TV - The history of Scottish soaps

THE first Scottish soap, STV's High Living, was set in a flat in Maryhill, a fertile world later inhabited by sitcom characters Jack and Victor in Still Game.

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Scotland's first TV soap was High Living, which was screened from 1969 to 1971
Scotland's first TV soap was High Living, which was screened from 1969 to 1971

But while High Living, which ran from 1969 until 1971, wasn't especially funny, it did reflect the reality of people decanted from their tenement homes and moved into boxes in the sky.

It was all about the future, it was about how the past informed lives. And it was about coming to terms with an entirely different way of life.

High Living was written by Jack Gerson, the writer from Glasgow's West End who would go on to create The Omega Factor (1979), often regarded as the forerunner of the hit US series The X Files.

Sadly, no episodes of the soap are known to exist.

But the memory of the series will remain with everyone over 60, who recalls what it was like not only to move home, but to have their high-rise lives played out on TV.

Storylines however were limited, given each of the 200 episodes ran for only 15 minutes – hardly time for a decent argument to ensue.

STV learned from the High Living experience however, and developed the confidence to go for not only a full half-hour of soap TV, but a show which could be screened on the network.

The station reckoned the rest of the UK was keen to see a slice of Scottish life, set in a mining community in a town halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

And so Garnock Way was created, starring Dorothy Paul, Jackie Farrell and Jan Wilson. But the show, although it ran for three years, from 1976-1979, was deemed to be too gritty for network consumption.

English audiences didn't wish to have their hands soiled with the soot of Scottish working class life and only Border Television picked it up.

So what did English audiences want?

Well, a show which contained all the elements of soap TV; the over-fussy characters, the village idiot, the battleaxe, the patriarch, the feuding families etc, but they wanted it to be a little more chocolate box.

They wanted nice scenery, they wanted to be able to see a little bit of Brigadoon each time they looked in.

And so in 1979 Garnock Way disappeared and a new soap, Glendhu, was conceived as a replacement.

The title 'Glendhu' however was tested on some English viewers who were entirely befuddled, resulting in the fictitious village being renamed Glendarroch.

That name also went down like a plate of cold porridge and High Road - Low Road was suggested.

This was also dropped, as it was claimed to sound "too much like a take-away shop".

After much debate it was decided that the series would be called Take The High Road.

But who to cast in it?

STV took a rather pragmatic approach and chose to shovel into it many of the regulars from Garnock Way.

For example, in Garnock Way the late Bill Henderson played Todd the mechanic with the drink problem.

In Take The High Road he'd play Ken Calder – who happened to be a garage mechanic with a drink problem.

Well, it kept the public happy, and it meant simply extending actors' existing contracts.

Actress Eileen McCallum also moved to the new soap, the lady now of course starring in the pivotal role in River City.

Take The High Road proved to be a winner.

English audiences in particular loved the panorama, the "Scotch lochs, hills and purple heather" tartanisation feel to the show.

Filmed in the real-life village of Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond the soap won over around two million fans, including the Queen Mother.

It was broadcast in Canada and Australia, proving a favourite with ex-pats. And the show made stars of the likes of Gwyneth Guthrie, whose Mrs Mack character offered a mix of cartoon witch and love-to-hate irritant, Anne-Marie Timoney and Jimmy Chisholm.

It featured actors such as Alan Cumming, Joe McFadden and Gary Hollywood, now starring in Mrs Brown's Boys on BBC1.

Comedian Andy Cameron provided the light relief with his cheeky chappy character, Chic Cherry.

But Take The High Road was shortened as STV cut back on production costs.

And although the series had become an industry, employing thousands of Scots actors and production crew over the years, by 1993 several English independent TV companies had grown weary of it.

The show struggled on until 2003 as an opt-out programme, and managed 1517 episodes before being axed.

But what it did illustrate was that Scots at least loved home-grown material, television which held a mirror up to their lives.

Sadly, STV's Machair didn't really do that, unless your mirror was on a dressing table in Stornoway and you were part of the tiny minority of Gaelic speakers.

It ran for six years, from 1992, thanks to Gaelic funding.

Was High Times a soap, STV's cutting edge series again featuring life in a high rise block, which ran in 2004 and 2008, a soap or a comedy drama serial?

Regardless John Rooney's show was a hit; it sold in South America, which confirmed that STV can produce great series' from great Scottish writing.

Sadly, it wasn't followed up, leaving the BBC to create it's own soap in River City's The Tall Ship.

And TV viewers are happy again, knowing they can peer into their 50 inch widescreens, see themselves – and smile.

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