Interview: Why Isa and Tam are Still Game for a laugh

Still Game's Jane McCarry and Mark Cox, aka Isa and Tam. Picture: Robert Perry

Still Game's Jane McCarry and Mark Cox, aka Isa and Tam. Picture: Robert Perry

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Jane McCarry and Mark Cox have eased themselves back into acrylic cardies and sensible shoes to reprise Isa and Tam for the new season of Still Game. The pair tell Janet Christie about the long-awaited return to Craiglang and their friendship forged since they were students.

In the grandeur of the Champagne Corner Bar at Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel, a couple are posing for photos. She’s perfectly made up, her shiny conker brown hair flicking over the waterfall collar of her red wool coat which is teamed with skinny jeans and stack-heeled boots, while he’s working a grey Italian jacket, Tommy Hilfiger jeans with dark pink turn-ups and boots with a nap that looks as soft as a Weimaraner’s ear. There’s something familiar about these fortysomethings, but it’s only if you close your eyes and listen that you hear the unmistakable cackles and gleeful tones of two of Scotland’s best loved pensioners, Isa Drennan and Tam Mullen, of Still Game fame. Apart from this foray upmarket to publicise the show’s return in a six-part seventh series airing now on BBC1 on Fridays, Jane McCarry and Mark Cox, aka Isa and Tam, are usually to be found in the high-rise environs of Craiglang, haunting the stairwells of Osprey Heights, Navid’s corner shop and sticking to the carpets of The Clansman. Along with the original cast of Victor, Jack, Winston, Navid and Boaby, Isa and Tam have stepped into the bunnets, acrylics and wide-fitting shoes almost a decade on since the last series aired, much to the delight of, well everyone.

Jane McCarry as Isa, far right and Mark Cox as Tam, left, with the rest of the Still Game cast. Picture: BBC

Jane McCarry as Isa, far right and Mark Cox as Tam, left, with the rest of the Still Game cast. Picture: BBC

Written by stars Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan, and first screened in 2002, the show could fill Isa’s display cabinet with prizes. It has won Scottish BAFTAs for best programme, audience awards, for performances by Paul Riley (Winston), Jane McCarry and Sanjeev Kohli (Navid), and for the writing by Kiernan and Hemphill.

After the stars reunited in 2014 for a live show at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, selling out the 13,000 venue for 21 nights, another live show has just been announced. Still Game: Live 2 will open at the SSE Hydro in February. With the phenomenal success of the live show, the clamour for another series was unstoppable, and it seems the Craiglang pensioners are still game. This time round it’s on BBC1, at a more audience-friendly 9:30pm, showing to the entire UK simultaneously. If it’s a network hit, with audiences of a hoped for 9-10m, another series could be on the cards.

McCarry and Cox are delighted to be back. When they’re not on Still Game, the pair who have known each other since their student days at Queen Margaret College, work together on other acting projects. They’re a total double act, finishing each other’s sentences and constantly creasing up with laughter.

Still Game already has a huge following, being shown as far away as Australia, in addition to the legions of fans who have caught up with it on laptops and iPads, proving that the decision not to change anything to make it more palatable to a non-Scottish audience is spot on.

We’ve picked up from where we left off because you want people who have loved it to jump right back in

“It’s only Scots that have asked us if they’re using subtitles, which is funny,” says Cox. “Everyone else is happy with it. Nothing has been changed to make it more networkable. We’re excited that the rest of the country is going to get to see it. They’ve been missing out.”

“It could be anywhere,” says McCarry. “Cardiff, Newcastle, London, Cornwall. Anywhere where a community of people love and look after each other. It just so happens it’s Glasgow. Funny’s funny wherever it is.

“You’ve got to stay true to what it’s always been. It’s funny because it’s truthful. And at the Hydro the amount of people that had come up from England to see it…”

At this point she comes over all Isa in excitement: “ I looked out one night and guess who was there? Peter Kay! Sitting there With his pal, Paddy McGuinness. They came and had dinner with us after, said they were big fans!”

Still Game is funny, but it’s sad too, dealing with themes of loneliness, ageing, struggling for cash, managing to get through the day, all the while having a laugh, because well, whit else can ye dae, as Jack or Victor might say.

Still Game at its best is where you’re laughing and then the next minute, you’re awww... It catches you,” says McCarry. “It’s about that waiting game. Ending up in a home, or wondering who’s going to pass away first. Nobody wants to be the first to go, but nobody wants to be the one left either. For Jack and Victor, and the rest, that’s always hanging there.”

