BUNNETS off to Jack and Victor – aka Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill – as they bring their phenomenal sitcom Still Game to a live audience of 200,000 next month
Ford and Greg and Sanj and Gav and Jane and Coxy and Riley – meet the gang ’cause the boys (and one wummin) are here, the boys to entertain you. The cast of Still Game, the beloved sitcom currently pleasuring Scotland with its magnificent resurrection, have assembled on a roasting hot morning in Glasgow’s poshest hotel to talk about the astonishing 21 performances beginning next month at the city’s Hydro venue, a run that will see them play to more than 200,000 people.
How has this happened? Why did this country fall in love with a black, sometimes bleak, comedy about two pensioners – Jack Jarvis and Victor McDade – living in a rainy scheme? And why did its creators, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, decide to renew their friendship and working partnership after seven years of cold shoulders, wide berths and generally dingying each other? It is time to step inside the phenomenon.
‘Mad outpouring of love’ for show
Half-ten in the morning in the Hotel du Vin and a group of middle-aged actors are greeting each other with hugs and handshakes. Without the prosthetic wrinkles, the grey wigs and the charity-shop duds, you might not quite recognise them as Jack and Victor, Winston, Boaby, Tam, Isa and Navid but you can hear the characters, now and again, in a certain timbre of voice, and you know that here, in the firm-ish, young-ish flesh, are the inhabitants of the Craiglang estate. Scotland has fallen hard for this group of pensioners since Still Game was first broadcast in 2002 and that fondness has only deepened in the seven years since the final episode aired.
There has been, says Hemphill, who plays Victor, a “mad outpouring of love” manifest in the rush for tickets. Four shows went on sale on 25 October last year and by the end of that first day they had added a further 12 – that’s 160,000 tickets sold in just a few hours. “It was extraordinary, insane, incomprehensible,” says Gavin Mitchell, the Humphrey Bogart-lookalike who is transformed into Boaby the barman by the simple addition of a mullet. “Rod Stewart did four nights and he didnae sell oot.” Looking on amazed as date after date was added, Kiernan, Jack in the show, could only paraphrase Jaws. “Here,” he said to Hemphill, “we’re gonnae need a bigger bunnet.”
So what’s going on? This Still Game mania goes beyond mere popularity. It speaks to a strong sense of personal identification the audience has with the characters. If you live in Glasgow, or for that matter in Dundee, Motherwell, Greenock, Arbroath, Alloa, you will know a Jack or a Victor, a miserable Tam, a gossipy Isa. We are those characters, or we are their children, their grandchildren, their neighbour in the next close. The whole social situation – the way people live and speak, the rough compassion they demonstrate – rings true. The show is also, of course, extraordinarily funny, but the humour functions as a gateway drug for deeper resonances. Loneliness, poverty, alcoholism; Still Game has dealt with all of these and more, and its central message seems to be that community and companionship bring resilience in a post-industrial age, that solidarity with the weakest is key to the endurance of all.
“It’s a socialist show with a small s,” says Hemphill. “It’s about community, it’s about people helping each other, so therefore it is a socialist show but not allied to any party. Socialist in the sense that Scotland is a socialist country, I think.”
So, it’s a Jimmy Reid show rather than an Ed Miliband show?
“That,” Kiernan says, “would be fair dos.”
The referendum and Glasgow
Hemphill, who was born in Glasgow but spent much of his childhood in Canada, is a supporter of Scottish independence. Kiernan, Dennistoun-born and bred, is undeclared. The Still Game live show begins its run on 19 September, the evening after the referendum, by which time the result will be known. What do the pair think this will mean for the atmosphere among the audience?
“On that night, whatever happens, whether Scotland goes independent or not, a little less than half the room will be disappointed with the result,” says Hemphill. “So the show is about bringing people together. It’s about a reunion. It was about our reunion initially. And now it feels like the beginning of a reunion for Scotland after the referendum divided the nation.”
Would Jack and Victor vote for independence? Kiernan gives a throaty chuckle at this, seeming to enjoy the mischief of the question. It would have made a good episode, he muses, if one was Yes and the other No and they fell out over it.
“We’ll never answer that,” says Hemphill. They have always made sure Still Game avoids Scotland’s faultlines – football, religion, politics – so as not to alienate any part of their audience. “Jack and Victor are a mass of contradictions. One of them might vote Yes, the other might vote No, but we’ll never discuss it.”
Ask the same question of the rest of the cast about their own characters and you meet with similar reluctance to reply, for fear of headlines. Only Jane McCarry seems willing to speculate that Isa would vote to stay in the union. Mark Cox jokes that miserly Tam “would need to weigh up what’s in it for him”. And as for Winston – “Ye kidding me?” says Paul Riley. “Winston wouldnae get oot the armchair. Put his false leg oan and schlep up to a primary school tae vote? No way.”
