30 years on, it’s still the talk of The Steamie: Tony Roper on why his famous play is as popular as ever

The Steamie

IT’S as much of a Hogmanay tradition as first footing, Auld Lang Syne and black bun.

But The Steamie might never have made it to television had its creator and writer, Tony Roper, not listened to his agent.

Yesterday marked 30 years since the much-loved drama, about a group of women chewing the fat in the local washhouse one Hogmanay, was first shown on television.

Its popularity shows no sign of letting up, with its biggest-ever stage production set to take over Scotland’s largest venue, The Hydro, this year.

But Tony feared allowing his story to be adapted for television might ruin its future in theatre.

“When I was approached about television, I thought it would harm the stage version,” Tony explained.

“But my agent assured me it would have the opposite effect, so I was guided by him. And that’s what happened.

“It was already popular before TV, but the Hogmanay screening really put it out there and people came to see it live after seeing it on television.”

Tony worked mostly with BBC at that time, starring in Naked Video and Scotch & Wry, but was annoyed by the broadcaster’s offer, so chose STV instead.

“Both of the companies approached me and asked to do The Steamie, but the package the BBC offered wasn’t very good – they didn’t offer much money and they also said they would get someone else to write it for me.

“That put my back up.

“STV gave me a much better monetary offer and also said I could write it, which won me over.

“STV also said they would put a big effort into producing it correctly.

“They dedicated their entire studio to it, basically turning it into a steamie.

“I couldn’t believe it when I first saw the set, I thought I was walking into a real one. It was huge.”

Tony Roper

Eileen McCallum, who played Dolly, recalls having a similar reaction.

“When we came out of the make-up room on to the studio floor, we all just gasped,” she recalled.

“It looked stunning and even had running water. It was perfect. For that time, it was wonderful.”

Eileen got the role when Elaine C Smith, who played the character in the original stage version the year before, was judged to not look old enough to play Dolly on TV.

“The director had been working on High Road and it was mentioned to me that they were going to do a make-up test on Elaine and it might come to me, which is what happened.

“I always tell Elaine that’s a good reason not to get a job, because you don’t look old enough!”

Tony says the characters were based on people he encountered throughout his life and being relatable is why he thinks the story continues to find an audience.

“I like the characters because they are honest, very straightforward, they don’t like flim-flam.

“They would tell you the truth and that was my guidance when writing it.

“It struck a chord with people. Folk would sit and watch it with their kids or grandkids and say that’s what we used to do – everything had to be clean for the New Year, the house, clothes, curtains, everything.

“It became a phenomenon of its time, which surprised the hell out of me. The fact it’s had such a life after TV is even more surprising.

“It still amazes me that people come to see it even though they mouth along with the lines, nudging their pal and saying here comes the mince bit.

“I liken it to going to see your favourite singer and wanting them to sing your favourite song just how you remember it.”

Now The Steamie will take over the cavernous arena of the 12,000-capacity Hydro next December, including a show on Hogmanay – the first time it’s been performed professionally on the day it is set.

“We want to make people feel they have been transported back to Glasgow in the ’50s,” Tony continued.

“It’s a huge challenge and in the midst of it all will be the play, untouched – people would go crazy if we changed it.

“I was so excited when I wrote the TV version of The Steamie and I have that feeling again with the Hydro. It’s revived my interest in what I do, or did, for a living.”

Eileen said: “I can’t quite believe it’s been 30 years since it was on TV.

“It’s something that’s become part of Hogmanay and it’s great to be a part of it.

“I’ve got to the age now where I’m looking back on my career and I would certainly pick The Steamie as a highlight. It was a very happy time.”

Tony added: “It will certainly outlast me, but how long it will continue, I don’t know.

“Even great things eventually pale after a while because it contains things people can no longer relate to.

“But to this day, I walk down the street and people still say, ‘There’s the guy who wrote The Steamie’.”

The Steamie is on the STV Player until January 10.

Where are they now?

 

Sheila Donald (Mrs Culfeathers)

She’s guest starred in TV shows such as Taggart, Hamish Macbeth and Still Game.

Peter Mullan cast her in his 1998 film Orphans, and she was in more recent Scottish films, New Town Killers and The Last Great Wilderness.

Peter Mullan (Andy)

 

He’s gone on to become one of Scotland’s most acclaimed actors and has credits that include Trainspotting, My Name Is Joe, War Horse and Sunshine On Leith.

He also wrote and directed The Magdalene Sisters and Neds.

Dorothy Paul (Magrit)

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Her screen credits date back 60 years to The One O’Clock Gang.

The 81-year-old has appeared on countless theatre productions and starred in a number of one-woman shows in the 90s, her observations on life proving a hit.

Katy Murphy (Doreen)

Tutti Frutti really marked her arrival as an actress.

Parts in Your Cheatin’ Heart, The River, Takin’ Over The Asylum, maintained her packed schedule.

She now spends much of her time as a teacher.

 

Eileen McCallum (Dolly)

She was a fixture on High Road as shopkeeper Isabel Blair and more recently was in River City.

Eileen, now 82, set up The Eileen McCallum Trust, an organisation for families living with muscular dystrophy.

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