Peter McDougall is a bit of a forgotten man these days, but, for a few years in the 1970s, he pretty much was modern Scottish drama. His TV plays Just Your Luck, The Elephant’s Graveyard, Just a Boy’s Game and especially the controversial Just Another Saturday, which included real footage of an Orange Walk and all that goes with it, are outstanding, and feature some of the first acting roles for the likes of Billy Connolly, singer Frankie Millar and comedian Hector Nicol as well as having a regular coterie of actors who appeared in his work, including David Anderson, Ken Hutchison, Eileen McCallum and Jon Morrison. These plays dealt with class, knife culture, sectarianism (at a time when this was hugely controversial and brave), and what it means to be a ‘man’. Like his plays, the answers he offers are sometimes difficult to warm to.
His film of Jimmy Boyle’s life A Sense of Freedom is shocking in its intensity and has an incredible central performance from David Hayman as Boyle. In the 80s McDougall returned to his home town of Greenock for Where The Buffalo Roam (see Harvey goes to Holy Loch…) which starred Harvey Keitel as a US Marine who is stationed at Holy Loch and has married a local lass. Both of these are really worth seeing as they capture aspects of the West Coast of Scotland that have become familiar, but at the time were unusual to see on screen.
His last, at least to this date, TV play was Down Among the Big Boys. It is a Glaswegian tale of cops and robbers which stars Ken Drury, Alex Norton, Maggie Bell and, as the Romeo and Juliet of the piece, a young Douglas Henshall and Ashley Jensen. They are newly engaged and it is time for the families to meet. His father is a high ranking policeman, her’s a successful bank robber, played by McDougall’s old friend and welding colleague Billy Connolly. A marriage made in heaven.
Some performances are stronger than others. Norton, Bell and Drury are reliably excellent, but Henshall and Jensen struggle. However, they have both gone on to bigger, although not always better, things. Jensen has become a talented actor, both dramatic and comic, but I’m afraid I still don’t get Henshall. I find his technique too mannered. However, it’s Billy Connolly who steals the show as the career criminal Jo-Jo Donelly, a role which is a hint at what was to come in 1999’s The Debt Collector (see Connolly Collects…) where he is superb as the Boyle-esque Nickie Dryden. In Down Among the Big Boys he is always one step ahead of the police, and seems to fall on his feet. The clip below includes a classic scene where a job which looks as if it is going to have to be abandoned is saved by an unlikely source:
There are a few interesting cameos here from Rab Affleck, Gary Shaw, the ubiquitous Freddie Boardley and, in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance, young Hobbit Billy Boyd. Here he is:
McDougall has recently been concentrating on stage plays, writing three in 2004 for A Play, a Pie and a Pint at Oran Mor and which starred Robbie Coltrane and Sean Scanlan He was apparently working on remakes of the Ealing comedies Whisky Galore! and The Maggie but fell out when the film company refused to go with his choices for lead actors. McDougall’s work has been dismissed by many as Scots Noir, contributing to the prevailing image of ‘No Mean City’ etc, but his plays were always poignant, and often comic, and surely it’s time for his work to grace, and sometimes disgrace, our screens once more.
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Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.