Mark McManus 

3 June 2006 tbs.pm/2308

In his inimitable style, Director Haldane Duncan remembers veteran Scottish actor Mark McManus (1935-1994), who passed on 12 years ago this month.

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Mark McManus in his most famous role, as Jim Taggart in a publicity photo from STV.

Mark McManus had many jobs in his life – clerk, gardener, dock worker and boxer among them – but the one he settled for was the one he was best at. An actor.

Realising that he would never be a World Boxing Champion he had attended an Arts course in London, before emigrating to Australia. Once there, he joined a theatre company as a diversion from his day job as a docker, where he described himself as being “the only blue-eyed docker in a gang of Greeks”.

It’s hard to imagine him as a song and dance man, but that is what he became when he took the Tommy Steele part in an Australian tour of the musical Half a Sixpence. He actually performed the Oh What a Picture number from the show for me one day at rehearsals, and I was so impressed that I remembered it when I got him to sing on the STV Hogmanay Show in 1990.

He appeared in the famous Australian TV series alongside the kangaroo, Skippy and was also in the movie Ned Kelly with Mick Jagger.

He returned to the UK and quickly established impeccable theatrical credentials at the Royal Court and the National. Television quickly beckoned, with rolls in Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Brothers, Strangers, Bullman and the name part in the never-to-be-forgotten Sam.

Although he took his profession seriously and worked hard at it, I don’t think he looked upon it as a proper job. It was almost as if he was embarrassed at being so well paid for what he secretly thought was no job for a man.

Off-screen he didn’t behave like most actors. No trendy West End wine bars full of theatricals for Mark. South Side working-men’s pubs were where he hung out. His conversation would be more about the books he had read, than plays and films that he rarely went to. He wasn’t interested in theatrical gossip because the tales of the escapades of the South Side hard men were much more exciting.

He didn’t use theatrical terms in his everyday conversation. For instance, I never heard him say, “When I was coming to location” or “On my way to rehearsal.” He always referred to “work” – “See this morning, on my way to work…” was his manner. In this way he kept his job and his social life apart. There was no difference in the way he talked to his pals in the ‘Vicky Bar’ and his television colleagues. He was the antithesis of the kind of actor who leaves on just a touch of make-up when he wraps, in the hope that even if you don’t know his face you know he must be an actor.

If he was recognised, he was always very civil to those who asked for autographs. No hurried flourished squiggle from Mark. He took time, asking who it should be made out to and painstakingly writing a signature that could be clearly read.

Mark was an instinctive actor, and once he had a grip of the character, he liked to get on with it. In television series, actors have to grab as much rehearsal time as they can, which in some cases can be queuing up for breakfast and going over lines. Mark wasn’t one of them: Annette Crosbie was. If he saw her coming he would hide, because if caught, she would want to go over the lines – but he would tell her, “It gets rehearsed enough. We’ve got to rehearse it for the camera a few times, then something goes wrong, so we have to do it once more. Then we have to do it all again from different angles, then a plane flies over and then when you think you’ve got it, there’s a hair in the gate. By then I’m drained; no, it’ll get rehearsed enough.”

This became too much for Ms Crosbie, so she complained to the producer, who in turn had Mark in for a gentle carpeting.

Mark bided his time. In one scene, he had to light her cigarette and… my oh my, but wasn’t it terrible, the lighter’s flame had accidentally been set at high and the flames burned her wig. The out-take was featured on the very first edition of It’ll be All Right on the Night.

On the first day of shooting for the next series, In Cold Blood, he went into makeup, where Dianne Keen was getting her hair fixed, looked at her and said, “I hope you’re no’ gonna be any trouble, because if you are, I’ll set you on fire like the last one.”

When Taggart moved out of the studio to be made entirely on film, it was imperative that a permanent location be found to represent the interior of the Police Station. The problem was solved when the famed Unit Manager, Joe Miller and I happened upon one of the victims of the decline in shipbuilding on the Clyde – the disused Office and Works of Barclay Curle, Marine Engineers. We were in fact looking for an exterior for a woollen mill, but the inside office space also turned out to be perfect for the Cop Shop interior. Marius van der Werff, the designer, did a great job in converting part of the old shipping offices into a good match for the established set that had previously been in the studio.

