JOHN McGrath, 1935-2002. Death can reduce any life to just a bridge between two dates, if that’s the way you want to see it. By the time the second date is reached the bridge is empty and it’s easy to forget the traffic of the life which passed across it. Scotland shouldn’t do that with John McGrath. The span of his life carried part of our consciousness of ourselves with it. The way our country reached 2002 has something to do with him.
In any chronology of the gradual emergence of Scotland’s refusal to accept its own political disenfranchisement in the late 20th century, the year 1973 is a significant one. That was when the 7:84 Company, under the direction of McGrath, went round Scotland with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.
His play was the story of the Highlands from the Clearances to the impact of North Sea oil, with money as the villain and people as its victims. It was outrage on tour. It was anger set to music and given a bitter sense of humour in sketches. It was distilled history delivered to the places where it happened. It was theatre not as an escape from the real world but as an escape into the real world, a mirror in which audiences could see a just reflection of themselves and, by seeing where they were, could develop a stronger sense of where they should be. And it was a ceilidh, celebrating the survival of a bad past and the possibility of a better future.
The triumph of it was not just that it exhumed the buried past of the Highlands in order to establish the nature of the specific crimes that had been committed there. It did that all right. But it also established the validity of doing this as a general principle. It alerted people afresh to their right to their own interpretation of what had happened and was happening to them, to challenge established politics. When the 7:84 Company undertook what Bill Paterson has called "a 17,000-mile odyssey of Highland halls, city theatres and studios", it was like a national town-crier announcing everywhere he went the criminality of the system.
The play encapsulated the gifts McGrath brought to our culture at that time. One of them was an urbane iconoclasm, a charismatic subversiveness. It was a quality implicit in the man. In his physical prime, which seemed to last a long time, the face had a fine-boned handsomeness that sometimes appeared attractively vulnerable, set in the frothing hair that could look like a nimbus with the light behind him. But the eyes were uncompromisingly intense. Where it mattered, he was trouble. That nimbus was no halo.
Another ability was, in his writing, to subject his ego to the demands of the piece. The nickname he had at one time - Il Duce - suggests that the ego was there all right but he knew how to harness it to issues bigger than he was. His preparedness to adjust things on the road indicates how far he believed in what worked for the audience, not just for himself.
I remember attending a rehearsal of one of his plays with an as yet unparliamentary Gordon Brown, who was then on the board of the company. McGrath was sitting in front of the stage, watching the actors rehearse. He laughed spontaneously at what they were doing with the material, as if he were experiencing it for the first time. I suppose, given the transition from page to performance, in a way he was. Proprietary authorship was not in evidence. He was good at just being an audience, which is maybe one of the reasons he could write so well for one.
It was this compulsion never to lose touch with the audience, to make their issues his, that kept his work focused and discouraged self-indulgence. He never vanished up his own ars gratia artis. For him creativity was a kind of activism, a rousing of people from acceptance of the way things were.
The activism was a lifelong conviction. Trying to relate to an audience beyond the traditional middle-class appreciators of the arts and galvanise them into self-awareness was the unifying factor in a dramatically varied career. It took him from script-reading at the Royal Court Theatre in the Fifties, a time when working-class life was entering stage left to waken bourgeois audiences from their slumbers, to work on television in the Sixties with Z Cars, where the aim of Troy Kennedy Martin and himself was "to use a popular form and try to bang into it some reality". The reality came. Watching Z Cars after programmes like Dixon of Dock Green could make you suddenly alert to your surroundings, as if someone had spiked your Ovaltine with Benzedrine.
Finding television already compromising the honesty of its relationship with the viewers, he went for the audience direct. The Seventies and 7:84 surely saw the peak of his achievement, with The Cheviot the cairn upon the peak.
That phase ended not without rancour for him, when he withdrew from the company in the late Eighties. He would remain convinced that the Scottish Arts Council had been trying to exert undue influence on the company - to convert it, as it were, from a bus that could go anywhere it chose to a tram that could travel only along the lines laid down by Thatcherism.
His contempt for their attitude could hardly have been diminished by some of the thinking behind it. Apparently, one of their objections was that Gordon Brown wasn’t competent to be on the board. Perhaps that’s why he was subsequently palmed off with the less demanding task of running the national economy.
McGrath’s best work in that area was probably over anyway, and the new political wisdom was blind to everything but a balance sheet. He didn’t exactly lie idle. He continued to write and be involved actively with the company of which he was director, Freeway Films. As late as 1997, some years after the leukaemia which would kill him had begun its work, he formed Moonstone in collaboration with Robert Redford. It was a Scottish version of the Sundance Institute with its headquarters in Edinburgh, designed to organise labs for screenwriters and film makers as a means of developing their craft.
The legacy he left us isn’t inconsiderable. He was one who helped to give us the nerve eventually to demand our parliament back. Some might say: if the impact his best play made on us in 1973 was so important, why didn’t our parliament return to us at the 1979 referendum? But they should remember that we did say yes then. It was just that, due to the Kafkaesque ramifications of that Devolution Bill, it wasn’t enough. We would have had to shout it. It was thanks in part to those like McGrath that the people’s voice slowly learned to be louder in making its demands.
As is often the case with troublesome people, however, one or two codicils might be more dubiously received. What McGrath’s work also invited us to accept is an unshakeable belief in the value of entertainment as a means to stimulate people into the expression of themselves, rather than dull them into an imitation of what they’re told to be. That could be an embarrassment to a new parliament where a freshly appointed minister for sport and culture announces that his first big idea is to import special karaoke machines from Las Vegas, which not only allow you to sing synthetically but to play instruments synthetically as well. Let the people have a plastic ceilidh - negative populism.
Also, the commitment to an understanding of our communal experience, which was necessary to bring Scotland to a more dynamic sense of itself and which was perhaps the central impetus of McGrath’s theatrical career, may seem less pressing to contemporary writers now that we have achieved some degree of self-determination. They may feel themselves more or less demobilised from the urgency of a national cause.
Bill Paterson has also said that John McGrath had a particular fondness for Oisin’s words: "The finest music is the music of what is happening." We shouldn’t undervalue his commitment to the immediacy of his time. It helped a little to make our time what it is.