Why Jack and Victor are hanging up the cardigans
Relaxing on a teal velveteen banquette in the bar of Glasgow’s boutique Everyman cinema, Still Game creators and actors Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill look right at home. Divested of their bunnet and cardie combos the pair obviously look decades younger than their curmudgeonly Jack and Victor counterparts, Hemphill in a blue open-necked shirt and jeans and Kiernan in mustard jumper and cords, gold jewellery at neck, wrists and fingers, and they’re way more cheery than their characters. We’re not in The Clansman anymore.
While Jack and Victor haven’t aged beyond their 70s because of Still Game’s floating timeline, despite appearances Kiernan and Hemphill are pointing out that they have. After 21 years playing Jack Jarvis and Victor McDade, fictional pensioners in the Glasgow suburb of Craiglang, from stage version through sketch show Chewin’ the Fat, to BBC Scotland sitcom, they’ve announced that the current series of the pair’s Bafta award winning show will be the last.
Osprey Heights, the corner shop, the pub, have been a fixture in our sitting rooms since 2002 as the nation came to love not just Jack and Victor, but Navid, Isa, Tam, Winston, Boaby and the rest of the ensemble cast. And not just this nation – the last series went global thanks to an international audience of expats and non expats alike who appreciate the patter. This time it’s going out on the new BBC Scotland digital channel which launches on Sunday 24 February, a fitting swan song for the nation’s best loved sitcom.
So, nine series, 17 years on TV and three live Hydro shows, is it really a case of “That’s plenty” (to quote Victor when Jack’s in danger of running away at the mouth).
“We couldn’t have done another four or five years,” says Kiernan.
“No, we couldn’t,” echoes Hemphill.
“Ford was in his early thirties and I was in my late twenties at the start and one of the most important elements was that we were young people playing old people, so as we get closer to their age…”
“Yeah, but they’re still 20 years aulder than us at the minute,” points out Kiernan.
“I’m looking forward to 20 years’ time, somebody asks us to do a Jack and Victor photoshoot and we don’t require make-up. And we both have to lose five stone each,” says Hemphill, and laughs.
Like the best double acts, they answer questions in tandem, comedy timing honed.
Although sometimes it’s derailed by laughter because Hemphill and Kiernan don’t just WRITE comedy, in person they are funny, with a gift of the gab that makes everyone around laugh, not least themselves. Hemphill in particular has an infectious, wheezy Muttley laugh that is abetted by Kiernan’s rubber-faced gurning. Growlier of voice, Kiernan sneaks out his vape for the occasional puff, while Hemphill, a Scot who grew up in Canada, has a barely discernible transatlantic breeze drifting over certain vowels.
It’s not that they couldn’t have written more, “you go oh, I had a good idea for Jack and Victor, but we’re no’ doing it.
“We were determined we didn’t want to outstay our welcome,” says Hemphill. “You want to ‘leave on a parrrdee’, you don’t want to be the last person there, steaming, going ‘where’s everybody GOIN’?’”
“Oh, I don’t know what that’s like,” says Ford, prompting Hemphill’s laugh.
“Oh, the shudder,” he says.
“The shudder of recognition,” says Kiernan.
Their method is to meet up every day when they’re writing, and they’ve stuck with it over the years and 62 episodes, because it works.
“One of the things we DON’T do is re-write what the other’s written. Every single line of dialogue we’ve ever written, we’ve written...
“Together,” they say simultaneously.
“Physically sitting together over a laptop, that’s how it works.”
Back in 2007 the pair took a nine year hiatus from Still Game, after the strains of writing back-to-back series became too much, returning in 2014 with a live stage show at the Hydro, then another TV series in 2016. Today they don’t regret the gap.
“It was kismet,” says Kiernan. “One thing wouldnae exist without the other if that hadn’t happened.”
“Exactly,” says Hemphill. “We wouldn’t have had the Hydro if we hadn’t had the gap.”
OK, Still Game is ending, it’s time to get the details on its demise. Are Jack, Victor, Isa, Tam, Winston, Boaby, any of the ensemble cast, about to be killed off? Will there be a Tarantino-style bloodbath in The Clansman? A lachrymose sobfest as one of the regulars moves into a home, or a lottery win that sees the Osprey Heights residents skip off to enjoy an even higher life? And will Isa finally get to grips with Winston?
“Can’t say. Nope,” says Kiernan, tight lipped.
