NEW, improvised TV comedy Scot Squad has a mix of trained and untrained actors mining a fertile seam of funny, says Jay Richardson
‘DRIVING that police car is awesome, the respect you get from other drivers! I was meant to turn down a street but I let another car go in front. And the real police officer told me: ‘You should have just taken your chance, they absolutely would have stopped. Because you’re a police car’!”
A side-effect of shooting a spoof cop documentary with police uniforms and vehicles is that genuine police are in attendance. Manjot Sumal, who plays traffic cop PC Surjit Singh in Scot Squad, the new, improvised comedy from BBC Scotland, based on the recently merged Police Scotland, is taking full advantage of their presence “to get a sense of how they are and how they talk to people. It’s a great indicator for how to play your role.”
On a chilly morning at Boclair Academy in the Glaswegian suburb of Bearsden, the real law enforcement official admits that he’s just as pleased to be picking up an undemanding bit of overtime. Scot Squad features the occasional chase but today’s shoot revolves around a smashed school window and PC Singh and his partner, PC Hugh McKirdy, judging a children’s road safety poster competition.
Director Iain “Noddy” Davidson reckons his daughter might have contributed one of the entries. But that doesn’t stop him telling the actors to criticise the childish scrawls – even if for the next take he requests that they convey “disappointment”, instead of bluntly dismissing the crayon and collage offerings as “shite”.
Scot Squad is the latest series from The Comedy Unit, makers of Still Game and Limmy’s Show, and overseen by Davidson, who previously helmed Gary: Tank Commander and Burnistoun. Director of photography Craig McKirdy is a veteran of “blue light” documentaries about joyriders and inner city strife, and can happily share stories of “being chased by junkies”.
Yet this is creator Joe Hullait’s first time as showrunner and he has packed the cast with a mix of trained and untrained actors, with many, like him, drawn from the world of stand-up. Or professional wrestling in the case of Grado, who plays the philosophical PC McKirdy.
After shaping their characters with them in workshops, Davidson and Hullait only give their actors a loose sense of the scenes or a specific line to work towards instead of scripted dialogue, trusting that with enough footage recorded, they can splice together funny sequences in the editing suite. Predominantly shooting handheld for speed, flexibility and an authentic documentary look, tiny cameras are also fixed unobtrusively to the police car’s bonnet for windshield shots.
For Grado, real name Graeme Stevely, “who applied twice to the ‘polis’ but never got in, which is a relief now as this belt’s heavy and you get a sore back”, it’s a desirable way of working, as he maintains that “I’ve got a bad memory”, despite astonishing the crew between takes with his morbid talent for recalling the precise dates of celebrity deaths. “You only have the punchline to get to, so you come up with your own way of getting there rather than exact words,” he shrugs.
“Although you’re in the moment, this is very different from stand-up” ventures ML Stone, who plays phone operator Maggie LeBeau. “You’re not getting instant laughs from an audience and everyone needs to keep a straight face, so you have to trust your instincts. You only know you did OK when they shout ‘cut’ and the crew cracks up.
“I listened to a lot of absurd 999 calls, more because they were funny than for research. But because there’s no-one actually on the other end of my line, I have to make up all these daft dialogues in my head.”
Although this improvised approach is familiar from acclaimed American comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm and the work of Christopher Guest, according to comic Darren Connell, who plays wayward civilian Bobby Muir, it’s a “different kind of concept in Scottish comedy. We’re all buzzing because so few of us are established and it feels really new – there’s a proper sense of camaraderie.” As his character is with long-suffering desk sergeant Karen Ann Millar (Karen Bartke), most of the cast are paired in scenes, a notable exception being the show’s best known participant.
In his highest profile role for more than a decade, as Chief Commissioner Cameron Miekelson, Jack Docherty is relishing his first improvised performances to camera, “because learning lines and knowing where to stand for lighting is a real drag. It’s more fun to do a scene with someone else, it’s true. But improvising on your own, you don’t tend to go down so many blind alleys.”
Forsaking research – he was blithely unaware of his real-life counterpart Stephen House – Docherty credits uniforms with “giving anyone belief that what they’re saying is correct – fertile comic ground!” And he laughs recalling the scene in Scot Squad’s 2012 pilot, where the commissioner complained about a shortage of police hats, only for Police Scotland to subsequently mirror the incident in real life. “We can’t beat how weird life is,” acknowledges Bartke, “which really got me nervous for the pilot. But I’ve personally got huge respect for the police. We don’t want to mock them but the situations they find themselves in. Some of the humour is quite absurdist but some of it is very dry and I think a lot of officers ought to recognise the scenarios.”
As PCs Sarah Fletcher (Sally Reid) and Jack McLaren (Jordan Young) interview a school teacher about the smashed window, with McLaren trying to solicit sponsorship for his charity run and finding little solidarity amongst public service workers, the laughs emerge organically, less from what’s openly said, and more from the hesitations, glances, muttered asides and exasperated interjections.
For hapless volunteer officer Ken Beattie (James Kirk), they arise largely from him being abused by the public. But for rural cops Charlie McIntosh (Chris Forbes) and Jane McKay (Ashley Smith), the “dullness” of sheep protection, Smith suggests, is a welcome contrast to all the “Action! Action! Action!” of the macho shows they’re sending up.
“Some of the best scenes are the chilled out-ones,” Forbes agrees, “sat in the car, chatting back and forth”. His character’s apparent crush on his partner is “subtle, because it has to be believable for a documentary. But it’s a nice way to explore the dynamic between them and informs how he’d react in various situations.”
Certainly, this clownish squad are “proper police officers” Sumal affirms. “They’ve been fully trained in their roles. It’s just that they’ve not been trained in life, they might be vain, pompous or idiotic.”
Testimony, perhaps, to the show’s realism is that when the pilot was broadcast, a friend of Sumal’s thought he had actually joined the police force. “Now I’m wondering how I’ll react if someone appears to recognise me, then asks me for help getting their cat out of a tree!”
• Episode one of Scot Squad is on BBC Scotland tonight, 10:35pm
That should be the husband of a friend of Sumal’s