Haldane Duncan Part 3: On the casebook
19 Feb 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2298
Although the popular BBC Sunday night drama series Dr Finlay’s Casebook was set in Scotland and the filming took place in Callander, the production was made by the London Drama Department and the interior studio scenes were recorded in London. That is, until the advent of colour – and in 1968, the whole shebang was moved North to Glasgow.
The show may have been called Dr Finlay’s Casebook, but the practice was run by the much older and experienced Dr Cameron, played by Andrew Cruickshank (see below).
The stories were set in 1929 in the fictional village of Tannochbrae and revolved round the practice in Arden House.
From a TV perspective, Arden House was a very strange place indeed. For a start, the first thing I noticed about the set when it arrived was that there were no windows. Oh, they were there on film all right. For instance, if you saw Dr Cameron approaching the house, with its two bay windows well in evidence on either side of the front door, you wouldn’t expect, when you cut indoors, for the windows to vanish; but they did. From no matter the angle you viewed the rooms, all that could be seen were four walls. Very strange? Not really: it seems that in the preparation stages a house had been selected for filming and sets had been built to correspond to it – but by the time actual filming took place the owners of the original property withdrew their permission, and it was too late to change the set. The fact that the substitute house didn’t match was just ‘tough buns’ – after all, the series was only going to last six weeks, wasn’t it?
In fact, the series ran for many years, mainly due to the chemistry generated by the three leading actors, Bill Simpson, Andrew Cruickshank and Barbara Mullen.
The original concept of a newly-qualified young doctor joining the practice of on older and wiser man faded as the years wore on. After a few seasons Dr Finlay wasn’t so naive, and the original conflict began to abate as Bill Simpson, who played him, got greyer and greyer. Actually Bill went grey very quickly after he suffered his first heart attack, and by the end of the nine-year run he looked nearly as old as Andrew Cruickshank.
It was an enjoyable series to work on and they were an easy bunch to work with, although Barbara could get a bit nippy. The kitchen set was used only once in my time but when she appeared in it for rehearsal she gave me a bollocking because the plates on the Welsh Dresser were dusty. Being a bit pushed for time I reasoned that they weren’t being used so not to worry. She wasn’t going to be fobbed off with that and demanded, “Please get them washed. It’s not you the viewers write to, complaining that you keep a dirty kitchen.” I’d forgotten how much a television audience suspends its disbelief. Richard Baker, when he was a newsreader, told me once that a viewer wrote to him asking what he thought of her curtains.
Bill Simpson was one of the most generous men I have ever met – with his acting, his time and with his money. Although with the latter he went a bit over the top.
It was near impossible to pay for anything if you were in Bill’s company. When I say anything, I’m not talking about the odd drink or meal. I mean, no matter how large the company, when it came time to settle up you’d find that Bill had paid the bill – so to speak. To finish off an evening at the BBC club in London, about eight of us decided to take in Ronnie Scott’s Club. When we arrived it became apparent that you had to be a member to get in, so we began to dig into our pockets to find the extra cash. On arrival at the cash desk we were waved through – Bill had not only paid all of our admissions, he’d made us all members.
Moving the series to Glasgow meant more work for Scottish-based actors, which in turn added more authenticity. OK, so the Tannochbrae accent ranged from Ayr to Inverness and from The Borders to Aberdeen, but at least it was Scottish. When the series was made in London, the English production team didn’t seem to notice or care about the English actors attempts at the accent. It bothered Bill though, and he always took time to coach any struggling actor who wanted it.
He once helped a fellow actor in a most unselfish way. The poor man had only one scene to do, and that was with Bill. As can often happen, the smaller the part, the more anxious an actor gets – particularly if, after a lifetime on stage, he hasn’t done much TV . The poor thesp had dried at least half a dozen times and he was getting more nervous with each take, but at the beginning of the seventh it was Bill’s turn to dry. “I’m terrible sorry,” he apologised, “You’re right: these bloody lines are hard to get your tongue round.”
In the club afterwards, I commiserated with Bill about how the old bugger had managed to make him ‘dry’, but all he said was, “Well, it must be hellish if everyone is staring at you and you are the only one cocking it up. I thought I would give him some company.” Bill never had a problem with lines but he had dried on purpose to help the old soul out.
Bill never even bothered to take his script home. Tidying up each night at rehearsal, I would find a script with the tell-tale trademark of his doodled intertwined Olympic rings. The first time I found it, I was worried that he would need it to study and tracked him down in the club. “God, if I can’t get it into my brain by the number of times we do in that hall, I never will,” he replied.
Bob Hird had worked on Coronation Street, where he said they had a complete and up-to-date archive on every detail of the show’s history. If a script came in, for instance, where Ena Sharples went to buy half a dozen hot cross buns, it would be possible to check if they gave her indigestion or not. Presumably because only three characters were involved and each story was self contained, no such reference was available on ‘Finlay’.
The only time I saw Andrew Cruickshank get angry was when he got a script where the storyline culminated in Dr Cameron giving an impassioned speech from the pulpit of the church. Having lived with the part for eight or nine years and having a personal interest in religion, Andrew had a sound grasp of the spiritual side of Cameron’s nature. The script, unfortunately, had him preaching from an opposing point of view and was the cause of considerable tension in the tiny church in Cairndow that we were using as a location.
