Play For Today: Just a Boys’Game, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, written by Peter McDougall, Director John McKenzie.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p032kjg0/play-for-today-series-10-1-just-a-boys-game

‘You’re getttin’ it McQuillan’.

I’m old enough to remember this when it was first broadcast 8th  November 1979. Peter McDougall’s portrayal of working class life hit a nerve. It helped that large chunks of it were filmed in Clydebank and Drumchapel (I’ve since been told it was Greenock and Port Glasgow). Marathon shipyards featured. Or it might have been John Browns. We’re on the nostalgia trail.

By day Jake McQuillan (Frankie Miller) works in a crane. We see him up there with the seagulls. Toasting his piece of Sunblest on the electric fire.  This was a time when Clydebank had shipyards. Titan Crane, was still working and not a museum piece, it and other cranes dominated the skyline. At St Andrew’s school art teachers regularly asked us to draw a crane. We could see it over the roofs of the tenements..

By night Jake McQuillan is a hard man. We first see him in a pub, with his best mate Dancer Dunnichy (Ken Hutchison). I’m sure some of you would be able to identify the pub. Remember when we had pubs? The boys are drinking exotic mixtures, halves, double measures that cost £1.90 for four drinks and you still get ten pence change. We’re in you go out with a fiver and get pissed territory.  

Thursday night. Time for a fight. McQuillan can’t be a hard man, unless he’s tested. But he’s getting too old for the game (it’s a Boys’Game) and had put down his blade. When some daft bird nudged into Dancer’s back and they get into an argument. You know what’s going to happen. The shutters are going to come down and blades are going to appear. This is a portrayal of working class life with the chibs down.

McQuillan can put down his blade, but he’s a scalp worth taking. Other boys want a part of him.

Dancer, his sidekick, takes him away from work. ‘I declare Friday, a public holiday’ and into the embrace of booze and the institution of Clatty Bella. Entrance price, one bottle of your finest Eldorado or VAT 69.  The Buckfast of their day. Nobody accused monks of making Eldorado or VAT 69 and profiting from alkie’s alcoholic tendencies, especially since that’s got too many syllables. Clatty Bella has no electricity and no bath towel, and the throw over the couch would walk Dancer down to the harbour and fling him in. But she’s one of the good ones. She’s one of us. The kind that Tories loved so they could vote down free school meals.

The backstory of McQuillen not having a mum and dad and staying with his grannie (Jean Taylor Smith) and his granda (Hector Nicol) is a chance to see how working class folk once lived.

Ironically, Tanza (Gregor Fisher) who went on to become Gregor Fisher, Scottish institution, in his autobiography, told the reader how his da (or was it his granda?) used to batter down on the ceiling to tell his ma (or grandma) to get the breakfast on. His Ma did what she was told, without any lip. This is man’s world.

Here we see Grandma running after Grandpa, dressing him, and putting him to bed. Brushing his false teeth and sticking them in his gumsy mouth. Deprivation comes in many forms.

McQuillan is aping the life of Grandpa, who also ran with the gangs and was the hardest of hard men, who killed McQuillan’s da. This is also part of the boys’ game.

Saturday shift. The loveable Dancer and the likeable Tanza are wanting a bit of drunken fun. But they’re drawn into a  game not of their making. If you run with the wolves argument. McQuillan springs into life when they’re attacked. Dancer, an innocent, victim.

For McQuillan that’s just the way it is. Tanza, another innocent, bangs the roof of the Panda car and blames the police. ‘Where were you?’

Frankie Miller gets to sing the eulogy and sets himself up for another little number in Peter McDougall’s Just Another Saturday. It’s the same story, but set to the tune of The Orange Walk. Billy Connolly was in it. It might have been called The Elephant’s Graveyard.  Can’t remember. Remember, when he used to be funny? Aye, nostalgia gets you there and that little kick.  

