Can there be a more enduring family saga? Long before the Simpsons moved into Springfield, the Waltons made their home in Walton’s Mountain or the Archers occupied Brookfield Farm, the residents of 10 Glebe Street were well and truly settled – all 13 of them, including Maw and Paw, Hen and Joe, and Daphne and Maggie.
They were, of course, the Broons and they have been a reassuring presence in the Sunday Post – and sundry Christmas annuals – since 1936.
They are as much a part of the Scottish landscape as Tunnock’s teacakes and Irn-Bru. Publisher DC Thomson even does a sideline in Broons-endorsed shortbread and sells copies of Maw Broon’s Kitchen Afternoon Tea Book. They’re such an institution it’s a wonder nobody has ever put them on the stage.
Before now, that is.
For the first time this autumn, audiences will get to see the Auchentogle family in three dimensions. Directed by Andrew Panton (soon to take over at Dundee Rep), The Broons is an 80th-anniversary celebration starring Kern Falconer as Granpaw, Paul Riley as Paw, Joyce Falconer as Maw, Tyler Collins as Hen, John Kielty as Joe, Laura Szalecki as Daphne, Kim Allan as Maggie, Euan Bennet as Horace, Kevin Lennon and Duncan Brown as the Twins and Maureen Carr as the Bairn.
The man given the job of taking the family beyond the confines of the comic strip is playwright Rob Drummond. He still remembers graduating to The Broons as a child and thinking he was taking a step up in the world. “It always felt more satisfying than the Beano and the Dandy to me,” he says. “It was one family that was a unit. I inherently knew that was a dramatic situation.”
That’s why he’s delighted to be playing with a set of “already invented” characters whom he can arrange in new configurations. “It’s what would happen if these characters jumped off the page and were in a stage play,” he says. “But it’s got to be reverent and loyal to the source material, so the story can’t be The Broons go to the Moon or The Broons go to Benidorm – that’s too lazy.”
Rather, he’s staying on home turf with a tale about Maggie’s impending wedding (not for the first time: the family’s most glamorous daughter was on the cusp of getting hitched in the 1970s in a storyline that was quietly dropped). Drummond read all the way back to the very first strip from 1936 and opens his play with a nod to the family photograph that featured in the inaugural panel. He says a quarter of the play is “greatest hits”, featuring some of the strip’s most popular storylines, and the rest is original.
A paradox he has had to accommodate is one shared by the writers of the strip itself. Ever since The Broons was created by RD Low and illustrator Dudley D Watkins, who drew it until his death in 1969, the family have essentially remained the same. Yes, fashions have come and gone, hairstyles have changed and world events have made their presence felt, but in the world of The Broons, nobody gets older, nobody moves out and nobody does anything to upset the dynamic that has held the family together for 80 years.
For a dramatist, you’d expect this to be a drawback – how can you have a play without character development? – but it was a restriction Drummond relished. “There are certain rules in writing The Broons,” he says. “The characters can’t change and you can’t introduce long-term new characters. But what you can do is invent backstory and little things you’ve not seen about them before. It adds a richness to your understanding of the character without changing who the character is.”
He compares it to a sitcom: “At the end of a sitcom, you press the reset button, so that next week you can start from the same point again. There’s something valuable about that because you’ve got a set amount of characters that you can explore different issues with. It’s more about the community coming together and discussing these issues, knowing they can talk about new issues next week.”
Turning it to his own advantage, he’s making change a central theme of the show. “Even though it’s light and comic, the play has to have an arc,” he says. “You have to have a moral at the heart of it and a question that you’re asking the audience. The question I’m asking is, ‘Is it all right to never change?’ Eighty years they’ve been around. Should they not change at some point? Should they not grow up? Should they not leave that house? But if you’ve got something you love and it works for you, ambition can go out the window. Who cares about ambition if you’re happy?”
A mainstage commercial tour based on a Scottish institution may seem an unlikely step for a playwright best known for quirky one-man shows in studio theatres, but then Drummond has never followed a predictable path. Just consider the variety of this year’s output.
First, he starred in Uncanny Valley, a show about artificial intelligence, which won the CATS award for Best Production for Children and Young People. Then he brought real singletons onto the stage for a blind date in a Fringe show at the Traverse called In Fidelity. And in October he’ll be back as the author of Grain in the Blood, a Traverse/Tron co-production billed as a folkloric thriller.
Produced by Sell A Door theatre company, The Broons is set to be seen by more people than all of those shows put together. Drummond is thrilled about it. “There’s a snootiness about commercial theatre which I don’t understand because Scottish theatre comes from variety, which is big and bold,” he says. “I was an usher at the Theatre Royal just seven years ago, so to go back to there with a big play like this is fantastic. I just hope there are some of the same people working there so they can be in awe of me!” n
*The Broons, Perth Concert Hall, 27 September until 1 October and on tour until 12 November, www.selladoor.com; Grain in the Blood, Tron, Glasgow, 19-29 October; Traverse, Edinburgh, 1-12 November