McCafferty, Your Tea’s Oot – Just A Boy’s Game


In the current climate of British television, it’s almost impossible to imagine something like Just a Boy’s Game being shown today.

Positive role models? Not remotely. There is no diversity to be seen, and there’s a massive gender imbalance. This is a man’s world and a working-class man’s world at that. Any female characters who appear are far from strong women: one has been spent decades in a loveless marriage with a bitter man; another puts up with a reckless and feckless chancer. Then there’s a hopeless alcoholic nicknamed Clatty Bella – and if you’re wondering what clatty means, in Scotland it’s someone with very poor personal hygiene. Oh, and don’t expect any uplifting message either.

Made by BBC London (rather than BBC Scotland) in 1979 and part of the Play For Today strand, Just a Boy’s Game is set in the grey streets of Greenock and is a night, day and night in the lives of Jake McQuillen (Frankie Miller) and Dancer Dunnichy (Ken Hutchison). Dancer’s a wisecracking wastrel, an ageing likely lad, while Jake’s more a likely to get into a fight kinda lad. Unlike a later fictional Scottish hardman, Francis Begbie, Jake isn’t one to start fights. He has mellowed to some extent with age, but he still has his reputation and is never going to back down from trouble if it rears its head. And it certainly does here. Repeatedly.

A crane operator at a local shipyard, you sense a disaffection gnaws away at Jake from the moment he rises till he falls into sleep at the end of a night usually with the aid of some booze. He no longer has any relationship with his mother, and he suspects his granda, an infamous local hard man in his younger days, killed his father. Bizarrely, this is who he chooses to live with, together with his kindly grandmother. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with him.

Just a Boy’s Game starts outside local bar The Voyager where The Cuban Heels (a band with strong Greenock roots) are belting out a punkish version of Paint It Black. The pessimism of the song is appropriate. This, as you’ve likely guessed, is a dark drama.

A scuffle starts over an argument between Dancer and a narky young woman, who bumps into him (played by Elaine Collins, the future Mrs Peter Capaldi), Jake taking on the girl’s boyfriend. This is nothing compared to what follows. A fierce fight breaks out and escalates rapidly, with a fair percentage of the bar becoming caught up in the chaos. One young man wields a razor blade and soon glasses are being thrown at the gantry and punches and kicks being swapped. 999 is dialled, but the police are in no rush to quell the aggro. Jake watches on impassively. He’s witnessed this a hundred times before.

The next morning he sees his granda cough blood into a metal bucket. The morose auld fucker (Hector Nicol) is dying and most viewers might think the sooner the better and good luck to whoever is tasked with delivering his eulogy. He’s nasty to the core and even in his last few days, he’s determined to belittle Jake and boss around his long-suffering wife.

Dancer, meanwhile, has declared the day a holiday. This entails a trip to the offy for a bottle of VAT 69 and some Eldorado (a cheapo fortified wine that is still popular in Inverclyde – until recently they even sponsored Port Glasgow Juniors FC), followed by a climb up the giddying heights of Jake’s crane cabin, clutching his carry-out bag. ‘How d’you get on wi’ the seagulls?’ Dancer asks, looking as if he’s suffering from altitude sickness. Either that or a shocking hangover.

Next up, is a rainy visit to the aforementioned Clatty Bella’s tip of a house, where they can’t even dry off as Bella’s son has taken the house’s single towel with him to go swimming. The bevvy flows, and before too long Dancer leads her into the bedroom to ‘make sweet music.’ Hopefully sweeter than her impromptu pub singer rendition of I Left My Heart in San Francisco.

Suitably refreshed, Jake and Dancer head across town to pick up their pal Tanza (Gregor Fisher) from the garage where he works. All the while stalked by some local wannabe hard cases, the trio visit an old snooker hall where Jake’s Granda was once a regular. A man comically miscues a shot after over-reaching across the table. ‘Ah needed a rest for that shot,’ he observes.

‘Aye,’ Tanza tells him. ‘You should have had a week in bed, ya diddy.’

