Foreign Countries #24: Scully (1984) and Mark McGann Interview

There was much faux outrage at Liverpool fans’ booing of the national anthem in this season’s Community Shield match but it wasn’t much of a surprise. Liverpudlians can give a list of reasons, historical, cultural and political why they feel estranged from the rest of England, and fans of other teams once again paint the Scousers as wallowing in victimhood. No one really learns anything, and football fans go back to their tribal fault lines, ensuring that they remained divided when there’s so much more that unites them rather than with their distant, millionaire club owners. This situation isn’t down to the relative success of the football team either, Liverpool were by far the most successful English football team of the 1970s and 80s, but that success was not reflected the economic fortunes of the city.

Alan Bleasdale, a former teacher turned playwright created the character of Franny Scully – 15 years old, football mad – initially to help students with reading. These stories became the basis for his first broadcast work, on BBC Radio Merseyside in 1971. Bleasdale would go on write a stage play about the character, as well as two novels and a 1978 episode of the BBC anthology series Play for Today, called Scully’s New Year’s Eve.

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Starring Andrew Schofield

By the time the series Scully was finally in production by Granada for Channel 4 six years later, Bleasdale had had his breakout success with another Play for Today spin off, Boys from the Blackstuff (1982).

Broadcast over seven episodes in May and June 1984, the series follows Scully (Schofield reprising his role) usually accompanied by the slow witted Mooey (Ray Kingsley) as he dreams of securing a trial for Liverpool while avoiding the realities of academic disinterest, petty crime with friends and an alcoholic, largely absent father.

This grim set up however, is played with a comedic, lightness of touch more akin to children’s television. One of Scully’s nemeses, the school caretaker and possible suitor to Scully’s mum is nicknamed Dracula (Tony Hagarth), and we frequently see him via Scully’s imagination as a stereotypical fancy dress version of the vampire.

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Still less out of place than Dracula AD 1972

And like a children’s tale, all forms of adult authority are monstrous, devious or plain incompetent and Schofield frequently breaks the fourth to include the viewer intimately in his world. Through him we encounter people like Isaiah (Tom Georgeson), the physically and morally corrupted Police officer, Steve (David Ross), the supportive but manipulative teacher, an ex-footballer who’ll get him a trial for Liverpool if he agrees to play the Fairly Godmother in the school panto, and the joyless neighbour who confiscates footballs if they go into her from yard, and calls Scully and his friends communists for suggesting that building factories rather than planting trees would prove more useful to the area’s wellbeing.

But there’s one exception in all of this. One adult who transcends the physical world and appears unbidden from Scully’s subconscious to pass judgement on his failings: Kenny Dalglish.

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IMDB’s bio: Kenny Dalglish was born on March 4, 1951 in Glasgow, Scotland as Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish. He is an actor and editor, known for Eyewitness to History (1960), Scully (1984) and Match of the Day (1964).   I’m not really sure that’s right IMDB.

Following on from cameos by Liverpool’s Graham Souness and Sammy Lee in Boys from the Blackstaff, it’s easy to look at this now as a curious nostalgia without fully appreciating that the most high profile footballer in country played a full part in a drama series at a time his team were winning their third consecutive League title, their fourth consecutive League Cup and their fourth European Cup. And it’s not just Dalglish, the title sequence sees Scully training at Melwood with the Liverpool first team, getting ready in the Anfield changing rooms and running out with the team before an actual derby match and celebrating in front of the Kop.

Interviewed about this in 2014, Granda’s Sandy Ross remembers Liverpool F.C.’s involvement:

Kenny was very friendly and all the rest of it. He always made it clear he was no actor but he was happy to take part in the thing. All these kind of negotiations started with Liverpool about getting him to shoot that sequence and all the rest of it. When the team ran out it was Scully who was wearing the number 7 shirt. So that was quite complicated to organise but of course what made it easy was the Kop knew who Scully was. So there were announcements made to the Kop, ‘this is what is happening today, we are shooting this sequence’. So they behaved like the Kop, cheered for Scully and all the rest of the stuff and Dalglish came out later on.

You must remember Scully had been serialised on Radio Merseyside, Alan read the book. Scully was a very, very well known character in Liverpool, so of course the fans at Anfield all knew who he was. ‘There’s only one Franny Scully’.

