Interview: Robert Florence and Iain Connell, creators of Burnistoun

ROBERT Florence is the dreamer of the pair while Iain Connell brings a sense of reality to the table, but when the Burnistoun writers get together, the result is infectiously clever comedy, discovers Jay Richardson

A chill February day and I’m standing behind the goal as violence erupts in a local derby between Burnistoun United and Burnistoun City, ugly shades of sectarianism emerging in a confrontation between a sparse crowd of rival supporters and agitated police, aggression escalating on the pitch and off. Suddenly the shorter, more irritable and oddly bearded of the two officers tangling with a fan, slips and tumbles into an advertising hoarding. The director laughs, shouts “cut” and everyone resumes their starting positions to shoot the scene again.

Iain Connell’s make-up is carefully reapplied as Robert Florence is hauled to his feet, his fake beard having absorbed most of the blow. After injuring his back filming the last series of Burnistoun, the pair’s rascally subversive BBC Scotland sketch show, they hired a stunt co-ordinator for a big kung-fu scene this time around. The safety expert is nowhere to be seen today though, through the course of this vigorous scrap at Partick Thistle’s Firhill stadium in Maryhill. So Connell and Florence must take their chances grappling extras in the guise of their arrogant law enforcers, “quality polis” McGregor and Toshan. Taking a moment to survey the ten or so faces behind him, director Iain Davidson suggests this “is the biggest crowd Thistle have ever had”.

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Initially aired in 2009, Burnistoun has established a cult following in Scotland and beyond thanks to millions of You Tube hits and iPlayer downloads, a succession of consistently funny sketches masquerading as the portrait of a fictional Glasgow town. From that first series, former Chewin’ The Fat writers Connell and Florence have conspicuously increased the pace of the skits until this, the third and final instalment. They’ve been refreshingly unsentimental about axing popular characters too, with McGregor and Toshan among the few survivors.

Relentlessly self-critical and wary of the clichés of the sketch format, their perfectionism is evident on the screen in the new episodes, which Florence maintains, with some justification, are their best yet. Connell is rather more circumspect but such amicable contention reflects their partnership. Ever the dreamer, Florence sees increasingly cash-strapped television budgets as an opportunity for innovation, drawing from a bigger pool of UK-wide creativity. “It would be good to see budgets coming down even more, and more commissions straight for iPlayer,” he asserts. “Anything that can be done to break down the regional structure of things would be a huge adventure.”

“I don’t support that statement,” Connell objects. “I want budgets to get massive. What on earth are you talking about?”

Performers out of necessity, they signed on even while contributing to Fat, a modest writer’s wage insufficient to sustain them. After Burnistoun’s success and a couple of decent but flawed BBC sitcoms in Legit and Empty, they’ve recently turned to producing, actively seeking out talent that has hitherto been overlooked by television. Artists, musicians and “people who are funny but don’t write, that we can encourage to do so,” Florence explains.

With a production studio in glamorous Possele, “surrounded by fashion designers and sculptors”, their company Bold Yin, founded with Florence’s partner Joanne Daly a little over a year ago, has already confused commissioners in London with its name. They have directed a music video for the band Proto Mamma and secured funding from Channel 4 for two projects.

Developing a vehicle for Glaswegian multimedia artist James Houston, who contributed visual effects to Burnistoun, the pair will also be delivering a pilot script for an all-female sketch show, Death By Sade, to the channel at the start of next year, everyone on the creative team recruited through Twitter and Facebook. A bold move for sure, they’re self-aware enough to spoof such fashionable networking in Burnistoun’s latest episode, layabout everymen Scott and Peter arguing the toss as to whether even the most inconsequential idiot should have an internet channel to share their inane observations.

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They’re also experimenting with open-source scripting. An extension of the online writers’ room convened by The IT Crowd’s creator Graham Linehan, to which they contributed, in April Florence invited literally anyone to submit ideas in the ambitious hope that they might crowd-workshop a potential sitcom. Although thwarted by the limits of existing software and niggling copyright concerns from the 40 or so participants, it remains a creative approach they’re keen to follow up.

Back at Firhill, a semi-naked Connell is reclining on a massage table when the attractive young masseuse asks if he’d like “a happy ending”. There are roughly 15 other people crammed into the room, including your correspondent, The Scotsman’s photographer and various other gawpers. You can cut the sexual tension with the lingering smell of liniment.

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With Burnistoun itself now ending, Connell and Florence plan to write another sitcom, one that channels their admiration for actor-director Peter Mullan’s capacity to capture real Glaswegians that nevertheless remain comprehensible to the rest of the UK. “A recognisably real Scotland,” Florence enthuses. “Neds is one of the best and funniest things to come out of here in the last ten years.”

Maybe they’ll make a film themselves. “That’s definitely on the cards,” suggests Connell. “We have the money at this point to do something low-budget.”

“I’m in the wish-fulfilment stage of my career,” Florence elaborates. “As a hypochondriac who assumes he’ll be dead by 40, I demanded that we have a kung-fu scene in this series. And I’d love to make a kung-fu film. A horror too, I’m certainly making that. With all the talented people, friends and film buffs we’ve got up here like [graphic novelist] Mark Millar and [comic actor] Greg Hemphill, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t be making cheap, fantastic, funny genre films, a wee cottage industry.”

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