‘Who are you?’ the bemused man asks.

With his liking for cowboy film references, Tanza jokes: ‘I’m the man that shot Liberty Vallance. I hope you didnae know him.’

A few minutes later, Jake, Dancer and Tanza will face their own High Noon, as they slip out the back door of the club into a container terminal to be greeted by a wild bunch of tooled up neds, eager to establish their own tough guy credentials. Especially their leader Dunky McCafferty.

It would be hard to see the violence here as being glamourised. The fight ends with one man running into a thick steel cable hawser at the level of his throat.

Ken Hutchison, then best known for a role as a thug in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and starring as Heathcliff in a 1978 BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights, is first class as Dancer, albeit the jaws of any Emily Brontë fans tuning in to see him in another Heathcliff type role must have dropped as the play progressed.

A binge drinker (or maybe borderline alcoholic), Dancer is as irresponsible as a child but he does possess a decent line in banter and a rogueish charm. He’s perfectly cast. The revelation here, though, is Frankie Miller as Jake.

With the success of top ten British single Darlin‘ fresh in the memory, the idea of branching out with a lead role in a gritty Play for Today strand was unexpected.

‘Frankie had that wonderful Glaswegian gallusness,’ McDougall explained recently in an online interview. As an example of this, he mentioned the first day of shooting when Miller indicated the camera to Mackenzie and advised him: ‘Just fucking point it at me.’

This attitude helps explain why he was confident enough to let the camera linger on him.

McDougall is Scotland’s greatest ever TV dramatist, and with the ongoing homogenisation of television, I don’t expect to be changing that opinion any time soon.

Martin Scorsese went as far as calling Just A Boys’ Game the Scottish equivalent of Mean Streets and later Mean Streets’ co-star Harvey Keital flew over to Scotland to appear in McDougall’s Down Where the Buffalo Roam.

Mackenzie went on to make The Long Good Friday (1980) and collaborated with McDougall again, this time on his adaptation of Jimmy Boyle’s A Sense of Freedom (1981). After that, McDougall continued writing for TV, film and theatre. Shoot For The Sun (1986), examined the heroin problem in Edinburgh before Trainspotting got round to it and more recently he penned a modern interpretation of Whisky Galore! with Gregor Fisher taking on a leading role.

Miller never acted again, turning down a number of offers as he wanted to concentrate again on his music. Few would deny the power of his voice, indeed, Otis Redding’s widow Zelma has been one of many to shower him with compliments over the years, once observing: ‘That little ol’ white boy, Frankie, has the blackest voice since Otis.’

Sadly in 1994, Miller suffered a brain haemorrhage while in New York and since then he has been unable to perform.

Made (1972): British Movie Night #1


Made (1972)

The name British Movie Night is borrowed from a series of dramas screened on Sunday nights on BBC2 early in 1981. Beforehand, a series called The Great American Picture Show had showcased films like Nashville – which I suspected I wouldn’t like due to its country and western musical background although that turned out to be a fantastic watch.

Made didn’t strike me as very promising either due to the presence of Roy Harper. In an age of New Order, Talking Heads and Grandmaster Flash, Harper struck the young me as a relic of the past, the sort of act that should have been outlawed years beforehand. Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly but I was pretty hardline back then. When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease? No thankyou. Even that title was enough to put me off.

Here he plays a singer/songwriter Mike Preston, already successful enough to appear on TV and be interviewed by Bob Harris, stay in swanky hotels and play shows in the States.

Roy Harper in Made

On Brighton beach, Mike meets single parent Valerie Marshall, a Londoner down on a day trip. Valerie is played by Carol White, a woman once dubbed the Battersea Bardot (even if she was from Hammersmith). Valerie’s youngish and good looking – although not as glammy here as she was in Dulcima – another film included in the British Movie Night series. She lives with her bedridden (and needy) mother, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. While acting as her part time carer, she also looks after her baby Scott and works as a switchboard operator.