From Liverpool’s highest profile players to the fans in the Kop, they all willingly play their part in Scully’s/Bleasdale’s fantasy world, because it’s pretty much their fantasy world. And it’s worth remembering that Kenny Dalglish is from Glasgow rather than Liverpool but he knew his responsibilities. What he meant to the club and what the club meant to him.

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My best guess is that this took place before the match on 6 November 1983. Liverpool won 3-0.

The only other example (that I can think of anyway) of something similar happening since is John Salthouse’s insipid children’s drama Hero to Zero (2000), in which a 20 year old Michael Owen takes time off from the Liverpool treatment table to dispense weekly life lessons to a ten year old boy whose parents are getting divorced. An Alan Bleasdale drama it ain’t…

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Unfortunate

Indeed, it’s seemingly impossible to imagine a drama such as Scully being made now, but if such a thing were to happen I can see Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp being the most likely candidate.

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Mind you, can you image a series where James Milner pops up unbidden from your subconscious to talk at you? It would be terrifying.

For Franny this is literally the stuff of dreams but if there is a take home message from Scully it’s that dreams die.

He gets his trial for Liverpool but it’s a disaster (insulting the actual Kenny Dalglish, thinking he’s just a figment of his imagination), he’s arrested for breaking and entering and he doesn’t get the girl (A young Cathy Tyson in a sadly wasted subplot). Hopelessness is universal throughout this series. Scully’s Mum (Valerie Lilley) talks about knowing her dreams are over and accepting the attentions of Dracula because that’s the best it’s going to be from now on. There’s a seance – surely the ultimate expression of the need for hope beyond this life – at the home of Scully’s friend Mad Dog (Mark McGann), run by his mum (Eileen O’Brien) for the local women, which that ends with Mooey falling through the ceiling and destroying Mad Dog’s home.

The running jokes are of the grimmest type, Mad Dog’s younger brother, Snotty Dog (Richard Burke) is always pushing his baby sibling around in a pram regardless of what he’s up to because it’s not going to be looked after at home. There’s a scene where Snotty Dog turns up without the pram (and baby) explaining that he’s given it to a girl to look after. The girl later turns up with her angry mother to give the baby back. Tearfully the girl pleads that she wants a baby. “You’ll have to wait until you’re 16” says the mum.

Mad Dog’s an interesting counter point to Scully, as frustrated as him but not as sharp. He doesn’t get much screen time but still has his journey, and unlike Scully escapes the confines of his home life, running away with his brother to pursue work on the oil rigs in Scotland. Scully refuses and remains behind, unwilling or unable to leave Liverpool.

I chatted with Mag Dog actor Mark McGann about his memories of making Scully, but it became a wider discussion about the social-political and cultural heritage of Liverpool, and how that informed his early life.

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Mark McGann as Mad Dog

Mark: There’s no denying the political landscape was really quite different then, and yet there’s also a continuing theme regarding the relationship that the people of Liverpool have with the rest of the U.K. and the Liverpool community’s perception of itself as seen by the U.K.

I think a lot of it comes from a sense of being ‘under siege’. While this may sometimes be misplaced, it has an historical origin in actual antipathy towards the city that perpetuates the stereotypes of thieving scousers and ‘lazy’ Irish, something further reinforced by Thatcher’s government’s managed decline of the city and the Sun’s lies about behaviour of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough.

So I really understand their sensitivity and tendency to perceive a slight, either implied or explicit, after all if they hadn’t stood up for themselves as they’ve been forced to on numerous occasions, where would the city be now? Certainly not at the vibrant cosmopolitan level it currently enjoys thanks to massive injections of EU cash alone. This is primarily why it voted remain.

As a kid growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, the doors of pubs had signs stating “No Blacks. No Hawkers. No Irish”, which when you consider how Irish Liverpool is seems ludicrous now. But the shame of the Irish poor was reinforced by such attitudes, and this shame underpins much of the sensitivity today.

