Robert Banks Stewart on Charles Endell, Esquire

landscape_robert-banks-stewart

It’s been a rough week in the entertainment world, the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman filling news channels, while in the last few days we also heard of the passing of veteran TV screenwriter/producer, Robert Banks Stewart.

Born here in Edinburgh in 1931, Banks Stewart’s lengthy career included work in newspapers and magazines before he moved in screenwriting for series such as Danger Man, Lovejoy and Doctor Whothere’s an obituary over on The Guardian that goes into more detail.

Although I own many of Banks Stewart’s work on DVD, it was a series of his that isn’t currently available to buy that I contacted him about back in 2010, the 1979 STV production of Charles Endell, Esquire.

I was working with STV at the time on a project to bring various archive series back to life via YouTube. They were in the process of uploading shows such as Take the High Road, Dramarama and some top-notch Hogmanay specials, and I got in touch to offer my services as a freelance…well, freelance archive TV fan, if such a thing exists.

During our first chat I mentioned a series I’d read about in dusty corners of the internet, a spin-off from 1970s ITV drama Budgie, which starred Adam Faith as small-time crook Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, and Iain Cuthbertson as dodgy Soho businessman, Charlie Endell.

Seven years after Budgie‘s last episode, Charles Endell, Esquire arrived on STV screens, a comedy-drama that took Endell out of Soho and sent him back to Glasgow to try and rebuild his empire that had fallen while he was in jail. Robert Banks Stewart was a key part in its creation, setting the tone for the scripts.

As part of my role at STV I was building up some additional material for the website, a kind of DVD extra for when Endell arrived on YouTube. I contacted Banks Stewart for an interview and he was happy to discuss his time working on the show. I also spoke to series star, Tony Osoba, and filmed an interview with director David Andrews about the series.

Sadly, six years on, STV has seen fit to remove all traces of Charles Endell, Esquire (and almost all of the shows they uploaded) from YouTube and their website, so the Banks Stewart interview was gone when I went to find it earlier today. Thankfully, some traces of it remain on the internet if you know where to look, and I’ve retrieved the following for anyone interested in the development of a six episode Scottish TV series that few seem to remember.

I still have hopes Endell appears on DVD one day as I think it’s a terrific piece of TV that deserves a place on our shelves. STV has repeated the show on its STV Glasgow channel in recent years, but it needs a wider audience. You can read more on the show on this blog, over on Cathode Ray Tube and on Lady Don’t Fall Backwards.

In the meantime, here’s that interview with Bob Banks Stewart – I feel privileged to have spoken to him and can heartily recommend checking out his recently published autobiography if you want to know more about his life and work.

Jonathan Melville: The character of Charles Endell originated in 1971’s Budgie – did you watch the original series on its first transmission?

Robert Banks Stewart: Certainly. I didn’t know Iain Cuthbertson personally then, but I enjoyed his brash, blustering Soho gangster/porn merchant. It was, as a TV series, a very clever idea and brought Adam Faith into the realm of acting.

Of course, for television of the time, it was very much filmed/video recorded as a series of interiors and there wasn’t a lot of Soho, especially Soho by night. It was good, lively, grown-up entertainment, and never actually as prurient as people imagined.

I’d registered a number of TV performances of Iain Cuthbertson’s and he was always eye-catching. He once played a pushy West Indian character in the days when white actors donned curly black wigs along with mahogany complexions. But his Caribbean accent was splendid!

How did you come to develop Charles Endell, Esquire as a series? Did STV approach you?

Well, as far as “developing” it, it was more a case of pitching Charlie Endell back into Glasgow and thinking up surrounding characters and the stories.

Yes, STV’s Bryan Izzard, then Head of Entertainment, approached me, because as well as having directed an episode written by me of New Scotland Yard, starring John Woodvine, he knew me as a writer of several episodes of Sutherland’s Law for BBC, which also starred Iain Cuthbertson – I believe that Iain plumped for me to launch Endell.

It was Bryan Izzard’s idea to bring Charlie Endell back in his own series, and Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, the creators and writers of Budgie, didn’t feel they knew enough about Glasgow to take on the idea. Sutherland’s Law was in fact the second Scottish TV series I’d worked on since I ‘emigrated’ to London in the mid-Fifties (as a magazine writer on Illustrated), then as a film and TV writer.

