We continue our saga of everyday life in television as our hero takes the high road to the soaps
"Glendhu - isn't that Scotch for a pigeon?" queried the network committee man whose wife's second cousin had obviously spent her childhood holidays in Scotland.
ITV wanted a daytime soap from Scotland but had no interest in Garnock Way, the weekly serial that STV made for local consumption.
"If we wanted black-faced miners, we would ask Harlech or Yorkshire to make us a series. No, what we want from Scotland for daytime television is lots of Scotch Lochs and Hills. That's the Jock image and if you want on the network, that is what you'll have to provide."
So STV promptly dropped its popular serial set in a mining village in the Central belt and replaced it with one more in keeping with the English image.
The original name for the fictitious estate and village of Glendarroch was Glendhu and the story revolved round the central character of the Estate Factor, hence the rather good title, "The Glendhu Factor". However, this was deemed to be to difficult for the English as they might be led to think it was a spy series where pigeons were used to send secret messages up and down a valley. The new title was to be, "High Road - Low Road" until it was pointed out that when said quickly this sounds like a Chinese take-away. Eventually, after much deliberation, the committee scraped about the bottom of several barrels and came up with Take the High Road. After well over one and a half thousand episodes, it has been re-titled yet again to the rather naked High Road.
Scottish viewers were up in arms about the loss of Garnock Way. To pacify them, one of the main characters, Todd the garage mechanic, played by the late Bill Henderson, was to suffer a breakdown and move north, away from Garnock, and set up business on his own, to try resolve his alcohol problems.
Clarke Tait was appointed Producer and would have liked time to get the story and scripts right - but as the network was anxious to take delivery of the show immediately, he had to inherit this scenario.
The whole concept of this new series was that it was a continuation of Garnock Way but it gave Clarke a major problem - casting. Many of the actors in Garnock' were very good and Clarke wanted to use them in the new show - but if he did, then Todd would know them. Clarke felt that it would be stretching the suspension of disbelief to its extremities if Todd found that all the inhabitants of Glendarroch - just by sheer coincidence, you understand - happened to be doppelgängers for the villagers of Garnock.
The only thing left open to Clarke was to have just the one doppelgänger, and that would be Bill Henderson's character, Todd. So he simply changed his name: and that is how Ken Calder was born. OK, so he was also a garage mechanic with a drink problem but at least Clarke could cast who he wanted in the rest of the roles - and anyway, the network audience had never seen Garnock Way so what did it matter? At least Clarke's conscience was a bit clearer.
The Inverness accent is supposed to be the most easily understood regional accent in Britain, so what better place to set a network series from Scotland. This was one of the selling points to the network - who have never been happy with the ubiquitous Glasgow accent - but it was easier said than done. The Inverness accent isn't one that trips readily off the average Glasgow actor's tongue, but Clarke was fortunate when he found Jimmy Chisholm, a native of Inverness, graduating from Drama School in Edinburgh. He was immediately cast in one of the leading roles as Jimmy Blair. The idea was that his accent would be a benchmark for the rest of the cast. The only problem was that in the rush to get the show on, Clarke had forgotten to tell anyone. On his first day filming, Jimmy asked the director what accent he should use and was told it didn't matter as long as it was Scottish. Left to his own devices, he decided that as they were filming on Loch Lomond the accent should be West of Scotland.
When Clarke saw the rushes, or should one say, heard the rushes, he went through the roof and demanded that Jimmy use the accent he had been hired for. The problem was that the schedule and budget were so tight that there was no time to reshoot the offending Hullorerr' dialogue. Jimmy hadn't said very much on film and it was decided to just go ahead and change the accent for the interior studio scenes.
One would hope that would have been the end of such a calamity.
Oh no? A few years later, after Clarke had gone, a scene was being shot at Morag's farm. She was having problems with her tractor and asked Dougal to have a look at it for her.
Dougal was played by Alec Monteath, a very good actor who throughout his career seemed to fall from one long contract into another. However, with Alec, there came a time in every long-term job when he decided that he was fed up with the monotony and if he had wanted a steady job he wouldn't have become an actor. To relieve the tedium he occasionally went off on benders with the bottle.
