Bill Jamieson: Still Game - born of misery but you have to laugh

Victor (Greg Hemphill) and Jack (Ford Kiernan) are making a welcome Still Game return to BBC - and this time its national.
Victor (Greg Hemphill) and Jack (Ford Kiernan) are making a welcome Still Game return to BBC - and this time its national.
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For thousands of Scots, Friday evening can’t come round soon enough. The beloved TV sitcom Still Game returns to our screens, hailed as one of the most watched Scots comedy programmes of all time. Popular, yes and certainly iconic – but a little disconcerting, too.

For those unfamiliar with it, Still Game triumphs through some of the most unpromising ingredients ever assembled for a laughter show. Bunnet-bedecked Jack Jarvis (played by Ford Kiernan) and Victor McDade (Greg Hemphill), two Glasgow pensioners, live out the evening of their lives against a bleak Clydeside landscape of high rise council flats, amid litter-strewn scrubland that is Craiglang (Maryhill), the local shops struggle to survive.

Their favourite haunt, The Clansman pub, has defied modernity. Its regulars are beyond depressing. Here Boabby the barman pours barbs and heavy sarcasm with every pint. In the corner shop Navid battles with a barrage of untranslated Punjabi imprecations from his wife Meena behind the plastic strip curtain. Isa, an ever- present customer, collects gossip like abandoned litter and relays it just as liberally.

Winston, in between trips to the pub and the betting shop, pops in to girn and grumble. Like so many characters in Still Game, he seems trapped in unrelieved bitterness and misery.

The humour throughout is gallus – though gallows might be a better description. The settings and the situation of the characters are beyond depressing.

So what on earth explains the popularity of Still Game? How has it come to enjoy a mass TV audience (and now network coverage), with tickets for preview screenings sold out weeks in advance? Who could look on the Still Game settings and characters as in any way capable of generating laughter?

Yet the show’s plus points are beyond legion and global Scots celebrities, including it is said, Sir Sean Connery, have expressed an enthusiasm to feature in it.

Scottish life is portrayed with acute and pitiless observation. And its characters are as true to life as any featured in those unsparing, “gritty” docu-dramas.

Is there a family in Scotland where a Jack or Victor does not feature prominently? Who has not bumped into a Winston in the past week or felt his walking stick jabbed into our foot? Is there a corner shop without a gossip-broadcasting Isa, a human listening-device as acute as anything out of MI5? Or been in a down-at-heel pub where Boabby the barman holds sway as the world-weary, seen-it-all host?

Still Game is one of the most affectionate – but also brutal - depictions of Scottish life on TV today. A cheerful miserablism abounds. The script may seem to comprise effortless banter. It is a script thoroughly well written and pitched.

Yet there is an alter ego to all of this. Still Game may get the laughs for the humour of downbeat perseverance. But is it not also a comedy of defeat? It is the opposite of aspiration and of the ambition and hunger for betterment that has long eaten at the heart of our national life.

Now it has to be said that with Jack and Victor the game is as good as up. They are well into pension age. Their best days are over and across most of those days the economic tide of Craiglang was going out. What hopes and dreams they shared looked to have been borne away like jetsam in those oily, ebbing waters. And looking at the Clansman regulars, the notion of upgrading and refurbishment would be about as welcome as an alien invasion. Boabby serving in a gastro pub with healthy vegetarian options and special menus of gluten-free fayre?

Much of Still Game’s deeper humour lies in this half-built, forlorn development between what were once our ambitions and what we have gamely settled for.

Other charges can be levelled at Still Game. It is the comedy of stereotype, and one that rests on the critical complacency of viewers to settle for this as a fair depiction. Is this how we wish to be portrayed? Or does it reveal a complacency about our national depiction and a defeatist acceptance of our national lot – a subliminal cultural cringe?

Yet here we have a sitcom that is an indisputable triumph with viewers. It draws huge audiences. In its last TV series showings, Still Game was trouncing rivals being shown at the same time such as The Catherine Tate Show and Steve Coogan’s Saxondale with 300,000 and 700,000 more viewers respectively.

And far from fading since its first outing 14 years ago, it is more popular than ever. The pull of its endearment has grown. It continues to draw huge audiences - including the stage show - while much recent media commentary has focused on dearth of sitcom idea and lacklustre shows. A marked feature of late has been the national retreat into the formulaic successes of yesteryear - retro make-overs of Are You Being Served and the even more dated Till Death Us Do Part.

There are some outstanding exceptions to this rule though sadly not many: Twenty Twelve, the spoof docu-satire on the Olympic Games Authority featured Hugh Bonneville, with Jessica Hynes (the gormless jargon-spouting Siobhan Sharpe) as “Head of Brand before equally funny W1A. Another notable success – though despised by some critics - is Mrs Brown’s Boys which broke new ground with its live camera mishaps.

here is nothing about Still Game that sounds anything other than a loud chord being struck on the heart-strings of viewers, and the fact that the new series is being shown across the BBC UK network is testimony to the confidence of the broadcaster in its appeal well beyond Scotland.

Still Game is still a national treasure and mirthful insight into our national psyche. For all the misgivings about its darker side, to say that I am a fan would be an under-statement. So, please, no phone calls this Friday evening. I’m undertaking important research into contemporary culture. Oh, and Boabby, ane o’ thae pies.

Still Game starts on BBC One, Fri 7 Oct, 9.30pm.