Haldane Duncan Part 7: Scottish TV times 

2 September 2006 tbs.pm/2309

In the late sixties, Lord Hill, the Chairman of ITA, had visited STV and had been appalled at the quality of programmes. Remember the Company was being run by Lord “licence to print money” Thomson, the man who thought running a television station meant installing two telecine machines – one to show old films and the other to show commercials. He was very unhappy when he was told he would have to make a varied eight or nine hours of local programmes a week. “OK,” he thought, “What’s the cheapest way round this problem? After the nightly news, football and a church service, how else to fill the rest of the hours?”

“We’ll do forty minutes of ‘live’ variety at lunch time every day. That way we won’t have to pay the crews overtime. We’ll use newcomers, and we’ll use the cheapest comic we can find to front it,” was his immediate response. Although popular, the result – The One O’clock Gang – was hardly franchise winning fodder, and Hill warned that if standards didn’t improve in the next year, STV would lose that licence to print the very reason for Lord Thomson’s interest in the company. Cue the entrance of Francis Essex.

Francis was a small dynamic man, fresh from a successful career in Light Entertainment in London, and as far as he was concerned, the one area in which STV were going to triumph was Light Entertainment. The BBC had been beating their opposition hands down with the annual Hogmanay Show and Francis knew that here was an area where he could improve on the “Jigtime” special that had become STV’s tradition.

First thing he did was invite the Producer/Director, Clarke Tait, out to lunch and laid it on the line, “This show is going to be make or break for the Company, it’s got to be the best Hogmanay Show ever, and to prove that my money is where my mouth is, you can have whoever and whatever you want. There is no limit on what I am willing to spend to get the kind of quality that is necessary to insure the franchise and the future of the company,” he drummed into Clarke.

Having spent the first part of his career working on tiny budgets, Clarke rubbed his hands with glee. This was the kind of talk he liked to hear, but what would he do with this newfound freedom? He saw nothing wrong with the basic party format that had been the staple for the past ten years, but this added injection of money meant he could spend more on sets, orchestra and guest artistes – but who to go for? Especially the ‘First Foot’? Scotland had always been partial to American entertainers, so why not go for broke and bring someone over from America as a special guest for the show?

It was no use just picking a name out a hat: thought had to go into this important decision. Scotland, and especially Scotland at New Year, has a particular empathy with a certain amber coloured beverage and there is one entertainer whose whole persona is based on his alleged fondness for the sauce – the American singer Dean Martin. Clarke thought, “That’s it, the perfect first foot –That’s Amore.”

Next job was to find a contact for him. It took several phone calls to London to acquire the necessary number in California. Checking the world times he waited until seven o’clock at night to make his first transatlantic telephone call. Waiting to be put through, it occurred to him that the cost of this call alone was probably bigger than some budgets he had worked to in the past.

An efficient Californian voice answered. “Good morning: Frank Sinatra’s office.” Clarke stared at the apparatus, gulped and said, “Sorry, I think I have the wrong number.” He quickly put the phone down, checked his notes and redialed the operator explaining that he had been put through to the wrong number. Being rather nervous in making the call in the first place, his heart was now in his mouth. One ring… two rings… “Good morning, Frank Sinatra’s office.”

Clarke stumbled, “It’s only me again. I’m sorry but I’m phoning from Scotland and I was given this number as a contact for Dean Martin.” “That’s quite all right sir: our organisation deals with Mr Martin as well,” said the friendly voice, “But it is no problem, I can put you through to Mr Martin’s secretary right now. Hold on a moment while I connect you.”

Before Clarke had time to take this in, he heard, “Good morning, the Dean Martin office, how can I help you?” “Oh hello. I’m Clarke Tait and I am calling from Scotland to check Dean’s availability.” “What’s this in connection with Mr Tait?” enquired the equally inviting voice. “I am preparing a major television spectacular to celebrate the New Year and as always I look for the biggest star, to be what we term ‘The First Foot’,” bragged Clarke, revelling in the moment. “Sorry Mr Tait, what New Years are we talking about?” Clarke, thought for a moment. Did they have another word for it in America? Did they celebrate it, or was Christmas and Thanksgiving enough for them? “Hogmanay,” he tried. ” You know, the last day of December. New Year’s Eve. As this year finishes and the next one starts, we have a party to celebrate the occasion.” As if talking to a backward child she said, “I know what New Year’s Eve is, but did you say this December?” It was now Clarke’s turn to treat her as if she was the demented one. “Of course, this December, when did you think?” “Terribly sorry Mr Tait, but Mr Martin is all booked up for the next three years, but thank you very much for your kind offer and interest.” Having got so near, Clarke was totally dejected, but not being one to give up, ventured one last gasp. “Could you put me back to the Frank Sinatra office.”

