Brian Ferguson: Still game? BBC must do more to create new shows

Still Game's  Victor (GREG HEMPHILL), Isa (JANE MCCARRY), and Jack (FORD KIERNAN)  are back. Pciture: BBC
Still Game's Victor (GREG HEMPHILL), Isa (JANE MCCARRY), and Jack (FORD KIERNAN) are back. Pciture: BBC
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It is Thursday night deep in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and away from the throngs of student revellers a clutch of would-be comics are taking some of their first tentative steps into the live arena.

As if that is not nerve-wracking enough for the dozen or so performers, the theme of the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club is “poetry, stories and diary entries of people brave enough to bare the souls of their younger selves”.

One of the first up on stage was an old university friend and former journalism colleague, Alan Muir, who less than six months ago decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy.

It was comedy in its rawest form and was completely compelling, even the tense situation of how to deal with a fledgling performer oblivious to the fact he has badly over-run his time slot.

The event in the Old Town basement reminded me of Kevin Bridges’ excellent autobiography, in particular the mixture of nerves and excitement he felt when he made his debut at The Stand in Glasgow when he was only 17.

But it also took me back to the last comedy event I’d attended, a week earlier, in a Glasgow cinema, when I joined the cast of Still Game, surrounded by several hundred die-hard fans, to watch the first episode of its TV comeback.

Still Game has been pretty much a phenomenon since Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill put their much-publicised differences aside to announce a live on-stage reunion at the Hydro arena in Glasgow two years ago.

Things have been snowballing ever since that record-breaking 21-show run, with the BBC commissioning a new series after a nine-year hiatus, the confirmation of a new live show in 2017, and the long-awaited return to the nation’s TV scenes on Friday night – which attracted an incredible 1.2 million viewers, some 58 per cent of the available audience in Scotland.

BBC Scotland – which has not had its critics to seek in the last couple of years, particularly among politicians – has been quite rightly milking the return of Still Game – Kiernan and Hemphill seem to have been omnipresent in the nation’s media for weeks.

But the return of the show is also an opportunity to recall BBC Scotland’s comedy output in recent years and to ponder whether the
show’s return could mark something of a turning-point.

It is fair to say BBC Scotland has failed to replicate the original success of Still Game, which had a five-year run from 2002.

Arguably, the closest it has come was with Gary: Tank Commander, which has not had a full series on TV since 2012, although Greg McHugh is about to follow in the footsteps of Kiernan and Hemphill by taking his cult creation onto the stage of the Hydro.

It appears to be pinning its latest hopes on the sitcom Two Doors Down, which features veteran performers like Elaine C Smith, Alex Norton and Jonathan Watson, and has seen its first series shortlisted for a Scottish BAFTA.

But as with its drama output, there is an inescapable feeling that BBC Scotland could be doing a lot more to cultivate new comedy talent or create new outlets for established figures like Kevin Bridges and Frankie Boyle, who spoke out yet again at his frustrations with the lack of risk-taking from modern-day broadcasters at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August.

While there is still clearly a huge audience out there for a feel-good sitcom like Still Game, not for the first time I am left wondering how a cutting-edge satire set amid the world of Scottish politics would play out.