Home is a grim council flat in a part of south-east London that fully embraced the whole brutalist architecture craze. Around the same time as director John Mackenzie was filming in Woolwich and nearby Charlton, Stanley Kubrick was shooting scenes in neighbouring Thamesmead for A Clockwork Orange. Both films represented Britain at the 33rd Venice Film Festival, along with Bill Douglas’s My Childhood, which won the Silver Lion Award for Best First Film. A Clockwork Orange was voted Best Foreign Film. Made won nothing.

John Castle & Carol White in Made

When a new priest in the area Father Dyson knocks on Valerie’s door, she’s glad to have the opportunity to chat with someone her own age and she’s delighted when he offers up the possibility of finding a home help to give her a hand looking after her mum. A friendship develops.

Dyson and Preston appear polar opposites. Dyson is a square. Preston is a rebel. The pair compete for Valerie’s affections. One with a hedonistic and hippyish philosophy, the other with organised religion. Another character Mahdav Gupta also comes into Valerie’s orbit. A fool and a fantasist, he attempts to win her over with a combination of flattery and atrocious poetry.

Of course, the priest and the singer take an instant dislike to each other. These rivals do have their good points. But both share a sense of moral superiority over anybody who dares to disagree with their worldview. Ultimately, Mike is self-obsessed, disguising his selfishness through his ‘alternative’ belief system. Dyson is controlling and insensitive.

They both want to use Valerie in different ways, but I don’t want to tell you too much more or I might ruin your enjoyment of the film if you decide to watch.

Roy Harper and John Castle in Made

Edinburgh born John Mackenzie isn’t into his full stride on directorial duties as yet but he does occasionally experiment with editing in a striking manner likely influenced by Nic Roeg. He certainly did a fantastic job in shooting one of the most disturbing scenes in British cinema as rival football fans fight it out while baby Scott is being taken out in his pram by Valerie’s babysitting pal June. A mini Battleship Potemkin by the Thames.

Made is far from perfect. Mackenzie later dismissed it ‘a bit of a mess’ and screenwriter Howard Barker considered it ‘a disastrous and painful experience’. The idea of reshoots became impossible when, in the wake of filming, Roy Harper was suddenly diagnosed with a rare medical condition known as Hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT), which left him incapacitated for months.

Most books that examine British cinema of the period such as Paul Newland’s Don’t Look Now: British Cinema in the 1970s fail to mention Made, although Simon Matthews devoted a page to it in his highly recommended 2016 book Psychedelic Celluloid. The BBFC foisted an X on the film, and few saw it in cinemas.

Made - Valerie & June

It is one of the most staggeringly bleak British films ever made. But it is also undoubtedly – cliche alert – a fascinating time capsule of early 1970s Britain, an era of power cuts and feather cuts, Ted Heath and T.Rex.

Interestingly, Marc Bolan is said to have turned down the Mike Preston role. He was likely too busy penning three minute pop classics and preparing to appear in Born To Boogie. This was likely a better way to make use of his creativity. It’s hard to imagine the bopping elf doing a better job than Harper and his superstar presence would have surely proved a distraction. Harper is pretty convincing on the whole, although he never acted in another film, concentrating on his music.

Director John Mackenzie went on to add The Long Good Friday and BBC Play For Today Just Another Saturday to his CV.

Carol White moved back to America after the film wrapped. It’s safe to say that Carol possessed more than her fair share of demons. Insecure and depressed, she tried to commit suicide for the second time. Her career never matched the promise of early dramas like Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow, although she is utterly authentic here and turns in a fearless performance. She made only three more films and was dead by 1991.

Four of the Roy Harper songs used during the film later featured in different versions on his 1973 album Lifemask. There’s also music composed by John Cameron who had previously contributed to a score to Kes.

Produced by Peter Jenner, who also has a small role in Made, and with Jimmy Page guesting on electric guitar, this is Harper’s Bank of the Dead (Valerie’s Song), which in Made was titled Social Casualty. Released in October 1972, here it is and I rather like it nowadays: