Brian Ferguson: Glasgow stakes its claim as Scotland's cultural capital

GLASGOW is at the top of its cultural game right now, writes Brian Ferguson
Still Game on stage at The HydroStill Game on stage at The Hydro
Still Game on stage at The Hydro

Glasgow’s oft-repeated claim to be the nation’s real culture capital was certainly bolstered a fair bit this past weekend.

It takes something special to draw attention away from the Celtic Connections music festival in the depths of winter. Venues across the city were buzzing around the clock all weekend with musicians drawn from more than 50 countries and at least 30 events to choose from on Saturday alone.

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But as the wind and rain swirled around the Clyde waterfront on Saturday lunchtime, the Scottish entertainment scene was about to welcome its latest game-changing event.

When I took my seat, along with 12,000 others, for the premiere of the new Still Game stage show - the first of two sell-out performances in the one day - I still had no idea exactly what would unfold.

Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill had gone to great lengths to maintain secrecy over the latest incarnation of their comedy phenomenon which is played out on the stunning set of an ocean liner - more in keeping with a Hollywood movie than a quirky stage show born at the Fringe.

As the cast took their bow after almost three hours on stage, I was beginning to understand why the prospect of taking Still Game to the Hydro was enough to persuade Kiernan and Hemphill to resolve their differences four years ago.

Taking in the lavish feast unfolding on the huge Hydro stage, and wandering around the arena and its concourses during the interval, a few other things struck me. With tickets costing between £40 and £56 a head, the amount of box office income from the stage comedy from the 15 performances over the next two weeks will be eye-watering. Add to that the multiplier effect from the money spent by fans at the bar, as well as eye-catching merchandise stalls, and in local bars, restaurants and hotels and you can begin to see the real value of a venue like the Hydro to Glasgow.

Becoming the second busiest entertainment venue in the world is enough of an accolade, with well over a million tickets sold in 2015 alone.

But the nearby Finnieston area has changed beyond recognition since the Hydro opened its doors in September 2013. In fact, it is now regularly cited as one of the coolest parts of the UK.

Back in December, when I was trying to desperately trying to extract some details from Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill about their new live show, I asked whether it was possible to take on tour. Their answer was a straightforward no - on the grounds of the scale of the production. Frankly, it is hard to imagine the ocean liner set fitting inside many other venues in Europe, never mind the UK, a mighty achievement to mark Still Game’s 20th anniversary.

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In the official programme for the new Hydro show, Kiernan and Hemphill reminded their fans of the show’s humble origins at the Fringe, when they performed to an audience of just eight at the Gilded Balloon. With their new show, they have pretty much redefined the whole notion of what can be done with a live comedy show, as far removed as possible from the straightforward stand-up of Kevin Bridges and Frankie Boyle. They have also thrown down the gauntlet to the Scottish theatre world, with a show which deploys the venue’s full array of technical wizardry.

Bigger is not necessarily always better, but the sky certainly seems to be the limit at the Hydro.