HE was the rough, tough-talking Glaswegian copper, a fiery lawman cleaning up crime in No Mean City.
Twenty-five years after he hit television screens, it’s impossible to imagine Taggart being set anywhere other than in the city streets, grim housing estates and bustling cop shops that line the River Clyde.
Yet creator Glenn Chandler, who grew up in Meadowbank, whose first jobs involved silver service at what is now the Balmoral Hotel and behind a counter in Jenners, thought differently.
“I rather hoped it would be set in Edinburgh,” he admits, thinking back a quarter of a century to when he was first approached to create the one-off police show that would evolve into a national phenomenon.
“I was pretty quickly slapped down by the powers at STV at the time. I was told they couldn’t possibly film it in Edinburgh because everyone was based in Glasgow and they weren’t prepared to meet the expense of driving the production team through from Glasgow and back again.
“So there I was, an Edinburgh boy living in Hertfordshire having to write about a Glasgow policeman,” he laughs. “So I’m afraid it meant something of a crash course in west-coast culture.
“But I suppose it’s just as well it worked out that way,” he adds with a wry smile, “or poor Ian Rankin might have ended up out of a job.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but if Taggart had worked in the Capital, there wouldn’t have been a big empty space marked “Edinburgh detective” waiting to be filled when Rankin started to write.
Of course, what started as a three-part murder mystery tale called Killer and based around a gritty Glasgow cop is now television history.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the show – it is the world’s longest continually running cop show, seen in more than 80 countries from Iceland to New Zealand and there’s no sign of a let up: ITV recently commissioned ten new programmes. Not bad for a one-off plot which Glenn, now 57, hurriedly researched by driving around Glasgow in the back of a black cab and mingling with punters in the city’s pubs.
“To be honest, I don’t really know if it would have worked as well if it had been set in Edinburgh,” he concedes.
“Taggart has this raw edge to it and Glasgow is much more suited to the kind of Taggart formula than Edinburgh. “So it didn’t work out too badly.”
In fact, it was a dream come true for Glenn, who suddenly found himself catapulted from writing plays for small London theatres to the high pressure demands of churning out quality television scripts to tight filming deadlines.
And it was a world away from his first foray into writing – an end of term school play which introduced him to his first experience of censorship.
“It was my final year at the Royal High,” he remembers. “We did a satirical production looking back on the past term.
“During the first show we did a song about a master’s sexual predilection and I was pretty quickly sent straight to the rector’s office and told to cut verses with immediate effect.
“It was my first lesson in the fine line between satire and libel.”
Writingwas his vocation despite a family gene pool that suggested his talents might lie in music. Born at home in Meadowbank, his mother Joan was an amateur opera singer and his father Andrew played piano and accordion with the Al Bertino Swing Band, a dance hall ensemble. His maternal grandfather had music in his bones too, he was frontman in Frank Moy and his Orchestra, a regular fixture at hotels around the city.
The young Glenn was encouraged to practise his scales at the piano, but it was writing and theatre that were his passion.
“But I didn’t know how to go about being a writer,” he remembers, “so I took a succession of jobs instead.”
There were spells as a commis waiter at the North British Hotel – now the Balmoral – until he spilled tea in Oscar-nominated actor Laurence Harvey’s lap. Then he worked on the floor in Woolworths and Jenners before he finally boarded a train at Waverley for London. He ended up in Notting Hill writing radio plays which more often than not were returned with rejection letters and later short dramas for London fringe theatres.
One of them – Moonlight Across the Heather, a tale of murder set around a lonely mountain bothy – caught the attention of STV’s controller of drama at the time, Robert Love. Soon the pair were meeting over a table in Covent Garden to discuss the possibilities of a Scottish-based crime drama.
“I already had an interest in murder,” he explains. “I had a commission from Granada Television to write three episodes of daytime drama Crown Court and I had started to go to murder trials at the Old Bailey to listen to what people can do to each other.
“So wWhen Robert Love suggested working on a whodunit about a Glasgow detective, my first thought was ‘Wow!’”
There was a similar reaction when he met Mark McManus, the actor who would become Taggart and who he immediately realised was perfect for the part. The character’s name, he admits, was plucked from a gravestone in a Glasgow cemetery. Glenn’s involvement with the programme spanned 1983 to 1998, evolving throughout the difficult period of McManus’s sudden death and the introduction of new characters – including another Edinburgh presence in the form of actor John Michie, who plays DI Robbie Ross.
Soon he will return home to Edinburgh from his Hertfordshire base, to take part for the first time in the Festival. It’s a journey back to his roots that is both personal and professional. “I’m coming full circle,” he grins. “I’m coming home and I’m back in theatre.”
He is bringing two plays, one – Boys of the Empire – is a political satire set in a 1920s boarding school which draws on today’s Iraq conflict and Britain’s historic role in the area in the aftermath of the First World War. It was inspired, he explains, by a chance discovery of boys’ comics in an antique shop. “These comics were all ‘ripping’ and ‘spiffing’. I found a Boy’s Own one with an incredibly patronising tale about these upper class public school-types dealing with the ‘foreigners’ in Iraq. Of course, it all has these parallels with what is happening today. So the play makes a sly political point about what is happening now.”
He takes the role of producer for the other play, What’s Wrong With Angry, a comedy-drama based in 1992 at a time when debate raged over lowering the age of homosexual consent from 21.
Yet while he may have moved on, there’s no escaping the gritty Glasgow cop, whose gruff mannerisms and catchphrase ‘there’s been a murrderr’ – even though Glenn insists the line was never written in any episode – spawned dozens of imitators.
“I never miss it,” he admits. “It’s terrific entertainment – my only gripe is that at an hour, it’s not long enough. There’s never any danger of running out of stories either,” he adds, casting an eye around his library, stuffed full of books based on real life crimes. “Because really, there’s no limit to how badly we can all manage to treat each other.”
Tickets are on sale now for Boys of the Empire and What’s Wrong with Angry, both at C venue 34, Chambers Street from July 30 until August 25, priced 8.50-11.50. For further information and tickets go to www.cthefestival.com / 0845-260 1234 or www.edfringe.com
PILOT SHOW ‘KILLER’ REALLY TOOK OFF
GLENN CHANDLER wrote every episode of Taggart for 11 years, starting with the pilot show, Killer.
The twists and turns of the original episode were so successful that none of the actors reading for parts correctly guessed the identity of the murderer.
It was a hugely successful format that catapulted the series to the top of the viewers’ rating charts.
The most viewers – 18.3 million – tuned in for Violent Deaths in 1992, a story of a student with a crush on a teacher who witnesses an apparent murder while spying on her.
Two years later Taggart, Mark McManus, died of pneumonia midway through filming an episode. The script was hastily rewritten – he was said to be in meetings with the chief constable.