The McFlannels

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The McFlannels was a Scottish radio serial based on a working-class Glasgow family which ran on the Scottish Home Service from 1939 to 1953, and later on BBC 1 in Scotland from 1958.

Written by Helen W. Pryde, The McFlannels was produced by Archie P Lee.

First broadcast on 28 March 1939.

Genesis

The idea for The McFlannels came from housewife Helen W Pryde. She lived with her husband in the country, first in Laurencekirk, and then in a fascinating old house in Forfar called The Friarage. About once a month she would come to Glasgow and discuss future developments for her characters with the producer. By her own admission, Pryde was a complex character. As producer Howard Lockhart recalled:

She once told me of a very strict, puritanical upbringing. Anything to do with the theatre was sin. Writing 'wee plays' for the wireless would have put her practically beyond redemption. Although she enormously enjoyed her work as a writer, and was not indifferent to the fruits of its success when they ripened and fell into her lap, nevertheless I always felt that somewhere she carried within her some small sense of guilt. An intensely religious person, and one who genuinely tried to practise what she preached, she missed no opportunity to belittle her own work. [1]

Pryde had been entertained by a talk on the wireless about a country flittin', and thought to herself from her own experience that a city removal could be even funnier. She wrote the talk, sent it to the BBC, and Robin Russell advised her to turn it into a sketch.

As a way of establishing their social status, each family in the show was named after a type of fabric. There were the McSilks and the McVelvets (posh), the Corduroys and Mr and Mrs Canvas (lower middle class), and, further down the scale, Mr and Mrs McGauze and their friends the McPoplins. At one point there was even a Frenchman called Michel Valenciennes.

The stories first went on the air between March and August 1939 as part of a six-part series, The McFlannels Rub Along, sandwiched between bouts of brass band music in a programme called High Tea.

Then, from February 1941, with propaganda firmly in view, they returned occasionally during the war years as The McFlannels in Wartime, with humour about rationing, the black-out, the Home Guard etc. After Robin Russell was called-up to the army, the programme was in the hands of an English producer, W. Farquharson Small. After he returned south, Howard Lockhart was put in charge of the programme and remained so for eight years.

Characters

The stories were built mainly around four principal characters: John Morton as Willie, Meg Buchanan as Sarah, Jean Stoddart as Maisie, and Arthur Shaw as Peter.

Other characters included:

Uncle Martha (Willie Joss), a born scrounger, with neglected adenoids and corns, which he insisted were "a terrible tribulation";

Mrs McCotton (Grace McChlery), with her genteel accent and bad grammar ("If I had of knew, I nivver would of came!");

Ivy McTweed (Molly Weir), the wee Glesca keelie ("Ach, yous is jist a fish-custart faimly!");

Wee Ian McCotton (Elsie Payne), who could be relied on to misbehave in the most embarrassing manner;

Mrs McCorduroy (Elizabeth Swan), the warm-hearted neighbour who bantered so easily with Peter ("Hello, Handsome", "Hello, Gorgeous"). Helen Pryde always maintained Mrs McCorduroy was her favourite character creation.

When Archie P Lee took over from Lockhart as producer, some new characters were introduced.

The series gave important breaks to three actors who went on to play very prominent roles in Scottish broadcasting. Russell Hunter played Mr McFlannel, Molly Weir was 'Poison' Ivy McTweed, and Rikki Fulton made his broadcasting debut in 1952 as the Scottish church minister, the Reverend David McCrepe.

Demise

Howard Lockhart wrote that it was all too good to last:

The rot set in so slowly and developed with so little outward manifestation over so long a period, that, like a disease, it was too late to eradicate it when it was no longer possible to conceal it.

Lockhart believed it all began when he discovered that Pryde did not approve of the actress Jean Stoddart. Stoddart was loud and talkative, dressed conspicuously and sometimes flamboyantly, and enjoyed cocktail parties. Pryde, by contrast, was self-effacing and quiet, dressed conservatively and abhorred exhibitionism, and, above all, was strictly teetotal.

Unable to fault Stoddart for her performance as Maisie, Pryde began to search around for motives for writing her character out of the script. After Lockhart left for Australia in 1949, Pryde made her mind up and decided to marry off Maisie and send her to America. A year or so later, she brought Maisie back home again but the part was given to a different actress.[2]

Revival

Some years later, as part of a BBC anniversary, half a dozen of the most typical and successful McFlannel episodes were revived — and Stoddart returned to play Maisie. However, according to Lockhart:

These revivals delighted former McFlannel fans, but brought few new admirers, and the critics were lukewarm in their praise. The truth is that the scripts were already dated, both in content and technique. It is a tribute to Helen Pryde's skill that she could capture, with uncanny observation, exactly the atmosphere of the time at which she was writing. [3]

TV documentary

The McFlannels were the subject of the first Scottish opt-out on BBC television, on 24 September 1952. Broadcast from the Radio Exhibition at the St. Andrew's Halls, Glasgow, it was billed as "a visit behind the scenes to meet this famous family and their creator, Helen W. Pryde".[4]

Television version

Former BBC producer, Ian Christie, believed that the reason The McFlannels did not work on television was that listeners had formulated their own ideas on what the different characters looked like and found the visual incarnations difficult to accept.[5]

References

  1. Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 63.
  2. Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 65–7.
  3. Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 68.
  4. 'The McFlannels', BBC Television (Kirk o' Shotts only), 24 September 1952, 19:30–20:00.
  5. Ian Mowatt, 'Broadcast Comedy' in The Media in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 142.