But in spite of the increased tension caused by the influx of Irish fleeing the famine, Liverpool has a relatively peaceful history of sectarianism. It wasn’t like Glasgow or Belfast as people’s creed became less important than a wider community identity I suppose. Protestants and Catholics quickly learned to live cheek-by-jowl, often unified under a Labour solidarity and worker’s community spirit. There were flare ups but generally speaking you didn’t get the violence associated with the 12th July marches as you do in Belfast or Glasgow, there was a concerted effort by the community to bind itself together, and that in part was political. Trade unionism was active in Liverpool, very early on because of the docks and because the docks were so active, so I don’t think it’s surprising that they engendered an anti-government sentiment, and I think that’s been maintained.

I’ve never felt personally represented in my ‘Englishness’ by the Royal family for instance, an attitude very prevalent in the Liverpool. The England they represented didn’t seem recognisable as home to us in the depression of the 70s and 80s.

I’ve had to learn to understand other people’s affection for the royals as I’ve moved around the country and spoken to people whose views I respect, but I have to say, there aren’t that many people I respect who don’t have some kind of gripe when it comes to the growing levels of inequality and distribution of wealth.

That we don’t have a proper constitution in this country but rather a ‘constitutional monarchy’, is becoming ever more significant for many as we approach Brexit but Liverpool people were aware of this serious constitutional anomaly because you had the riots in 80-81 and there was an overseeing of a managed decline of Liverpool run from central government. This is when the most vehement anti-government/establishment sentiment underpinning Alan Bleasdale’s work comes from.

Jon: Given that landscape, was acting seen as a valid career option for working class men? Alan Bleasdale has Scully both appalled and mocked by his peers when forced to take part in the school pantomime.

Mark: I would say the say the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’, because I wouldn’t categorise Liverpool with certain northern-male dismissive attitudes towards the arts and treading the boards in particular. I’ll give you an example, my younger brother (Stephen McGann, now best known as Doctor Turner in Call the Midwife (2012- )), in one of his early jobs in television was over in Leeds and he got into a taxi – he was being driven to the set so he had ‘make up’ on, and the big guy driving the taxi for Yorkshire Television turned around to him and just stared at him for a while before finally turning away. Stephen said he shook his head a little and the next thing he said to him was “Don’t you feel ‘twat wi’ make up on?” (Mark says this in a decent West Yorkshire accent). You just didn’t find such an attitude toward actors and acting in Liverpool. Perhaps this is due to its being a natural melting pot of cultural influences due to the port. Everybody sang or played an instrument. Everyone in the pub did a ‘turn’. Songs were short stories that kept the community enthralled. The written word needs lyricism and musicality to make it effective. So the alchemy of music and storytelling is natural to Liverpudlians.

But I think there’s a distinction to make here by way of contextualising the idea behind Scully and what it was really representing. Franny Scully was a bold attempt to immortalise the ‘typical’ Liverpudlian scallywag, a loveable rogue with a deep distrust of authority and a heart of gold, who rejected any attempt to make him conform from anyone who Scully suspected was less owning of their truth than Franny was him own. He was searingly real, a walking morality tale. Destined to never find succour beyond his self-imposed exile but perfectly comfortable with the consequences. Bleasdale had created a persona that represented a city. The value system that underpinned Scully’s story was so intensely angry and hurt, he needed Mooey to humanise him and make him more sympathetic.

Also, Franny Scully was from Kirkby, which is about 7 miles from the city centre and where Liverpool Football Club now have their new training facilities and academy.

It’s an area where a lot of the poorest working-class families from the tenements were rehoused as part of the 60s labour experiment. And in the first 10-15 years it wasn’t managed well, the new housing estates they were building looked nice and futuristic on paper but lasted just 10 years before they started to fall down. Badly designed, with no local shops or community centres to service these old transplanted city centre communities, so unemployment and crime quickly became a part of everyday life. So what you had was a forgotten close knit underclass who’d been moved out of city centre locations into these outlying poorly serviced areas. A disaster waiting to happen.

As a grammar school boy I never looked forward to playing against one of the Kirkby schools like St Kevin’s – Andrew Schofield went there I think – or Roughwood Comprehensive, because you knew you were in for a physical, violent match and often returned home bruised and missing a few items of sports clothing!

Andrew Schofield who plays Scully is a genuine Kirkby lad and in many ways regarded himself as real salt-of-the-earth Scouser, and the kind of lad Bleasdale recognised in himself.

Jon: Did you know Andrew Schofield growing up?

