When Roddy McMillan wrote The Bevellers in 1973, the same year John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil swept the nation, the workplace as he knew it was a spit and sawdust microcosm of the world outside. As the Glasgow-based actor and writer recognised through his own experience on the shop floor before becoming a household name playing the title role in the television version of Para Handy, old hierarchies were set in stone. The bosses called the shots, throwing their office-bound weight around while a coterie of old lags and wet-behind-the-ears rookies got their hands dirty through some hard graft in-between clocking on and clocking off. Industry and craftsmanship were in uneasy accord, however, and, while the unions were strong, the war of attrition with management was constant.
By the time McMillan died in 1979, the ascent of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister was a benchmark for the shape of things to come; the decline of old industries, the destruction of the unions and the attempted murder of society. Britain would never be the same again. The Bevellers, then, is a poignant marker of that post-war industrial age before things had to change. Even today, however, the politics of the workplace remain steadfast. In theatre too, the pecking order is still in place. This is apparent on a Tuesday lunchtime at The Citizens Theatre, where the actors rehearsing the first revival of McMillan’s play for a decade are taking a break.
Brian Pettifer sits in the theatre’s upstairs bar as we wait for William Ruane to join us. Pettifer plays Alex Frears. Ruane, meanwhile, is Norrie, the young lad whose first day in the factory forms the pivot of the play. The two men may be generations apart, but they’ve a lot in common too. Twenty seven years ago, on the other side of The Clyde in Glasgow Pavilion, Pettifer himself played Norrie, in the first major revival of The Bevellers since its original 1973 production.
“I thought I’d remember lots of the play,” says Pettifer, “but I don’t. I remember the dramatic thrust of the play, but there’s only the odd line that I can recall. I saw the first production in London, and I watched the telly version, which had been cut quite a lot, but seeing old friends, like Roddy McMillan, John Grieve and Leonard McGuire, who are long gone now, but all look so young, even though then I used to think were ancient, was more sad than anything. It’s not about the play in that respect. It’s the people you miss. But The Bevellers seemed like an old play even when I first saw it. There were no current pop references or anything, and the atmosphere for a new boy starting anywhere probably hasn’t changed.”
As a raw 21 year-old, Ruane, who’s joined us by now, is relishing his own new role with an invincible gusto untouched by cynicism.
“I don’t want to think about how it’s been done in the past,” he says. “I’d rather try and put my mark on it, and maybe top what’s gone before, but as soon as you start putting pressure on yourself to try and compare with old productions, you’re shooting yourself in the foot from the start. I’d rather have the big chunky stuff and get thrown in the deep end from the start.”
From any other young shaver, such proclamations might sound like reckless confidence. Given that Ruane has cut his acting teeth in Ken Loach’s films, Sweet Sixteen and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, however, and with a third appearance for Loach pending, such self-belief sounds justified. Pettifer too has a history of work with a cinematic maverick. In his case it is the late Lindsay Anderson, with whom he became a crucial member of the director’s ensemble of actors throughout all three parts of his anarchic state-of-the-nation trilogy, If…, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital.
Significantly, both Loach and Anderson were at their most creative at the time The Bevellers was written. The work of both men too is neglected in their own country. Much the same could be said, not just of McMillan, but of other writers of his generation who, in a quick-fix cultural climate desperate for the gloss if not shock of the new, have been all but wiped out of history.
While The Bevellers original director, Bill Bryden, then a young associate at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, where the play premiered, went onto greater glories on London’s South Bank with The National Theatre, McMillan never wrote another play. Back then, however, it was the play’s author, who also acted in Bryden’s production, who was the star.
As well as Para Handy, McMillan had also take the title role in The View From Daniel Pike, a gritty, mid-1970s private detective drama that sat alongside the likes of the far more celebrated Callan and Public Eye, and predated the early days of Taggart before that programme morphed into its current glossy franchise. The View From Daniel Pike was written by Edward Boyd, who, while never working in theatre, was nevertheless part of a Glaswegian creative renaissance that provided the foundations for its later status as European City of Culture.
In Bryden’s production of The Bevellers, the very first Norrie was played by Andrew Byatt, an actor last spotted on a Scottish stage in The Traverse production of David Harrower’s play, Kill The Old, Torture Their Young. Prior to this, Byatt had worked with David Hayman and in Peter MacDougall’s TV vehicle for Harvey Keitel, Down Where the Buffalo Roam. Byatt’s father was George Byatt, another television writer who moved into theatre, whose co-founding of Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop provided a crucial platform for writers such as Rona Munro, Peter Arnott and George Gunn. Byatt’s own work was produced co-operatively, and in 1988 the radio production of his play The Clyde is Red won a Prix Italia award. Most theatre artists under 35, alas, are unlikely to have heard of it.
A recent call put in by this writer to Playwrights Studio Scotland to inquire which of these great Scottish writers works were contained in their archive was met with initial bemusement, and only online rummages through The Scottish Theatre Archive and The National Library of Scotland produced any results. Up until recently, even the Royal Lyceum’s website marked their own 1992 revival of the Bevellers as being penned by (+ital)Hector(-ital) McMillan, author of The Sash, another neglected modern classic.
“The Bevellers definitely tapped into something,” Pettifer observes from his own first-hand wisdom. “It came before The Slab Boys, and was the first play that really looked at life on the shop floor, which doesn’t really exist now. But our industry’s changed now as well. The telly version of The Bevellers was part of the Play For Today strand, and the DVD has the opening credits, which has scenes from various things, and if you’d been around at that time, you couldn’t help but watch it with a sense of sorrow at the death of the single play, which just seems to have vanished from television. The directors are interchangeable now, which is fine because that’s the business they work in, but where now would any producer ever commission someone like Ken Russell or Dennis Potter or Alan Bleasdale.”
Pettifer illustrates his industry’s short term memory with a story about Anderson, who, towards the end of his life sent to Channel Four a version of The Cherry Orchard. It was rejected with a note suggesting that if Mr Chekhov had anything else on the go, they’d be pleased to see it.
Ruane, for one, however, is realistic about his job. While he’s loving building his early acting apprenticeship on quality independent feature films, neither is he shy of the bigger spotlight. He cites Trial And Retribution starring David Hayman as an example of quality TV drama, but admits too that “To come across a good drama on telly is rare. I hate soaps, and I’d hate to be involved in something really bad, but at my age, I hope to get on, but I can’t afford to be too picky. If I was forced to choose between a small independent production and a big Hollywood director, I’ve got to get on, and be honest and not shy away from the bigger opportunities. If you look at what’s happened to someone like James McAvoy, that’s ideally the way to do it.”
In the meantime, The Bevellers is graft enough for both men.
The Bevellers, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 9-March 3
The Herald, January 30th 2007