Haldane Duncan Part 5: Haldane’s Hogmanay 

10 March 2006 tbs.pm/2300

It’s 1990, and Haldane is asked to revive STV’s flagging New Year show

In 1990 I was asked by Sandy Ross, the Head of Entertainment at Scottish Television, if I would produce and direct the Hogmanay Show for him. This white elephant of a show had become a television tradition in Scotland, with a certain rivalry between the commercial stations and the BBC. By the 90s BBC Scotland had, in the main, kept their network status, but ITV had long left Scotland to its own devices.

Producing the show has always been a thankless task. The audience would either think it was too Scottish, that there was too much pop music, or ‘What was that English comedian doing on it?’ So with trepidation, I agreed to make it – but insisted that I break the mould and approach it from another angle.

Former radio producer Iain MacFadyen had set the trend in the 50s when the BBC in London thought that it would be appropriate for BBC Scotland to do something to commemorate what was after all a Scottish holiday. All Iain did was to formalise what was happening in homes all over Scotland. Parties to bring in the New Year were held in many a home and people visited each other in the time-honoured way to ‘first fit’ (foot). They brought presents and performed party pieces. There would be dancing, music and general well being. For the early television versions, Iain simply led the viewer to believe that the best party in town was at the BBC studio in Glasgow and made them want to be there. One of the earliest TV hits was Duncan Macrae’s rendition of ‘The Wee Cock Sparra’ and ‘Three Craws.’

As the years passed, this format began to change: the show was taken out on the road, introduced pop groups and alternative comedians, and began to contribute to some of the greatest disasters in British television.

The Aviemore OB certainly was Iain’s most ambitious venture, but a disaster nonetheless. The outside Plaza at the winter skiing centre was to be the main performance area, with cameras also in the bar and ice rink. The orchestra was housed in the theatre, but there was no visual communication with the artistes and that was the problem. The dress rehearsal went swimmingly and Iain was rightly proud that the major technical exercise worked so well. Even the engineer camped out at the top of a mountain to relay the signal was happy. We confidently looked forward to the live broadcast.

No amount of technical expertise and meticulous planning could take account of hundreds of drunken yobs spilling out of the various bars to see what mischief they could get up to. They jumped into frame, threw bottles on to the dance area and pulled the plugs on the cables carryng the orchestra sound to the singers. Disaster.

In 1989, the BBC had a particularly bad experience with an Outside Broadcast from George Square in Glasgow, where poor Robbie Coltrane was thrown to the same lions that ate Chick Murray five years earlier at Gleneagles. The good news, as far as I was concerned, was that it couldn’t get any worse.

As I’ve said, making Hogmanay shows was a thankless task. Scottish broadcasters became the butt of many a joke and eventually the network tired of their efforts and began to make their own. Meantime Scotland braved it all by opting out and catered for the home audience.

When I was young, and just starting to go out at New Year, I waited to see the ‘bells’ in, on television with my widowed mother; then went off to make merry with my pals. I often felt sorry for her on her own, but at least she had Andy Stewart for company. It seemed to me that the modern fare being served up to wee widow women, meant that they weren’t getting a fair crack of the whip from the television companies. After all, I reckoned they were the only ones actually watching the damned show. The rest were simply using it either as a clock or as a background to their festivity.

Given a fairly free hand with the 1990 Show, I decided to get away from the variety format and brought in Alex Norton to put flesh on an idea I had. I wanted to start with a widow woman, alone in her Glasgow tenement home, watching the Hogmanay Show on television. She is interrupted by a knock on the door. It is her neighbour, who, feeling sorry for her, invites her in to his flat down on the first floor where his New Year party is building up to the ‘bells’. Where Iain MacFadyen had tried to formalise and glamorise the party, I did the reverse: I put it back into tenement.

Jim McPherson, from ‘Taggart’ played the host and Sheila Donald, who had played a similar character in ‘The Steamie’, was the old woman. As a respectful nod to the originator, I christened her Mrs MacFadyen. Mark McManus was ‘the first fit’ and all the people who arrived had to do a party piece: “Tell a joke, sing a sang, show us yer bum or oot ye gang,” was the show’s running gag.

