FROM a TV version of his Bob Servant books to a thriller set in Ibiza, Neil Forsyth is firing on all fronts. Interview by Aidan Smith
Neil Forsyth has led me to a quiet corner of the Groucho Club and we’ve just plonked ourselves on some sofas when his phone goes. “Sorry, I’ll just turn this off,” he says, but then glances at the screen and his eyes light up. “You’re not going to believe this, you’ll think I set this up – look … ” The screen reads: “Brian Cox USA.”
Forsyth doesn’t just have the bear-like Dundonian screen legend on speed-dial, he’s a member of the inner sanctum granted access to Cox’s American number. There’s a slight pause where Forsyth may be contemplating his good fortune, since it wasn’t so long ago that he was working for a football fanzine which overreached itself with some disastrous diversifying into garden ornaments. Then he pretends to answer: “Coxy, what is it now? Sorry, man I just don’t have anything for you.” Then the two talk for real, Forsyth suitably thrilled that they’ll meet soon, for he does have something for his hero – the latest instalments of Bob Servant.
Forsyth has a new book out, a thriller called San Carlos, and we’ll come to it in a bit, but you can understand his excitement about the TV version of his comic creation, seeing Bob “your humble Servant” come to life. In Dundee. In Broughty Ferry, to be precise. Just around the corner from his mum and dad’s. Starring the great Tayside thesp himself.
Forsyth has written three Bob books: two collections of e-mail exchanges with the slippery chancers who send spam round the world and a biography. The funniest encounters with the spammers – including the Nigerian prince surprised to have his plea for money countered with a request for lions, and Olga the Russian beauty seeking love, happiness, a lily-bedecked wedding but, most of all, $3,400 mailed pronto via Western Union – were then adapted for radio with Cox as Servant. The writer, though, reckoned getting him to repeat the trick for TV would be pushing it.
“I can’t quite believe that the show is being filmed round the corner from my parents’ house in the Ferry, that I’m able to pop round to the set after my mum’s made me breakfast and annoy the crew by moving props and flicking switches – and that Brian is playing Bob,” says Forsyth, 34, who admits he’s been asked by BBC Scotland to avoid talking about the sitcom until transmission but just can’t stop himself.
“The Ferry looks sensational on screen and Brian is perfect as Bob, as I knew he would be. Right from the start, I fantasised about Brian playing him. Bob never had a face – in the cartoons he was seen from the back, hunkered over his computer screen in his bunnet – but he didn’t need one because in my mind he was Brian. I’m really chuffed.”
Forsyth’s most positive contribution as on-location pest has been to find Bob a house. “I was walking my parents’ dog on Christmas Eve when I spotted it. I had to hang around for a few hours until the owner came back so I could ask him if we could use it for filming.” His key input, of course, is as the writer of the six-part series, an all-new Bob misadventure.
“It’s called Bob Servant, Independent. There’s a by-election in the Ferry and our hero decides to stand. His campaign manager is played by Jonathan Watson and I must admit that at first I was dead against him. I remember saying to my girlfriend: ‘He’s a weegie – it’s going to be awful.’ I didn’t want Glaswegian actors trying to speak in Dundee accents. English viewers probably wouldn’t care but for Dundonians it would be just too embarrassing. But I have to eat my words. Johnny’s brilliant.”
Although he stops well short of smooth, Forsyth is engaging and confident, with none of the self-consciousness you often find in young writers, but then not many of his contemporaries have done a stint on lads’ mag Nuts. He makes no grand claims for his writing, but then he knows he’s making a success of it. And you have to remind him, after 40 minutes, that we’re in Soho today to talk about him and his new book, otherwise he would probably chunter on about Coxy and Dundee Utd all afternoon.
San Carlos is set on Ibiza and turns on the unlikely relationship between a sizable chunk of British ex-facist muscle and a woman hunting an old German from the war. Craig is being paid £180.75 a week by the witness protection scheme but when he discovers he’s worth £100,000 – the contract on his head after his evidence had put his deranged leader in prison – he’s only too happy to lose himself in someone else’s concerns, that of the Hungarian, Ana.
“I was keen to write a thriller,” he says, “but I don’t profess this to be a serious study of facists, old or new. Really, the origins of the book go way back to my childhood because all my family holidays were spent on Ibiza and from the first time I heard them I was fascinated by stories of suspected Nazis hiding out on the island.
“My grandparents bought a flat in the village of San Carlos in the early 1960s. This was long before Ibiza was fashionable and Franco’s police patrolled the beaches with machine-guns. There were no direct flights from Scotland and the journey, with a stop-off for a picnic at Ecclefechan, seemed to take days.
“But I loved those holidays and loved hearing about the ‘big fish’ – the Germans who’d swoop down to the restaurants ten minutes before closing in battered old Mercedes. They were rumoured to be Nazis and if you were a small boy with an over-active imagination that was good enough. I was soon carrying a list in my head of sinister-looking villas up in the hills that were most likely to be housing former SS.”
The book was interrupted by demands for more Bob Servant. Forsyth reckons he’s pretty good at distracting himself, anyway, and often goes back to Ibiza to write because, with no internet connection, he cannot waste afternoons on YouTube searching for classic Dundee Utd matches. He admits that, as usual, he found writing the female character a “challenge”. Later this month he marries girlfriend Rhiannon. “She’s a financial analyst. A posh accountant, basically.”
San Carlos is not without humour. Craig is a body-builder but he’s bullied by his girlfriend. He’s got all the bags for the trudge across the airport and yet she’s the one moaning about how she needs to sit down – “like you’ll pull a chair out of your pocket or the airline will hear she’s struggling and get the pilot to just pick her up from there”. But, unsurprisingly, it is not quite the absurdist humour of Bob Servant – which is Forsyth’s favourite kind, possibly because in his own life pre-books he was involved in a fair bit himself.
The son of a Ninewells paediatrician who grew up in a house full of Agatha Christie, Nigel Tranter, and Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner, he describes his experiences at Nuts as “incredibly humbling” for anyone with serious writerly ambitions. His stint in men’s glossies did include less boob-obsessed titles, one of which published the feature which grew into his first book, Other People’s Money, about the Glasgow fraudster Elliot Castro. “But at Nuts I had to wear a Nuts T-shirt on every assignment, address myself at all times as ‘Nutsman’ and get involved in the stories.” Hot dates with Page 3 stunnas? “No, I’d have to go three rounds with a super-cruiserweight boxer, that kind of thing.”
As a student in Edinburgh he ran club nights which could be fairly absurd. “One of them was called Gracelands and featured an Elvis impersonator. At midnight there would be a big puff of smoke and he’d descend from the fire escape. The nine wasted students who sometimes comprised the whole crowd barely noticed.” A considerably larger puff of smoke destroyed much of the capital’s Cowgate, ending that career.
Then there were the fanzine days on When The Hoodoo Comes, when the 14-year-old Forsyth would bastardise Roy of the Rovers strips, inserting abuse about rival team Dundee in the speech bubbles. “And things were going pretty well until the two great lads who ran the fanzine, Scott and Norrie, tragically over-reached themselves. Similar to those American investment banks they were left with toxic debt, although here we’re talking 200 Utd-themed garden gnomes. I often think of them driving home after that fateful game, glancing in the rear-view mirror and seeing all those gormless porcelain expressions.”
Soon, Forsyth will find out if he’s won the Spirit of Dundee award organised by the local evening paper. If he manages to beat off competition from Lorraine Kelly and the jute museum then perhaps he should dedicate the prize to these guys. Those gnomes didn’t end a career, they started one.
• San Carlos by Neil Forsyth (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) is published on 21 June.
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