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.
Having gone straight from school to the Glasgow shipyards, McDougall fled to
London in the mid-60s. It was while painting the house of Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78)
star and future writer Colin Welland that he began relating his youthful
exploits as a drum major in Glasgow's Orange Parades. The fascinated Welland
suggested McDougall turn his experiences into a television play.
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
Not disheartened, McDougall offered the BBC another play. 'Just Your Luck'
(Play for Today, tx. 4/12/1972) told the story of a Protestant teenager who
falls pregnant by a Catholic sailor. Its exposure of the religious bigotry of
Scotland's West coast caused an enormous reaction, from outrage in the locality
to reviews hailing it as "the most exciting debut since Look Back in Anger",
This success prompted the BBC to weather the inevitable controversy and
finally make 'Just Another Saturday'. The resultant film (Play for Today, tx
10/3/1975) tells of one day in the life of 16 year-old John (Jon Morrison),
whose excitement at leading the Orange Parade is shattered by his discovery of
the violence behind the pageantry. Beyond the political issues, it is
McDougall's mastery not only of the gallows humour of Glasgow's working class
but of the hidden motives of parental kindness that make the drama, in Jeremy
Isaacs's words, "a masterpiece" and won the play the Prix Italia.
'The Elephants Graveyard' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 12/10/1976) was an
intimate, pastoral follow-up, teaming Morrison with Billy Connolly for the
charming story of two unemployed men dodging the wives who they have deceived
about their job situation. The play follows them over one gloriously
irresponsible day as they revert to childhood through games, stories and
examination of their fears and hopes.
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.
The partnership of McDougall and Mackenzie was one of the finest of the era.
Their final collaboration was on HandMade Films' A Sense of Freedom (1981),
dramatising the life of notorious Glasgow criminal Jimmy Boyle. Despite a
devastating portrayal of Boyle by David Hayman and some nightmarish sequences of
depravity and brutality, it suggested that McDougall was less confident in
fact-based or big screen works, an unfortunate weakness as TV drama lost its
taste for the single 'play'. Having discovered a genius, television simply
didn't quite know how to make the most of him, and sadly, McDougall has never
again managed to recapture the extraordinary successes of his early years.