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Mark much preferred filming to studio work, mainly because he didn’t have to go through all that boring rehearsal – I have already said that he wasn’t like your average actor. He also liked the breaks for lighting where he could get in a chinwag with the scene crew or whoever wasn’t busy. In addition, he used the time to get on with the latest book he was reading.

When we arrived the next day at half-eight, there seemed to be more Police extras than normal and I was put in an immediate bad mood by having to wait in line for my bacon roll. Standing in the queue, it became apparent that these were no extras: these guys were the real thing. It transpired that the place had been turned over during the night and a few odds and ends had been pinched from the old drawing office on the first floor.

Many weeks later, Mark confessed to me that on the first day at the location he had taken a wander round the building, gone upstairs and noticed lots of drawings just lying about. These were detailed illustrations of machine parts and were done to the highest professional standards. That night, back in his South Side pub he was telling some of his shadier mates that he had been working in this disused office with the knick-knacks lying about. No sooner said than the drawings were in the back of a lorry and up for sale in the street markets of London at £20 a shot.

He must have forgotten all about this episode when the David Frost/Lloyd Grossman programme Through the Keyhole gave his home a visit. One of the clues as to who’s house they were visiting was an old adding machine. One that Mark had slipped into his bag on that first reconnaissance.

Working in television has its advantages. For instance, you get access to places you wouldn’t normally get admission, or at least wouldn’t want to visit under everyday circumstances.

I was initially delighted when I received a Taggart script that required filming in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow. I couldn’t wait to get a peek inside a real jail and made speedy arrangements to have a look-see. We were given the VIP tour round what was described as a city in miniature. The jail had its own water supply, food store to last months and even a hospital wing. It was built to withstand a siege.

It was just like walking onto a movie set as we entered ‘A’ Hall. I stood out in the middle expecting James Cagney to make an appearance, when our guide shouted at me to get into the side. “Christ, if you’d stayed another minute, you’d have been bombed.”

“Bombed? How do you mean bombed?” I asked.

“The cells aren’t equipped with flushing toilets… you get my drift?”

As we exited and went round the side of the hall, I saw two prisoners on a punishment duty picking up ‘bombs’ which had been thrown from the windows. At least some good use was being made of The Sun.

Outside one of the blocks , the Deputy Governor was pointing out the old ‘death-cell’ on the first floor and he explained how the prisoner spent his last night there: at the appointed hour in the morning, he would be quickly ushered next door where the rope awaited his neck. Within seconds the body would drop down into the cell below and when pronounced dead, would be brought out through the door in front of us.

This wasn’t like going round an ancient castle where all kinds of historical atrocities occurred. This was, and is, a fully-functional prison where, if the death penalty were to return, this spot might be used once again for its merciless task. I had an uneasy feeling as I said, “You mean the body of Peter Manuel (a serial killer from the late 50s) actually passed here?”

“Better than that,” said the Deputy Governor. “No-one wanted the body, so it was buried in the yard and covered in asphalt. You’re standing on him.”

Hurrying from that creepy experience, we made our way to the Hospital wing, the area where we wanted to film. It was in a very secure area situated right in the middle of the prison complex, near the special unit. We passed by an open ward and through to the single cells where our action was to take place. At the far end was another ward that was very secure indeed and the prisoner/patients were pressed up against the strengthened glass partition giving us One Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stares. Quickly checking which of the two solitary cells was best for what I wanted, we left as fast as we could.

Returning to film several weeks later there was a slight problem. The cell I had selected was occupied. This was no big sweat: it was simple enough to choose another cell, alter a couple of shots and get back in business. I was getting along nicely when I was given a message that I had to stop filming because they were going to feed the guy in the next-door cell. There was no need to interrupt my flow for this, and I was just about to say that it was OK to carry on, when I noticed three warders fully kitted out in riot gear approaching the cell door, followed by a man in a white coat carrying a plate of food. Keys were in the lock and the door was thrown open as the three riot shields, converted into a barrier, pushed the patient into the corner. The middle shield was lifted just enough to let the dinner plate get knocked through as I heard a plaintive voice murmur, “Can a no’ get a spoon?”