The atmosphere was not improved when the minister and his wife came to watch part of the filming in progress. The scene involved a christening and Walter Carr, who was playing the fictional minister, suddenly ‘dried’ as he stood at the font with babe in arms. In the time honoured actor’s way at such moments of crisis he yelled, “Oh fuck, what’s the line?”
The minister’s wife looked at her husband and he just stared ahead. She gave her head a little shake and returned her gaze on the proceedings. She looked as if she was asking forgiveness for having such wicked thoughts and wondering how such an ungodly word had got into her head.
It’s strange how the mind works when the unimaginable happens. A similar thing happened on a Glen Michael Cartoon Cavalcade. Glen had a talking lamp called Paladin and I was directing an episode where the lamp was making a nuisance of itself and eventually Glen has to say, “Stop fooling about, Paladin!” I felt that this sounded a bit too formal and suggested he change it to, “Stop mucking about, Paladin!” This he duly did and at the end of recording as we waited for a check from the VTR engineer, an American guest who had been observing from the gallery said to me, “Can you really get away with these profanities on children’s programmes in this country?”
“What profanities?” I asked.
“Your anchor man said an off colour word that would definitely be off limits back home.”
I know you can get away with nothing in America but in children’s television, we can’t get away with very much here either, so I asked, “Well speak up: what was it?”
Now obviously wishing he had kept quiet, he swallowed and repeated what he thought he had heard, “When he spoke to the lamp at the end there he said, ‘Stop fucking about, Paladin’.”
What nonsense. Squeaky-clean ‘Uncle Glen’ couldn’t say such a thing, but as our guest was deadly serious it did no harm to check. After the replay and when I eventually picked my jaw up from the floor I got Glen to re-do it.
Even after hearing the playback several times, Glen refused to accept that he said anything wrong and only agreed to the retake if I said we were doing it again because of a sound problem. I think he thought the tabloids might have a go if they got wind of it.
It took someone like the American who had no preconceived idea of Glen to spot this. We all obviously heard him swear, but because we were programmed to know that he didn’t speak that way, when our brains heard it, it refused to register.
At least I caught the cock-up in time before transmission. A fellow Director, Norman Morrison, showed me a VHS of Take the High Road and spun through to a scene where Mrs Mac, played by Gwyneth Guthrie, was looking among the shelves in the village shop. When she found what she was looking for he said, “What a fucking place to keep the biscuits.”
I fell about and asked for a replay. Seeing it for the second time I admired the quality of the lip-sync but wondered how they had managed to persuade Gwyneth to supply the swear-word for this obvious ‘in-house’ gag. “That’s no gag,” said Norman as he let the tape run on to show commercials in the break. “That was recorded off-air last night.”
One of the regular Film Lighting Cameramen on ‘Finlay’ was Norman Shepherd. Norman was a rough and ready type of Yorkshireman who had got into film while working with a film unit when he was in the Royal Navy. His attitude was that he may not be the greatest cameraman in the world but he was the best television cameraman. He could always be relied on to get it done on time for minimum cost.
When portable cassette recorders first came out, Norman got one and pasted half a ping pong ball on it to make it resemble a light meter. Having prerecorded a message, he would hold the device up to an actor’s face to find out the stop, peer intently at it and say, “Give it 3.5.”
“That’s never 3.5,” said the ‘meter’, “Better make it 2.8.”
Norman was on the shoot in Lower Largo, a small coastal village in Fife, famous as the home of Alexander Selkirk, the man on whom Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe. BBC Scotland was making a contribution to the ‘Wednesday Play’ series titled The Lower Largo Sequence by Eddie Boyd. The narrative centred round a love story between a writer and an actress, and was based on Eddie’s own short relationship with Isabel Black. Pharic McLaren had the audacity to cast Isabel in the role of the actress and Eddie’s alter-ego was played by Patrick Alan.
At the time, Patrick was famous for a series of television adverts for Barratt’s Homes. In the Ads he leapt about in helicopters, á la James Bond, and Patrick told me that this was the image Laurie Barratt had of himself. Nice work if you can get it, Mr Alan.
The denouement of the play was a scene where the couple had a big fight where she throws a painting at her lover, a painting he had given her as a present. The designer and I had discussions as to what the painting should look like, as the picture had to be in evidence throughout the piece and ought to make a statement as to their relationship. Feeling that I would be treading on tricky ground, I didn’t broach the subject with Isabel. During rehearsa, she asked what we were doing about the painting and I body swerved with a, “Oh, the designer is looking after that.”
She said, “Fine. It’s just that I have the actual one at home:I can bring it in if you like.”
Almost at the end of the series, Gordon Fleming came to direct an episode of ‘Finlay’. The story was about boxing, and in particular about a young fighter who worked the booths during the Depression years. The main part was going to be difficult to cast. He had to be a good actor, an even better boxer, and Scots to boot. Such an animal did not exist. Gordon, being a Scot himself, was loath to give up the last requirement. After all, hadn’t the series run for years with Englishmen burrrrring away like pneumatic drills.
Word was sent round all the agencies and eventually an ex-boxer-turned-actor was recommended – only problem being, he was Australian.
He had just arrived in this country having worked on Skippy. As no-one else seemed suitable, he was wheeled in for an interview. It turned out that he was as Scots as Gordon: his name was Mark McManus, about whom we will hear more in the future.
Gordon was so impressed that he then used him when he made the TV play Benny Lynch, about the Scots World Flyweight Champion.