980), an outstanding political gangster film in which London mobsters headed by Bob Hoskins more than meet their match when they come into conflict with the Provisional IRA.
McDougall scripted several single television plays, including Shoot for the Sun (1986), about heroin dealers in Edinburgh, Down Among the Big Boys (1993), another gangland drama with Billy Connolly in a prominent role, and Down Where the Buffalo Go (1988), which featured Harvey Keitel as a US Marine stationed in Scotland. None of this work, however, met with either the critical or popular acclaim afforded to the 1970s plays. Since the turn of the century, McDougall credits have been on a revamped Whisky Galore! (McKinnon, 2016) and several theatre plays staged at Glasgow’s Oran Mor. At the latter McDougall is a well-kent face, his white handlebar moustache and long hair a standout presence.
One wonders though whether McDougall’s career might have taken a different path. Pointing to his output after the 1970s heyday, Simon Farquhar argues that, ‘Having discovered a genius, television simply didn’t quite know how to make the most of him.’3 We might also ask what role the critical response to McDougall’s work played. Of his early work, McDougall says, ‘I didnae know how to write, so I spelt everything the way it sounded. I didnae have an outline to write to. Naebody showed me a script.’ This is also the moment when writers in Scotland were experimenting in writing in the local vernacular.4 James Kelman’s first short story collection, An Old Pub Near the Angel, for instance, was published in 1973. So these plays feed into a broader movement towards the expression of Scottish working-class identity, written in working-class language by working-class writers, but one which, as with Kelman, the arts and critical establishment, predominantly drawn from and moving in middle and upper-class milieus, can neither comprehend nor cope with.5
If Yosser Hughes’ ‘Gizza job’ demand seemed to speak to a respectable view that decried the impact of unemployment on working-class life, much of McDougall’s work decried the impact of employment on working-class life. Rather than labour under capitalism being a source of pride and self-worth, it is a brutalising, alienating experience which was to be avoided at all costs. As such, the subject matter is often working-class activity beyond the world of work, a world full of alcohol, music, marching, sex, violence and sectarianism, with working-class characters – predominantly men – scarred emotionally and actually by their experiences. McDougall’s work captures the raw energies of this activity physically and in that sense it is certainly radical. But it is also wild, defying simple categorisation, politically and aesthetically.
The critical orthodoxy has pigeon-holed McDougall’s work in a vein of Scottish popular culture located in urban, working-class experience – one which is marked by poverty and violence, from the razor gangs in Herbert Kingsley Long’s 1935 novel, No Mean City running through to the drama series Taggart (1983-2010) and the cinematic exploration of Glasgow’s gang culture in films such as Small Faces (1996) and Neds (2010). For instance, John Cook, in a detailed article on Scottish television drama, writes: ‘All of McDougall’s plays were set in contemporary Scotland, explored tough working-class themes such as sectarianism, Glasgow “hard man” culture and urban deprivation, and featured indigenous casts speaking in broad lowland Scots.’ In Performing Scottishness, Ian Brown argues that each of McDougall’s works, as he puts it, ‘explores brutal and alienating aspects of sectarianism and/or deprivation in urban west Scotland’. In the page-and-a-half of Forsyth Hardy’s monograph Scotland in Film devoted to McDougall’s work, the venerated critic comments ‘the uncompromising work of Mackenzie and McDougall could be regarded as a corrective for the escapist element in Scottish cinema. Either element alone could not be held to be a balanced picture.’ Notably, in Forsyth’s critique, there is no reference to The Elephants’ Graveyard. In Screening Scotland, Duncan Petrie describes the world conjured by McDougall as an ‘alternative, dark, urban world blighted by poverty, machismo and violence. But despite the use of a naturalist aesthetic, this vision is no more real than Brigadoon.’ Although Petrie has a few passing positive words to say about The Elephants’ Graveyard, it is far from the focus of his writing. In John Caughie’s Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture, probably the best book on quality British television drama, McDougall’s work does not merit a mention.
A publicity shot of Connolly and Morrison from The Elephants’ Graveyard graced the front cover of the 9-15 October 1976 edition of Radio Times, indicating its initial reach. However, as this brief survey of the literature on McDougall indicates, it is now largely forgotten. How can we understand this erasure, this critical silence? In the closing chapter of Scotch Reels, an influential collection of essays on film and television in Scotland, Caughie has a chapter entitled ‘Scottish Television: What Would it Look Like?’ Here, he identifies some of the strands in discussions of developing a national culture in Scotland. Identifying rather than championing it, Caughie notes: ‘In its progressive forms, it is concerned with positive images of Scotland, with the establishment by discovery or recovery of a Scottish identity and Scottish traditions which can be mobilised as the basis for political action.’ But a superficial analysis of McDougall’s 1970s work, one that cannot see beyond the hard-man trope and the focus on violence, might well have ensured there was no place for his work within this limiting framework.
The McDougall-Mackenzie plays are certainly the most well-known Scottish-based episodes in the Play for Today series; however, they are relatively unknown outwith Scotland. Rather than restricting them to the confines of Scottish film culture and film criticism, they deserve to be placed in a wider conversation. Just Another Saturday picked up Italian broadcasting’s most prestigious prize, the Prix Italia; Martin Scorsese reportedly described Just A Boys’ Game as a Scottish Mean Streets (1973); and the refusal to sentimentalise the working class brings to mind the representation of teenage life in Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados/The Young and the Damned (1950). Buñuel’s thoughts on the role of artists resonate here: ‘A writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive.’ Rather than Peter McDougall and John Mackenzie suffering the pedestrian criticism of bringing hardened masculinity to Scottish screen in these two plays, of the Greenock Industrial and the Greenock Pastoral, they present characters who refuse to conform to the realities of work under capitalism and, in different ways, to reach beyond its limits. In doing so, these two artists also keep that margin of nonconformity alive. Their work deserves an international audience.
This essay will be published in the 60-page book accompanying the 3-disc Blu-ray set, PLAY FOR TODAY – VOLUME 2, containing The Elephants’ Graveyard and Just a Boys’ Game, released by the BFI on 17 May. It can be pre-ordered now from the BFI Shop.
1 Just Your Luck was one of six Play for Today episodes directed by Mike Newell, more famous of course for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Donnie Brasco (1997) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005).
2 McDougall’s engagement with the supernatural is also present in Tarry Dan, Tarry Dan, Scary Old Spooky Man (BBC, 1978) a television play for children set in Cornwall. Like the rest of his work, the focus is on working class characters, in this instance a group of Cornish kids who are terrified by and drawn to the strange presence of an old man who stalks their playground.
3 Farquhar, Simon (Undated) ‘McDougall, Peter (1947- )’ BFI Screenonline: www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/1394293/index.html [last accessed 30 November 2020]
4 ‘Watching Ourselves: 60 Years of Watching TV in Scotland,’ www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/ profiles/2hgdjxqJbjX3cNPPD4yLMHK/peter-mcdougall [last accessed 1 December 2020]
5 See, for instance, the backlash when Kelman was awarded the Booker Prize for How Late it Was How Late in 1994.