“You’ll get fuck all, ye wee bastard. If you want it, eat it with your fingers.” And with that they retreated the same way as they got in, slamming the door behind them.

Our drama couldn’t compete with this real-life scenario.

It transpired that he had been one of the patients in the open ward, and had crafted a toothpaste tube into a weapon. He slashed the face of a fellow patient and spat on the wound – and the reason he was receiving such severe treatment was that he had AIDS.

The bit that worried me most was that I remembered him very well from when we passed by the open ward on our first visit. I had commented on his haunted and angry face as he silently stared at us when we passed. I wonder why his revenge erupted on one of his own when fair game like us had passed by so closely? This was at a time in the 80s when the public thought you could catch HIV by sharing a towel with a victim.

The major gripe actors have concerning filming is the hanging about. To minimise this, I made every effort to organise their morning call to just before the time they are actually required in front of the camera. For security reasons this was not possible at Barlinnie – the whole crew, including actors, had to arrive and leave together. We had been working for a few hours when it came time to get Mark, but he was nowhere to be found – he was lost.

At the best of times he didn’t like hanging about, unless he had a good book. When the pubs opened at eleven it often coincided with his need to go and find a bank or nip round to the wee shop that sells tropical fish, but in a jail where could he have gone?

When he eventually turned up, I asked were he had got to and he said, “I was just in seeing a boy for a wee drink.”

I know the Governor would probably have a bottle in his cabinet but neither did I think he would be offering Mark one at that time in the morning; nor would Mark be calling him a “boy”. Intrigued, I inquired further. “Oh aye and where was the party?”

“The boy’s in the Special Unit: heard that I was here and invited me in.”

“And you get bevy?”

“Oh aye,” enthused Mark, “There was even a choice.”

Joe Miller was the Unit Manager on Taggart, and he ran the show in his own inimitable way. One idiosyncrasy he had was that toilets were not necessary on location. The female members of the crew, understandably, pointed out that to be stuck out in the countryside miles from anywhere and without a toilet was not on, only to be met with a “If you want to work in a man’s world, you’ll have to do as men do – go and pee behind a tree.”

He managed to get away with this philosophy for years, telling the girls “Yous kin hud it in, am no providing nae lavy, just for lassies!” and it seemed that was it, until one morning Mark arrived on location and announced, “Joe – I need a shite!”

Miracle. The next day, portable toilets appeared. Not that we were provided with the deluxe models: ours were the cheapest you could get that would do the job, so to speak. They reminded Mark of taking a piss in a telephone box. On a night shoot they were no good at all, due to the lack of lighting: Joe was right, a tree was much better. Although darkness caused no problem with the girls’ aim, the uneven surface on which the cabins had been erected made things a bit gruesome, as one poor unsuspecting soul, attempting to untangle herself from her anorak in the restricted space, managed to let the whole construction capsize.

As I’ve said, Mark wasn’t keen on the social side of an actor’s life and only rarely attended the traditional ‘wrap parties’, but there were certain Public Relations duties that he couldn’t body-swerve.

The Scottish television industry had an annual bash in a posh Glasgow Hotel where they dished out awards in several categories to television productions that had been made in Scotland. There was always the suspicion that BBC Scotland and STV split them in the – perhaps not altogether fair but at least democratic – method of ‘One for you, one for me’. Another oddity of this ceremony was that the results were known in advance. The year Mark was nominated as best actor, the only other nominee was Harry Andrews – who in fact won. Looking on the whole thing as a farce, Mark turned up determined at least to try and enjoy himself. As the results were known, he wasn’t going to have to make a speech, so he didn’t worry about how much he had to drink. The Chairman introduced the top table, finishing with the honoured guest, The then-Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind.

It was bad enough having to attend the dinner knowing that he hadn’t won a prize, but to have a Conservative politician in his midst was too much. The applause subsided to the sound of Mark’s well-projected voice intoning, “Who let that cunt in here?”

