Still game for a good slagging match

IT’S been another of those win-some, lose-some weeks for your actual contemporary culture. While Britney Spears was spied sooking on one of Mr Tunnock’s caramel wafers down the bowling alley in Coatbridge, another Scottish institution - Irn-Bru - tried to travel in the opposite direction to the pop princess’s America, only for Barr’s to find themselves barred at the gates of the land of the free.

And what of Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill? These tartan totems, stars of such Caledonian comedies as Chewin’ the Fat and Still Game, are having what would euphemistically be called an "interesting" time of it.

A third series of Still Game, the Chewin’ the Fat spin-off about two chancer-pensioners, begins this week. Comedy wisdom, with The Office following the example of Fawlty Towers, decrees that all the best shows run for only two seasons. More than that, after vowing to your correspondent two years ago that they would never, in TV parlance, "jump the shark" - basically, start to fancy themselves too much - the duo have got themselves an outdoor locations budget and taken Still Game across the Big Pond for Friday’s return.

We’ll come to the sitcom later, but potentially more damaging to the duo, if they were big, mad egotists, is that Hemphill, 37, is no longer the biggest name in his household. That’s a distinction now enjoyed by his wife Julie Wilson-Nimmo, better known to the world’s population of two-year-olds as Miss Hoolie from "Mo-eh", the Kids’ Hour phenomenon better known to everyone else as Balamory.

"I say to Julie that she’s Judy Garland and I’m James Mason, hitting the bottle while a star is born," jokes Hemphill (at least I think he’s joking).

Among Balamory’s huge pint-sized fanbase is their son Benny, and presumably this two-year-old thinks he actually inhabits the fictitious funland, waving goodbye to mum on screen just as she magically appears from the kitchen with a tin of Heinz egg custard.

"Actually, Benny punches the set when he sees her," says Hemphill. "Sometimes he hates the show. It must be confusing for all children to see Julie in 3-D form. When she’s spotted, the reaction is, ‘What are you doing in our park?’

"Benny doesn’t like this, he probably thinks the other kids tugging at his mum’s coat are going to take her away. I guess I’d be the same if I saw Robert De Niro in the park.

"It’s great for Julie because she had a really tough couple of years before she got this success. But maybe Balamory should stop now - no show can go on for ever, ha ha - and then the spotlight can shine on me again. I’m kidding..."

What a banterish fellow. And the pair are in good form today, albeit in separate locations. Hemphill is babysitting for Benny so I speak to him on the phone, while Kiernan, 41, rolls up at BBC Scotland in typically trendy gear.

What I lose in interplay is more than compensated by the slagging-off they dish out to each other. And the fact they’re a dislocated double-act gives me an idea: a test of how well they know each other, a Mr & Mrs-style quiz for Scotland’s top comedy duo.

A music question to kick off. What, according to them, is the other’s all-time favourite song? Hemphill chooses ‘Our Town’ by the New Country singer Iris DeMent for his buddy, and this is confirmed by Kiernan a couple of hours later. He guesses the right singer for Hemphill, but not the tune. "Greg’s big into Elvis and Sinatra’s my hero. We’re like Israel and Palestine when we argue about those two."

Favourite comedian is a cinch - Billy Connolly for Kiernan, Chevvy Chase for Hemphill. But a category which might be called "perversion" throws up the first dispute. Hemphill is spot-on for Kiernan’s: "It’s got be motors," Kiernan admits. "I’ve had a 100 cars and lost my knickers on too many of them. And I am perverse about them: every one I get I take out all the dings in the doors and fix it up ’til it’s brand new. And his is online poker, right?"

Hemphill says women’s shoes - not to wear or to lick, merely to admire. "The big bastard’s lying. He’s at the poker all the time. I’ll phone up and hear him go [mimics Canadian accent], ‘Er, no problem, fella - bye.’"

Lust object? Kiernan is equally flummoxed by his cohort’s choice of the actress Angela Bassett ("I’ve never bloody heard of her") but Hemphill correctly guesses Mariah Carey, then despairs at Kiernan’s lack of refinement. "She’s a fantastic-looking woman," he insists. Yes, yes, never mind those impressive lungs, what about that show-offy, multi-octave voice? "Oh, I can only listen to three songs. When she does that ratsqueak, I’m off."

Hemphill says he didn’t have a nickname as a kid, but Kiernan - "Ford Anglia" to his schoolchums - claims that these days he urges friends to call him "The Hempster".

A question about which possession they would rescue first if their home was on fire stumps Hemphill. ("He’s a hoarder - he’d break his back trying to clamber into his attic and burn to death") and stupefies Kiernan ("His poker table? I didn’t know he had one. He must be holding poker nights when he says he can’t come out with me because he’s babysitting.") Biggest irritation? Hemphill: "Ford hates me telling him to ‘calm down’ when we’re having a fight. We’ll be writing round at his flat - he’s lazy, so we work there - we’ll disagree on something, I’ll say it, and he just flips."

Wrong answer, according to Kiernan. The thing that most annoys him is being told he’s lazy. "Greg’s the lazy bugger," he says. "There has to be a regime and I’m the one who rings the bell. He’d stay in bed all day if he could. Wait ’til I get him..."

And there we should maybe leave it. There is no quarrel over Still Game, the longevity of those heroic old gits, Jack and Victor, or indeed the decision to resume their adventures in Canada.

"It’s a poignant storyline about Jack visiting his family," says Kiernan. "The show has always had a lot of pathos to it. But this time we did say to each other beforehand, ‘There had better no’ be any shark-jumping’."

The sitcom’s themes are universal ("There are pensioners living in crap conditions in every smoky town with a river running through it," according to Kiernan) and the duo hope a well-received Best of... compilation in England will eventually lead to full network transmission.

If that happens, Hemphill may then be able to reclaim top-draw status in his household.

And Kiernan will be able to buy his dream motor and swing round to his mate’s pad and invite himself in for one of those exclusive poker games.

Still Game returns to BBC1 on Friday at 9.30pm