Review: Only an Excuse makes a welcome return to form

Jonathan Watson as Sportscene pundits Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson Jonathan Watson. Picture: BBC
Jonathan Watson as Sportscene pundits Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson Jonathan Watson. Picture: BBC
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Happy new year, but I’m afraid to say I’m not all that optimistic about 2019. It’s begun in a tedious, predictable and oh-so-wrong fashion with everyone slagging off Only an Excuse. What’s wrong with you 

Listen, I’m not pretending the show is cutting-edge comedy (never has been, not its style) or that every sketch is a zinger but what’s not funny about “Irish singing sensation” Brendan O’Rodgers in one of Val Doonican’s old cardies ambling with a shepherd’s crook by a lazy river and warbling songs from his latest LP including “I nearly threw a wobbler over John McGinn” and “Put your head next to mine on the sunbed”?

I’d like to think the real Brendan laughed at that but maybe it was Celtic fans who didn’t. And maybe Rangers supporters didn’t laugh at the moment when the latest Hogmanay edition recalled the Royal wedding and there was a never-before-seen intimate close-up of Prince Harry placing the ring on Meghan Markle’s finger and it was revealed to be a sovvy straight out of Govan, beautifully set among the bride’s choice of false nails: Union Jacks and the “Ready” emblem.

You see, that’s the problem with Old Firm fans: no sense of humour. To be fair, they’ve never really needed one. You only develop the ability to laugh at yourself and your team’s rotten luck when your best players are always sold, when there’s a serious risk of going out of the Scottish Cup early while rain piddles on your head through a hole in the lower-league stand roof, and when you never win much of anything, ever.

A quick check on the twitterati’s dissenting voices confirmed that many had Old Firm sympathies, although this wasn’t true of them all. “You didn’t think Only an Excuse could get any worse,” opined one, “and then you watch that drivel from last night.” Other considered critiques included: “Utter garbage … Continues to get shittier by the year, time to pack it in … Who finds this pish funny?”

Well, I do. Not every time. Over the last few years the show was starting to look a bit tired but on Monday night ace impersonator Jonathan Watson – a Ranger supporter, by the way – came up with far more hits than misses.

To send up the good, the bad and the Boydy of Scottish football, Watson is ideally suited. His ba’ face and pan loaf complexion provide a blank canvas, although he has to seriously orange up to mimic Rodgers. Two of his old dependables, Denis Law and Walter Smith, have all but disappeared from the football scene and have therefore been retired from the show, but he still finds room for other long-time favourites like Graeme 
Souness, Kenny Dalglish and of course Frank McAvennie.

OK, so maybe Watson’s Steven Gerrard needs some work. This was his first attempt at Rangers’ Scouser boss and suffered in comparison with Darren Farley’s take-off, but then the latter is Liverpool-born and has been studying Gerrard at close quarters for years.

Maybe, too, the production values of Only an Excuse are modest, but the same could be said of a lot of Scottish and indeed British TV compared with the high-end, boxset golden age stuff from America. Stanley Baxter used to command budgets equivalent to the GDP of most medium-sized countries for his light-entertainment spectaculars, and splash more on dressing his dancing girls as empire biscuits than Rodgers will spend in this transfer window, but those days are long gone.

I admit to cringing at the start of the Sportscene sketch. It looked like this was going to be more of the Beeb in standard self-congratulatory mode where it celebrates its own, similar to how Strictly Come Dancing must always have a minimum of three Corporation presenters. But Watson switching between Jonathan Sutherland, Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson to poke fun at the punditry was one of the highlights.

So, Only an Excuse: maybe it’s in added-on time after 26 Hogmanays but there’s still something to play for. Really, what’s not hilarious about a collect-the-set, 358-weekly-part celebration of all the Celtic haddies there have ever been, where you can not only read about the lousy buys in a handsome magazine library but assemble your own barely-working model of Marvin Compper? And that wasn’t even Monday’s funniest skit. Best was Watson bunking off from the fitba to impersonate Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr recalling the day Nelson Mandela was given the freedom of Glasgow: “It was in this very place that he had his lentil soup into which he dooked a roll, followed by supreme of chicken with totties and peas.”

One lambaster of Only an Excuse yesterday reckoned the show struggles in the social media age because all the jokes about the game over the year under review have already played out. Yes, some of you who spend an awful long time on Twitter can occasionally be quite humorous, but for services to making us chuckle I reckon Watson deserves his supreme of chicken as well.