I’m sure if the winner had been one of several people, Mark wouldn’t have turned up, but as Harry Andrews and Mark were old friends he was delighted that the old guy was getting well-earned recognition. The announcement was made, and Harry proved how good an actor he was by the surprise he managed to conjure up on hearing his name. At this stage in his career Harry’s memory was not as good as it had been and if he had a speech prepared, then he had forgotten it and all he could murmur was, “Mark McManus… Mark McManus…” at which point Mark leapt to his feet and shouted out, “Remember the dwarfs, Harry?”

“Remember the dwarfs”? What was this all about for heaven’s sake? The next day Mark couldn’t remember saying it, and had no idea what he could have been thinking. All I can say is that Harry seemed to have a nostalgic smile on his face.

Brian MacLaurin, who was in charge of publicity at Scottish Television (and was later to find fame as Mr Blobby’s PR man) gave Mark the kind of perquisite that he was quite happy to accept. Mark enjoyed fishing and Brian sold the idea to TV Times that they should do a picture-piece on the star of the drama series that was to launch the autumn schedules enjoying his hobby. They said OK, but thought it would make a better story if he went shark fishing off the coast of Florida. As Mark said, “I suppose I’ll just have to go and help them out!”

To make up for that goodie, he agreed to go to a TV Festival in Prague. He loved Prague but could have done without the festival bit – except he laughed when a man confronted him, saying, “I am a very important man in your life Mr McManus.”

“Oh aye, and what are you selling?” asked an untrusting Mark.

“I sell you nothing Mr McManus, I give – I am your voice in Czechoslovakia.”

At another do, he was in the company of several ‘camp’ delegates and felt particularly uncomfortable when a power-dressed American female arrived by his side. She wasn’t at all bad looking but had the kind of pushy personality that didn’t win any kudos with Mark. She thrust her way right up to him and purred, “Are you the fella that plays the tough cop with the accent?”

Mark’s hackles rose a touch as he said, noncommittally, “Depends on what you call an accent.”

“And I do love your sense of humour. Say, I’ve been watching you and I don’t think a good-looking guy like you should waste your time hanging with these faggots.” Her loud voice had carried to the surrounding company. “I think it a much better idea if you and I go upstairs to my room and fuck!”

The chap next to Mark got in such a fluster that with a sharp squeal and a rush of blood to his cheeks, he marched off not knowing where to turn. Mark watched him go and turned to the broad and said, “You shouldn’t have said that – you’ve gone and upset my boyfriend!”

“Gee, you’re not…?” (He wasn’t.)

Mark adopted his cheeky grin and chuckled, “Sorry about that, hen.”

You Say

3 responses to this article

Bill Gibbons 4 October 2012 at 7:49 pm

I loved Taggart when Mark McManus was the lead actor. I emigrated to Canada in march 1994, just three months before Mark passed away, and was floored when I heard the news. The series was never the same without him.

These many years later, I am planning on filming an independent police production here in Calgary. The lead character is a Taggart-like red headed Scot. he will be using that Taggart famous phrase, “there’s been a murderrrr!”

Hopefully, 2013 will see Inspector David Baines make his first appearance.

Bill Gibbons

Alan Keeling 31 May 2016 at 11:26 pm

My friend & myself had a nice chat with Mark McManus, one evening in a Birmingham pub, he told us that he was in a series being made at BBC’s Pebble Mill studios. This was during 1979 & chatting with Mark was like chatting with an old friend, a nice, decent chap.

David Williams 21 April 2017 at 8:23 am

I met Mark McManus one day on a crowded train. He was heading to Wool to meet his director and I think he said his wife. This was between Sam and Taggart. He was curled up in a corner and seemed to be unrecognised. I did not approach him due to the crowds and felt he would resent that. However when the train left Bournemouth it emptied out and he approached me asking if I knew where Wool was and told me who he was meeting. My young daughter was thrilled and he obligingly gave her his autograph. He was pleasant and very down to earth and chatted with us for the next half hour or so. and I can still picture him waving to us from the platform at Wool.

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