John Mullin: Barney was great joy for Scots exile

NOT EVERYONE loved it but Barney – and his mum – were a great joy for exile John Mullin, who sees his role as carrying the message to the southern fastnesses of Cockneyland

Emma Thompson with Robert Carlyle in The Legend of Barney Thomson.
Emma Thompson with Robert Carlyle in The Legend of Barney Thomson.

Life, ladies and gentlemen, has a delicious habit of turning full circle. I was thinking this the other day when I had the good fortune to see a preview of Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut, The Legacy of Barney Thomson, which opened the Edinburgh Film Festival this week. Reviews were mixed, and The Scotsman’s estimable film reviewer, Alistair Harkness, was no fan. Me? I loved it.

Perhaps it’s because I live down south. I know, I know. Those of you who stay up the road view us Anglo-Scots as sell-outs, pathetically ingratiating ourselves with the English-folk to ply our trade. We, though, regard it instead as vital missionary work, keeping our neighbours on the right track while dominating the United Kingdom’s commanding heights.

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The price we selflessly pay? All the crap jokes, hundreds of times; each delivery an original, blinding shaft of inventive wit to its teller. They are less jokes, of course, and more casual racism of a type they would never dare aim anymore at, say, the Irish. But should we resile, we are accused, heaven forfend, of being chippy, humourless Jocks.

Whatever, as the kids might say. While living among our Cockney brethern, our Caledonian sensibilities are always heightened, and reminders of home are particularly highly prized.

And so it is with The Legend of Barney Thomson, a beautifully shot noir serial-killer comedy, as one of my chums from the posh papers put it. Carlyle plays a Glaswegian barber, a weak loser facing the sack, who unwittingly keeps bumping off his colleagues while a macabre serial killer with a sense of humour is on the loose, taunting investigative offices, led by Ray Winstone, by posting them body parts – including a bare bum – from across Scotland.

It’s a daft story of mid-life crisis, drawn from Douglas Lindsay’s novel, with plot lines you could drive a coach and horses through, and its fantastic cast – also including Ashley Jensen and Tom Courtenay – fails quite to mesh.

But there’s a great soundtrack, some fab jokes, and the photography – Hopperesque, according to the posh film reviewer – creates the Barras as a citadel of beauty.

Best of all, it has Emma Thompson. You might, dear reader, think of Ms Thompson as an insufferable luvvie, a bleeding heart Hampstead liberal irritatingly espousing great causes: human rights, women’s rights, a crusader against big supermarkets. She even named her daughter Gaia, for Chrissake, the Goddess of the Earth, in homage to her staunch environmentalism.

I am, I must confess, generally predisposed to dislike such types. Not, to be fair, because I don’t share many of these sentiments, just that I find wearing it all on your sleeve a bit, well, unScottish.

With ET, though, there’s a certain class to it – it’s unapologetic, knowing and often delivered with humour. She genuinely doesn’t give much of a toss what anyone thinks.

There is something to be admired in a star turning up to one award ceremony and protesting about the high-heels rules for women by throwing them over her shoulder, taking a large swig on the humungous dry martini she was carrying, and only then delivering her acceptance speech. Bravo!

She is unforgettable in Barney Thomson as Cemolina – ! – the hapless barber’s domineering, leopard-skin clad septuagenarian mother. Her loves are bingo, drink, fags and line dancing. Oh, and cheap coach tours.

Her patter is brilliant – the biscuit dunking scene is particular is a classic – and her accent is spot on.

She is only two years older than Carlyle, and they hired the make-up artist who created Voldemort in Harry Potter to make her look suitably raddled. And she does: it made me think of the first time I remember seeing Emma Thompson, and how time simply evaporates.

Three decades ago, she was also playing a Glaswegian, Suzi Kettles, the flame-haired temptress and thwarted love interest of Robbie Coltrane, in John Byrne’s brilliant Tutti Frutti. It centred on The Majestics, a rock band about to begin its silver jubilee tour of the highspots of Scotland – Cowdenbeath etc – when lead singer Jazza kills himself in a car crash while out picking up kebabs.

The Thompson accent then was more irritating Kelvinside than authentic Saracen Head, but any fool could have predicted a stellar career from those first moments on camera in Chimmy Chunga, a much loved pub – and probable spelling mistake – on Great Western Road. And I did.

This two-time Academy Award winner is half Scottish, of course – her mum is the actress Phyllida Law – and she likes nothing better than to take her family to Dunoon. We all love it when folk who don’t sound Scottish take great pride in their roots, particularly when they are stellar successful.

Take Julianne Moore. Her mother is from Greenock. It is my ambition to get the Oscar winner along to Cappielow Park one day. Fancy my chances?

Robbie Coltrane used to drink in the Western Bar, again on Great Western Road, when I was a barman there after university, working with my long-term girlfriend who was not unlike Thompson. He was such a good laugh, and once promised to re-build a Ford Consul for me. Never did, of course.

There is a whole column in the shenanigans at the Western Bar; Catholics, Proddies, the limping one-time ex-Raith Rovers regular, the domestic abuse, the triangular sexual arrangements, the snakes. And I was only there a couple of months.

One of Tutti Frutti’s great scenes comes as the band, on tour, find themselves killing time and watching a Gaelic recording of Postman Pat on one of the islands. They don’t have a clue what is happening, of course, but are nonetheless transfixed.

Jack d’Arcy – who can forget he was called Fud? – delivers the punchline in that scene, He passed away last month.

It’s as if part of yourself is gone too. I can remember watching him in 7:84 productions, as well, of course, in his role as Phil Menzies, the football coach, in Gregory’s Girl: “Ravioli, please, Glenna.”

Life has turned full circle – the young Emma Thompson playing Suzi at 20 is now playing Cemolina at 70, majestic Glaswegian roles both.

And the lookalike girlfriend I worked with at the Western? Well, she’s now the successful film critic who works for the posh papers. At least one of us made it.