Scotch on the Rocks: 50 years since TV thriller 'banned' after SNP outrage

Condemned by the SNP, whose leadership expressed fears it could fuel "insurrection and outbreaks of violence in Scotland", it was shown on television only once and then effectively banned from our screens.

Scotch on the Rocks, the political thriller that tells the story of a violent nationalist uprising in Scotland, was broadcast 50 years ago this spring.

Boasting a cast of well-known faces and scripted by the esteemed writer, producer and director James MacTaggart, the final episode was reportedly watched by 13.8 per cent of the UK population. But five decades on, just a handful of clips can be found online.

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In one, fighters from the Scottish Liberation Army (SLA) – guns slung over their shoulders and many of them in kilts – open fire on a police car as it skids through the streets of Fort William. In another, a soldier in full ceremonial garb stands before a flagpole. "If this is your new Scotland, I want no part of it," he declares, before thrusting a sgian-dubh into his own chest. It is tantalising stuff.

A scene from Scotch on the Rocks. Picture: BBCA scene from Scotch on the Rocks. Picture: BBC
A scene from Scotch on the Rocks. Picture: BBC

Based on the novel by Douglas Hurd – the Conservative politician who later served in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major – and Andrew Osmond, Scotch on the Rocks was broadcast in five parts between May 11 and June 8, 1973.

It imagines a near future in which a Conservative prime minister enters into negotiations with the SNP following a general election. The Nationalists hold the balance of power after coming within just a few seats of an absolute majority in Scotland.

Meanwhile, the shadowy SLA is operating on the fringes of the SNP, carrying out high-profile bombings and even drowning the Scottish Secretary in a bungled kidnapping.

A deal between the Tories and the SNP breaks down and the SLA launches an armed insurrection, seizing control of Fort William. This later falls apart, but a form of Scottish independence is nevertheless negotiated.

The programme caused outrage in the SNP, which issued a statement claiming it could lead to violence in Scotland. Gordon Wilson, who later became the party's leader, accused the BBC of a "political slur" and described the series as "reckless and directed towards firing the imaginations of lawless elements".

Writing in the Glasgow Herald on May 4, the journalist Charles Gillies was quick to spot the looming row. The BBC, he wrote, was "sitting on a piece of political dynamite that could cause one of the biggest controversies in years over a television programme emanating from Scotland".

So it proved. The SNP submitted a formal complaint to the Programmes Complaints Commission that was partially upheld. A scene in which the party's fictional leader "goes very near to encouraging violence in order to assist his political ends" was viewed as a particular problem. The BBC said the series would not be repeated or sold abroad, and it has not been seen since.

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It was once thought to be lost. However, the BBC has since confirmed three episodes – the first, fourth and fifth – are held in its archives. It could not say whether the other two were wiped or simply missing.

John Hill, professor of media at Royal Holloway, University of London, is one of the few people to have watched the surviving episodes in recent years. He said Scotch on the Rocks had a reputation in some quarters as “a wildly subversive work that had been suppressed". But in reality, it wasn't the British state or BBC who wanted it banned, but the SNP.

Hill does not believe the series would get made today. "It's astonishing that nobody saw this as likely to prove a problem because there had been a lot of arguments within the BBC during the 1960s about the dangers of confusing fact and fiction, and, the old favourite, the need to avoid bias and impartiality," he told Scotland on Sunday.

"At the time the SNP thought they were getting a very raw deal from television. They only got their first party political broadcast in 1965 and they were waging a campaign for more airtime and political coverage at that time. So I think that's why they were particularly upset by this portrait of them at a time when they were getting so little proper current affairs coverage."

Hill added: "I think today, if anybody had come up with this plot, they would be forced to change the names. It does seem a little bit extraordinary that if you are going to do a fictional dramatisation of this, you would use an actual party's name."

Hill said there was “more freedom in the initiation and production of drama” in those days. "And therefore what you tended to get was that things got banned or suppressed after they'd been made, whereas now they get banned or suppressed before they go into production,” he said.

Northern Ireland and the Troubles also loomed large. "Thinking back historically, I'm amazed that the BBC executives didn't see the parallel with Northern Ireland, and didn't anticipate the controversy," Hill said. "If you put on a drama that showed the IRA relatively sympathetically on television at that time, it would have been completely banned.

"And that is the tension in Scotch on the Rocks when you see it. I think the novel is in some ways more propagandist than the drama because it is written by two unionists – they do a pretty good job of slurring the SNP, linking them, however improbably, to communism and foreign conspiracy. It's fairly clear at the end of the novel that you're supposed to think independence for Scotland would be a mistake.

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"But the actual television production, I think, is much more ambivalent. It sort of pitches a more romantic version of nationalism against the SNP, who are seen as rather small-minded and petty and lacking in the glamour or allure of the SLA fighting in the hills, which has all the iconography associated with tartanry – Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Jacobitism.

"And therefore there's a kind of romance associated with the violence in the actual programme, which I think cuts against its anti-violence, unionist message. As I've argued, Scotch on the Rocks is divided against itself.”

Former first minister Alex Salmond thinks the SNP overreacted, and even believes Scotch on the Rocks gave the party a "Braveheart-style" boost. He remembers watching the series at the time, not long before he joined the SNP.

"The SNP were way over-sensitive, particularly given that in the novel the SNP leader, Henderson, is actually portrayed as a model of constitutional rectitude," he told Scotland on Sunday. "I bought the book straight away and still have it to this day.

"What Scotch on the Rocks actually did was make the prospect of an SNP breakthrough leading to a Scottish Parliament very real indeed and I have no doubt gave the party a Braveheart-style boost in the run up to the 1974 elections.

"It would be great to see it on screen once again. Perhaps the two missing episodes could be infilled with a bit of creative work so that people did not lose the plot. However, it might show up some of the tameness of contemporary drama as BBC Scotland celebrates its 100 birthday in front of a sceptical nation."

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University and an expert on the SNP, said the book "obviously portrays Scottish nationalism in a very negative light". He said: "The SNP understandably took exception given it was an emphatically democratic party. The SNP – under the leadership of people like Dr Robert McIntyre, Billy Wolfe, Gordon Wilson et al – would never condone violence.

"At the time of publication, the SNP was emerging as an electoral threat – Winnie Ewing had won the Hamilton by-election in 1967, Donald Stewart took the Western Isles in its first seat at a general election in 1970. It was still establishing itself in the public minds and Hurd/Osmond’s portrayal was inevitably a cause for concern.

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"While there was a tradition of satire on television at that time, this would likely have been seen by a wider audience relatively unfamiliar with the subject matter. In the event, the programme couldn’t have had much impact – Margo MacDonald went on to win the Govan by-election in November 1973 and the SNP made significant advances in the February and October 1974 elections."

But was the series actually any good? Salmond thinks so. "It was a cracking good watch and a great production with some outstanding performances from some of Scotland’s finest actors of the time," he said.

Hill is less complimentary. "It's not what I would call a lost classic of television drama,” he said. “But it is intriguing, and I suppose it's become more intriguing because of the whole rise of Scottish nationalism since then."

He argued it was a "much more interesting drama than it has sometimes been taken to be" due to its themes and the context of the time. "It does make it a fascinating document, but it's also a very uneven piece of work,” he said. “I suppose I would say it's more of sociological interest than it is of artistic interest. In the end, it is a bit of a hodgepodge."

A spokesman for the BBC said: “The BBC upheld part of a complaint which related to a scene in which a character appeared to condone violence. The series has not been repeated and there are no plans to do so.”



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