We develop such a special relationship with our favourite presenters on the goggle-box and the old steam radio that during broadcasts it’s like they’re speaking only to us in a cosily intimate tete-a-tete. So when they retire the feeling of sadness is akin to a death in the family.
John Humphrys of the Today programme was the irascible uncle, the kind who at dinner would be very likely to start an argument while grace was being said – but first thing in the morning his rigour and tenacity as he, metaphorically at least, pinned an evasive politician under the wheels of the radio van until the poor sap answered the question would set me up for the challenges of the day.
But we in Scotland are soon to suffer a loss far more grave. When we bid farewell to this bitter and divisive year Jackie Bird won’t be around to point the way towards a hopefully better 2020. Stop all the clocks. Stop them around 11.59pm on 31 December. Cancel Hogmanay!
Bird has fronted BBC Scotland’s Auld Year’s Night shindig since back in the auld century. If Humphrys was the grumpy uncle then she was the whoop-it-up aunt in the sparkly dress, capable of embarrassing you in your teens with slobbery festive-season kisses, but who you’d eventually come to appreciate was a good laugh and crucial to every party.
Well, the party’s over. Hogmanay Live is to be revamped – it will probably get a name-change – and won’t be hosted by Bird. Unlike Humphrys who has gone willingly and was granted a long goodbye last week and one final opportunity to rough up David Cameron, Bird had rather hoped to stay involved, despite having quit newsreading duties earlier this year.
But she was only offered a ten-minute slot leading up to the bells in Edinburgh – “You’ll have had your black bun” as they sometimes say in the capital – and has declined. Now I can’t get out of my head the sad image of Bird trudging the streets on a broken heel, her carryout bag about to burst, as she peers up at tenements looking for a light in a window, flickering to the beat of Prince’s 1999, the year she first presented Hogmanay Live. Oh, and she’s got Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain propping each other up behind her as it doesn’t look like the trusty duo will be part of the new-look show either.
Maybe Bird hasn’t been your glass of warm prosecco these past 20 years. If that’s the case, then it’s typical of the complex relationship Scots have with Hogmanay. It’s summed up for me by memories of my mother looking out the Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine in anticipation of first-footers on that specially Scottish night of nights – and at the same time my father bolting the door.
Everything about Hogmanay is complex, including the black bun. It looks luxurious but after you’ve gorged on it you feel like you’ve swallowed a depth-charge. The idea of a gigantic party sounds great but before too long you’ll be stuck in a corner having zoned out of a conversation with a woman about schools – this is an Edinburgh party – but becoming more and more morose as you reflect on the year ending and the diddly-squat you’ve achieved during it.
For a long time Scots liked being viewed as unofficial world champs at Hogmanay, partly because our dear friends in England seemed to struggle with the concept. But when that status became official and Edinburgh started hosting the biggest open-air rave-up on the planet some of us thought: “This isn’t us. This rampant exhibitionism, frolicking in the Firth of Forth and all that, isn’t Scottish. Let’s get back to drinking an estuary’s worth of beer in the privacy of our own parlours then sleeping off the hangover while everything’s shut for two whole days.”
Putting Hogmanay on TV is certainly complex. As any film director will tell you, party scenes are tricky to pull off. The nightclub looks half-empty because not enough extras have been hired and when the party is in a house, actors can prove themselves surprisingly bad at dancing, though I suppose the glass heron figurines can be inhibiting. When the programme is live, the date is 31 December and the entertainment are pished, though, then you’re asking for trouble.
There was one notorious show, Live into ’85, where comedian Chic Murray “died” and actor John Grieve “corpsed” and a drunken reveller groped singer Maggie Moone mid-song. Actually there were quite a few notorious shows, presenting a portrait of Caledonia that we thought the rest of Britain and, by extension the world, wanted to see. BBC Scotland producer Iain MacFadyen was the master of these hoary heather ’n’ haggis-stuffed heuch-athons, earning him the nickname of the Ayatollah Hogmanay.
To minimise risk Grampian used to drape country houses in tinsel and pre-record their New Year celebrations in August. But, you know, I reckon Bird could have coped with one of those Hogmanays from hell. I can see her smiling sweetly while Tennent’s Lager Lovelies cavort with men dressed as Lee’s macaroon bars and a flying caber knocks out the foremost authority on William McGonagall just as Simple Minds roar into a medley of their hits.
Unfortunately I’m not going to see this. I’m not going to see Bird again on Auld Year’s Night and that’s a great pity. In a dignified farewell, she says she knows what’s in the re-styled show but won’t comment on it, simply wishing Beeb Scotland well with their new endeavour. Should the rest of us be worried? Perhaps. Much as I would like to be more like my mum, I fear I’m turning into my dad. Thus, not only will the door be bolted, I might have to switch off the TV as well.