Yes, but only through acting in my later teens. When Andrew (Drew) and I first met, he couldn’t quite work me or my family out I think. He knew I was as Liverpudlian as he but didn’t quite trust the aspirant sensibility of my parents that I think he picked up in me.

Like many of Drew’s family and Kirkby pals, my mother’s and father’s family also came from the city centre tenements, but the fundamental difference between our respective upbringings was that Mum and Dad consciously bought into the concept of social betterment so prevalent after WW2 which many Liverpudlian people did, and this instilled in us a sense that anything was possible.

We didn’t feel the need to cling to a parochial identity (however gratifying it was) to feel as though we belonged somewhere, but rather saw ourselves as part of a wider human narrative. This was not to deny or denigrate our proud Liverpudlian heritage, but rather to wear it proudly as a citizen of the world.

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Andrew Schofield as Jonny Rotten

Drew was incredibly talented, a great guitarist and very good writer and he’s done some amazing acting over the years including playing Johnny Rotten in Sid and Nancy (1986). I don’t think he’s fully comfortable moving too far away from his working-class Liverpool soul, and I respect that, that’s a personal choice rather than a limitation, but what our difference perhaps highlights are the two very distinctive outlooks you find in Liverpool. People are either looking out towards the sea, filled with a certain wanderlust and sense of possibility, or turning their back to the world to watch over their community and serve to protect its value system and identity.

I see the McGanns as very much representative of the first example that’s very much the way we were bred to see it. With people like Drew, they become proud representatives of Liverpool at home, with an attitude of ‘well, where else would you rather live? It’s the best city in the world’. I get both sides of the argument.

Jon: Were you aware of the character of Scully before your involvement in this series?

Mark: Yes. Due to the success of Alan’s BBC radio programmes about Scully. And what was immediately clear was that he had a fantastic ability to represent the people who we were seeing in Liverpool every day, accurately and with an intrinsic humanity that endeared him to the people, they saw themselves and their stories represented in the most entertaining and dynamic of ways, it was something we all were proud to be associated with.

You could feel Bleasdale’s passion for the city in his writing, his pain on their behalf formulated into a kind of communal accusation towards those in power. Alan really had his finger on the pulse, and I think that stemmed from his need, like Drew’s, to identify as Scouse first and a public figure second.

If you compare (though he’ll hate me for it!) him with Willy Russell, I think Willy Russell was a writer first and a Liverpudlian second – and I think that may have caused a certain tension between Willy and Alan in the past. But they were both brilliant.

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Pictured: writer, Liverpudlian; Liverpudlian, writer.

Bleasdale had the keys to the city and he was this big burly guy. He was first and foremost someone who, if he’d had a couple of pints, wouldn’t think twice about chinning someone in the theatre audience who behaved inappropriately (I know!) and dragging them out. I’m not suggesting he was a hooligan or a violent man, but he was someone who was impassioned about the things he felt were important, and the city as a whole identified with that. Here was someone who was intransigent, fiery, angry who could pull in a whole spectrum of really respected figures in the arts to come in and help him express himself so eloquently and movingly, and when you pitch yourself in that way, as social commentator, as a political activist, then it’s a very potent force. I think it exhausted him eventually, people’s hopes and fears was something he couldn’t carry personally forever. He perhaps didn’t have the same buffer that someone like a Willy Russell may have had because Willy had cultivated a separate ‘public persona’ to keep his professional life clearly delineated, whereas Alan probably would’ve hated the idea of such, just like Andrew Schofield.

They hung everything on the visceral, guttural reality and discontent that was life in Liverpool. But this context of Liverpool was also the perfect foil to say these things because they could hang it all on its rare humour.

Alan has all the gritty realism of Shane Meadows about him, but then underpinned with irrepressible, side-splitting, poignant humour.

I would call him one of the most important satirists of recent times.

Jon: How did you first become involved with this series?