The precise genesis of Still Game is hard to pinpoint, but it appears to have grown out of improvisations between Kiernan, Hemphill and Mitchell while they passed the time on the set of the BBC’s Pulp Video in 1996. From these, Kiernan and Hemphill wrote a few sketches which appeared in that series, with Mitchell playing a much more doddery version of Winston than in Riley’s later incarnation. The following year, Hemphill, Kiernan and Riley took Still Game to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, performing to critical acclaim but little popular interest at the Gilded Balloon. “The room held 120 people,” Riley recalls. “We got an auld carpet out my mum’s loft and we ran toothpaste through our hair and that was it. I remember Miriam Margolyes showed up and fell asleep in the front row.”
Still Game went on to tour Scotland and to play at a theatre festival in Canada before Kiernan and Hemphill continued to develop the Jack and Victor characters for the Chewin’ The Fat radio series of 1998 and the subsequent four series on television. Still Game, the TV show, spun out of Chewin’ The Fat, and although there was talk for a time that it might be made with other actors playing the parts – notably Richard Wilson, if you can believe that – it was filmed eventually for BBC Scotland under the auspices of The Comedy Unit, an independent company based in Maryhill, and ran for six series plus Hogmanay and Christmas specials, winning six Baftas. It is not just funny but important culturally; being a sitcom, it doesn’t get taken as seriously as it might, but Still Game is arguably as significant a portrayal of Glasgow as Oscar Marzaroli’s photographs or Archie Hind’s novel The Dear Green Place.
But is it just a Weegie thing? Allan Brown, author of The Glasgow Smile, a book about the humour of the place, sees Still Game as part of a Glaswegian lineage that includes, most obviously, Francie and Josie but also the absurdist whimsy of Arnold Brown and Ivor Cutler. He believes, too, that the “insanely colloquial” language of the show explains both why it is held in such high regard on the populous west coast of Scotland and why, in his view, it doesn’t really travel.
This question of whether the specificity and detail which makes the show feel authentic also limits its appeal has plagued and vexed its creators over the years. “Disgracefully,” according to former executive producer Colin Gilbert, it took until the fourth series before the show was picked up by the BBC across the UK, and only then after the titles of the episodes were switched from Scots to English. “That was so ridiculous,” Gilbert says. “This is a constant problem with Scottish comedy shows – the Scottishness as it is perceived. It was very grudgingly commissioned by the network, and by that time it was too late to get momentum behind it.”
What Still Game means in London can be summed up best by a headline on the leading comedy website Chortle: “The sitcom classic nobody’s talking about.”
The truth behind the Still Game split
Frustration over how the show was handled by the BBC nationally contributed to its sudden end, according to Hemphill and Kiernan. Sick of it, they chucked it. The split, when it came, took everyone by surprise. What was the reason for it, though? Rumours suggest everything from a business disagreement to a full-blown fist-fight. “Oh, it was a fist-fight,” Kiernan repeats with sarcasm. “No, we’d been together longer than the Beatles and we were in each other’s pocket every day of the week.” Their production company Effingee was growing and diversifying; they had bought a studio in Hillington and moved production of Still Game from Maryhill to there. “The truth of the matter was we were just too tight,” Kiernan continues. “The pressures were getting bigger and bigger and bigger, the stress levels were going through the roof. We were like a married couple in a sticky period.” They also wanted to explore personal projects – Kiernan straight acting, Hemphill the writing of a horror film. “So it was easy to go, ‘F*** this. Let’s part here and park it for a while.’”
There wasn’t even any shouting, they say. They continued to speak on the phone when business reasons demanded it, but the personal relationship withered. Years passed. They raised their families, worked on other things. Still Game, meanwhile, refused to die. The BBC kept broadcasting repeats; so, every day, wherever the cast went, the public kept asking them about it, demanding its return; teenagers, too young for its original success, dug it out their parents’ DVD collections, just as their parents had done with Billy Connolly LPs, and revelled in its couthy coarseness. The show itself, it seemed, was still game.
“I was at a snack bar in Hillington getting a roll and sausage and the woman serving me said, ‘What are ye uptae?’” Kiernan recalls. “I says, ‘Not a great deal.’ She said, ‘Well why don’t you dae Still Game? Come on now, get off your arse, you owe it to your family.’
“That,” he jokes, “was when I phoned Greg.”
In fact, they won’t say who phoned whom. The important thing is that a call was made and it went from there. The story of Still Game is the story of Jack and Victor’s friendship; the magic of this reunion is the fixing of Ford and Greg’s.
“Yes. You’re right,” says Kiernan. “Jack and Victor are pals, and people want us to be pals.”
Hemphill laughs. “It’s a joke,” he says. “It’s ridiculous really that two guys who write a show about friendship, about two great friends, f***ing end up falling out. It’s pathetic ... Everybody wants a friend like Jack or Victor, so to have lost a friend didn’t feel right.”