“Can’t say,” says Hemphill. “Too much of a spoiler.”
OK, what can they say?
“We’ll be tying up loose ends and when you’ve watched it there will be an end point in your head,” says Hemphill carefully.
Will there be any deaths?
“Can’t tell you. There was a lot of speculation about that last series and it’s no coincidence that [Iain Duncan] Sheathing the undertaker arrived. And there are other things you want to tie up,” says Hemphill.
“LOVE to tell you, but naw, you just need to sit and wait like everybody else.”
There’s no air of sadness or of pulling the plug today, as the pair explain it was always the plan to end after the last two series, despite the fact its viewing figures of 1.4m last year was the biggest TV audience in Scotland, ahead of the likes of The Bodyguard, Strictly Come Dancing and the World Cup.
Hemphill says: “The BBC spoke to us about doing more and we said we’ll do it if these can be the last. We’ve been doing these characters since the mid ‘90s.”
“We felt the time was right,” says Kiernan. “The BBC would rather we stayed because of the ratings, but we said no, that’s how we’d like to do it. And the great thing is you know you’re heading towards the end, and can wind stories up.”
“So it’s not coming as so much of a crash,” says Hemphill. “It wasn’t emotional on set because we shot them out of sync. We have to finish it in theatre too – that’s why we’re doing the Hydro in September, and that’s the last time you’ll see Victor and Jack in character. That’s when we’ll be saying goodbye and getting that buzz.”
“Tickets are still available for that by the way,” says Kiernan.
“Although, when we finished writing it and closed the laptop for the last time, we did both reflect. We were like ‘oooh!’” says Hemphill.
“Yeah, ‘there we go, that was that’,” says Kiernan.
“And it was a nice moment... a nice moment,” continues Hemphill. “You wanted to mark it with a dram or something.”
And did they?
“Probably. We mark most moments with drams!” he says.
Integral to Still Game’s success is authenticity and the way it engenders recognition. Poverty, loneliness, illness aren’t given house room, though we know they’re there. Instead the comedy majors on making the most of it, celebrating the positives of community and having a laugh.
Craiglang might not exist, but in the collective consciousness the world of beefy bakes and dial-a-buses is familiar; Navid’s shop, Osprey Heights with Isa’s bird-print wallpaper, The Clansman with its sticky red and yellow abstract ‘70s carpet, puggy machine, £2 toasties and pints of Fusilier, or if you’re pushing the boat out, a Cointreau for £1.85.
Speaking of the tangible details, did they take mementos from the set?
“Yes, I took Victor’s nameplate from his flat,” says Hemphill, “oh, and a lighthouse jigsaw.”
“I took the accounts,” says Kiernan.
Despite turning down other jobs because of the demands of Still Game – opportunities they can now explore – there were compensations in writing everyman characters.
“While part of you wants to go off and do other things, you don’t need to, because these characters can speak about anything; they’re a vehicle. We didn’t dwell on things like Brexit or Scottish independence, but they could have,” says Hemphill.
“We avoided religion, football and politics,” says Kiernan “only because of the opportunities for sub-division in the audience. If it’s football, unfortunately it’s a divided support, politics the same, religion too. We thought we’ll just avoid them. Some people might say ‘that’s madness, what are ye gonna write aboot?’ but look at the amount we’ve done and never got near them. Just proves if you want a good laugh you don’t need to go into those areas to get it.”
“The show isn’t about the differences people have, it’s about their commonalities,” Hemphill emphasises and talks about one of the new episodes where Victor and Jack get mobile phones. Needless to say, Isa is already all over social media while Navid’s wife has her own special interest too.
“There was just the sheer joy of these two people having a conversation with each other from the landing to the living room. Anybody who has a phone has done that. What’s funny is how much they’re enjoying it, rather than slagging them off because they don’t know how to work one,” says Hemphill.
“It’s the keenness of spirit, the not letting age or physicalities get you down, having comrades and pals you can rely on,” says Kiernan. “Because it doesn’t really exist, and it SHOULD exist. Craiglang’s no’ a Disney World, but it’s almost like Disney, 20 pensioners all rooting for one another. It’s an ideal we’d LIKE to exist,” says Kiernan.
“Jack and Victor never talk about what’s in their medicine cabinet, their ailments, because basically they are the BEST versions of themselves in terms of their positivity. And I think that’s one of the messages of the show: be positive,” says Hemphill.