Gregor Fisher with Melanie Reid (2015) The Boy from Nowhere.

gregor.jpg

I missed out on Gregor Fisher’s reading of his autobiography in Dalmuir Library recently. Tickets only. It’s a small place. Sold out. Gregor Fisher is a ‘National Treasure’ ran an advertisement campaign to promote a play ‘Yer Granny’ he was in. And on the front page  of his book, the tagline from The Telegraph reads: Rab C Nesbitt is the most memorable comedy character Scotland has ever produced’.  There’s a lot of good will to be tapped around Rab C. There’s a little bit of him in most working-class Scots, although many would be loath to admit it. The conflation between Gregor Fisher and Rab C is a common one. It’s a bit like Harry H Corbett in Steptoe and Son. Portrayal of the character offers a comfortable life in a profession that jobs are hard to come by and fiercely competed for. Yet Gregor Fisher wants to be more than a string vest, bandage on his head and the sum of Rab C Nesbitt’s collected wisdom and folly.   I say autobiography, but it’s Melanie Reid that does the writing.

An easy enough read, you could comfortably read it in one day, if you had a mind to. I didn’t. For all the Shakespeare truths and literary maxims offsetting chapter headings the writing is bland and the formatting uneven, with blank pages adding to just over 300 pages. Reid reminds us that before Rab C, his apogee,  Gregor done his training in theatres all around Scotland and England. He was a renowned Bottom in A Midnight Summer’s Dream, for example, (there’s a joke in there somewhere if you want to have a look).  Whisper it, so fucking what, I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and would much rather watch The Simpsons, which is far funnier, is in fact funny, when A Midnight Summer’s Dream casts a spell and pretends to be,  and I’d much rather watch Rab C than Oberon.   But I’m working class, got a chip on my shoulder Clyde wide. Rab C is one of us.

The heart of the book can be found at the end of the book: ‘Nobody knows his past’. When Gregor Fisher was three-years old he was adopted by John and Cis Leckie. She was a real mother to him, he was an old bastard. That was normal for the tail end of 1950’s Scotland.

‘Three thumps-never more, never less. No cheery ‘Hallooo!’, no cry of That’s me, Cis, just three dictatorial thumps on the bedroom floor with his foot. John Leckie wanted his breakfast.’ [no comma after Halloo, new sentence]

He sets out, with Melanie Reid, to find out what happened to his family. The short answer is his mother, Katherine (Kit) McKenzie had an illegitimate child, named Anne, with a farm worker in 1946 who promptly disappeared to Australia. Then she had two children with pillar of the Kirk, and rather more well-to-do William Kerr, who was married, with three children of his own and was old enough to be Kit’s grandad. Kit had a weakened mitral valve in her heart and she died when Gregor was three. While unusual, even for those hard times, it’s hardly a big reveal. John Lanchester’s autobiography about his parents, set around the same timeframe, for example, found that his mum came from a big Irish Roman Catholic family and that she had been a nun for about twenty years before marrying her father. That’s what I call a big reveal.

While studying the few snapshots of  Kit the reader is told she was a good-looking woman, broad, friendly face [big ba’ face] and looks like Gregor. I’ll let you reach your own conclusions here. Inevitably, William Kerr might be old, but has the clichéd twinkle in his eye, just like Gregor. Guff.

The most interesting parts of the book take their lead from T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People, which showed how working class families of seven to ten shared one room and played bingo for a bed. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then but fear we’re moving back in that direction. Fisher asks a question of his newfound relatives and the reader, if The Boy from Nowhere, wasn’t a national treasure and well-known actor, but a habitual drunk or druggie would they have embraced him and his past in the way they did?

Of course they would Gregor. Of course they would. And publishers would be reaching out and offering you a book deal. Do I look buttoned up the back?

 

 

Des Dillon at Dalmuir Library, 2pm.

