Interview: Face to face with Jonathan Watson and his many wind-ups

MY TAXI driver is intrigued by the assignment. "Innurviewin' Jonathan Watson? How wid ye dae that?" But then Wullie the cabbie proceeds to give me ideas for questions for the football impersonator without even trying.

After he's spoken with reverence about seeing Tommy Gemmell standing at a bus stop – "Two goals in different European Cup finals and Big Tam's waiting for a No 41?" – Wullie tells his favourite Jim Baxter story about the night Slim Jim took Not-So-Slim Ferenc Puskas to a house-party in Glasgow's Drumchapel following a European tie at Ibrox. "There's no characters left," he says, which makes you wonder how long Watson can keep the Frank McAvennie lampoon going.

Then Wullie says he doesn't watch football anymore because it's "all aboot money and hype and players who're aye listening to music or on their mobys and never talk to the kids". Media-training adds another protective layer, which must be bad news for the mimic, yes?

And finally Wullie relates how he honked his horn at Tony Roper and asked him for a joke. "I haven't made one up for years," was the actor's retort. He probably has, but mention of his name makes Watson look good. He and Roper used to send up the game together but now Only An Excuse? is his show, and it's still going, still making us laugh, a valuable service that should qualify for state aid, given that we're required to peer through the World Cup gates once more.

"Where's the burdz?" "Maybes aye, maybes naw." "Heh heh heh." "Woof!" Watson is the Woof!-spoofer who does a "purtikulurly" good Walter Smith take-off and who, in the cause of research, has freeze-framed Jim White's rictus grin more times than is probably healthy.

And by the way, when he does Chick Young, it is "Heh heh heh", with a crucial third "heh" for comic effect. He tells a great story about Young on the umpteenth take for a voiceover for a commercial. Director: "You're doing it wrong. It's 'Heh heh heh'." Young: "It's my f****n' laugh!"

We meet at the HQ of BBC Scotland, producers of Only An Excuse? and also Watson's Wind-Up where his targets are the Parly and the tartan meeja. Wind-Up, though is a radio show and Excuse? is a Hogmanay-only treat – doesn't he wish they were more high-profile? "Well, maybe if I was in my 20s Wind-Up would get on the telly," he says, "but TV is ageist and guys like me are pretty stuffed. And maybe the reason Excuse? isn't on more is the cost. All those wigs are expensive."

Watson is 52 but looks younger. His boyish phizog is also a blank page, a bare goalmouth – vital for an impressionist. A big nose or an Eamonn Bannon hairstyle would just be distracting. He's short and rather too well wrapped up on a day of bright sunshine, with a clear view way out west to Ibrox. Rangers are Watson's team.

So, in light of SFA chief executive Gordon Smith declaring he's sick of hearing how oor fitba is "rubbish", does the funster feel guilty about slagging off its scuffers and toilers? "Not really, because I think we as a nation are able to laugh at ourselves in a way that, say, the English don't or can't. And don't forget that me and Phil Differ, who writes the show, are fans; we love the game. I think that's evident and most people in football acknowledge it.

"We have a rule that if we think we're being too cruel we ask ourselves: 'If that player walked in here now, would they be offended?' If the answer's yes then we'll tweak the gag. I think I remember hearing once that Gordon McQueen was a bit miffed, but that's all."

Hopefully he won't mind this, but the most interesting thing about Jonathan Watson is that he's not very interesting. He's extremely modest about his abilities, rejects any comparison with Rory Bremner and doesn't try to intellectualise the work of the impressionist. "All actors – and that's my training – can do a range of voices and have at least one funny impression up their sleeve," he says.

"What I'm looking for differs from subject to subject. The eureka moment can be something in the voice or, as with Kenny Dalglish, the way he drops his top lip (illustrates Dalgishian disappointment, as if cold mince had just been found in the balaclava]. I was struggling with Graeme Souness for ages until I heard him say that Terry Butcher was 'a better player than ah first thought'."

Last night, Watson completed a tour of Scotland's halls with what he calls an unplugged version of Only An Excuse? and its success confirmed to him that laughing at our footballing misfortune is not a form of treachery. Of course George Burley figured, as did "Boozegate".

What did Watson make of his (then) Rangers captain's behaviour? "We don't really know what happened but they were young guys having a few drinks and if I was their age and unmarried I'd have been sitting with them." Watson and his sidekick Differ have just collaborated on a radio documentary, Under The Influence: Football and Alcohol. "It's a serious programme, Boozegate doesn't figure.

"But a life ban seems very harsh; Barry's an experienced player and we don't have many of them." Is that the Rangers fan talking? "No, if you were to ask Phil, who's Celtic-mad, he'd say the same."

Watson's first Rangers game was in 1967, aged ten. "Cup-winners' Cup semi against Slavia Sofia, my dad took me, 1-0, Willie Henderson with a header. Roger Hynd was in the team and he'd been in the same Lanarkshire brass band as my cousin Bobby. I stress this was a brass band."

I must confess to trying to wind up Watson about his Ibrox allegiances. They're not the coolest team around, I say. "Remind me again who're league champs?" Okay, but they're hardly showbiz trendy. "There are a few folk in my profession who support Rangers, don't admit it and use Partick Thistle as a cover – I can't stand that. Also, I'm a Socialist but unlike some actors I don't make a big noise about it. Folk think all Rangers are Tories. You have to tell them it doesn't work like that ... ya fud."

We talk about sectarianism. Only An Excuse? has never avoided it and new-to-the-show Boyne Knox inherits the mantle from Forbes Presbyterian as the Copland Road End's most loyal. "There's a remarkable piece of news footage from the day Rangers signed Mo Johnston of a fan, absolutely pished, burning his scarf outside Ibrox. You can almost see him mouth the words to the director: 'Wizzat okay?' So in the act that bampot is Boyne. He's named after the river, in case you're wondering."

Meanwhile, across Glasgow Sean Lourdes III continues to represent Celtic's lunatic fringe. "We make fun of these guys to show religion for being as ridiculous as it is." Doesn't he mean religious intolerance? "No, religion. Me and Phil have no time for it. Whenever an actor claims he's found God I just want to boak."

Watson is also a modest fan. That is, he doesn't book a box with cushioned seats to surround himself with other celebrity supporters and refer to players by secret nicknames. In fact, he no longer has an Ibrox season-ticket and, having recently got rid of his cable television, will try to catch bits of the Old Firm game on radio during lunch with his wife Celine and son Jack.

"My first Old Firm match was a League Cup semi – Celtic won 3-1 and Harry Hood scored a hat-trick. More recently I went with Phil and that was good because your behaviour was normalised by the other guy's presence. The atmosphere at Old Firm games can be fantastic, mostly for the wrong reasons. But I don't miss them. I value my weekends with my family too much now."

Jack is an only child like the old man was, the same age as Dad when he cheered on Willie Henderson, and the protective Watson is in no hurry to inflict a football obsession on him. "So far he's only been to two matches. One was a Man U game at Old Trafford to celebrate his grandad's 70th birthday – a lovely family occasion where we didn't hear a swear word all day. The other was Scotland v Italy in the last Euros where the langauge was diabolical. Jack loves Serie A like me and when Italy scored right away he shouted: 'What a goal! Look, Dad – 1 minute 13 seconds!"

Sounds like the lad already has a healthily broad outlook, but Watson, in common with many fans of his generation, is a super-optimist who believes Scotland's time will come again. "If it doesn't I suppose it will be good for my act but I'd much rather see us qualify for another major tournament."

Now that really would be something to drink through to breakfast about.

• Watson's Wind-Up returns to Radio Scotland next Friday at 6.10pm. The same station's Under The Influence: Football and Alcohol is on 16 October at 11.30am.