FEATURE DAD ON ARRIVAL
orbes Masson is writhing beneath
the baking-hot lights of Scottish
Television’s Studio One. his face
contorts in a gesture of excruciating
pain and breaks into an
uncontrollable shiver. Hold to camera. Someone shouts ‘cut’ and the studio audience gives an enthusiastic round of applause. Masson smiles a gentle Stan Laurel grin, his ginger hair unrufﬂed. his designer suit uncreased. while a make-up assistant nips on set to add a quick dab of powder. Up pops Stu Who?. for ever to be known as The Ubiquitous Stu Whof’. to fire out his Glasgow patter and keep the audience happy. while the huge Dalek-like studio cameras re-group and focus for the next scene.
Eck has a problem. lt's his dad. llis dead dad. His l4-years dead dad. to be precise. who has returned to dog the upwardly- mobile 24-year-old on the very day he stands both to get his big break with the BBC and to score his big date with would-be girlfriend. Jools. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that if Eek and his dear dead dad move more than a few yards apart. the two of them are gripped in paroxysms of face-contorting agony. Cue close-up of Masson‘s twisted visage and cue Dad on Arrival. the first foray into situation comedy for Scottish in well over a decade. and the most important commission to date for ex-Merry Mae and sometime Josie Lawrence script-writer John McKay.
Theatre-goers will recognise the plot outline from McKay‘s 1988 hit comedy. Dead Dad Dog. directed by Steve Unwin at Edinburgh‘s Traverse Theatre. Then it was an hour-long. minimalist two-hander. produced as part of the theatre‘s new- writing season, Scottish Accents (since re- Christened Spinning A Line). but now,
nearly four years on. it has re-emerged as a six-part domestic comedy for Channel 4. Where once Sam Graham and
In the heart of Cowcaddens. TV’s mirth-makers have returned to the neglected world of Scottish sitcom. Mark Fisher goes on the set of Dad 0n Arrival with writer JOHN McKAY.
Ralph Riach threw chairs across a naked stage. inventing their world with words and movement alone. now Forsz Masson (Eek) and Roy Hanlon (Willie. his dad) sit in a fully-furnished kitchen or walk along genuine Glasgow streets and deal with a plethora of characters. played by real actors. It may take a leap of the imagination to go from stage surrealism'to small-screen naturalism. but for producer and director. Alan Nixon. the possibilities were apparent from the moment he read the script. ’What attracted me. irrespective of the medium.‘ he says at the end of a day‘s rehearsal. ‘was the central relationship and central concept: the umbilical cord dragging your dead father around with all his opinions and mores. For me that had the basic tension of a very good
‘We took it to Channel 3, but it was too well written for them and it didn’t star Penelope Keith or Paul Nicholas.’
Good comic potential too. Willie has been dead since 1978 — coincidentally the date that sitcom on Scottish was laid to rest — and his return after all these years means he‘s missed out on everything from surrogate motherhood to the rise of the New Man. McKay jumps at the chance to pepper Willie‘s conversation with icons of 70s trash culture; Episode Two alone drops references to Ali Bongo. lsla St Clair and the days of racially exclusive Scottish football teams. It‘s the kind of attention to detail which leads Alan Nixon. who also produces Absolutely. to praise the scripts for their literacy. ‘It was such a mature. well-written script.‘ he recalls about the stage play. ‘that I expected the author to be in his mid-50s with grey hair and a suit. Then this bouncy young lad walks through whom I recognised immediately as someone I‘d seen in a very different guise in the Merry Mae Fun Show. We took it to Channel 3. but it
was too well written for them and it didn‘t star Penelope Keith or Paul Nicholas. Channel 4 showed a strong interest and asked us to develop it.‘
It was then down to ‘bouncy‘ John McKay i to come up with another two hours‘ worth of material to fit into the six-part format. The events still take place over a single day. but only the first and last episodes -— the beginning and end of the story ~ hear much resemblance to the original. The four instalments in between give McKay the chance to explore the central relationship further and to throw in contentious issues from terrace sectarianism to militant feminism. Some of the play's original satirical content has been edged out »— the issue of an upwardly-mobile Edinburgh (now Glasgow) right-on trendy resisting the : lure of London is not automatically meaningful to the national audience but McKay has not succumbed to I lowest-common-denominator values either. i ‘l‘ve tried very hard to retain a lot of peculiarly Scottish touches.‘ he says. ‘because very little Scots stuff actually makes it onto the network. We get to hear so much about life in the South-East of England that is not that difficult for the rest of us to understand.
And afterall. the stage play is already ; establishing a track-record of successful l performances away from home. Thanks noi doubt to its availability in print. Dead Dad Dog has been produced in Fire. including a date at the Dublin Festival. and even in Pasadena. l.os Angeles. ‘There‘s something about two of the underlying premises —« one. the unfinished relationship with a dead parent and. two. the last rites of leaving your' home culture before going to the big city — that seems to appeal to a wide variety of people.‘ says McKay. ‘I don‘t know whether rural grape-picking Californians feel the same about moving to Los Angeles.’
McKay himself followed in Eek’s footsteps to London four years ago and he's discovered that perhaps it’s not such a bad place after all. You've sold out/l accuse him. ‘No. no. terrible place. I‘d never stay there.
8The List 20 December 1991 - 16 January 1992