Mark: You know, I can’t actually remember! Everything seemed to move so quickly for me in those days. I know that Alan had been kind of on to me for a while. He’d seen me do Lennon at the Everyman. There was a big ‘unspoken’ rivalry going on between the Everyman and the Playhouse in Liverpool in the early 80s. In the Playhouse they started this radical thing called a ‘Gang of Four’ where the theatre was put completely in the hands of 4 writer/directors: Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Bill Morrison and Chris Bond. The Liverpool Playhouse had always been a rather middle class venue, it’s the oldest rep in the country, a beautiful, Victorian chocolate box of a building. By contrast, the Everyman had been build as this community/new writing house in the 60s and then became this semi-political mouthpiece for the left in the 70s. I can remember seeing Drew Schofield at the Playhouse He’d done Jimmy McGovern’s first show City Echoes and I did Jimmy’s second play at the Everyman (a 2-hander called True Romance) which Drew came to check out. The Playhouse cast tended to come up and check us out rather than us go the other way because the Everyman was the natural drinking hole, meeting place. So I first met Alan then I think and it would’ve been around that he offered me Mad Dog.

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Mark McGann as John Lennon.

Scully was a great thing to do but I feel the great unsung hero of the story was Mooey played by the Ray Kingsley who was an amazing young man, a really quite extraordinary character. He created the character of Mooey himself and I would say it’s the relationship between Scully and Mooey that lead to the success of the concept for Bleasdale rather than the character of Scully alone.

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“They even make me go in goal when I’m playing cricket.”

Ray came up with a character that was an extension of a characterisation he’d used for a stand up routine on stage at the age of 15-16 when he’s performing at all-night clubs as a comedian in Liverpool, permanently on top of the bill. He was touched with comic genius I think. Understood pathos like nobody I’ve met since.

Unfortunately as a result of all of the exertions and excesses of his early life he died far too young and I know it hit many people very hard. He was truly loved. But he was also so, so funny, and really, really talented.

Jon: As the whole series was filmed on location, was there much in the way of a rehearsal process?

Mark: Not really. In some ways, for Alan, Drew and Ray, the rehearsal process had been the previous years of radio plays. They knew exactly what the story was, knew who the characters were. So it was really a case of the rest of the cast for the TV series coming into that and learning from them about what was required.

I think what most of us had in common was a recognition with Alan’s themes and opinions. By getting a job for Alan Bleasdale you knew you were signing up for the elucidation of things that deeply mattered to him, it was really about the coming together of kindred spirits.

Jon: I didn’t recognise him initially but Scully’s brother is played by Elvis Costello, who also did the theme song.

Mark: Indeed! At the time Declan (MacManus, Elvis Costello’s real name) was very vocally anti-government, left wing, pro the Labour Party etc. Elvis Costello and the Attractions came out of that whole punk explosion, although they weren’t a punk band themselves, but they had their rightful place in that pantheon that drove the most active movements at the time, Rock Against Racism, Anti-Nazi League, CND etc. He and Alan were natural allies back in the day. It was very sweet to see him there, and for him to write the cool signature tune for the series Turning the Town Red. It was quite a coup even then to get him to act in the series.

Jon: It is. But’s also a coup to get Kenny Dalglish, Bruce Grobbelaar etc. And that title sequence with the Kop singing Scully’s name is extraordinary.

Mark: See, that’s real Liverpool. That’s how loved Bleasdale was. It took the city of Liverpool a number of years to forgive The Beatles for leaving in 1964. So perhaps there’s a need of perspective, but it also highlights how importance their ongoing relationship with their own successful citizens. Bleasdale was the perfect success story for Liverpudlians. One of their own telling it on behalf of the rest of the family.

Prior to Alan, there’d been nobody who had spoken for the people as he did, as though all that was required for him was validation from his own kind.

Jon: Was there ever any reaction against the Liverpool he was showing? Were there those in the city who wanted it shown in a better light?

Mark: I never came across it. I imagine there were some people who were slightly tired of it, who wanted to focus on what they had rather than what they didn’t have so to speak, but no one could deny his writing. Bleasdale wasn’t relentlessly grim, like Jimmy McGovern, Shane Meadows, Ken Loach can be at times, his writing was more satirical and heightened, which enabled him to say more with humour from Comedia Dell’Arte proportioned characters. Think of how he deals with depression and suicidal tendencies in Boys from the Blackstuff when the bearded Yosser Hughes is in the confessional box:

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Yosser: ‘I’m desperate Father’
Priest: ‘It’s okay son. Call me Dan.’
Yosser: ‘I’m Desperate…Dan.’

Alan understood the uniquely close relationship between humour and tragedy better than any writer I ever worked with, and I think it’s this more than anything that makes Liverpool so proud of him because it underlines their unique ability to laugh when all around is crumbling.