Cox continues. “It treads that thin line between comedy and tragedy. The stuff’s funny, the pay-offs, the situations, the build up, but it’s not so out the park that it’s far-fetched.”

“This is a funny thing to say,” says McCarry, “but I play Isa as if I’m in a straight role. Obviously it’s heightened and there’s comic timing but we don’t really play it as if we’re in a comedy, we play it as if we are those people in those situations.”

McCarry and Cox might only be in their forties, but they’ve been doing the show since their early thirties, and they admit less make-up was needed on this series.

“Looking at each other this time round – and the technology means it looks sharper too – I thought f*** me, you can actually see us ageing,” says Cox. “If it’s a success and it keeps going, we might end up being the real ages of the characters.”

“Being mid-forties playing 70s looks better than when we were in our thirties. There are things you can’t do with make-up: jowls and double chins, things that happen naturally,” she says.

The outfits haven’t changed though. It’s still beige jackets, tweed caps, cardies and jumpers and there’s so much static in The Clansman, it’s a wonder the whole set doesn’t spontaneously combust.

“Yeah, you never ask for the clothes at the end of filming,” says Cox. “It’s not CSI: Miami. We’re roasting all the time. And with my full head of hair, I’m one of the few on the cast who can say that, I have a wig on top then a bunnet, it’s boiling.”

“Yeah, and Isa wears a polo, then a blouse, then a cardigan – sometimes I can hardly get my arms in her coat,” says McCarry. “But you see people dressed like that all the time, so it’s spot on.”

So has anything changed while they’ve been away, or do we find the seventysomethings pretty much the way they were?

“It stays very true to what people have fallen in love with and that’s really important I think,” says Cox.

McCarry agrees: “We’ve picked up from where we left off because you want people who have loved it to jump right back in. Although we lost Jake D’Arcy (Pete the Jakey) which was a real shame.

“Nothing really changes in Craiglang. We’re still 73/4. The characters are the same and there’s real love, actually, that’s grown in the time we’ve been away. They look after each other, much as they drive each other nuts. And as a crew, we’ve got the same rapport. It’s everyone’s favourite job.”

So no-one has developed a back story, decided they had an earlier career as a trapeze artist that ended in tragedy and decided they must have a limp while they’ve all been away?

“No, Winston already has the limp well covered,” says McCarry. “Although I was always sure Isa’s son Colin was gay, and that was my wee fantasy of a back story, because she always wanted to be a fag hag. But in this series… well, you’ll have to watch.

“I feel as if they’re in a parallel universe, as if they’re all there. Like right now Isa will be cleaning in Navid’s shop. Like somewhere out there, that world exists.”

So is Isa still the scheme’s queen of gossip and is Tam still tight?

“Isa’s nosey, and there are loads of people like that. She doesn’t see her son, she lives on her own…”

“Loads of people?” says Cox. “Hmmm,” he laughs.

“Well, we’re all a bit typecast, let’s be fair…”

“Right.” He nods at McCarry and says, “She phoned me a couple of weeks ago and went, ‘Now.’ It was Isa to a tee, and she started telling me something and I thought ‘I wish I was recording this’. She was saying, ‘well, so and so and so and so’, going a million miles an hour and it was hilarious. Life imitates art, doesn’t it?”

OK, so does that mean Cox is as tight as Tam then?

“Naw.”

McCarry howls with laughter and says: “Listen, he’s very generous, with friends and family, would give you anything, but Mark, be honest… Anywhere he goes he’s trying to get a bargain, a bit knocked off.”

Cox concedes with a grin: “People say to me, ‘oh it’s Tam, you’ll be looking for a discount’ and I go, ‘Oh, OK, aye’. So I may have run along with it a bit.”

Seeing them as Jane and Mark is odd but you acclimatise quickly. What was much odder was visiting the purpose built Still Game set at the BBC studios in Dumbarton and seeing Isa walking slowly off set with her distinctive old lady gait honed from years of watching older aunties, then ten minutes later in the canteen she’s a blur of pink cardie, tweed skirt, springing across the lino in her wide-fitting shoes. It makes you pause and think, something’s happened to Isa.

“HRT?” says Jane, and laughs. Mark cackles at the very thought.

