Thursday, 9 July 2015

Peter McDougall's Just Trilogy

Across the 1970s, Scottish playwright Peter McDougall (pictured above) penned three television dramas for the BBC's celebrated Play For Today series. Each of them had two things in common; their Glaswegian setting, and the word 'Just' in their titles. The trio were Just Your Luck (1972), Just Another Saturday (1975) and Just A Boys Game (1979)

We have Colin Welland to thank for Peter McDougall, one of Scotland's best modern playwrights. The former shipyard worker cum house painter was encouraged by Welland to write about his experiences growing up in his native Glasgow and the result was Just Another Saturday, the story about the annual Orange order march in the Scottish city. The BBC and Play For Today team were greatly impressed by McDougall's talent, but scared - they deemed the material too controversial to be made and broadcast in the sensitive early 1970s.

Undeterred, McDougall went back to the drawing board and, drawing on his own sister's wedding, came up with Just Your Luck, the story of a Protestant teenager (Leslie Mackie) who ditches her footballer boyfriend Joe and falls pregnant by a Catholic sailor played by Hayman. This play went out under the Play For Today strand, directed by Mike Newell, and was immediately hailed as 'the most exciting debut since Look Back In Anger', though it's unflinching and often comic expose on the religious bigotry of Scotland saw it gain some controversial reaction at the time.

It's a really good play which, even on viewing today, feels rather groundbreaking - one imagines in 1972 this kind of story, these kind of people were not shown or represented on television. It's thanks to raw talent like McDougall, using his experiences, that the Glaswegian way of life, its religious climate, society and its poverty, received a platform nationally. I can well imagine a few 'disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' if only to complain that the dialect was so impenetrable!

Feeling they were onto something good here, the BBC subsequently went ahead with Just Another Saturday some three years later, with one of McDougall's former workmates from the shipyard, Billy Connolly, in the cast.

I first watched this 1975 John Mackenzie directed Play For Today by McDougall a few years back and was really struck by its honesty and almost documentary like approach to the story of one young man's participation in the Protestant Orange day parades of Glasgow 1975. Even on rewatches it remains a fascinating document that really does immerse you into the thick of it.

The UK of the 1970s was a real powder keg of a society with Sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height and in a Scotland which was saw the decline of industries like shipbuilding at stark odds with the riches initially and emptily promised from North Sea oil there was a rising demand for independence and/or devolution.

The authentic Glaswegian script from McDougall and the naturalistic acting of all the cast, including John Morrison as the young central character, baton twirler John, Bill Henderson and Eileen McCallum as his parents, Billy Connolly as his Catholic drinking mate and Ken Hutchison as a dangerously mercurial Orangeman all serve to give the piece a greater impact and intensity making the emotional impact of picture and dialogue all the more intense. But it's perhaps Mackenzie's documentarian style that packs the biggest punch as he captures real details in outdoor crowd scenes and in the faces of those watching the march.

A coming of age drama about innocence and the desire to escape or belong to something, Just Another Saturday depicts on the whole a genuine warmth in Glasgow that resolutely exists despite its religious divide (its telling for example that John's best friends down the pub are Connolly et al, all Catholic) and the violence that erupts as a result. Its a real eye opener to young John, who had clearly viewed the Order as a chance to be a part of something and gain an acceptance that could perhaps shape him and lead to his maturity, but its obvious violence and the heavy drinking culture that enables it on the march are not for him. Ultimately you know that although he knows all the old songs with their anti-Catholic content and says the right things and the right offensive jokes, he doesn't really mean it and is a much more inclusive person than the more devout members with real hate in their hearts.

Despite the play having a couple of bloody and dramatic highs, the play ends undramatically as befits the title of Just Another Saturday. We are left to ponder whether John will leave the Order or whether the talent he has, his faith and the buzz he gets from belonging there is his only real escape after all.

Is this the best Peter McDougall play? If it isn't it comes damn close and is undoubtedly the best depiction of the hard drinking, hard living culture of working class Glasgow, where the weekend is liberally punctuated by violent vendettas and Vat 69.

