TV dramas should be bolder, but please don’t bring back Garnock Way where it always seemed to be rain and mince, says Aidan Smith
The other day I was thrilled to see Mister Ed turn up in a newspaper headline. I did what I always do when reminded of an old telly programme from my youth - revved up YouTube with the gleeful cry: “Hey kids, you’re going to love this!” But my children did what they always do at such a moment. They watched for about 30 seconds then, before wandering away, sighed: “It’s too slow, Dad. It’s in black and white. It’s not funny. How ever did you survive?”
Mister Ed - who has now turned up in my newspaper as well, which brings its namechecks ever closer to those of The Great British Bake Off - was a 1960s comedy about a talking horse. It was an American show although Alan Young, straight-man to the garrulous gee-gee, was the son of a Scottish miner and tap dancer and died aged 96 only a few months ago. All my favourite shows were American. I did not want them to be Scottish.
America was big, glamorous, exotic, exciting and far away; Scotland was where I lived. America had talking horses and wonder horses (Champion of that ilk); Scotland had milk horses and even sadder beasts of burden pulling rag-and-bone carts.
America had spies, spacemen, cowboys, caped crusaders and fast-talking, sarky wise-asses, all jobs I wanted. My first crush was Samantha in Bewitched, my second was Judy in Lost in Space, my third - living a bit more dangerously - was Catwoman. I desperately wanted a haircut like Ilya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I desperately wanted to live in The Munsters’ house. Imagine my crushing disappointment, then, when I tried to write away for some spin-off merchandise from these glorious shows - ray-guns and sheriff’s tin stars - only to be thwarted by America not recognising postal orders and me lacking a zipcode.
I didn’t have a zipcode but very soon I would be in a place even more Scottish and more isolated than the place I lived - Garnock Way.
Not literally, you understand, because thankfully it doesn’t exist. The 1960s turning into the 1970s brought big school then work. Much less fantasy, much more grim reality. This was the show which best reflected the change in circumstances and outlook. I hadn’t made it to outer space, the great prairies or 77 Sunset Strip. Best to submit to Garnock Way.
Every time a top executive demands more Scottish-themed television I think back to this dreadful saga where, in my memory, it always seemed to be raining and everyone ate reheated mince and shouted at each other.
Last week Donalda Mackinnon, head of programmes at BBC Scotland, said: “Portrayal of Scotland to Scotland and the rest of the UK is hugely important. We probably don’t do enough of it … in fact, I know we don’t do enough of it. I think we need to embrace change.”
Now, Mackinnon is not suggesting a reheating of Garnock Way but how do we know we might not end up with it? After all, we’ve got River City. Do you know anyone who watches River City? Me neither. You might be able to tell I’m not a fan of soap operas. Certainly not the carbolic variety, to be applied vigorously after removing a hair shirt.
You might think, too, that I don’t have much faith in the ability of Scotland’s programme-makers to produce something better. I do, but the next modern Scottish classic can’t come quickly enough.
BBC Scotland’s new season of programmes has just been launched and some very familiar faces are leering gormlessly from the cover of the brochure - pawky pensioners Jack and Victor. Now, I like Still Game but it started way back in 2002 and this will be the seventh series. Has anyone in the joke factory got a new idea?
We wait for great dramas, another Tutti Frutti, something as good as The Crow Road or Takin’ Over the Asylum. Why didn’t Rebus endure on the box like it has in novel form? Why did the detective shows Case Histories and Shetland start well then suffer second-series wobbles? Why did Hope Springs, the all-female crime caper, and The Field of Blood, set in a newspaper office, start at all?
And, more urgently, whatever happened to Scotland’s boldest TV dramatist, Peter McDougall?
When I was young and TV was a window on the world, America was easily the most fun place on earth and in our innocence we believed in the handsome president while gawping in wonder at its brave astronauts.
Now, everyone knows all there is to know about everything and can access it on their phones and inevitably some of the magic of America has dimmed, with the prospect of it dimming even further if a dangerous buffoon is put in charge.
So Scotland grows up in the interim and develops a greater sense of itself and how it wants to be seen on the old goggle-box. That is fine and admirable just as long as the shows are good. What strikes me about a lot of the recent Scottish-made dramas is that while the country has been striving to present its most confident face, the shows have often lacked confidence. Here’s a strange thing: we can’t do “adult themes” very well. Our corpses fall to the cold ground like sacks of tatties. Our clothes fall to the bedroom floor coyly or not at all. The Field of Blood and the adaptation of Iain Banks’ Stonemouth both lost their nerve.
While it’s true that “peak Scandi-drama” may have been reached, the recent brilliant run of Danish-produced shows demonstrated what a small country can do with television if its ballsy enough. Cancel River City, bring back McDougall, take some risks. I’m ready for them, having outgrown Mister Ed at last.