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Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (1976)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (1976)
For Red Letter Day, ITV, tx. 11/1/1976
60 mins, colour
DirectorMike Newell
Production CompanyGranada Television
ProducerMichael Dunlop
ScriptJack Rosenthal
MusicJim Parker

Cast: Joe Black (Joe McGill); Barbara Moore-Black (Nancy McGill); Diana Davies (Val); Joe Belcher (Gaffer); Mark Wing-Davey (Terry); Jack Shepherd (Phil)

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A film extra has won a chance for the big break in his career - two crucial lines in a television film.

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The premise of Red Letter Day (ITV, 1976), Granada's series of seven dramas depicting a special day in one character's life, was perfectly suited to writer Jack Rosenthal's sense of dramatic cohesion, and it was a conceit to which he returned throughout his career (The Chain, d. Jack Gold, 1984; A Day to Remember, Channel 4, tx. 21/12/1986; Eskimo Day, BBC, tx. 5/4/1996). 'Ready When You Are, Mr McGill' tells of the eponymous extra's big moment, delivering a minor line in a TV drama - and how he blows it. Rosenthal's affection for his character is manifest, and Joe's dressing down from the director upon fluffing his line is clearly an unfair victimisation of the lowest member in the filming food chain. Jack Shepherd's director is a finely judged study in harassment, besieged by incompetence, circumstance and inclement weather.

Rosenthal delights in the detail of a television crew on location - the power struggles, the boredom, the impossibility of sticking to schedule - and his characters are wittily sketched, right down to the costume mistress who hardly speaks but is constantly in tears. Perhaps drawing on experience, he pinpoints the scriptwriter's lack of clout on the set, and it may be bitterness rather than wryness emerging when his fictional director casually cuts a scene, demanding, "what's it got to do with the writer?" The neatness of the script's construction is Rosenthal's riposte to the character who complains, "Has it got a beginning, middle and end? Never bloody do have, do they?"

The exposure of the artifice behind the simplest of shots must have been a revelation to the audience in 1976. Mike Newell, then in his auspicious pre-cinema career, enjoys playing with the viewer's increased awareness of the mechanics of filming, as when the sound momentarily goes out of synch, or a bucket of water is emptied directly at the camera.

Nearly 30 years later, Rosenthal resurrected Mr McGill in an expanded version (ITV, tx. 26/12/2005), with Tom Courtenay as Joe and Bill Nighy as the even more beleaguered director. The result was still delightfully observed, but more satirically barbed in its depiction of television production decision-making. As before, Rosenthal saves his sharpest critique till the very end, when a yobbish lad, bored with TV drama, switches over to some 'reality' camcorder footage: "Real people, that's what the public wants to see. That's your proper f***ing drama, innit?" Upon which, the TV explodes.

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
1. Setting up (3:38)
2. The first take (3:51)
3. Hair in the gate (3:15)
Newell, Mike (1942-)
Rosenthal, Jack (1931-2004)