Arts blog: City Lights writer on new show Maldinis

Gerard Kelly and Jan Wilson in City Lights. Picture: TSPL
Gerard Kelly and Jan Wilson in City Lights. Picture: TSPL
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Attracting four million viewers at its peak, City Lights was the first sitcom to portray a recognisably modern Scotland.

Running for six series between 1985 and 1991, and UK-wide on the BBC from 1987, it starred the late Gerard Kelly, as Willy Melvin, a workshy Glaswegian bank teller with aspirations to be a great novelist but little discernible talent.

Spawning two stage adaptations, popularising the phrase “pure dead brilliant” and featuring Billy Connolly as the guardian angel Boaby in a Christmas special, City Lights is still warmly remembered, despite last being shown on television in 1998.

Following Kelly’s death of a brain aneurysm in 2010, it seemed an opportune time finally to release the series on DVD. Yet despite a Facebook campaign, fans have been left to make do with bootleg discs or grainy, VHS-taped episodes on YouTube. Surely an official release is long overdue?

“It’s been a big disappointment,” admits writer Bob Black. “It’s just circumstance. City Lights was of the era before video and DVD broke big. DVD would have given it much greater longevity.”

Black, who also wrote for Scotch & Wry and Naked Video, is best known these days for penning the hugely successful pantomimes at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre, which invariably starred Kelly until his passing. Of City Lights – which also included Jonathan Watson, Dave Anderson, Jan Wilson, Andy Gray and Elaine C Smith in the cast – he maintains that “Paul [Kelly’s real name] had enormous likeability, he was very fondly thought of.

“But you could say that about the whole cast. It seemed to find a place in the national psyche and it’s gratifying when I hear people still talking about it. It sounds twee but people could trust it, families watched it together. As one of the first Scottish-based comedies with Scottish accents and very visible Scottish actors, it made an impression. I also knew that the truer it was to its locale, the more universal it would be.”

Now, he’s hoping for a similar reaction to Maldinis, his first sitcom writing for 18 years (cast pictured left). Starring Watson as Gino Maldini, patriarch of a café in a seaside town, with Dawn Steele as his put-upon daughter Anna, the BBC Radio Scotland pilot was inspired less by the famous Nardini clan, than Black’s own childhood trips to Rothesay and Largs, and his wife Antonia’s Scots-Italian family.

“It was that feeling of belonging I got from Friday nights at her parents’ house” he explains. “Everyone talking and everyone listening at the same time, that crescendo of voices.

“There’s a generational clash in Maldinis, with each feeling their Italianess a little bit less, manifesting itself in them being less interested in working in the café. The two threads of the family business and existing in the family are in constant friction.”

He acknowledges that his absence from sitcoms hasn’t been deliberate and that he’s continually sending out script proposals. He’s begun to think of Willie, the frustrated writer manqué, as “perversely based on myself, my antithesis – very loud, very outgoing, supremely confident in his own ability with very little justification.

“Yet it doesn’t matter how many blows he takes, he always comes back for more.”

• Maldinis is on BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday, 20 February.