In 1982, when he was Head of Entertainment, and I was producing The Hogmanay Show, we had the usual problem of who would we get for the ‘first foot’. Clarke said, “Let’s go for the biggest movie star in the world to-day.” “Good idea Clarke,” I said, “Which one had you in mind.” “No, I’m being serious. Who is the number one Hollywood star, right now, who is just waiting for your telephone call?” “Well I don’t see Paul Newman or Warren Beatty hanging about for me to ring.” “You’re close.”

“He is being serious,” I thought, and wondered who he had in mind that was within the realms of possibility. “You think Dudley Moore would do it?” He was getting exasperated by now. “No bloody Dudley Moore. For Christ’s sake use your loaf, I’m talking about the number one.” I had to admit defeat. “OK I give in. Who?” He sat back in triumph, and waited for my reaction. “I’m only talking about ET. You know, the Extra-Terrestrial ” Now it was my turn for exasperation, “E- bloody – T. What the hell will ET do?” “Doesnae matter,” replied Clarke, “We’ll have him anyway.Get on to Spielberg and fix it.” Fortunately Steven Spielberg’s office told me that he wouldn’t let him out on his own, because if he wasn’t lit properly, he just looked like a bit of rubber. Not unlike the man we finished up with Angus “I was in The Great Escape” Lennie.

Clarke, who died prematurely in 1984, certainly packed more than one normal mortal life into his forty-eight years. After university, he became an actor with the Citizens’ Theatre based in the Gorbals, just over the Clyde on the South side of Glasgow. The company included Tom Conti, Una McLean, Russell Hunter, Iain Cuthbertson, John Grieve, John Cairney, Bill Simpson, Joss Ackland and another newcomer, Roy Hanlon. Clarke and Roy hit it off from the beginning, finding a mutual interest in the art of corpsing and once a play opened spent most of their time on stage trying to out-corpse each other. Unfortunately it was a one-sided battle: Roy had no chance with the master.

In the 1961 production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata the two of them were cast as townsmen who had been deprived of their connubial rights. One rather dreary Saturday matinée, Clarke enlisted the help of all of the actors who made up ‘the crowd’ and told them not to cheer out loud when Lysistrata announced that the matrimonial beds could be put back into action once again.

The moment came. The announcement was made by Una McLean as Lysistrata. Silence – except for Roy’s “Good auld Lizzie. On yer ain Hen…” As his voice petered out, he caught Clarke’s impish grin. One-nil.

After the evening performance, the pair of them did the pub-pie supper route, then back to Clarke’s place with the carry-out. The world was put to rights as a bottle of whisky disappeared along with countless bottles of beer. The wee small hours were soon upon them: it was time for Roy to go, and Clarke saw him down to the front door to bid his friend good night. At which point Roy, with a deep resounding ominous snortle at the back of his throat, dragged a large glob of phlegm from the very base of his lungs, and with one forceful spit, deposited it in the middle of Clarke’s footpath.

Clarke couldn’t believe his eyes. “Ye dirty bastard! Ye spat on ma path! Ye spat on ma bloody path ye bastard!” How could he do such a thing?

All was forgotten by the Monday evening’s performance. Or so Roy thought. Playing the part of the messenger and supposedly having ran many a mile, he came on stage to deliver news of a far-fought battle, to a waiting Clarke. Never one to miss a ‘milking opportunity’, Roy made a point of holding on to a nearby pillar to regain his breath. At the very point where his head came to rest, Clarke had pinned a note. As he drew breath, in preparation for his woeful tale, he opened his eyes and read, “You-sput-on-my-path.” Two-nil.

