The Outsider

The Outsider

TV Times promo The Teesdale Mercury is a small, weekly newspaper published in Barnard Castle, County Durham. Early in 1981 the paper featured on BBC television’s Nationwide news magazine programme. The following day the Mercury’s editor, Jim McTaggart, got a call from Michael Bird. Bird said he was planning a series about a weekly paper, and asked if they could meet. McTaggart agreed and Bird arrived in Barnard Castle the following day.

“He was affable and likeable and I agreed to give him all the help he wanted”, says McTaggart. “We walked round the offices and the print works, which he thought would be ideal for filming, Pauline Letts and Norman Eshley and then round the town, which he felt was the perfect setting for the series.” McTaggart’s account of the visit confirms Bird’s remarkable imagination and provides a fascinating insight into the creative process. “There and then he started talking about characters, such as the crusty old paper owner, a newsman arriving in town and being talked into becoming editor, a glamorous blonde to become involved in the management, and so on.”

In the few days they spent together, the writer absorbed everything he saw and everything McTaggart told him. He watched the editor at work and decided his editor would follow the same sort of routine, including taking his own pictures and delivering bundles of papers to village shops. A few days after the visit, Bird sent McTaggart a paper described as “first thoughts” for a series provisionally titled “Clarion Call”. Remarkably the characters and situations outlined ended up in the finished series more or less unchanged.

At the time Bird's career was at its height and his work was in great demand. His friend David Cunliffe, who had worked with him years before on Brett and gone on to direct segments of The Lotus Eaters , had become Head of Drama at Yorkshire Television and wanted Bird to write for him. Bird told McTaggart that YTV wanted the pilot script by mid-May.

The Micklethorpe Messenger In the “first thoughts” document Bird had described the location as “The Dales (Non-specific. Could be Durham, could be Yorkshire)”. The villages had names like those in the Barnard Castle area. There is a Mickleton, so the story was centred around “Micklethorpe”, and the fictional paper was called The Micklethorpe Messenger. screencap The story as it finally unfolded was a departure from Bird's earlier creations - although it did reprise the theme of undisclosed parentage, first aired in Who Pays The Ferryman? and which Bird would use again two years later, to great effect, in Maelstrom . It centred on the lives of those connected with production of the newspaper, and the uncovering of some murky skeletons.

Early in 1982 the show’s producer, Michael Glynn, visited the Mercury offices with some of his team and said he would like to film there. By then the title of the series had changed to “Wrathdale”, although Glynn was apparently not happy with it. Michael Sheard and Ted Morris In fact the print shop scenes were shot eventually at a commercial print works in Leeds, where the studios were located, and outside scenes at nearby Knaresborough, to keep costs down. Actors Michael Sheard and Ted Morris (left) did spend a few days at the Mercury’s print works watching the printers they were to portray.

McTaggart was contracted by Glynn as technical adviser and received a small fee. “I met the actors at rehearsals in a big room near the Oval in London,” he says, “and went to some of the filming in Leeds in May and June of 1982. Occasionally I gave advice about how situations would be handled.”

'The Teesdale Mercury' itself put in an appearance The Teesdale Mercury printed a few hundred extra copies each week for a while, changing the masthead to Micklethorpe Messenger after the normal run and putting in some new headlines to fit in with the scripts. These were taken to Leeds and used in the show, along with a number of other items from the Mercury’s works and offices to give the set an authentic look. McTaggart says “it gave some of our advertisers extra value as their names could be clearly read among the fictitious stories!” And The Teesdale Mercury itself sneaked in at least one appearance in a scene where Flaxman is looking back through a bound volume of the old newspapers.

When Joanna Dunham joined it the series was still called 'Wrathdale'. “The powers that be in London and Leeds decreed that The Outsider would be preferable, if by no means unique”, she says. “Towards the end of the last few days shooting in the studio, Norman Eshley and I borrowed from the props department half a dozen different works of literature all titled The Outsider. We managed to feature all of them prominently on a convenient bookcase in a short scene towards the end of the last episode. I don’t suppose any of the viewers noticed.”

“I was lucky enough to have at least two long scenes with Joan Hickson. She was a lovely person, very amusing and a superb actress. She was later to be the definitive Miss Marple. I became very fond of her and also of Pauline Letts with whom I remained friends until her death a few years ago.”

Dunham also recalls “something rather unpleasant happened on the last day of recording. The publicity department invited us all to select any of the production photos we liked and they would provide copies. As it happened I was in the last scene so had to wait to the end. Earlier Norman had come down into the studio and said there were some super photos of me, as did other members of the cast, including Carol who came down later. I was rather chuffed and as soon as I was released I ran up to the publicity department only to find that all my photos had disappeared. They searched everywhere but neither the prints nor the negatives ever turned up, someone had taken them. That meant I did not feature in any of the TV publications and newspapers. After the series was shown a paperback book was published and a very small rather bad picture of me appeared on the cover alongside John and Carol.” Lame Ducks with John Duttine and Lorraine Chase

The Outsider was Independent Television's primetime drama offering on Friday evenings for six weeks in the Autumn of 1983 and marked the start of a series of successful collaborations between Michael Bird and Yorkshire television.

Dunham says YTV were happy with the series, so much so that they altered the last episode so that it was overtly open-ended and the storyline could continue through to a second series. Everyone was pleased at the news, but later John Duttine through his agent decided not to sign for the second series, and instead went into a short-lived and forgettable BBC sitcom: Lame Ducks.


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