Last Saturday, when I was in Dalmuir Library, Gregor Fisher was doing a gig at 7pm. It was sold out. Tickets only. But let’s put this into perspective. Dalmuir Library is not the Albert Hall. Sold out means about thirty hard plastic chairs filled by wee woman with blue rinse and bookish leanings. A stocky wee guy with a bit of the blue rinse about him was setting up the microphone, practicing saying one-two, one-two. I didn’t want to tell him that it gets harder as you get older because I was sure he’d learned that himself. I just let him get on with it.

Today I learned that wee guy was called Donny O’Rourke and he’s the dedicated reading champion of West Dunbartonshire libraries or something like that. It sounds a bit like Batman, but with books, instead of Robins. He was master of ceremonies and did the introductions for an old pal of his – Des Dillon. I didn’t know a lot about Des Dillon. I can remember Ann Marie at a film and television course making a face which meant he’s not really one of us, because he’d left early, written a play called Singin I’m No a Billy He’s a Tim.  Ann Marie probably won’t remember me either. And if she does I’m sure she’ll make the same scrunched up face. I left the course early too, never to amount to much. True, of course. But there you go. The next time I heard of Des Dillon was when I bumped into Sharpie. He told me he’d been to a play. Obviously, if you come from Dalmiur that’s not the sort of thing you admit to. You can say things like I stuck the heid on the wife, but even though it was her fault, it was a total accident. People will nod their head in recognition. Or the dog fell out the windae, but it wasnae my fault. It wasnae my turn to take him out. There’s three storeys in that one story, but going to the theatre. Fuck off. But then Sharpie explained he went with Jackie and it was her idea. That makes it kinda OK. Then Sharpie explained it was funny. One guy  jaked up wakes up in the cells and turns round and the guy sharing his cell is a Billy boy. He’s a Tim, a Taig, a potato muncher and the Sons of William and he go to it and gie it laldy. I’ve never seen it, but that’s my kinda play.

Des is a wee guy, brought up Coatbridge and the first thing he told us was he was proud of his Da, because he was 72 and went to the gym, so he could scrap, and he’d battered the guy upstairs from him that was 53. Then he told us he was here to read poetry. That’s hard for a guy to say. Especially, a working-class guy.  He played it down by telling his audience about how he’d posted some of it on Facebook and forced his fourth wife to read it. Yeh, fourth wife. We got that old story about when you’re first married and you have sex and you put a pea in the jar on the mantelpiece… and later in life when your libido fails and you take a pea out there’ll be always be something left in the jar. Multiply that by four and that’s a lot of jars. That’s a lot of mantle pieces. And Des was good at that. Telling that’s where story telling in Coatbridge begun. Elbow on the mantelpiece telling the story of who did what to whom – and that wan had a shotgun. And then there’s the drink. Des is AA, been non-toxic for 30 years. I guess he was too busy getting married. But we know about that. Then there’s the language of deference. How we are talked down to because we don’t speak Received Pronunciation. Discriminated against. Des said he turned down a contract with the BBC, a ten-part adaptation of one of his books that would have netted him upwards of £100 000 because of the BBC’s coverage of the Independence Referendum. Des is part of the 45%. Vocal in the ways that those above us with power fuck up the working class. I know all that. But it was good to hear it verbalised. Des is one of us.

Poetry wise, Des was a bit nervous. He rattled through his poems. One about Lena Zavaroni, Mamma He’s Making Eye’s at Me, and how full of the wine he sang outside his sweetheart’s house of his true love. There was a sonnet and he talked about the diamond shape of verse and how restrictions can make the poem, but I can’t remember what it was about. Coffee and tables were set up, but I nipped away. I’m not sure about poetry, but I am sure I like Des Dillon. One of us that has given voice to the violence done to our language and the poor by the gatekeepers of society. Who benefits? That’s the question Des leaves his audience with. Post your answer in poetry and give voice to working-class culture. Let’s give insurrection voice and  bring the tanks back to George Square.