Stronach Q&A

This is a transcript of an interview with Norman conducted by Peter McKeown for Write Scotland, shortly after Stronach ended as a newspaper series in September, 2003. The four cartoons included are by graphics artist Graham Maclennan, who produced many hundreds during Stronach’s 16-year run.

 

Where did the idea come from?

The Press and Journal had run a highly successful weekly short-story humour serial set on an Aberdeen council-housing estate. It was named after its title character, Donovan Smith, a resident of the estate who was perpetually bamboozled by the capers of the bizarre families and individuals who lived around him. Donovan Smith was the pen name of Bob Johnston, a sub-editor at The P&J, and one of the best-read men I have ever met. Bob also had an amazing ability to pen topical cartoons in 30 seconds flat, poking gentle fun at items in the news or at his colleagues. I still have a couple in which I feature. When Bob died in the mid-1980s, Donovan died with him.

So you decided you needed a replacement.

Stronach characters 1. Artwork by Graham MaclennanNot right away, because I didn’t have that authority. When I became Features Editor in 1987, though, it was obvious to me that we needed something light to balance the worthier stuff that all newspapers have to do. I also missed Donovan, and I guessed that there was still an appetite for that kind of material. I couldn’t repeat Donovan because he was inimitable, so I reasoned that since The P&J circulated more outside Aberdeen than in the city, I would create a fictional village somewhere in rural North-east Scotland.

How did the village’s name come about?

We had to find a name that sounded authentic but wasn’t genuine, for obvious legal reasons. That is a lot more difficult than it sounds. The pilot episode was written six weeks before publication, but the village still didn’t have a name, which meant the series still didn’t have a title. With less than a week to go, my secretary, Rena, spotted a child’s name in the paper’s Birthday Club, which was a feature she administered that published greetings to readers’ children on their birthdays. One boy’s surname was Stronach. “What about that?” she said. She was right. We begged the paper’s resident graphics artist, Graham Maclennan, to mock up some logos to go with his excellent cartoons, and Stronach, Episode One, was published on Saturday, August 1, 1987.

What was the reaction to Episode One?

Complete silence. There were three reasons, I think. The first is that Scots are notoriously slow to say if we like anything. We are quick to grumble if something doesn’t suit us, but praise is anathema to us. In that light, you could argue that getting no reaction was positive. Second, it was only one feature within about a dozen new items in the redesigned weekend supplement, so it wasn’t as if it was exposed to all the possible attention. Third, I discovered later that quite a few people were distinctly unimpressed by it.

Why unimpressed?

You have to understand that there was, and still is, a very sniffy attitude towards dialect in the media. The narrative of each story was written in standard English, but Stronach’s dialogue was written in Doric, which is the day-to-day speech of people native to the North-east of Scotland. It would have been ridiculous to have characters supposedly raised and living in the North-east speaking Queen’s English. We just don’t do that in real life. Anyway, some of my colleagues felt that publishing Doric in any form diminished the newspaper.

Stronach characters 4. Artwork by Graham Maclennan

How did you feel about that?

Not in the least bothered. There is terrible snobbery about Doric in the North-east, as if people who speak it are somehow mentally slow, and that using the dialect is a mark of a lack of education. It might be something to do with the fact that Doric vowels are long and drawn-out, which some people assume is a mark of slow thought. In my experience, the reverse is usually true: some of the sharpest intellects I have come across are Doric-speakers first and English-speakers second.

You ended it after six months. Why?

It was always planned to run until Christmas that year, which I think would have made 20 or 21 episodes. In fact, it ran slightly into 1988 because I had worked out a few extra stories that I didn’t want to waste. Then it stopped.

Any reaction?

Silence again. But a couple of weeks later, we got a letter from a reader asking what had happened to Stronach. I think we published it with an answer to the effect that the series was finished and we hoped that readers would like the fresh new things we had in store for them. And then the mail started. Torrents of it. Every one of them wanted it back. I was delighted, of course, because at last it proved that people were reading it and liking it. I kept every one of those letters.

So you started again?

Yes, after a 13-week break, Stronach started again as if it had never been away.

Any changes?

No. More of the same because that was what readers had said they wanted.

How long was each episode?

It varied depending on what other series were running in the weekend supplement at any one time. For a while it was as short as 850 words. For another few months it was 1,150 words. Usually, it ran to a fixed 1,000 words.

Was any of it based in truth?

I was born and raised in a small village right in the heart of North-east Scotland filled to the brim with great natural characters. You’ll have to guess the answer to that one.

Stronach characters 3. Artwork by Graham MaclennanWere some characters easier to write than others? Did you have favourites?