They gabbed on the phone. They went for a few pints. They watched the last two series of Still Game, getting themselves back into the zone, and Shane Meadows’ film about the Stone Roses’ comeback as it felt pertinent to their situation. They wrote the Hydro show at Kiernan’s house for reasons of “superstition, continuity and reverence”, the television series having been written round at his. As always, Hemphill does the actual typing – although now the words are thrown by Apple software up on to a 75-inch screen. They feel, they say, just as they did when they were at their peak. They thought at first that the live show might take the form of Still Game’s best bits, then there was talk about doing it as some sort of sketch show-quiz hybrid. “But it became evident fairly early that we had a story to tell,” says Kiernan.
The plot is so secret that the cast have not yet been allowed to take the script home for fear of a security breach. “I’ll lose mine on the 79 bus,” says McCarry. “Somebody in Castlemilk’ll get it at the terminus.” All that can be said is that it is a new feature-length story – two halves of 50 minutes each, with an interval. The rehearsal period will last for a month.
“The important thing for me is people are coming to a stadium,” says Michael Hines, the director of the TV series and now the stage show. “It’s not a purely theatrical experience, it’s a stadium experience. Because of the size of the Hydro, people in tier three are closer to Bishopbriggs than the front of the stage. So we’ll need to use big screens to make sure everyone catches all the nuances. The looks and expressions are so important. I want to make sure it’s a spectacle, but it’s still Still Game.”
It looked, for a time, as though the show would not go ahead at all. In January, Kiernan’s 12-year-old son died. In April, he lost his mother. Many assumed that the Hydro run would be cancelled, and certainly no one would have blamed him for doing so. It is said that throwing himself into his work has helped Kiernan stay strong, but he will not comment on his decision to continue with Still Game: “I’m not touching on any of that today. It’s too personal to my wife. I would never speak about it.”
Writing for the show began at the end of February, and there have been two “read throughs” of the script, the cast gathered around Hemphill’s dining room table, the first time those voices have been heard for seven years. “They’ve absolutely nailed it,” says Sanjeev Kohli, who plays Navid. “It’s possibly better than any half hour of Still Game.”
They are all full of nervous excitement about the shows. Weans at Christmas. Everyone expects a raucous audience, a sort of panto crowd, maybe a few hen parties, a wee touch of Rocky Horror with fans dressed as their favourite characters. “That first night when we step out there there’s just going to be a wall of noise,” says Riley. “They’ll go mental. It’s going to be like an Old Firm game but with everybody supporting the same team.”
For the audience, says Kiernan, it will be like being reunited with family who’ve been living away in Australia. Since the shows were announced, he and Hemphill have been offered “substantial fees” to appear as Jack and Victor in adverts and at high-profile public events. Reading between the lines, it seems likely that this included the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. But they have turned down the offers, the money, and have vowed to put on the make-up for the first time on 19 September. That is the night Jack and Victor will be reborn. “We want it to be special for the audience and special for us,” says Hemphill. It is a gesture of integrity and purity intended as a thank-you to fans who have kept the faith.
They are in discussions to bring Still Game back to the television. The Hogmanay episode of 2007, the last to be broadcast, ended with romance blossoming in the corner shop, Isa and Navid’s hands touching, their eyes meeting over a spilt carton of milk. Hemphill says he is minded to pick up the story from precisely that moment as if no time had passed at all. “I think the audience would adore that,” says McCarry, “and I know me and Sanj would love a wee bit of a to-do.”
Glasgow has changed since Still Game was last on TV, not least in its physical appearance. Many of the high-rises, like Osprey Heights where Jack and Victor live, have been demolished, and there was a nod to this when, in a publicity stunt at the same time as the opening ceremony of the Games, their faces were projected on to the Red Road flats, once mooted for demolition as part of the spectacle. “We were saying, ‘We’re still here and so are the flats’,” Kiernan explains. Still Game also ended before the financial crash, before the bedroom tax and food banks, and Kiernan says that if the show is revived for television, they might well touch on such things.
Jack and Victor have not aged in the meantime, though. They are and always will be in their mid-seventies. Part of the charm of Still Game is that the longer it goes on, the closer in age the cast grow to their characters. Hemphill was in his twenties when it started, Kiernan in his thirties; they are now 44 and 51. Everyone was young at the start, relatively unmarked by life, but as time has passed they have experienced some of the joys and sorrows that old folk carry in their bones. “I’m sort of taken with the idea of doing the odd special here and there until we’re 70,” says Hemphill. “I love the thought of us getting old and still playing these parts.”
Who could not love that thought? Still Game is made by Kiernan and Hemphill but it properly belongs, as they well know, to the people. And like the people, like the city, like the country, it endures and even flourishes. “Oor time isnae done yet,” Victor told Jack in the final episode of the final series, visiting his old pal as he lay in hospital. And it turns out – bunnets off to him – he was right.
• Still Game, SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 19 September-10 October, £45, 0844 395 4000, www.thehydro.com
• Follow Peter Ross on Twitter @PeterAlanRoss