Archive for play for today

Tough times bring on 70s’ nostalgia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by gtam80

In the midst of the recent talk surrounding an economic downturn it has been interesting to note the frequency with which people have recalled the potential similarities between our current predicament and the social problems Britain faced through that most tumultuous of decades – the 1970s. Interestingly not all of these comparisons have been flavoured by anxieties or cultural depressions; indeed in the year when so many people are celebrating the memory of 1968 and Civil Rights it might, ironically, be possible to finally appreciate the social and cultural importance of the much maligned 1970s.

Admittedly the Troubles coloured the decade here in Northern Ireland, yet according to 2004 evidence by the New Economics Foundation which has been highlighted in a recent book ‘Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in The 1970s’ by Alwyn W. Turner, people in Britain were actually happier in 1976 than any time since. Despite this suggestion it might be said that popular culture in Britain, despite often appearing negative in its outlook, has never been as interesting as it was between 1970 and 1980.

While the social and cultural revolutions experienced throughout the 1960s were undeniably important in shaping an understanding of contemporary Britain, it is the manner in which people reacted to the slide in the 1970s which arguably provides more intriguing material for historians of politics and culture in particular – indeed, in his book Turner uses the commissioning of the South Bank Show by London Weekend Television late in the decade as evidence that culture had, by the 1970s, become central to observing how British people behaved and interacted with each other and their environment more generally. Turner is correct, and Mike Leigh’s classic play ‘Abigail’s Party’ (1977) with its commentary on the new suburban middle class and its beige aspirations was important in portraying how everyday life was often flavoured by an acute fatalism. Indeed less acknowledged works in the ‘Play for Today’ series at the time portray the many schisms that were causing social tensions in 1970s Britain. Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) which was centred on a day in the life of a drum major in an Orange band acutely observed everyday life in Glasgow in the midst of a constitutional crisis in Scotland.

The many recent volumes written on the punk phenomenon have continually suggested that by the late 1970s British youth in particular had reached a boiling point of disillusionment – indeed there have been observations that John Lydon’s fantastic post-Sex Pistols project Public Image Ltd. was in danger of bringing the burgeoning dystopia of the late part of the decade to dangerously wretched levels in the new wave era of the 1980s (how prophetic he was in terms of setting the mood for the advent of Thatcher’s early 1980s!). However in the early to mid 1970s David Bowie had already provided chillingly prescient commentaries on issues such as the cult of personality and the alienation of the majority with famous albums such as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’. By the end of the decade Bowie’s mood had been cheered little as he released the malevolent trilogy of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. On top of Bowie’s pacesetting work brooding soundscapes conjured by Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, Gang of Four and Joy Division laid bare the many discourses, from dealing with the legacy of the 1960s to the more immediate issue of the power of the trade unions, vying for attention in 1970s Britain

The importance of the 1970s in understanding wider British society cannot be ignored. Indeed in the same manner in which people reacted to the war and the post-war years, it has been during periods when Britain’s collective back has been against the wall that its literature and music has been at its most fascinating. Indeed in recent years some artists have called upon the zeitgeist of the 1970s for their own craft. The most obvious example of this was David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned United’ which was based on Brian Clough’s brief tenure in charge at Leeds United and which has proved to be so popular that it is soon to be made into a film.

Indeed the popularity of the recent television series ‘Life On Mars’ might provide a small clue about the depth of people’s feelings regarding the over-sensitive nature of modern British society. While cultural representations of the decade may often appear muggy and claustrophobic it has only been recently when some commentators have noted the emerging similarities between Brown’s Britain and the 1970s that a non-retro nostalgia has emerged for a time when edgy music, literature and television rallied against and commented on important social phenomena, and indeed came to the fore in the consciousness of the mainstream. One wonders how Britons in 2040 will talk about the latest Keane or Snow Patrol records in relation to their social and cultural origins?

Source: Belfast News Letter, October 2008


Just Another Saturday in the City?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

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