Kiernan loves the physical side of the humour, “the slapstick, trying to get over a park fence on a ladder. And locations – I loved one we filmed at this big castle that was exactly how we imagined.”
Hemphill zones in on the show’s handling of the central role of The Clansman. “We were always conscious of the show’s relationship to drink – because in Scotland everyone knows someone that’s maybe had a problem with it – and wanted to portray the pub in a positive light, a thing that brings people together. We never did an episode where someone was struggling with it, because that would have been a downer.”
“It would have been a sad reflection,” says Kiernan, “because most of the cast are struggling with alcohol, like ‘I’ve got to learn THESE lines?’
“Yes, just to get through the day. I’ve got to say this garbage? No, there were so many elements I feel proud of.”
Namely the ensemble cast, Paul Riley as Winston, Mark Cox as Tam, Jane McCarry as Isa, Sanjeev Kohli as Navid and Gavin Mitchell as Boaby The Barman, as well as the recurring characters. Kiernan and Hemphill are full of praise for the supporting cast.
“Every single one of them you could put in a spin-off,” says Kiernan, “just amazing. You can give them material that’s full of pathos or comedy and know they’re able to handle it.”
“You give them the ball and they run with it,” says Hemphill.
“Yeah, you’ll be out and people come up for a photograph and you talk about the show, and then they go ‘my favourite character’s Isa’. Thank you! We wrote that! And WE’RE not your favourites!” says Kiernan, mock bridling.
Speaking of Isa, she’s looking slimmer this season, is there anything they want to tell us about her health?
“No! Scotland’s the only place in the world where when somebody loses weight people worry about them. The only place in the world! The opposite to California. ‘I’m only taking the two fried scones in the morning…’” says Hemphill.
“Exactly, whit are you daein cuttin’ doon on yer tottie scones an’ black puddin’, are ye ill?” says Kiernan.
“Your clothes are hanging aff ye!”
“You don’t know your roots!”
This season guest actors are there too. Following a long list from Craig Ferguson to Celia Imrie to Robbie Coltrane as Davy the crazy bus driver triggered by the word ‘doughnuts” and Kevin Whately as a dodgy dentist attempting to give Methadone Mick a job-winning smile, we’ll see Midge Ure, Amy Macdonald, Clare Grogan and Des Clarke all make cameos, while Martin Compston pops up selling mobile phones. Luckily he doesn’t suffer the fate of Dorothy Paul who was shoved in the luggage hold of a bus due to a plot hiccup.
“Filming the last scene, we realised she couldn’t be on the bus, so ... ‘Dorothy, would you mind… ‘That sounds funny’ she said and in she went,” says Hemphill, “she was great.”
“She was in a hell of a good mood later when we opened the flap!” agrees Kiernan.
So that’s definitely the end of Still Game then. It really is a case of ‘That’s plenty’ for the Craiglang gang?
“Did we mention the Hydro show?” says Kiernan.
The live SSE Hydro show in September, Still Game: The Final Farewell, sees the cast in an all-singing, all-dancing specially written show, after which Jack and Victor will be retired.
“Give me an H,” sings Kiernan.
So if that’s the end of Still Game, what’s next for the comedy duo?
Kiernan would like to do some straight acting, having an appreciation for action drama and crime, “historical crime. I’ve always had a fantasy about playing a cop,” he says.
And Hemphill is “hoping to do more directing. And we will be writing together, and individually. But we won’t talk about it because we’ll curse it. In a year’s time you’ll say ‘what happened to that horror movie you were writing?’”
They’re not saying there IS a horror movie, but there may be change of genre, maybe a change of scene, although authenticity will still be key from a pair of writers who are true to their inspiration, whatever the audience.
“People criticised Still Game for the bad language,” says Hemphill, “but to me that’s hypocritical. They’re OK with certain shows and certain people swearing, but when Scots characters swear, people are hard on it.”
Kiernan agrees: “It’s not hard edged, it’s in the parlance, fluid, so it doesn’t jar. And Greg and I are fairly fluent swearers.”
“It wouldn’t be honest if those characters didn’t swear,” says Hemphill. “It would be phoney.”
“Yeah,” says Kiernan. “That’s why we’re working on a new sitcom just now called ‘F*** This’. It’s about pensioners...”
No they’re not. And that is plenty.
Still Game starts on BBC Scotland on Sunday 24 February at 9pm.
Still Game: The Final Farewell, 27 September-12 October, The SSE Hydro, Glasgow, thessehydro.com