Heart of darkness – Peter McDougall

SoS
May 16, 1993

It's the title, grumbles Peter McDougall: fine for a series of six plays involving bent lawyers, but now it's a single film with all that publicity about Billy Connolly playing the bank robber, maybe Down Among the Big Boys wants changing. Sounds like one of those macho sexist numbers...

Macho? McDougall? Not the man who gave us Just A Boy's Game (violence), A Sense of Freedom (violence, criminal) and Just Another Saturday (violence, sectarian); interpreter of testosterone ritual, expert in the unwritten rules of lawlessness, chronicler of the malky and the chib. Not the award-winning wordsmith who cuts off the air supply to producers' windpipes; the afternoon drinker who downs his vodka in the company of gangsters and SAS-men.

Never.

Like the steam engine, the telephone and the cathode ray tube, the literary hard man is one of Scotland's great contributions to global culture, a national treasure. To win the title is a short cut to the status of living legend. I could name you any number of hopefuls, but there's only one serious contender.

No sooner have we covered his worries about the film than he's describing his panic attacks. They strike during hangovers but it's only partly the booze; he blames the male menopause, which brings us neatly on to the op to reverse his vasectomy, and those twice-daily applications of wrinkle cream...

The thing about literary hard men is they want to have it all ways: tough and tender, fearsome and vulnerable, new man, old perks. There's no absolute reason why they shouldn't manage it; it's just that they usually don't. Sooner or later, someone smells a rat.



Eleven o'clock at his flat in a green and gracious square in Glasgow's West End. Original paintings, oriental rugs: we're talking a Tom Stoppard set here, possibly even Simon Gray. Later, with a certain inevitability, we adjourn to the Ubiquitous Chip, Last Chance Saloon of the literary Wild West, where he is hailed by a multitude of punters and beckoned to the bar to take a string of telephone calls. The interview lasts 10 hours and 45 minutes.

What do you want me to tell you about Peter McDougall? Tales from Hollywood? How Connery and De Niro can't act and only a madman would hire Mickey Rourke? The brushes-to-Baftas fairy-tale of a housepainter who discovered his muse while slapping emulsion on Colin Welland's walls? Heady recollections of Hampstead in the Sixties? The adventures of an Orpheus in the Glasgow underworld? High noon showdowns with the movers and shakers of the television industry? Those lost weekends when he'll sober up on a plane to where?

Make it up yourself. As flashy, gothic or surreal as you like. You couldn't come up with anything he hasn't thought of first.

People often talk about how frightening McDougall looks but, personally, I don't see it. Barely average height, balding, with a sparse grey ponytail and overgrown moustache: he's hardly your identikit tough. Even the broken nose is too close to a button mushroom for menace. Hardmen pare themselves – short hair, short shrift, chisel cheekbones – everything about McDougall is generous, superabundant. Well, perhaps not his hair.

Let's return to that moustache; adjectivally, I fear I've done it an injustice. There's no easy way to describe the ragged curtain, shading from grey to nicotine-yellow, screening the mouth with its missing front teeth, muffling the Clydeside accent so you have to squint to listen to him. When he lights one of those anorectic roll-ups, you expect the whole hedgerow to go up in smoke.

Then there's the clothes. Today he's got himself up in immaculately-laundered denim shirt and jeans, belt and tartan braces, floral silk tie and ginger-coloured suede boots. He looks frightening, all right. A man who dresses like this might do anything.

To borrow one of his own terms of approval, he's exotic. It's not a new trait. Even as a teenager growing up on a Greenock housing scheme, throwing that mace on the Orange walk, he was a bird of bright plumage, a showman. An interviewer's gift, once you stop trying to separate the man from his mythology.

Faced with the choice of watching McDougall or McDougall's plays, I'd take the man every time. It's not that the works aren't good, but the personal performance is better. He boasts about his relentlessness, his energy, and there's no gainsaying it, that's what he gives off: a teaming, inexhaustible supply of life. Like his maw always said, he's a crowd.

Much of the energy is confrontational. His writing is fuelled by indignation. His motto is 'you can't let them fuck you with impunity' but, in the venal world of modern movies, it seems a lot of people are willing to try. There's any number of antler-locking anecdotes involving producers and directors. Somehow he always seems to have the last word. (''Don't swap dialogue with a dialogue writer.'') Or the last gallon of Evo-stik on a producer's Rolls-Royce.

You can't really blame him. Throwing his weight around gets results; it's not a habit he has any compelling reason to break. For a writer, he enjoys a remarkable degree of control over what happens to his work: casting approval is written into the contract, he keeps an eagle eye on wardrobe and set, his scripts leave nothing to the director's discretion and, if the big suits do try mucking things around, he can always fall back on physical force, or the threat of it. As a modus operandi it's eminently successful.