Also from ‘The Steamie’, I had Eileen McCallum and Dorothy Paul. Elaine C Smith, who had been too young for the televised version of her stage success, took us up to midnight with a song from the show, ‘It won’t be long before the bells’. Jim sang, “I Wish I Could Sing Like Sydney” and was immediately followed by Sydney Devine himself. Syd had had a heart bypass operation and more or less retired from showbiz, but made a rare appearance on my 1990/1 Hogmanay show. His Guy Mitchell medley included the song ‘Look at that Girl’ and Alex Norton suggested that when he got to the line, “I give my heart to you” he should rip open his shirt to reveal his operation scar. Maybe not.

If ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is about anything, then it is about the past, and I wanted to encapsulate all that was best about Hogmanay and intertwine it with memories of the past. Although I never saw one myself, memories of the post-war pantomimes at the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre lived on, and I decided to honour it with a song that I read about being a great hit in the show, called ‘Tatty Bacchante’ as sung by Molly Urquart. It sounded as if it would be the perfect ‘party piece’ for Eileen McCallum, and I asked the library to get a copy of the sheet music. Problem. The song had never been published, and although the book I had read had a detailed description of the dress and props, only the words existed. That would have been that, but for the ‘Take the High Road’ Stage Manager, Malcolm Morton. Big Malcolm had worked with all the old Music Hall artistes and vaguely remembered the tune.

He remembered that it had been written by Stanley Baxter. We got on to Stanley, who recalled the piece, but as his contribution had only been the words, he had forgotten the tune entirely. However he told us that it had been composed by Ian Gourley. Ian had written many Scots songs in his time including ‘The Song of the Clyde’ but was getting on in years. He had just been released from hospital where his consultant, on noticing that Ian described himself as a composer, asked, “…and what do composers do when they get old?” Ian replied, “Decompose.” [Shurely not?—Ed]

There was no sign of him decomposing when I phoned him, only he was damned if he could remember the tune and asked if I gave him a copy of the words they might jog his memory. When he delivered the finished piece, he said that it may not be note for note accurate but if the composer couldn’t spot the difference, nobody would.

We even managed to get a nod of appreciation of the early TV shows by getting Ian McCall to perform ‘A Wee Cock Sparra’ and join Mark and Jim in ‘Three Craws.’

Forbes Masson was wonderful as the party drunk who then performed the tongue twisting show-stopper from ‘The Lady in the Dark’ – ‘Tchaikovsky’ – and the whole thing wound up with the Scottish Grand Slam Rugby champions singing ‘The Flower of Scotland’ with Ronnie Browne, the remaining member of The Corries.

The following year, with the same story line idea, we set it in a fictional hotel, The Hiedrum Hydro. This was meant to be a send-up of the disastrous OB from Gleneagles, where the BBC hadn’t bought the venue out and were surprised when guests who had paid premium prices didn’t want to share their tables with red-nosed comics. Unfortunately some people thought our parody was real.

The final show of the trilogy was set in a theatrical old folks home, ‘Dungagin’, and marked the last appearance of Andy Stewart, who had not been seen at Hogmanay for 12 years. It featured John Grieve, a well-loved New Year turn, who had, along with Chick Murray, ‘died’ at Gleneagles.

That was the end of my association with Hogmanay shows and it seems that it coincided with a change in the way Scots celebrate New Year, with the development of organised street parties. Edinburgh now puts on a show that attracts over 100,000 people and other cities and towns have followed suit. Where the original TV shows tried to produce a reflection of the tradition of house parties, the new ‘tradition’ is for mammoth events where all the broadcasters have to do is stick a few cameras on it and present the reality. It’s more like the coverage of a news story, made all the more so by being introduced by the presenters from the local news programmes.

You Say

1 response to this article

edward minally 26 January 2015 at 7:58 am

i have fond memory,of andy stewat but i cannot get any of his colour tv appears if you know of the,great man please get backto me ,and i also lost a lot of his material,great scots man and very sadly misst from tv and scotland as specialy at new year,hogmanay,and his stv shows and bbc scotland andy,rest in peace rsm,emcinally

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