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TV review: A Play, A Pie and A Pint celebrates Glasgow...and David MacLennan

Glasgow is forever trying to show a new face to the world. After our industrial decline we've had Glasgow's Miles Better, the Garden Festival, the new Armadillo and Hydro, and now the Commonwealth Games.

David MacLennan
David MacLennan

You could find fault with all of those things: much of the Garden Festival space lapsed into weedy spare ground; those futuristic buildings on the riverside look as though they could be dented with a ping pong ball whilst the Games are shaping up to be one massive celebration of unpaid labour.

Think of the money which goes into these show-off schemes: all that fuss and frantic marketing just to present an image of Glasgow which has nothing to do with smoke and cranes and drinking men.

Yet, for the past ten years, something quietly wonderful has been happening in Glasgow and it demonstrates how fine, creative and bold this city can be. The best advert for Glasgow is in the basement of a pub on Byres Road, and it perfectly captures the old egalitarian spirit of our post-industrial city.

BBC2's A Play, A Pie and A Pint looked at Oran Mor's lunchtime theatre which was started in 2004 by David MacLennan, the inimitable theatre producer. Having a chat one day with Colin Beattie, the owner of Oran Mor (the beautiful church on Byres Rd now transformed into an arts venue and exquisitely decorated in blue and gold and fine sprays of stars by Alasdair Gray) he asked if he liked the idea of a lunchtime theatre, with perhaps some pies and pints thrown in to make the enterprise seem cosy and informal. A friendly theatre for the people of Glasgow.

David MacLennan stressed that it needed be seen as welcoming. 'Theatre and the arts in general are part of life. Not something special that should be locked away,' he said. Never, then, has a plain Scotch pie been so symbolic: its inclusion declared to everyone but, most importantly, to the ordinary person who wondered if theatre wasn't perhaps a bit too fancy or expensive, that they were welcome. There was no dress code, no snobbery and no elitism; there'd simply be a play, a pie and a pint.

Just as hearing someone laughing can give you the giggles, watching David MacLennan talk of his love for theatre prompts you to feel the same joy. As a child he was dazzled by Peter Pan at the King's in 1953, and quickly decided that theatre was the life for him. Although his speech was now slowed by Motor Neurone Disease, the crackling energy which drove his innumerable projects was still vivid in his handsome face. He described helping to found the theatre companies 7:84 and Wildcat, touring Scotland in old vans and producing controversial political plays. In 1998, Wildcat's funding was withdrawn but he was soon back, with A Play, A Pie and A Pint.

He wasn't sure it would be a success, and warned Oran Mor he could guarantee good plays but not a good audience. He needn't have worried. They now perform on 42 weeks of the year, producing new plays, old classics and their infamously rude summer and winter pantos. There are queues at the door, scrambles for the seats and a glad light in the eye of everyone involved.

And the egalitarian spirit of the enterprise has never waned. New writers can submit their scripts in hope whilst well-kent faces like Robbie Coltrane and Elaine C Smith have trodden the basement boards. Famous and unknown, new plays and classics, pies and pantos: they all gloriously combine to create this democratic theatre.

The documentary heard from lots of famous names in praise of David MacLennan: Robbie Coltrane, Bill Paterson, David Hayman and, of course, Liz Lochead who summed up her admiration in a poem, declaring him 'a legend in your own lunchtime.' But, apart from the gratitude of the theatrical folk, the biggest thank you should come from the people of Glasgow as he has given them a bold and vibrant institution to be proud of; he's given them theatre, wonder, humour and brilliant, slap-the-table-enjoyment.

The sad news, of course, is that David MacLennan died today. It was shocking even though we knew he was quite ill. Perhaps the shock derives from seeing how spirited he was in this programme.

I'm not going to try to write an obituary here - people far better and more knowledgeable than I will do that. I'll just quietly pay my tribute by being one of the people he never tired of trying to reach: I'll visit his theatre again, and I'll nudge my friends to go too. As he said, the arts are not something distant and precious and aloof; they're to be loved and lived, and when I nab a good seat in the crowd and get my pie and my pint I'll be sure to raise the glass to him.

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