You Have Been Watching…The Elephants’ Graveyard
Coming in the next couple of days is the 16th podcast which is an interview with Rodge Glass, and one of the things we talk about is the inability of many men to simply express what they are feeling, often reverting to the codified language of football, music, film… anything which avoids directly addressing personal emotion. This may be a male stereotype, but it is one which seems to remain relevant. Despite the mythical creation of the ‘new man’, two or more male friends, who may have known each other for years, are likely to be talking about their favourite guitarists of all time rather than any worries they have. Sound familiar?
Few people wrote disaffected men better than the playwright Peter McDougall, a man who is perhaps best known for Just Another Saturday, 1993’s Down Among the Big Boys and the Jimmy Boyle biopic A Sense of Freedom. In 1976 he had his play The Elephants’ Graveyard produced for the BBC’s brilliant Play for Today series, and it deals head on with the complexities of that transition of boys to men, if such a thing actually exists. The clothes and setting date matters firmly in the 70s, but the themes are eternal.
Set in and around McDougall’s home town of Greenock, it follows a day in the life of Bunny, played by Jon Morrison, who leaves home at six in the morning to convince his wife he works as a postman when he remains unemployed. He heads to the woods behind the town to hide and gather his thoughts. Taking shelter from the rain he meets Jodie, one Billy Connolly, a Clydeside philosopher who claims to be on the sick with a bad back while also enjoying the ‘countryside’. From the off this is a relationship between teacher and pupil, with Bunny being asked to challenge himself as to what he wants from life, and who he wants to be. Jodie doesn’t have answers only further questions.
As the two spend the day together Bunny begins to feel there is something familiar about Jodie which he can’t place, and viewers are asked to consider if he is a figment of Bunny’s imagination, or something more sinister or supernatural. The strong point of McDougall’s plays is always the dialogue which can be lyrical at times while always remaining grounded and believable in his actors mouths. A play which could have been heavy handed and worthy is lightened by moments of comedy and a real bond and affection between the two men. They revert to being two boys, doggin’ it from school, playing freely in the fields and woods of their youth as for a while they can forget their worries and responsibilities, although those always return to haunt them. Only 50 minutes long The Elephants’ Graveyard is a play which will have you considering your relationships with family and friends, and which has an impact that is a slow burner. I first watched it years ago, and thought little of it at the time, yet I often return to it and here I am recommending it once more. This is all testimony to McDougall’s writing and the naturalism of the two leads.
Morrison and Connolly work well together. I always consider Jon Morrison a great lost Scottish actor, but I recently spied him alongside Brenda Blethyn on TV detective series Vera, which made my day. I’ve spoken about Connolly before but this shows that from an early age he was an engaging and charismatic scream presence. Yes he is always himself on screen, but then there are many actors who have careers which are based solely around their personality and they are none the worse for that. Actually, I’m being unfair. Connolly can be charming, but he also does a fine line in menace as anyone who has watched The Debt Collector knows. Quietly he has gone on to have quite the film career while still holding his place as one of the most influential and popular comedians of the day. Even in terrible TV or film he is watchable. Here’s the first part of The Elephants’ Graveyard and you can watch the full play online:
For a while Peter McDougall was, alongside John Byrne, Scotland’s foremost TV dramatist, but it seems he is seen as man out of time. Certainly his plays and films did a lot to confirm the myth of the Scottish hard man who drinks too much and for whom work is something from which he seeks to escape. But such myths aren’t lies, they are a concentration of apparently objective truth and although this is a vision of Scotland that many will want to move away from, these plays, like the 70s and 80s fiction of William McIlvanney, should not simply be seen as historical documents of the Wild West of Scotland. Strip away the flares and tonic wine and there are insightful social, cultural, political and philosophical questions being asked which are as relevant today as they’ve always been.