Just a Boys' Game is less Play For Today and more 'play in a day' detailing as it does one 24 hour period in the life of two weegies; hard man Jake McQuillan and joker Dancer. The latter is played by McDougall regular Ken Hutchison on fine form whilst the pivotal role of McQuillan is played with poker faced brilliance by singer/songwriter Frankie Miller. It's a really intense and authentic performance that I actually doubt a trained actor could match let alone top. We first meet the pair standing at the bar of a Greenock pub where a couple of young chancers seem determined to drag Jake McQuillan into a brawl. It's clear from his demeanour that he's a man who can handle himself and has a reputation and this is further established by the barman who advises him to keep his cool, saying "I thought you'd given up the games?"

The young gang however have only just started in the game and when they start flashing their chibs around, slashing at anyone who stands in their way, Jake is forced to intervene and give as good as he gets whilst the police, ineffectual and uncaring, sit idly by in their patrol car just waiting for the fight to end before they make their presence known.

Back home, Jake is shown to live with his grandparents and in particular in the shadow of his morose and uncommunicative grandfather (comedian Hector Nicholl) who is in ill health and on the brink of death yet who, in his day, had the same kind of rep as what Jake has now and is even rumoured to have killed Jake's father - not that Jake minds, having never known his father anyway, he clearly has only ever felt an affinity with the family he has - even if it is one way.

The following day, Friday, sees Dancer eager to carry on with the drinking and he calls round at the shipyard where Jake works the cranes to persuade him to go on a bender with him. I must admit to finding this section somewhat uneasy and sobering. I was no stranger to a 'Leo Sayer' myself in my younger days and that mix of almost childish excitement at thumbing the conventions of 9 to 5 society with the reality of rain cleared streets and the pitiable figures who have long since given up the 9 to 5 to spend their days drinking full time is palpably real and, like the rest of the film, captured with brilliant bleakness and a sense of economic and social deprivation by John Mackenzie.

The two continue on the merry(ish) way meeting up with another friend the rotund moustachioed and merry  Tanza (Gregor Fisher, long before he donned the headband and string vest of Rab C Nesbitt) for a game of snooker...but the word is out that Jake is on the town and the gang of young thugs out to make a name for themselves and you just know this won't end well for someone.

McDougall invests a sense of the gunslinging tradition in the character of Jake McQuillan and this is clear in the way that just a threat and a stare can instill bowel shattering fear and a torrent of tears in one young snitch. It's also referenced throughout and the western theme is nicely alluded to in one hilarious exchange between Tanza and a hopeless snooker player at the club. When the player laments that he "could have used a rest for that shot" Tanza replies "Aye a week in bed would've done it" Offended, the player demands "Who are you?" to which Tanza replies "I'm The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I hope you didnae know him?" Which is also a nice example of the fine line between humour and drama this piece invariably walks.

The film ends as the Friday night comes to a close and the grandfather is not expected to see the day out. Jake is determined to make his peace with him and explain that he has always known about what he did to his father but he has never cared, because he knows 'the game' and that he considers himself to be like his grandfather. The old man summons a last ounce of strength to respond, but not in the manner you'd expect, and instead shows you that no matter how old you are the rules of the boys game is still important to a man.

Just a Boys' Game is a strong piece of drama which never once seeks to address the issues depicted or console the audience by claiming the moral high ground, it just reports the culture warts and all without sentiment or finger wagging as befits the message of the film; "It's just the game"

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here


  1. This is an excellent piece of writing -especially the comments on "JUST A BOYS GAME".

    I have watched the play 3 times now, and on each re-watching I was so struck by the pure tragedy of it. Thoroughly Greek.

    Thank you for this very insightful piece of criticism.

    1. And thank you, for saying so! Very kind. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. And thank you, for saying so! Very kind. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Guaranteed quality with every Peter McDougall play with brilliant scripts brought to life by terrific acting. Totally authentic accounts of real life Scotland in the era depicted. Humour, sadness, poignancy and an unbending determination to get something out of life permeate this man's work. Nobody has ever done it better.

    1. Well said! Thanks for stopping by :)