He's a genius of the scene, staging them as spectacularly in person as he does on the screen. He swears as punctuation, converses in tracer fire, then brings out the big guns. He possesses a mercilessly sharp tongue and, behind the noisiness and swagger, a mind to match. The list of people who've taken a swing at him reads like a Who's Who of the British film industry. Most of them love it, or seem to, dining out on the story for weeks afterwards; only a few take permanent umbrage.

But you can't have fisticuffs with women, and he's not a sleaze ball, not even a flirt, so he has to resort to other ways of getting a reaction. Half way through the afternoon, in the middle of some rant against method acting, his chest starts heaving, drawing in great shuddering breaths. A panic attack? Now he's turning away, hunched into himself, eyes squeezing, hand shielding his face, muttering and mewling, that big bawface shrunk like a perished balloon. This has lasted too long for foolery. Maybe something is wrong.

Warily I ask: ''What's going on?''

His face pixies into a grin. ''I'm improvising.''

Like all performers he needs an audience. Everyone has their own secret terror. For some, it's the hard men and no-hopers who walk through his plays; for McDougall, it's solitude. Those three hours a day at the desk are as much as he can stomach. After that, he's walking the line between madness and sanity, peering over the precipice of self doubt. That's when he sees himself in some kind of perspective. ''You go into your head so far you're in danger of turning up things you don't want to know.''

So he fills his life with people. Mo (his partner, the director Morag Fullarton) doesn't bother answering the phone any more. She knows it'll be for him. So many friends: actors, writers, West End trendies, real people and, yes, the odd bank robber too. Lovely men. ''Lovelier than any producer I'd introduce you to.''

He's not a slummer, he says steelily. This is where he comes from; he couldn't sever the ties without cutting himself off from family and friends. ''I was brought up with it. From that kind of background hard men are 10 a penny, really hard men are tuppence a gross. Everybody was like that.''

That's not to say he fancies himself in the mould. He's not got a head full of badness, and anyway, he's middle class now. Try that sort of act in Greenock and he'd have no teeth left. As indeed he hasn't, he murmurs. He once bumped into a producer friend when he was in the company of a genuine tough guy, a professional pistolero. ''She said 'isn't Peter terrifying?' He said 'do you think so?' And I thought: you live on the planet Zanussi, you don't know what's real and what's not.''

Inevitably, he finds himself stranded between cultures, a misplaced person, juggling the liberal values of Glasgow's green gracious squares and the less flexible code they teach in Greenock. He's a product of his early environment, a world where you don't peer too closely into the psychological mirror, where you kick over the traces of tragedy with a wisecrack and allow yourself a day to ''get over'' a death. Despite his warm manner, all those friends, he can't – or won't – say he loves anybody. And yet, middle class life has wrought some changes.

''Sometimes I hold my tongue and I think: my brother wouldn't have done that. I go to bed and worry about that. It might be right but, right or wrong, if you don't speak up for yourself that can become a habit.''

When McDougall walked out on his wife after 27 years in London, he could have gone anywhere. He's a successful writer with 23 films to his credit; despite the chaotic state of his finances, his earning potential is huge. But he came back to the west of Scotland. In a way, he'd never really left; his best work is all set here and draws deeply on his family and experiences. Ask him about being a teenager in the shipyards and he can give you those 18 months day-by-day. He hated it with a vengeance, but it was the most vivid time of his life.

He watched Just A Boy's Game the other week when it was repeated on telly. Those scenes were filmed up his close, he says, real wonder in his voice. McQuillan slaps the young tough on his old back green. Unexpectedly, he remarks that he doesn't understand the character he created, the young hard man who reduces challengers to tears with his stare. He can talk about McQuillan's friendship with Dancer, his feelings for his grandfather, but there's always something missing. He thinks he knows why.

''There's this block about making the character complete because it's the one bit you don't know about yourself.'' In all the plays, whatever the variations in character and plot, he's always addressing the same theme. ''It's all that darkness that you can't put your finger on.''

Here we're getting close to what makes people uneasy about McDougall, the ambiguity that permits his plays to be at once indictments of West Coast machismo and cult viewing for those who subscribe to the code. You can argue the toss about whether he writes strong stoical women or defeated drabs, but this is really beside the point. His plays are chiefly about men. He exposes the weakness and cruelty of boys' games, the soul-destroying results of living by their rules, but behind the forensic examination there's a whiff of awe.

''Jesus Christ, I didn't ask to be born a man but I do believe quite genuinely I conduct myself like one. I've got a wee bit of integrity. I conduct myself the way you'd expect a person to. I've got a wee bit of strength. I'm not a fucking patsy, I'm not a putz.''

Macho? Well yes, but spend 10 and three quarter hours with Peter McDougall and you'll end up thinking maybe machismo isn't such a bad thing. You'll be wrong, but it's some measure of the man that you think it.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications