Would the real Jonathan Watson please stand up?

JONATHAN Watson is a man of many faces. In Watson's Wind Up and Only An Excuse?, he has proved himself as a superb impersonator and mimic, carving out his own special place in Scotland's affections. His Hogmanay versions of Only An Excuse? perhaps mark him out as the only genuine heir to the late, great Ricki Fulton.

Yet what do we really know of Watson himself? He is a well-known face, but would we recognise him in the street with a bunnet pulled down over his face? He is a huge presence in recent Scottish comedy history, but in the rest of the UK, he is just another jobbing actor, picking up bit-part roles in The Bill and Casualty. And that's just how he likes it.

The man of many faces wears another one this festive season, as an Ugly Sister in Cinderella at the King's in Glasgow - so why does the boy from Garnethill reach for the mask so much?

There was no history of theatre or acting in Watson's family, until the only child started attending a junior group at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama when he was just eight. "It was a good way of mixing," he says. "I loved it from the outset and carried on acting through my teens, getting a variety of parts, but never really thinking about making it a career."

Leaving school, his first intention was to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jack, who worked in advertising. He did a course in the same subject, but midway through it, BBC Scotland offered him a part in a play; he took it, intending to return and finish his course afterwards. However, he had a Road to Damascus-style revelation which changed his career path for good: "I just realised 'This is what I want to do'," he says. "In the middle of that play I knew that I wasn't going to be studying anything but acting and my next move was to apply to the RSAMD."

Graduating in 1979, Watson gained his Equity Card working with the Citizens Theatre and in the best tradition of actors everywhere, set off to seek his fortune. The work came swiftly and steadily, with barely a moment "resting".

"I was very fortunate," he admits. "Starting off like that at 22 or 23 with nothing to hold you back or tie you down means you can simply throw yourself into everything - and that's what I did.

"My parents were very encouraging. I worked with a great variety of people and learned my craft. If there were quite a few grotty bed and breakfasts and draughty theatres - that was just part of the life."

Watson moved to London in 1986 with a clear agenda - to "establish myself in the rest of the country and get an agent to give me access to jobs which weren't just Scotland-based". He duly got his face and CV known in the right circles and two years later moved back to Glasgow, confident that he had achieved what he set out to do. "It was great to be back," he says with obvious sincerity. "I enjoyed the experience but I always knew my main aim was to come back and settle here."

Watson describes meeting Philip Differ, writer of the now legendary Naked Video - which also featured Gregor Fisher, Elaine C Smith and Andy Gray - as the catalyst for his move into comedy: "I had always enjoyed comedy but being involved in Naked Video was an entirely new experience. It was also a ground-breaking time in terms of comedy in the mid-80s. We were competing - and holding our own - against programmes like Blackadder.

"It's almost impossible to describe what it's like being a part of something making that much of an impact."

It may have been impossible the first time around, but Watson had to get used to it. Only An Excuse?, British television's only regular comedy show devoted to football, was about to burst upon an unsuspecting, but hugely appreciative audience. The show has had an array of special editions down the years, often screened as part of the Hogmanay celebrations, and its merciless attacks on our national obsession created comedy icons of several already-famous football personalities, notably Kenny Dalglish, Archie McPherson, Chick Young, Tommy Burns and Frank McAvennie.

Only An Excuse? also transferred to the theatre, with sell-out performances - and along with the broader appeal of Watson's Wind Up, has transformed this diffident man into a household name in Scotland.

Being public property does not come easily to Watson, but he has to accept it as part and parcel of his chosen career, although he is modest about his own abilities. "Philip Differ is an incredible writer and I'm aiming to deliver his lines perfectly," Watson explains. "I am a football fan, which means I understand what the audience appreciates, but so much of it comes down to the writing."

It is undoubtedly because he is a football fan that his delighted audience assume he is barely able to say his lines for holding back the laughter, an assumption which leaves Watson mildly bemused. "No, honestly, there's no way I'm constantly stopping myself rolling around and slapping my thighs. This is a job and my aim is to do it professionally and make the audience laugh, not fall about myself. I rarely watch it after I've filmed."

He is pretty much alone there; in a nation of football fanatics there is a new generation of fans growing up with Only An Excuse?. With little danger of anything smutty being involved, the show has become a rite of passage for surprisingly young fans. The only criteria to getting the jokes seems to be a knowledge of football, leaving adults with no concerns about letting their children watch. Bearing in mind other currently popular comedies - including successful Scottish export Still Game - this is very unusual.

"I'm not sure I've thought about that before, but it's a huge compliment," he says. "I like the idea of humour being passed on down through a family. Scotland has a tradition of comedians spanning the generations and I'd like to think I'm still going strong decades from now."

Watson is drawing young and old to the panto, as he stars in Cinderella for the next six weeks opposite Gerard Kelly. Kelly is possibly the only other Scottish actor enjoying Watson's peculiar brand of fame, with celebrity status in his home country and a parallel career as a solid character actor in the rest of Britain.

The pair take panto as seriously as any other work they do. "Funnily enough, I only remember going to the panto once as a child," says Watson. "It's a huge Glasgow tradition and there's a lot to live up to here, not least the sheer time commitment. We're doing two shows a day with only Christmas Day and New Year's Day off, so it needs a lot of work and effort to keep it fresh and lively throughout the run. I have no doubt we'll do it, but there will be moments to remember!"

Watson is aware of the irony of his Christmas commitments; the demands of Cinderella mean he is almost totally exempt from Christmas duties, so wife Celine, an air hostess, will have to keep all things domestic ticking over smoothly for their six-year-old son, Jack.

"It is a bit of a contradiction," Watson concedes. "Here I am, providing classic Christmas entertainment for families while leaving my own family to get on with it. Mind you, Jack can come and watch it any time he likes, so I'm sure he'll see it quite a few times before the novelty wears off - or he runs out of friends to take!" Next year is already starting to look busy, with Watson's Wind Up continuing and an Only An Excuse? special ahead of the World Cup - but Watson is clearly at his best when busy. He is also clearly happiest when talking about work and expert at dodging any questions he sees as too personal, retreating behind the mask once more.

He still has friends he met at primary school (and then Hillhead High) in the best Glasgow tradition of remembering your roots - and has a reputation of being quietly amenable with fans - but he has no interest in spilling his secrets.

Part of Watson's appeal is undoubtedly the public perception of him being just like anyone else - and this "man in the street" persona serves him extremely well. "Without a doubt," he agrees. "This is my job - it just happens to be in the public eye and I don't put myself out there otherwise. I think people recognise that and understand that my wife and child deserve privacy. The truth is that I am just like the next man - and just about as interesting! My job is out there for everyone to see, but that doesn't mean that my personal life should be too."

Watson insists that "I find the general public very polite," he says carefully. "People will come up and say 'hello' and tell me they like the shows, but they tend not to be intrusive when I go about my daily life with my family."

The mask slips briefly as Watson admits to a moment of total pride last year when Jack raised a lot of laughter at his Primary 1 Burns competition - but then he moves the conversation swiftly on to how much he is enjoying the pantomime. Jonathan Watson may belong to Scotland, but it is very much on his own terms.