The Saturday Movie Club: Murphy’s Mob
Grange Hill has a lot to answer for. When the BBC launched its drama series set in a secondary school in inner London in 1978, children’s television drama in Britain tended to err towards period drama and, occasionally, the supernatural. The arrival of Grange Hill on our screens might be considered childrens’ television’s punk rock moment. True enough there was no swearing and very little spitting, but the comparatively vérité nature of the show was revolutionary for its time, and it would go to run for three full decades before finally ending in 2008.
Perhaps one of its most significant achievements was in the influence that it came to have on other children’s drama programmes. The depiction of children in this particular genre had lost its default plummy accent, at least in part, forever. Four years later, Murphy’s Mob followed on ITV. Produced by Central Independent Television – a company which had something to prove itself, having come to life as the result of a shotgun marriage between former contractor ATV and a losing applicant at the end of 1981 – and first broadcast in March 1982, just three months after the company first went on air, might be considered children’s drama as a statement of intent.
It was also a programme that came with a pedigree. It was created by Brian Finch, whose CV had included script-writing over 150 episodes of Coronation Street and the first series of the science fiction children’s drama The Tomorrow People, and scripts for many other television shows, including Juliet Bravo, Bergerac, The Gentle Touch and, later, The Bill. Its title music was performed by Gary Holton, who would go on to find fame as Wayne in the comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet and who died of a drug overdose shortly before the completion of the second series of that show, in 1985. The credits at the end of the programme reveal that former England and Wolverhampton Wanderer captain Billy Wright has acted as the programme’s “soccer advisor.”
It might be unlikely that the central conceit of the story would be broadcast these days. Mac Murphy is a wizened Scottish football manager – played by Ken Hutchinson, who’d had one of the main supporting roles just over a decade earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s notorious 1971 psychological thriller Straw Dogs – starts the first episode by pitching up at the barbed wire covered, litter-strewn home of Dunmore United, “pride of the Fourth Division, so proud they nearly chucked them out at the end of last season” with his wife Elaine, played by the late Bisto mum Lynda Bellingham. She initially has doubts over whether he should be even considering the job, but Murphy, presumably, has a point of some sort to prove.
This was a very different time to the present day. There’s no press conference when Murphy arrives at Dunmore. Indeed, the odd job man hanging around the ground doesn’t even recognise him in the first place, other than as a manager who’s already failed elsewhere. But even so, much of the first episode carries period pieces that could only come from the early 1980s. The chairman of the club, the peculiarly named Rasputin Jones, is making a killing from a roller disco and is dressed in the open-necked shirt and grey suit combo of the provincial night club lothario. Elsewhere, the DJ at the aforementioned roller disco looks like the bassist from the world’s worst Visage tribute band, whilst the kids who end up being the show’s stars are all resplendent in sleeveless t-shirts and attitudes culled from a combination of extremely superficial exposure to the Sex Pistols and too much tartrazine-laced orange squash.
Ironically, the setting for this urban decay was, at the time of its recording, one of English football’s more upwardly-mobile football clubs. Watford were nearing the very end of their four year upward ascent from the Fourth Division to the First Division of the Football League, but allowed their Vicarage Road home to be used for filming nevertheless, with The Baseball Ground in Derby being used for later series. Unsurprisingly, the actual football scenes – of which there are none in the first episode, though they do turn up in later episodes – fall victim of the old adage that just as footballers can’t act, neither can actors play football, and the points at which they attempt to combine match footage with staged shots are perhaps even more excrutiating than we might have expected.
But they’re garnish, rather than anything significant towards the plot. The first episode, which you can see below, features Murphy arriving at the club, ingratiating himself with the owner, and giving the youths who hang around the ground fighting with each other and vandalising the place a space of their own that they can use as a junior supporters club. And the thing is… it’s surprisingly watchable. It’s a bit cliche-ridden at times, but we should take into account the fact that the target audience would have been teenagers, whilst Ken Hutchinson has the requisite menace about him to be able to pull off the gruff, seen it all before, Scottish football manager with conviction, and Terence Budd is pleasingly over the top as the delusionally ambitious club owner. And there isn’t a single player to be seen throughout the entire first episode, which I think we can all agree is, in the age of celebrity footballers, a blessed relief.