Jon: If Liverpudlians can laugh at themselves, how do they react to comedy characterisations of them from outside the city? I’m thinking of Harry Enfield Scouser characters. Do they take offence or does the fact Enfield used people like your brother Joe or Alan Bleasdale’s brother Gary in the sketches soften the blow?

Mark: Ha! I don’t think anyone foresaw it being parodied at football matches by away supporters. But the curly wig deserves all the criticism as far as I’m concerned because I had a curly perm too in honour of Terry McDermott and so deserved every bit of stick I got.

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If you look closely, you’ll notice Mohamed Salah is also taking on this appearance.

I genuinely think that Harry Enfield’s parody is a form of flattery. At least he deemed it worthy of study and used the character over a number of series. The creation of heightened characters served up to with over-demonstrated traits is not a new idea, it’s been around for a very long time and was the job of the court-jester back in the day to make the monarch laugh at himself, to keep him from taking himself too seriously. Because Harry Enfield doesn’t disclose his reasoning behind his comedy, which I completely agree with, we are left to decide whether he’s being playful or cruel. But if it makes us laugh it has achieved its ends. Even mocking humour has the effect of endearing us to the subject in the end. Perhaps because we experience them as less threatening or alien for laughing at them?

You can’t have it both ways; you can’t establish the premise of being a Scouser as being someone with a special talent for making people laugh and then get offended when people make jokes about over reliance on shell suits and perms.

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Wouldn’t you like to see Joe McGann and Gary Bleasdale take the piss out of people born in Horsham, West Sussex?

But there is something else altogether more sensitive and historical that makes the process of laughing at Liverpudlians a very tricky challenge for anyone born elsewhere for reasons we’ve already touched on, and so like it or not, anyone who makes light of the Liverpool character or city had better do so in full understanding of the sensitivity they understandably feel as former pariahs of England. They don’t forget.

Jon: Do you have many memories of Scully’s Director, Les Chatfield?

Mark: Les Chatfield was a very gentle, kind of fatherly figure at the time. And of course he had all these young whippersnappers bouncing around on set but he knew what he wanted to do. Don’t forget that he was walking into a scenario where Bleasdale and the two lead actors had developed the characterisation and storyline over years, so he was very much at somebody else’s party. But he clearly did well.

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He also directed every episode of Watching (1987-93)

One of the great shames about the series was that it wasn’t seen more, and the reasons for that was the struggle that Alan was having with Channel 4 at the time.

Jon: Is it fair to say the series only got made at all because Bleasdale, having had his breakout hit with Boys from the Blackstuff, had enough clout to get this clearly, highly personal project made?

Mark: That rings true with what I was aware of. It was often mooted that Alan wasn’t happy with some Exec somewhere, either at Granada or Channel 4. I think he expected resistance and the need to battle for things. I think all of Alan’s career was like this because of the socio-political nature of his stuff, he would not compromise. Of course we’re now sitting on the other side of that journey thinking how grateful we are for his perseverance but he increasingly demanded more control.

Scully was gone too soon. Alan’s always complex relationship with the broadcaster preventing further screenings or series. But it was also notable for an unprecedented coming together of a whole city behind the concept, culminating in that wonderful opening sequence in front of the Kop. As a young Liverpudlian actor and a passionate Liverpool fan it was a dream job, filming a story that felt like an homage to Liverpool’s heart and then having a kickabout between takes with Kenny Dalglish with Bruce Grobbelaar in goal. Fulfilling so many ambitions in a lunchtime.

Jon: I find it interesting at the end that while your character Mad Dog runs away to find a new life, Scully chooses not to go, almost like he can’t leave the city. He is Liverpool manifest.

Mark: Well in my mind Mad Dog is every bit as representative of Liverpool as Scully, albeit that I knew the demands on me as an actor were to manifest something slightly more heightened than Drew was doing, as that was the central conceit really, normal lad with fantasy life surrounded by freaks and circus. So where I pitched it was always going to be a bit more parody than gritty realism and the script certainly served support that, and even allowed for the pathos that characterises a lot of the community’s expression. And I’m very grateful for that. I’ve never dared to play anything so quite pronounced since.

Scully is available on DVD from Network.

 

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