Just Another Saturday in the City?

With little or no fanfare the BBC recently gave permission for a series of critically acclaimed but rarely seen instalments of its much lauded ‘Play For Today’ series to be released on DVD. For those of us under a certain age who have relied on any means possible to view many of these classic television dramas, the opportunity to finally get to see lovingly restored screen adaptations of Glaswegian playwright Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ (1979) is a real treat. In its golden age ‘Play For Today’ was an important base for exciting and dynamic social commentary which tackled many controversial issues throughout the 1970s and early 1980s; one of the most high profile examples being the original adaptation for the BBC of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ (1977) with its scathing indictment of the borstal system. Given last year’s suggestion by Peter Hain that there should be an increase in local television drama in Northern Ireland, the release of Peter McDougall’s ‘Play For Today’ collection on a modern format should provide an encouraging template for any aspiring local dramatists and directors who feel that they can provide a reflection of contemporary Northern Irish society. Although McDougall’s work is based in a different era, its situation on Scotland’s west coast means that it has a deep emotional and cultural resonance for a modern Belfast which, as has been demonstrated by Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh in their recent work ‘Belfast – Segregation, Violence and the City’ is still very much a divided city. Therefore underneath the blithe depiction of non-strife that has been projected by ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’ and others there is a bleaker side to our society and one that perhaps needs to be transmitted into the wider public’s consciousness, and what better medium than local televisual drama?

McDougall’s work, directed by John Mackenzie for television is filmed in a grainy documentary style – in part due to its shoe-string budget. It is often impossible for an engaged viewer to distinguish drama from reality and that style is what gives it much of its power on the small screen. Among these recent DVD releases the most high profile and perhaps most pertinent for Northern Irish viewers would have to be ‘Just Another Saturday’, supposedly originally written by McDougall at the behest of ‘Z Cars’ star Colin Welland whose London house he happened to be painting. Inspiringly McDougall had apparently never read a book, never mind written a drama script yet he was able to draw on his real-life experiences; those of working in the shipyards and being a drum major in the Orange parades in Glasgow (an activity which is shared by John McNeil, the main protagonist in ‘Just Another Saturday’) to create a series of stirring social commentaries. In a similar manner to local playwright Sam Thompson who wrote about sectarianism and bigotry in the Belfast shipyards, McDougall captured Glasgow, a similar city, in the midst of crises. The shipyards which like Belfast had provided so much employment to manual workers in the surrounding areas were in decline. The constitutional status of Scotland was under considerable debate, sectarianism was a societal and institutional malady and the Northern Irish conflict was spiralling out of control across the Irish Sea (Graham Walker provided an erudite analysis of some of these themes in his 1995 book ‘Intimate Strangers – Political and Cultural Interaction Between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times’). Indeed, having been filmed in 1975 ‘Just Another Saturday’ was, like ‘Scum’ deemed so controversial at the time that its broadcast was put back for some years. Apparently during its production the head of the Glasgow police force banned its creation on seeing the script, predicting that the piece would cause social disorder during its filming and eventual screening.

In many ways the themes played out in ‘Just Another Saturday’ were relevant to the Ulster situation in the 1970s and are perhaps still just as pertinent for Belfast in the year 2007. While things are improving incrementally, it is hardly yet a cultural Xanadu. Although there are some who seem to bask in this notion, the flipside of this perceived utopia is that there has actually been a persistent decline in many communities in Belfast and beyond which have yet to taste the benefits of the ‘peace process’. Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell, who despite having his play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ televised, has often encountered trouble in attempting to get his message across and is a dramatist who in a similar fashion to McDougall has constantly tried to project through an artistic medium the intense problems facing working class communities – in Mitchell’s case Protestant communities in Belfast as they come out of the protracted conflict. McDougall and Mitchell, while possibly unaware of each other, undoubtedly share a common narrative in that both have successfully critiqued their respective similar backgrounds and the inherent machismo, violence and divisive institutions that have dogged them and their communities, especially in a shared experience of post-industrial decline. Indeed the central characters in Mitchell’s ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and McDougall’s ‘Just Another Saturday’ are faced with contextually similar though circumstantially incongruent choices about their destiny and identity. For Kyle in Mitchell’s play the narrowed definition of his role as a post-ceasefire Loyalist paramilitary have come to bear along with the political and economic pressures of that role (John Hill – ‘Cinema and Northern Ireland – Film, Culture and Politics). For John McNeil, the young drum major in McDougall’s play it is a matter of coming to terms with his previously concrete convictions about Orange pageantry which has been abused by Rab Williamson, who was up until the Saturday in question something of a role model for McNeil. The institutions of paramilitarism and Orangeism, which are respectively central in the urban communities written about in ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and ‘Just Another Saturday’ come in for unflattering scrutiny in each writers’ works.

No matter what our individual opinions on the institutions subjected to analysis in these works are, it is vital that a new generation has the opportunity to appreciate Peter McDougall and John Mackenzie’s classic work from the 1970s. In ‘Just Another Saturday’ and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ we get glimpses of social ailments – violence, bigotry and misogyny – that are still sadly prevalent on both sides of the divided city in Belfast. Perhaps if someone acts upon Peter Hain’s advice about the importance of local television drama they’ll first take a took at these DVDs, Gary Mitchell’s work and tomes similar to it in the Nationalist community and aim to give a balanced view of a society which has yet to fully transform.

Source: Fortnight Magazine, December 2007

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