Govan’s honest chancer, Rab C Nesbitt, can still hold his own among shows as good as latest hit Guilt and it would be interesting to hear his take on politicians like Nicola Sturgeon, Boris Johnson and the rest, writes Aidan Smith.
Imagine we were putting a time capsule in the cold, hard ground, burying items which would tell future generations who we were and what we were about, and there was room next to one of Andy Murray’s old sweatbands and our wee parliament in a snowglobe for a recording of a telly show. What should it be?
Should it be Guilt, the comedy-drama which has just concluded to great critical acclaim, or should it be the Govan guttersnipe, the string-vested sage, the loquacious layabout, the demented dispenser of philosophy-on-a-Giro, Rab C. Nesbitt?
Admittedly ranting Rab isn’t on TV just now and he hasn’t been since the first days of 2014. But Gregor Fisher, who first played Nesbitt as far back at 1986, says a comeback has been mooted.
“I don’t want to barge into this and neither does anybody else but, yes, there’s talk,” he said in an interview the other day. “There are a lot of people involved. The ingredients are being discussed. The cake has not yet been mixed and the oven isn’t lit, but we talk. Gently.”
So, if Rab was back on the box, and not so much baking his opinions at a low heat as ramming them into the deep-fat frier, then how would he fare next to Guilt, which has had Britain’s pre-eminent TV dramatist Jed Mercurio raving about it, and what would he have to say about south-west Glasgow and the world in late 2019?
I would love to hear one of our greatest comic creations on Prince Andrew, snowflakes, driverless buses, Meghan Markle, flood-zone housing developments, his city’s Imelda Marcos, Fortnite, transgenderism, foodbanks, just about anything, really – and of course I’d be fascinated to know what he thinks about Boris Johnson.
Nesbitt emerged in the Thatcher Years when Maggie was viewed as no friend of Scotland, those who worked in its traditional industries and those who ran a thousand miles from a day’s honest graft.
Rab believed he could best serve the country by articulating the Scottish condition as it appeared to him through the bottom of an electric soup bottle, exposing little injustices and fingering giant roasters.
He spoke up for the ordinary Joe or Jock, the marginalised, the dispossessed. And what’s more he used their language, legitimising patterful Scots slang, sending it far and wide. That he had England’s Home Counties wondering, “What do you think ‘podgering’ might be, Miriam?”, makes me laugh even now.
Rab would say to his best pal: “We’re just scum, eh Jamesie?” Except he wasn’t. He was an honest chancer, more or less. He was a family man, more or less. He believed in society when Thatcher didn’t or he certainly believed in his strata of it. A friend working in London at the time of “peak Nesbitt” told me how Thatcher’s children – braying loadsamoney whizzes – would shout Nesbitt’s “Ah’m tellin’ yooz!” catchphrase at Underground station beggars whether they were Scottish or not. The same twerps would also roar it at Fisher during the actor’s live turns as Rab, accessorising their city suits with scabby headbands and dirty plimsolls.
The ‘dramedy’ of Guilt
But Rab’s pomp were those pre-Parliament years when Scotland struggled to be heard and his outpourings were the comedic articulation of that frustration.
He’s not going to have the same impact this time around when he could squint quizzically at our First Minister and aver: “That’s a Mary Doll hairstyle you’ve got there, by the way.”
What would be Nesbitt’s milieu this time around? Would he still be wearing the string-vest et al? These and other challenges await Rab’s Dr McFrankenstein, writer Ian Pattison, who will know that The Likely Lads is just about the only half-hour comedy which improved with age after a long time away.
Nesbitt also pre-dates BBC Scotland’s own channel. In the face of near weekly suggestions from a tartan edition of a London tabloid that it should stop being so silly and confident and aspirational and shut up shop, it keeps going.
Guilt has been its best original work to date, the “dramedy” of two brothers involved in a hit-and-run who fell foul of money-launderers and the most fiendish curtain-twitcher in all of suburbia.
Nominally set in Leith, the series was for a large part filmed in East Kilbride which, weirdly, gave it a Scandi feel. Mark Bonnar played Max, by far the most successful of the siblings and the owner, he liked to point out, of a four-car garage.
He wore turtleneck jumpers, seemingly one size smaller every episode, as if to emphasise how his options narrowed down to nothing. The other brother Jake (Jamie Sives) ran a record shop. In the spirit of the New Musical Express’s Lone Groover, he believed there was still some validity to pronouncements like: “The thing about Roxy Music is they could have been bigger than the Beatles.” (There is and they could have been).
Watching with my wife, I tried to claim some validity for the pronouncement that I knew Sives when he was nothing, or rather I interviewed him when he got his first break. But she trumped me: “Before you, I went out with Mark’s brother.” Both Bonnar and Sives were brilliant and here’s something else I loved about Guilt: it could do sex and death. These have been tricky areas for Scottish-made programmes in the past. Bodies which tumble convincingly – down gullies or in this case over car bonnets, onto beds in the throes of passion – have proved beyond them. But Neil Forsyth’s yarn was up to both tasks.
Neither Jake or Max died in the end so could we have a second series, please? At the very least Guilt proves that in this terrific era of grown-up, twisty, clever television, Scotland can be a player. And there can yet be room for the return of Rab.