• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

“I’m dealing with people who don’t know drama. They’re essentially civil servants”

The music hall moustache may be thicker than a Tom Stoppard plot, but it still can’t filter the vituperation which emerges from the mouth of Scotland’s most combative and controversial playwright.

Over the years, former shipyard worker Peter McDougall has been responsible for some of the best drama seen on our screens, the 1970s Scots kitchen sinkers such as Elephant’s Graveyard and Just a Boys’ Game.

Loading article content

But at the moment, his only visible product is a two-minute play, part of the Glasgow lunchtime theatre Oran Mor’s 200th play celebration. It’s an excellent two minutes, as it happens. Funny and poignant. However, when asked, “Why no current TV drama, Peter?” he delivers a long, thoughtful answer. With force.

“TV drama departments these days are all run by committees,” he says. “As a result, you can’t get a conversation with one person. And here’s an example of how the process works. Or doesn’t. A couple of years back I wrote a film which was to be made by STV for BBC, or rather I wrote an outline. I got paid for it. Then I did a first draft of a script and got paid again. Then a second draft. Then I worked on the notes I got from the BBC, and got paid again.

“Some months later the BBC announced they would ‘pass’ on the project. I thought ‘What the ... ? I’d been commissioned and paid, and then ‘passed’ on. And I never found out why. No-one had the courtesy to phone and say why.

“A couple of months after that I got a call from BBC drama boss Anne Mensah saying she had no idea I had been treated in such a bad way. Of course, by remarkable coincidence, her call came two days before I was due to pick up my Lifetime Achievement Award.”

McDougall has a war chest of such medals; Prix D’Italias, Baftas. And a theory as to why he’s no longer invited to play with the other kids in the telly game.

“Actually, I’ve never had anything made in Scotland. Ever. The commissions have always come from down south. But one of the problems is I’m dealing with people who really don’t know a lot about making good TV drama. They’re career professionals, not people with an artistic eye, theatrical sensibility or someone who can understand a script. They’re committee people who are essentially civil servants.”

The voice lifts. “Just look at the recent stuff the BBC has made. Maybe the money for my drama went to that truly awful Highland thing (Hope Springs) starring Annette Crosbie. And I read that the recent Minnie Driver drama (The Deep) was rubbish as well.

He adds, with a glint in his eye: “Some of the drama that comes out of the BBC is only slightly better than STV’s The Hour.”

The Greenock-born writer who took off to London as a teenager and was teased into writing by actor and screenwriter Colin Welland – whose house he was painting at the time – has been breaking windaes, figuratively – and sometimes literally – ever since. The hard-drinking autodidact loved the idea of marrying a schoolteacher 10 years older than him and his summation of their time together highlights his hard-hitting thought processes. “For someone like me meeting a sophisticated woman? Well, you can imagine. It took me a few years to realise she only wanted a bit of rough.”

His writing style allied itself perfectly, however , with Jimmy Boyle’s prison confinement book Sense of Freedom, producing an iconic screenplay. But now, in terms of television and film in Scotland, McDougall can’t get arrested.

“STV wouldn’t ask me to write a Taggart,” he says. “Why? I don’t know. But right now they’re laying with their throats cut, falling out with ITV and no’ showing the network drama they should. And much of their output is so parochial and stupid. As for Scottish Screen – what do they actually do? They give people a million pounds to make Dan Brown movies. I do know that.”

He pauses for effect and with Wyatt Earp like delivery yells: ‘Get a posse and hunt these people down!’”

If anyone figured age – he’s now 63 – would mellow Peter McDougall, they don’t really know him. He doesn’t drink as much (“I don’t like to lose the afternoons”) but still howls at the moon (“My granny once described me as ‘a crowd’ and she was right”). But there’s a gentle side to the man who loves cricket and tennis.

It’s no real surprise to learn that when he appeared on Desert Island Discs he asked for Olivia Newton John’s If Not For You, to be played “because that was on the radio when my then wife gave birth” . And there are more clues that the brusque front is exactly that. He could make fortunes writing crime thrillers (he knows many of the old-time hoodlums), but he won’t do it. “Boyle’s story was written in a different time, when there was some code of honour. Today, crime is about mayhem. It has no moral centre, no real reason to it. TV makes it so pat.”

It’s also no real surprise to learn Harvey Keitel wore a “Get Me Peter” T-shirt during the filming of Down Where the Buffalo Go in a declaration of disillusionment with the director Ian Knox, that Emma Thompson is a good pal, that the likes of Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane come to his house for dinner. Indeed, his two star pals, he reveals, could well re-launch his career on an international level.

McDougall has written a screenplay of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. “I’ve got Tommy Gormley, who’s directing in America now, (Star Trek, Independence Day) and people such as Patrick Doyle agreeing to do the music, and Connolly and Coltrane have agreed to put their names to it. It’s currently with Twilight star Robert Pattinson, and Kelly MacDonald, who are looking at it. If Pattinson agrees it should go ahead.”

He adds, his voice softening, “When I make Justified Sinner, though, I’ll be wanting to use Scottish talent. We have so much of it here.”

You wonder if McDougall )mellowed, would he work more? Perhaps. But then his character informs and defines his writing; angry but warm, hard-hitting but funny. “Who cares?” says the writer, who lives in Glasgow’s west end with writer/director partner Morag Fullerton. “I still write every day. Something. Anything. A few words. I just put them down and watch how it grows.”

He breaks into a laugh. “I spend a lot of time in my head, working out stuff. The horrors of my mind chase me all around the bed at night, leave me wondering if I’m going mad. I only sleep in shifts. If a burglar came in he’d be there an hour listening to me before he got out.”

There’s no doubt that McDougall’s mind is still constantly listening, probing, looking for writing material. Evidence can be heard in his Oran Mor monologue, which highlights the colour in the Glasgow language – and the fact Glaswegians tend to “shout and bawl”.

“I write about a bookie pal of mine called Tanza, from Greenock, who actually first appeared in Just A Boy’s Game, played by Gregor Fisher. Anyway, I was up seeing my maw a wee while ago and as I was getting on this bus in the scheme from the back of this bus I hear this shout. And it was Tanza. ‘Peter!’ he yells. ‘I’ve no’ seen you in years. Listen, Big Wullie Carruthers has finally got merrit!’

“Then Tanza adds, ‘His wife looks as though she fell aff the back of the Lourdes bus – but she’s kind to him.’”

Priceless. Such perspicacity, such total articulation in one line. Perhaps TV drama bosses Scotland should look past the dramatic mouser and look McDougall up in the phone book.


Oran Mor, 200th Play, until Saturday.

High Point: Getting the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Low Point: Being treated disparagingly by television in Scotland. Look how Colin McCredie was treated by the makers of Taggart.

Favourite Music: Big Country’s In A Cold Blue Town.

Favourite Movie: Seven Samurai, by Kurosawa.

Favourite Book: The Outsiders, by A|bert Camus.

Favourite holiday destination: Glasgow. You can keep Los Angeles. Glasgow has it all.

Worst Trait: No patience for writers like Dan Brown.

Best Trait: I’m generous with those who want help with writing.

Best Advice: Colin Welland telling me to write.

Worst Advice: I don’t really listen to advice. Ask Mo [His partner].

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.