During his time as a continuity announcer at the BBC, I remember one night at the BBC club when he could hardly stand and had to be escorted back to Queen Margaret Drive to read the late night out-of-vision news headlines. I rushed home to hear what kind of mess he would make of it, only to hear a perfectly sober Alec read the bulletin and sign off in his normal professional manner.
He later told me that, apart from an assassination of the Queen, the midnight news never varied from the six-thirty, so he recorded the news before his supper break and went off to the club. As long as he could keep sober enough to punch the right button at the right time, nobody was any the wiser.
Someone must have seen his condition in the club and became suspicious, because he was sent a memo telling him that after reading the news he should tell the viewers the time before finally closing down. This screwed up his scam because at half past six there was no way he could predetermine the exact time of close down, so this part of the operation had to be done live.
It was only a problem for a few days. Alec continued to visit the club, and although he didn't drink quite as much as before he simply added these few words to the end of his recorded news: "And before I say good night, let's have a final look at the clock". At which point he mixed through to the source that had a permanent picture of the studio clock showing the exact time.
But back to the high road. Alec had a very clear understanding of the character of Dougal. To outward appearances he seemed to be a bit slow and simple, but this was only in his relationship with the various women in his life. When it came to his work he was a shrewd operator with a good eye for a bargain. Unfortunately the writers tended to go for the cheap easy laugh when it came to Dougal and it, quite literally, could drive Alec to drink.
Filming a scene with Morag, Dougal was seen starting up her tractor having fixed it. He jumped down and told her that all that was wrong was faulty spark plugs. The scene was wrapped and everyone broke for lunch, during which, the real farmer, whose tractor had been used as a prop, mentioned to Alec, "I was watching you do that bit with the tractor. Why did you say it was the plugs?"
"That's what it said in the script."
"Well that tractor hasn't got any plugs, it's a diesel."
Alec threw his mince in the air and went straight to the Director pointing out the mistake that had been made and said they would have do the scene again. "Oh don't worry about that Alec," he was told, "That just shows how stupid Dougal is". This was a red rag to a bull to Alec, who did his best to protect his character from what he considered indifferent scripts. One of Alec's favourite lines when walking over a field covered in cow pats was, "Watch out and don't stand in that script."
At the end of filming of a scene in the byre with Jeannie Fisher and John Stahl playing Morag and Inverdarroch, Dougal was about to leave, but stopped at the door and instead of saying the scripted line, he turned to Morag who was knee-deep in cow dung and said, "I hope you've had had as much pleasure shovelling it, as I've had saying it."
Such inconsistencies weren't confined just to one character. Billy Armour played Hamish McNeil in one of the last episodes I did. The scene was quite simple: he was telling his daughter that there was no way he could afford to send her to Glasgow University, where she had obtained a place. If her grant couldn't support her, then 'tough buns', he didn't have any spare cash for that kind of thing. Simple enough.
Sitting down to block it out, Billy said, "We have a problem here."
"Oh aye," said I, noncommittally.
"Yes. We did a script some time ago where I was telling her that whatever she chose to do with her life, one thing was certain. She wasn't going to end up slaving in a croft like her mother, no sir, she was a clever girl and was going to university when she left school - no matter what."
Oh dearie me... what was that thing Alec said we shouldn't step in?
Sometimes we gave the writers problems. The first time John Stahl's character, Inverdarroch, was introduced I was presented with four pages of fairly boring dialogue between him and Dougal, and thought the best way to move it along was to give them something to do. On my recce, I noticed lots of milk churns in the farm yard and thought that I would get Inverdarroch to load the churns onto the back of a float. Fine, it's not the greatest idea in the world but when the script's stage directions only said 'country scene', I thought this bit of business provided a bit of energy that the scene needed.
When Brian Mahony, the producer, saw the cut piece he had a fit. "What have you done? Don't you realise that Inverdarroch is a hill farmer, he doesn't have a dairy herd."
No, I didn't realise he didn't have any cows. I simply turn up at the location and with the lack of any guidance, I shoot what is there. Silly me. I should have realised that those big brown things with horns were sheep. See the ignorance of us 'townies'.
Brian was more worried about letters from pedantic viewers than he was about the story implications, so I told him that as milk was never mentioned he should tell the nit-pickers that farmers often use milk churns as a dry storage for flour. This made Teddy and he happy.
To be continued