Deep down, Clarke knew that he was only a so-so actor but was willing to give it a few years to see if he could strike the big time. An opportunity came. The BBC was about to make a television series, Dr Finlay’s Casebook and the main part would have to go to a young Scottish actor. Clarke, along with every actor under thirty, Scots or otherwise, went for the audition. His ex-colleague from the Citz and now continuity announcer at STV, Bill Simpson, got the job. When Clarke met up with Bill in the pub to congratulate him on his success, he told him of his plans to give up ‘the biz’ and in turn was told that there was a job for a cameraman at STV. He applied, got it, and what’s more, within a couple of years, went on to become Floor Manager and then Director.

When Scottish Television’s Head of Light Entertainment, Liam Hood, died in 1975, his obvious successor was Clarke, but again with a franchise renewal approaching, STV decided to up the ante and go for the high profile David Bell. This was a major blow for Clarke, but he rightly concluded that if he bided his time, David would be off to pastures new, leaving the seat warm for himself. David certainly wasn’t the ‘man’s man’ type that Clarke easily got on with, but he bit his tongue and got on with the work.

As befits an Ayrshire man, Clarke was quite an expert on Robert Burns, and had made several Burns Supper type programmes in the past. The 1976 Burns Night Show was to get the glamorous ‘Bell treatment’. The stars were the Australian James Smillie and our own Helen MacArthur. David was the producer and Clarke was to direct. Choreography was by the outrageously camp Bruce McClure.

Choreographer on a Burns Show? You may well ask, but I did say it was a David Bell Production. The beautiful song ‘Ay Waukin, O’, depicts the poet kept awake “For thinking on my dearie”. This Hollywood special thought otherwise. Helen MacArthur, dressed up in a flowing gown and with a huge white wig perched on top of her head, sang as she ‘walked’ about on what seemed the balcony of a stately home. ‘Ay Walkin’, O’?

‘The Silver Tassie’ is a very popular Burns song, where the poet depicts a soldier who doesn’t want to go to overseas to fight. Not because he is afraid of “The roar o’ sea or shore” or “Shouts o’ war that’s heard afar” but because he has to leave behind “My bonie Mary”. This was obviously too boring for David, so he got Bruce to set it as if it were the Drinking Song from The Student Prince or, even better, ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’ from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with the chorus swaying in unison behind a grinning James Smillie, slapping his thighs like a Principal Boy in a third rate pantomime. Why Clarke didn’t either take a swing at David or at the very least, take a walk, I’ll never know for sure. He didn’t even protest over the tasteless and gaudy production. He probably hoped they would hang themselves, if given enough rope – no chance. If anyone ever needed confirmation of that old show biz maxim that nobody went broke underestimating the publics taste buds… Secretly, Clarke’s attitude was that if the public liked it, so what.

During David’s reign as Light Entertainment supremo, he was asked to organise a Scottish Royal Command Performance show from the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, which was to be performed before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Not doing anything by halves, David not only looked after the television side: he produced the stage show as well. Through his connections with Elton John’s manager, John Reid, David had entree to the highest levels of American show-biz.

I knocked on his door one day while he was on the phone to Liberace’s agent, Seymour Heller in Los Angeles. Waving me in, I could tell he was trying to persuade Seymour to let him have Liberace for the show, but was having trouble convincing this high powered American agent that even although it was happening in Glasgow it was still big time. “Seymour,” David pleaded, “It’s a great honour for Lee to be asked to play before the Queen.” There was a longish delay as David’s expression changed to exasperation, “No Seymour, I didn’t say a Queen, I said the Queen… Queen Elizabeth… Prince Charles’s mother, for fuck’s sake.” His sweet talking didn’t work, but at least he managed to persuade Dolly Parton, David Soul (suffering from the ‘flu) and the Jackson Five (with a black Michael Jackson) to take part.

David thought he was doing the Royal Party a favour, but I doubt if they appreciated having the Jackson Five PA system built up from the stage to underneath their noses in the Royal box – a sound system that would have done damage to your eardrums if you had been sitting at the back of Wembley arena.

Every week in the Sunday Mail, their readers award the best and worst shows of the week with either a bunch of roses or a can of raspberries. In its twenty year history this show was the only one to be awarded a case of raspberries.

You Say

1 response to this article

Alan Keeling 6 July 2014 at 11:39 pm

Living in ATV Land (Birmingham) & visiting relatives in Glasgow, I loved STV, with its versatile & cheerful programme schedules. Shows like “One o Clock Gang” & “Cartoon Cavalcade” amongst others, we’re so bright & breezy, thus making ATVs dreary Midlands schedules seem rather dull indeed.

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