I wrote the first few scripts of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, but the story editor, Vincent Tilsley, then wrote an episode which was, naturally, to become the first on air, thus gaining for himself both the initial good reviews and apparent credit as the creator. An old BBC story editor’s trick! Anyway, the character was A.J. Cronin’s.

The Charlie of this series is much mellowed from the Soho boss of Budgie, where he was very much into “adult entertainment”. Here, he’s more of a wheeler-dealer. Was it necessary to tone down his character for the spin-off?

Iain Cuthbertson and Tony Osoba

To my knowledge at least, there might have been a red light district of Glasgow, but there was nothing like Soho. In any case, Charlie Endell wanted to rehabilitate himself – as if he could! – and that’s why he chose to try and be a businessman and fix deals. Needless to say they were mostly on the wrong side of the law.

You have to remember that until Endell came along, there hadn’t been many drama series (unless historical) set on the streets of Glasgow itself. There was a “stairheed” soap opera which later turned into the scenic Take the High Road.

After Charles Endell, Esquire, and after Bryan Izzard’s reign as Entertainment boss, a new Head of Drama, Robert Love, had the idea of turning William McIlvanney’s novel character, Laidlaw, a tough, streetwise Glasgow cop, into a drama series. Negotiations weren’t too helpful: McIlvanney was convinced that Laidlaw was a feature movie and apparently Sean Connery did toy with the idea of playing him, and a film script was written.

But it came to nothing (Connery was just too busy internationally) and so Robert Love’s patience gave way, and he commissioned a talented young writer, Glenn Chandler, to write a pilot script called Taggart, which is still STV’s biggest success on the ITV network after almost three decades.

It is, many people claim, Laidlaw by another name. But few can argue against STV’s, Love’s and Chandler’s skill and devotion to making the series one of the great landmarks of UK television.

What was Iain Cuthbertson like to work with?

He was a very intelligent actor, with degrees from Aberdeen University, where he later became Rector. I enjoyed every moment of working with ‘Big Iain’ as he was known to his friends and colleagues.

Of course he had an input to scripts and stories, as he had done on Sutherland’s Law.

Some years later, after his stroke and his recovery, I wanted him to come to Jersey to play the good role of a French Inspector in an episode of Bergerac with John Nettles. At the last minute (well, a week before) Iain phoned me to say he just could learn the words. He was distraught, gutted.

So was I, but I remember pointing out to him that his health was much more important than any role in a television series episode. And so, some time afterwards, he came and played a delightful part of a Scottish Sheriff declaiming on a balcony (it was meant to be in a Scottish town, but was actually shot in Corfe Castle in Dorset.)

Iain was wonderful, and I fondly remember dinner afterwards in a fine hotel with Iain and Phyllis Logan also in the cast.

Were you involved in the casting of the supporting characters and actors, including Rikki Fulton and Tony Osoba?

Well, yes, I did suggest some of the supporting characters, especially Tony Osoba and Rikki Fulton’s gangster, Vint, and made suggestion over the casting of both.

Rikki Fulton was called Vint because a few years before, as a young, green National Service officer in the Army, I had a batman from Glasgow called Vint, who gave me lots of scares and headaches, not least by my discovery that he had bits of razored bicycle chain sewn into the lapels of his battledress tunic.

He was a tough little “keely”, but very entertaining. He’d end up in the guardhouse, and keep calling for me to come and get him released on some pretext or other.

I so enjoyed Rikki Fulton’s drama performances (does anybody remember his Russian in Gorky Park?) that he was cast in Bergerac, albeit as a fading Scots comedian doing Summer Season, his wife played by the talented Scots actress, Jan Wilson. One of the best Bergerac episodes ever.

I introduced a young side-kick, actor Tony Osoba, whom I had admired as a fellow inmate in Porridge, a West Indian with a Scots accent! I made him the son of a jailbird father in Barlinnie called the Rifleman, not because he’d served heroically in the Forces, but because he was an expert at blowing open safes and rifling them.

Tony Osoba as Hamish McIntyre - photo copyright Tony Osoba

Tony Osoba as Hamish McIntyre – photo copyright Tony Osoba

Also a pretty, upper-class female Probation worker played by Rohan McCullough, plus an old girl-friend played by the singer Annie Ross. I couldn’t resist calling the opening episode “Glasgow Belongs to Me”, and having Endell endlessly targeted by the Glasgow police.

