The live version of sketch show Burnistoun sold out in an hour. Jay Richardson joins rehearsals ahead of the big night
If Scotland had a vault for its comedy heritage, I’d be sitting in it. In a grey, rained-on Maryhill industrial estate, a drab, inauspicious warehouse is where production company The Comedy Unit stores all the costumes, props and random bric-a-brac from much-loved television shows like Rab C Nesbitt and Chewin’ The Fat.
Tucked away at the back of the room, a vision of sunlight beams ironically through the gloom. A sign, from Robert Florence and Iain Connell’s recent BBC sitcom pilot, The Sunny, is a niggling reminder that their community centre comedy wasn’t picked up for series.
Not that the pair give it more than a passing grimace. Preparing for their hit show Burnistoun’s stage adaptation, which sold out Glasgow’s King’s Theatre in less than an hour, they’re revelling in their return to sketches. Despite having virtually no experience of performing live comedy, a theatrical return to the town that made their name was something they’d talked about even before the show finished in 2012.
“If we’d never done it live, we knew that in a few years we’d regret it,” says Connell. The success of Still Game’s astonishing 21-night stage transfer to the Hydro “wasn’t really a factor, beyond hearing from Greg [Hemphill] how much he enjoyed it,” adds Florence. A horror film director these days, he admits to a “nice feeling of fear” anticipating Burnistoun: Live and For Real.
Besides, he smiles, “if we balls it up, the audience will probably enjoy that anyway!”
Ensconced in rehearsals with the show’s director, Iain “Noddy” Davidson, there are occasional disagreements about lighting and whether Florence can enter this scene eating a Pot Noodle, “so I can get a free Pot Noodle”. But the affection and ease borne of his long friendship with Connell, which began in community theatre as teenagers and was nurtured writing on shows like Fat, is immediately obvious. Recreating their popular “Nae Rolls” skit from the television series, albeit with a thrilling new twist, it seems like there’ll be plenty for established fans to recognise and enjoy. As for newcomers to this slightly offbeat, fictional world, well … “F*** ‘em!” Florence chuckles.
“Nah, we’re introducing the characters a wee bit, with a bit more set up than we’d normally give. But hopefully they have enough within them so that people are able to get them anyway”.
Some of the skits are “entirely dependent on recognition, otherwise we’ll be introducing them all night,” admits Connell. “But a lot stand on their own two feet. We want them to be funny in themselves.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the frustration of voice-activated lifts or the delights of wooden pallets, there are millions more who’ve grown acquainted with Burnistoun on YouTube, which has swayed the pair to an extent about which characters and sketches to include.
“Luckily, the ones punters like are usually the ones we like as well,” says Florence. “I think partly because, as writers, you love the ones that people get into. There’s nothing we’ve put in just for our sake.”
“There was never an approach where we’ve thought ‘well, you didnae like this on the telly so now you’re going to suffer it, suffer it live!’” Connell grins.
Over three series, Burnistoun largely eschewed catchphrases and was unsentimental about axing popular characters. But there were “certain phrases and ideas that clicked with people,” Davidson says.
“Quality polis” officers Toshan and McGregor were obvious choices to bring back. As was milk bottle specs-wearing Jolly Boy John, whose crazed “For Real!” exhortations would appear to underline Florence’s observation that “sketches are more knackering when you’re not filming in a wee room and cutting between takes”.
Connell jibes that his collaborator is “just very fat”, with Florence snapping back that he “puts more effort in”. Joining rehearsals this week and sharing some of the exertion and insults, as well as covering for “fake beard” changes, will be returning Burnistoun cast members Louise Stewart and Gerry McLaughlin.
Jolly Boy was “written by Iain at about three in the morning when we made the first series,” Davidson reveals. “No-one had a clue what he was going to turn out like. Make-up and wardrobe were asking me what he looked like and I told them to ask him, I had no idea.
“Even when he was performing it, we had no real idea. But he just took off with the public after one sketch. When it came to the second series, the amount of abuse you got [motions at Connell] for having done only two sketches ...”
Indeed, such is the character’s cult appeal, that the unfortunate stand-up Darren Connell (who, despite being unrelated to Iain, bears a passing resemblance to him and wears glasses) told his namesake how he was on stage, poised to deliver a punchline, when someone bellowed “For Real!” at him. Meanwhile, “the older of the unrelated Connell cousins” is still inundated with “photographs of wooden pallets” on social media, in a bizarre, collective homage to a single, 90-second clip.
Yet while characters like Biscuity Boyle, Alex Ciderson and shell-suited philosophers Peter and Scott are versatile enough to guarantee their inclusion, fans will no doubt be surprised and delighted by the “late addition” resurrection of bickering ice cream van brothers Paul and Walter, last seen rolling into the sea at the end of the second series.
“We weren’t sure” Connell says. “But people kept asking about them and they felt like a natural fit for live because they’re so big and expressive.”
Another challenge is pacing, estimating how long the crowd will laugh and indulge them. Davidson recalls seeing Jonathan Watson in an Only An Excuse? show hold an audience for two minutes as his Frank McAvennie caricature Macca, never uttering a word, simply acknowleded the women. Connell fears being left high, dry and snorkelled if Jolly Boy fails to get a similar reception, “stood at the side of the stage screaming: ‘it’s no’ happening!’” But Davidson points out that they had to drastically cut material from a stage adaptation of Chewin’ The Fat to get it under time. “Unfortunately, we only have one go at this”.
“We could just go on all night like a Ken Dodd gig,” Florence snorts.
A whiteboard of interchangeable Post-it notes maps out the show’s running order, promising several musical numbers with the inclusion of folk singer Ronnie Dreech and the Kenny Rogers impersonators. Other television highlights, such as the daft denouement of the Barry Stokes accident and emergency skit or “Two Litre Bottle of Ginger”, with its rapid-cut, Hollywood action spoofing, are more problematic. “Everyone really loves it, it’s hung around forever but there’s no way we can recreate that on stage,” Davidson sighs. “We haven’t 100 per cent nailed it yet. But we think we’ve come up with an absolutely ridiculous way of adapting it.”
Limited time and budget mean there will be “nae jetpacks”. Yet the addition of two extra dates at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on August 28 and 29 might give them a chance to be more ambitious later. They may even include some of the new characters they’ve written for the one-off TV special they’re shooting at the end of April, set on a single Saturday night in Burnistoun. Having developed a female-fronted sketch show for Channel 4, they’re dismayed that its head of comedy, Phil Clarke, recently declared that the channel isn’t interested in the genre. “Writing sketches really gets you in the mood for them,” says Florence. “Comedy-wise, I prefer sketches to anything else and I’d be delighted if we could do a special or two every year.
Instead of wrapping everything up with this special, “we’ll definitely leave it open so we can do more if we get the chance,” says Florence.
Before that, he’ll direct his second low-budget feature later this year, a comedy-horror about “guys that think people are vampires” featuring the Burnistoun cast.
“I’ve been offered a film role ...” Connell casually interjects.
“However much money we raise will be spent on fake blood and his fee,” Florence admits. “The nice thing though, is that with him just being an actor, I don’t need to run anything by him.”
“It’ll certainly be interesting,” Connell reckons. “If I’m doing a scene and start getting director’s feedback, ‘do this, do that’, I’ll just be ‘right, I’m out!’”
• Burnistoun: Live and For Real is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow on Wednesday as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com