Not that Isa doesn’t have her wilder side, as McCarry reminisces to Cox. “Remember when I had the vibrator and I said to Ford and Greg, ‘oh no, I mean I could never see my mum or any of my aunties, no, I could never see that...’ ”

So what did she do?

“I just had to do it. Not do it, but … just find a way to make that work.”

More hilarity ensues.

At the Dumbarton studio, home to the show’s purpose built-sets, the palette is Seventies oranges and browns. Textures are acrylic and tweed and the atmosphere is warm. On set there are frequent outbreaks of laughter from cast and crew. In Isa’s hall the floral wallpaper is blooming, across the lobby is Jack and Victor’s flat with its retro hatstand, and best of all, there’s The Clansman pub. To step onto its slightly sticky carpet and take in the puggy machine, black and white photos, bar paraphernalia, all from an actual former pub in Maryhill, to see the hirsute mein host Boaby behind the bar facing a row of bunneted pensioners perched on stools, it’s like coming home.

But as the cameras roll, something keeps interrupting and prompting numerous shouts of “Cut!”. A drone is circling and ruining the takes.

“Dumbarton – if it’s not a mower, it’s a drone,” says someone. But never fear, one of the extras knows someone in air traffic control at the airport, and a call is made. Ruining the filming of Still Game? We cannae have that, dinnae worry. Minutes later it’s sorted. The drone buzzes off for the duration and filming resumes. Much as I’d like to reveal the plot lines and the more colourful comments on set, I’ve been sworn to secrecy. And this is one bunch of pensioners I wouldn’t like to mess with.

Since they cast off the acrylic outfits with the last Still Game series McCarry, 46, and Cox 44, have been busy. McCarry has been Granny Murray in CBeebies’ Me Too, and appeared in The Sunny and Burnistoun as well as drama short Changed Days, winner of Best Short at the LA Film Festival. On stage she was in The Guid Sisters with the National Theatre of Scotland and The Last Yankee, The Sash and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. She performed in The Cameo for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Oran Mor, was in The Steamie and Mum’s the Word 2.

She’s been a TV regular since the 1990s, with Pulp Video, when she first met Kiernan and Hemphill. She also appeared in Baldy Man, Para Handy, Hubbub and Rab C Nesbitt before filling Isa’s cardie in Still Game. She also loves her sideline of teaching, most recently at a multiple special needs school in Glasgow.

Cox’s credits include Chewin’ the Fat, which led to Still Game and, on stage, Dial M For Murder and Britannia Rules. A more recent focus on writing and directing has seen him helm the Brunton Theatre panto in Musselburgh. He has also done children’s TV including Woolly and Tig and Me Too, and recently appeared as a Glasgow detective in the third series of the BBC’s Shetland.

“We’ve known each other since 1990,” says McCarry, “and we have our own business where we do corporate gigs, and Burns Suppers. We did The Steamie together, and this Christmas we’re doing Beauty and the Beast in Greenock.”

But it’s Still Game for which everyone loves them. Although dare we say it, there are some who have had, on occasion, their reservations. Namely McCarry’s parents, who weren’t impressed by some of the post-watershed language they heard when they went to the live show.

“Well, they came to the Hydro and everybody from Still Game was so kind to them, but they were shocked by the bad language,” she says.

“It’s not particularly bad language,” says Cox, “but for some older folk…”

“Yeah, my dad never swore,” says McCarry, “He didn’t like swearing. They went to see Trainspotting too, the first time it was performed as a play at The Citizens’. With my dad being a train driver – he worked here at Central Station for years – they really wanted to see it and…”

Cox is spluttering with mirth: “Because he was a train driver…”

“Yes. They genuinely thought it would be about trains. Needless to say, they left at the interval. ‘Ab-sol-lute-ly dis-gusting,’ my dad said.”

Do their partners, Annabel, Cox’s beauty salon-owning wife and Robert, McCarry’s painter and decorator husband, never get jealous of the pair’s rapport?

“No, they’ve known each other for years too,” says McCarry. “And if we were gonnae be at the pumping, we would have done it at drama school.”

“Aye, the pumping would have been done and finished by now,” says Cox.

And once again McCarry and Cox are in creases. If they’re not careful they’ll ruin their swish get-ups. That fabulous red coat has to be returned to the shop after the photoshoot. It’s high time they were back into the acrylics and comfy-fit shoes and heading for Craiglang. n

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