Did you outline the six storylines to the writers? How did you choose them?

No, I only wrote my initial two episodes, then occasionally talked with either Rex Firkin, the producer, or a director, but I was in London at the BBC developing Bergerac (after Shoestring) and was never, therefore, fully free for an overall story editor role, nor was I paid to do this, though credited as Story Adviser.

Though, of course, I knew other writers quite well, especially Bill Craig and Alastair Bell, and we’d maybe chat sometimes by phone.

We didn’t meet to discuss scripts, nor did I have any final say over them. Budgie creators, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall were never involved. Possibly paid some kind of royalty fee, and why not? Apart from the first episode, I never attended rehearsals or casting sessions.

Charles Endell debuted on ITV at the end of July 1979 but a major ITV strike began within a week and ran until the end of October. Do you remember the strike and its effect on the series? Had it finished filming by this point?

So far as I can recall, only the first episode of Endell, “Glasgow Belongs to Me”, was shown on the ITV Network on a Saturday night, at the beginning of what used to be called the Autumn Season. There was lots of chortling about Iain Cuthbertson’s reprise of his character from Budgie, and the fact that, at the end, he was almost blown up in his hotel room, phoning down to Reception, and grumpily asking for a room change.

Production of Charles Endell, Esquire, then in progress in Glasgow, was halted by the strike. During the strike period until October, Rex Firkin and directors Gerry Mill and David Andrews continued to work in their offices at STV in Cowcaddens on pre-production of scheduled further episodes.

It is said that strikers called them “scabs” and that at least one director threw a typewriter through a window in his rage at the strikers’ attitude towards them. The typewriter crashed down several floors into a well at the STV building. The management were secretly pleased by this spontaneous gesture, but officially not pleased because they wanted agreement with the unions.

However, peace was restored in late October. What I remember was this: the first episode, was re-shown on ITV to reintroduce the series (wasn’t I lucky – a writer getting an almost instant repeat fee!) and the rest of the series followed.

Was it always intended to run for just six episodes?

I’ll never know the answer to that. So far as I’m aware the ratings were pretty good for a Saturday night transmission. But there was always a complete silence at the top-floor of STV about a second series.

Consequently, nobody was (even at a distance in my case) thinking about what the further development of the series would be. I don’t think that the eventual decision to not do another series was due to the budget. Iain Cuthbertson would have loved to do more Charles Endell, Esquire.

Oddly, I was told that Gus Macdonald (Programme Controller) and the STV Board felt that Endell brought no credit to Glasgow, with its seamy hero, local gangsters and low-life stories.

Also, it was claimed he was extremely peeved at a scene in episode three, “Slaughter on Piano Street”, in which Charlie Endell came to try and sell a young pop group, was rebuffed by a ‘Mr Izzard’ and came out of the STV building at Cowcaddens and started kicking the tyres of a sleek Jaguar with the registration “STV 1”, Gus’s personal, chauffeur-driven car. I swear I never wrote that scene.

In “Slaughter”, I worked in the names of my three sons and various nieces and nephews as member of the pop group, Blunt Instrument. Hence, for example, Charles Alexander Endell, Andy, Angus, Duncan, Sheonagh. Just a bit of fun for all the kids in the Banks Stewart family.

Did you enjoy your time working on Charles Endell?

It goes without saying that I enjoyed my involvement with Charles Endell, Esquire. The final product was a bit patchy in places, but there was always a pressure there over the budget. But I don’t think the failure to do a second series was a financial matter.

Finally, what about the theme tune? A forgotten classic or a disaster?

For some it was a complete and utter disaster, a daft cacophony. Cuthbertson and Izzard cooked this up on their own, but I think Dennis Waterman always had the edge with Minder.

Big Iain…well, he sounded a bit like a Saturday night, Glesgae’s-goin’-roon-an’-roon, wailer. But a great many people thought it was a terrifically original, not to understand a word of what Charlie was singing, and mostly off-key at that.

He’d never have been on The X-Factor. Or maybe he would? Not a classic. But not a disaster.

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One thought on “Robert Banks Stewart on Charles Endell, Esquire

  1. Great article and it now appears Charlie will get his DVD release, 22nd February according to Amazon. Needless to say I’ve already ordered.

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