When it was first mooted that STV would run a four-nights-a-week current affairs programme, I remember telling producer Stephen Townsend: “It will never last. There isn’t a market for it.”
As I say ‘happy birthday, Scotland Tonight’, I do so whilst eating a large portion of humble pie.
I had been brought up on the politics programme Ways and Means (1973-86), had briefly co-presented Scottish Questions (1986-93), anchored Platform (1996-2003) and latterly hosted Politics Now (2004-11). I thought I knew our audience and what they liked.
Perhaps my scepticism was born from the experience of the BBC’s Newsnight Scotland – a worthy but dull four-days-a-week affair presented by the excellent Gordon Brewer.
So where has Scotland Tonight scored where other programmes have failed to hit the mark? In part, it is down to the presenters, John MacKay and Rona Dougall. They create an atmosphere that is serious without being overly earnest and never patronising.
The programme, although anchored in political discussion, has broad horizons. Presiding over the ten years is current affairs producer Stephen Townsend. A political bibliophile, Townsend has driven all of the set-piece current affairs programmes for a very long time. He will blush to be called a veteran but such is his experience that he is within touching distance of the sobriquet.
He sums up the appeal of the programme well when he says: “We came on air in the early days of the independence referendum debate and I like to think that we were the right programme at the right time. The guts of our format is engaging debate and analysis of the big issues affecting Scotland.”
Beginning with a belter
All new current affairs programmes like to start with a big interview and Scotland Tonight was no exception. John MacKay recalls: “On that first night, we interviewed Donald Trump, in the days before his presidency when he was just a Scottish golf club owner. The cost of the satellite for such an interview was extortionate, so we had a camera crew with him in Trump Tower filming ‘The Donald’ as he listened to my questions through a telephone earpiece.”
If you cover serious topics in a nation of hardened opinion, you will divide. My sense is that the mainstream audience appreciate the programme, although social media posts suggest that on occasion some are left infuriated by the editorial. Frankly, that is as it should be. If a programme is universally liked, then it is failing in its core function to stand above entrenched views.
STV’s political editor Colin MacKay says: “For a decade, Scotland Tonight has given the country a front-row seat for some of the biggest events in our history.” He is correct in asserting that the audience in the main are “highly informed and involved”. I know this to be true as viewers are never short in telling me what they like and dislike, what they enjoy and what they hate.
It is also a programme that opinion formers like to appear on and opine. Westminster correspondent Kathryn Samson told me: “Scottish MPs are prepared to stand on that freezing patch of grass with me until 11pm. Some MPs would literally run out after late-night votes in the Commons, arriving slightly breathless. Most would bypass network broadcasters to make their way to us first.”
Of course, it is not all heavy politics. Rona Dougall cites her most memorable interview as the one she conducted with comedians Greg Hemphill and Robert Florence. She said: “They started chucking water at each other during a live interview. I think I responded with ‘let’s fight with words, guys’. The crew knew it was going to happen, wish they’d told me.”
On the point about the crew, I pay tribute to our technical team and the behind-the-scenes researchers. All are thoroughly professional people and are, more often than not, the key people who make television work.
Scotland Tonight’s appeal lies in going beyond a narrow political agenda, important though that is. Stephen Townsend gets nostalgic when he recalls: “The darts legend Bobby George was a special guest for me. One night, he went out of his way to go into a London studio to share some hilarious and touching memories of the Scottish sporting hero Jocky Wilson.”
Sturgeon’s coming of age
Nicola Sturgeon is widely viewed as a top politician. For me, she came of age in a series of set-piece debates on the constitution. A number of Scotland Tonight specials saw her cross swords with Michael Moore, Alistair Carmichael and Johann Lamont, although the latter debate was described by yours truly as “‘a stairheid rammy”. It was an example of a programme that thundered but shone no light on anything. It also spoke to a TV truth that not all programmes execute their brief.
Recently, Scotland Tonight has premiered in a prime-time slot of 7.30pm on a Thursday. Again, I thought the decision crazy, but the impressive ratings have proved me wrong and demonstrated that our viewers are quite happy to leave behind soap opera for a delve into some serious issues.
For a commercial broadcaster to surrender part of its schedule to the serious when it could showcase an entertainment programme actually speaks to the fact that Scotland is a nation which loves debate. Scotland Tonight in that sense is a conduit of a national characteristic, that which loves to argue and question.
Here’s to the next ten years of argument and analysis. To all who have been a guest, thank you for your insight, but the biggest thanks go to you, the viewers. Without you, it simply wouldn’t exist and flourish. Happy birthday, Scotland Tonight.