BBC Scotland opening night review: Variety the spice of life for new channel

On 14 March, 1952, via the BBC transmitter high above a blasted heath at Kirk o’ Shotts, television came to Scotland with a programme called – wait for it – Television Comes to Scotland.
Iain Stirling. Picture: BBCIain Stirling. Picture: BBC
Iain Stirling. Picture: BBC

There were black-tie speeches, lots of them, droning on and on, and then ten minutes of Scottish country dancing which by that stage of the tedious proceedings must have been greeted like Busby Berkeley’s most fantastical production.

Even by 1952 standards of reserve and decorum and not saying boo to a goose, the show sounds a bit of a stinker. The reviews were lousy, the internal Corporation memos even worse: “Speeches dreadful. Really dreadful. This sort of television dullness is most depressing … ” So, the big question was, could the new Beeb Scotland channel better that?

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What a great idea it was to invite the Burnistoun boys to last night’s opening bash, and what a cracking special edition Iain Connell and Robert Florence delivered. Lots of rude sketches, and lots of them poking fun at tartan telly clichés. There was the Outlander spoof, called Outrager, with the hero, Jamie McShagger, declaring: “These are the kiltie times.” There was Tornface, a send-up of Taggart, too many repeats of which did for STV2. There was the oleaginous continuity announcer who loved the sound of his own voice. And there was the rubbishy quiz where every prize was a tattie scone.

Burnistoun Tunes In seemed like a cautionary tale for the sparkly new station with this message for Pacific Quay supremo Steve Carson: “We don’t know what you’re serving up in the rest of the schedule but do us a favour and avoid the televisual equivalent of the tattie.”

After a fantastic blast of Bond theme-style melodrama from Lauren Mayberry of pop group Chvrches, the very first offering seemed the most likely to fall prey to couthieness. A Night at the Theatre could have been the great, long-lost Marx Brothers movie, which would have been all right. It read – in the Radio Times – like an old-time variety show under the proscenium arch, with possibly Jackie Bird banging the gavel and her Hogmanay mates Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham larking about in one of the boxes a la The Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf. No preview tapes were available, which can be the equivalent of straight-to-DVD for a film.

In fact, comic Iain Stirling emerged from a pile-up of tartan-clad tumbling teenyboppers to herald the new dawn. “We’re taking over!” he bellowed. Well, the canned laughter gizmo had definitely been requisitioned, with the dial turned up to 11. Sanjeev Kholi made the first of his three appearances of the night, then Grado gave way to his Two Doors Down co-star Elaine C Smith. Suddenly Caledonia’s showbiz talent pool seemed quite small.

Next up was Getting Hitched Asian Style, a reality series. There are plenty of them around – too many.

The only fly-on-the-wall show not yet commissioned concerns insects in a vertical race.

But work-based factual programming is not a recent phenomenon. In 1952 Other People’s Jobs went underground with the miners of Tillicoultry.

Marriages in Scotland’s Asian community seem to be another race: who can splash out the most on spectacular nuptials? You’re having a ten-foot train? We’ll go the whole 20ft. You’ve having dry ice? Order up the water bombs. Preparations grow “arms and legs”, according to one wedding planner, “and leaves and flowers”. Then he supervised the construction of a 30ft rose wall.

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That was a neat trick, and so was avoiding charges of gaudiness. This was down to the charm of the families, in particular mum-of-the-groom Muna. She was TV gold, or whatever Asian weddings use to out-gold gold. Unabashed, she told her son: “On the day you were born I was jealous of the woman who would marry you.” Then she lined up the ingredients for the traditional cake: “Sugar, glucose, fructose … and sugar.”

Like Burnistoun, Getting Hitched could have been offering coded advice to the new channel. As with the weddings what about “a mix of contemporary and traditional, maybe shabby-chic”? The money-shot of the first night, the sugar-rush, came from Muna. In London, where her Pakistani family used to live, they weren’t encouraged to feel English. In Falkirk, though, they were accepted as Scots – “And we are.” Hurray for us!

It’s the beginning of the beginning for the channel but the beginning of the end for Still Game. The big slipper of Scottish comedy, the fish supper with a white pudding on the side, kicked off its last-ever series with a flying foot, Winston hurling his false leg at a bag-snatcher and becoming an internet sensation.

Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, too, were making their own comment about the TV landscape the channel has just entered. YouTube-flicking yoof, of course don’t really watch telly. Jack and Victor, determinedly analogue, fancied some of this digital fame. How could they, in Jack’s words, “go virile”? Early attempts flopped but then unscheduled footage of them sobbing into their Ovaltine for departed loved ones became a hit.

It’s too early to judge the channel but there were no tattie scones last night, no dreadfulness. Let’s hope it will be a station for the here and now, not kiltie times. And let’s hope, like Jack and Victor, it will find success by being itself.