I always found the pensioners easiest to write. In age, you are able to say outrageous things and get away with it. I liked making the old women and old men mischievous; almost like naughty children. I found characters my own age and younger more of a challenge. My favourite character was Babbie, the most waspish of the old women. Her dialogue just poured on to the page. She was a joy.

Is that because she was real?

They were all real to me. That makes me sound like a nutter, doesn’t it? But you know what I mean. Babbie was based very much on one elderly lady in my own village, now long since dead. The real Babbie had a very, very kind heart, but she could size up other people and dismiss them in half a dozen razor words. Brilliant.

How did you plot each episode?

Like all fiction writers, you start with the punchline so you know where the episode will end. Then you tease out two or three plot strands and work backwards to the start of the story. You pick what turns out to be the strongest strand to create a highly visual scene to open the story in the hope that it will catch the reader quickly. Then you fill in the gaps with dialogue and, I hope, humour. Once the first draft is complete, you go through it a couple of times more to polish, to pace and to hit the word count. Hey presto. Episode finished.

How long did each one take?

If I was inspired and the characters were talking to me, I could fly through an episode in an hour flat. Occasionally, I took a couple of days, off and on, to complete an episode. Nowadays, if I re-read some of the material, I can always tell when I must have been struggling, either because of the pressures of the day job or because I was trying to wring an episode out of a basic story that didn’t really have the legs.

You never put your name to it.

That was cowardice initially. If it flopped, I didn’t want my name associated with it. How poor an attitude is that? When it turned out to be popular, I still didn’t add my name because I thought by that stage it would have looked as if I was cashing in. It took a good five or six years, I think, before readers understood who the writer was. I never said specifically. At one stage, it was assumed the Scotland The What? team was writing it [a comedy trio rooted in North-east Scotland who did highly successful stage shows based on Doric humour]. They weren’t, but I took that as a huge compliment.

Was there any episode you wished you hadn’t written or any that you are especially proud of?

In 811 episodes, of course there are some that I wish I hadn’t committed to print; usually because I had been in a rush with the day job in that particular week, but I had no choice; newspapers are very unforgiving. You hit the deadline or you hit the door. There are other episodes that I can say modestly I am pleased to have created.

Stronach characters 2. Artwork by Graham Maclennan

Which is your favourite?

I still think the pilot episode holds up well because it set up the premise of the whole series; introduced a few of the key characters in what I think was a funny tale, and managed it all in 1,000 words. Only other writers will know how difficult that can be. My favourite was an episode which came near the end of the run, when Dorothy visits the doctor because she is depressed. It was a two-hander, with just the GP and Dorothy talking back and forth. I was absolutely not making fun of depression because I know too many people who have suffered it and are suffering it. But I was laughing to myself as I was writing, and when I finished, I sat back and thought: “Thank you, Dorothy. That’s a good one.” I’m delighted to say that people in the real village where I live stopped me in the street for a few days after publication to say they had been roaring with laughter. That’s a great joy for a writer.

Why did the series stop?

Because I resigned from The Press and Journal.

Do you miss it?

I miss the characters because they became real to me. Sometimes, it felt like they were doing the talking and I was just there to fill in the words between their speeches. So, yes, I’m sorry I don’t work with them regularly any more. What I haven’t missed is the constant pressure to work out a plot and write 1,000 words every week for 16 years, over and above the other weekly 11,000 words. It was wonderful writing discipline, though.

You famously left all the main characters at the end of the last episode teetering on the edge of a precipice in a coach after a Sunday outing went wrong. Were you aware that you had copied the ending of the original 1960s version of The Italian Job?

Of course. It’s one of my favourite movies. I still play the Irene Handl scene in the middle of the film whenever I want a good laugh. Apparently, it took 37 takes to get right because although Irene Handl was playing it straight, Michael Caine and Tony Beckley were cracking up because she was so naturally funny and her performance as a dotty old woman is note-perfect. Watch it and you’ll see Caine and Beckley struggling to control themselves even in the scene that made the final cut. Anyway, yes, I was aware that I was paying homage to The Italian Job with the ending of Stronach. That was deliberate.

Was that because you hoped it would return one day?

Not really. I was sure it had reached a natural end, but I didn’t want it just to fizzle out after 16 years. I wanted something big. I didn’t want deaths, because these people had been my pals for 16 years. I wanted a big conclusion that didn’t harm them or demean them. One of the unfortunate side-effects of an open ending like that is that it looks as if you’re setting up for an eventual return.

Will it return one day?

I don’t think so, but who knows?