Few cultural commentators have made a connection between hard-hitting US crime drama The Wire and waggish Scottish sketch show Burnistoun, but the comedy’s growing international following has revealed one, according to co-creator Iain Connell.
“There was a guy telling me he had the subtitles up initially,” says Connell of Twitter conversations he’s had with North American viewers. “But after two episodes, he was like, ‘I think I’ve got this.’ Our Glasgow patter’s just like The Wire with their Baltimore phrases. Everyone picks it up eventually.”
Since its third and final BBC Scotland series in 2012, a one-off special and clutch of well-received live performances have given Connell and creative partner Robert Florence fresh momentum. While hardly under the radar – their voice-activated lift sketch has been viewed more than 8.5 million times on YouTube and was the subject of an academic paper in the US – on a recent trip to London they were stopped and asked for photos for the first time. Now Connell and Florence are performing Burnistoun on the Edinburgh Fringe, as unlikely a pair of festival debutants as you might hope to meet.
Currently among Scotland’s most admired comics, they nevertheless exemplify the stereotype of Glaswegians who don’t patronise the world’s biggest arts festival down the road. Connell has seen a smattering of shows, Florence none. But he’s determined to “be uncynical about it and just enjoy this new experience. I’m treating it like Disneyland”.
Writers first and foremost, Florence says they’ve retained an “analytical” approach to comedy, feeling neither “buzz nor nerves” since they embraced the stage. Their careers have progressed outside of conventional routes such as stand-up or university revue, with Connell relating industry meetings in which their BBC show was noted but they were still asked: “Yes, but have you been to Edinburgh?”
“People think it’s weird,” Florence says. “It was like, ‘How seriously are you taking this if you’ve never been to the Fringe?’ So to stop them moaning, we finally figured let’s do it.”
Their agent floated the idea after their live appearance at last year’s Glasgow Comedy Festival. “Obviously, they’re based in London. And all the London people move to Edinburgh in August,” Connell says. “So they can find out who we are.”
Unfashionably, they’re delivering sketches at a time when it’s an endangered art form, with television commissioners publicly stating that they’re not interested in the genre. And nudging 40, they hardly fit the puppyish profile of the sketch acts that do persist. Most contrarian of all though is the fact that they’ve already sold all of their tickets, a feat most newcomers can only dream of.
Connell may mock his partner’s authority as a festival virgin but Florence is adamant that they’re taking nothing for granted. Fringe sketch is “all young teams, high-energy,” he says. “I’ve been saying to Iain that we need to be absolutely showing respect with these shows, nice and physical and fast. We don’t want to be looking like old guys that shouldn’t be doing this any more.”
Suppressing a fear of becoming their dufferish, accident-prone character Biscuity Boyle, they’ll be joined once more by their regular, younger co-stars Louise Stewart and Gerry McLaughlin. “So we need to find a way to humiliate them somehow,” says Connell. “Get them doing some of the stuff that’s beyond our abilities.”
These Fringe shows are wholly different to those performed at Glasgow’s Kings and Theatre Royal, partly because “it would be a bit of a shame to do a new thing like this with old material,” Florence says. But also because practically, they’re now restricted to an hour.
“We want to transition to each sketch quickly,” he says. “The one thing I wasn’t so happy with in the previous live shows was the breaks between, leaving the audience waiting too long. We have to be more prop- and costume-light.”
The potential for their inverse snobs, the Up Eh Road guys, to fume and fulminate at the festival’s pretentiousness seems too apt for them not to be included. But the pair are circumspect about which of their established characters are returning, with not even fan favourites like “quality polis” Toshan and McGregor or the inexplicable, “For Real!” extorting Jolly Boy John guaranteed to feature.
“We don’t want to just put them in if we don’t have a good sketch for them,” Florence says. “Just because people are expecting them, we can’t have them knocking a better sketch out.”
Ever since cutting their teeth writing for Chewin’ The Fat, the pair insist that they’ve never had a career plan. But they were thinking about a live production even before Burnistoun ended on television. And next year, it’ll be their other live show, the even more Glaswegian-centric Uncles, that becomes their primary focus.
Just two guys sat in the pub, putting the world to rights, the characters are an amalgamation of classic dialogues like Pete and Dud’s shot through with the playful wit of Glasgow boozer conversation. More rooted in reality and everyday observation than Burnistoun, the concept was borne out of Connell and Florence’s desire to “talk about whatever”, mirroring the casual ease of the pair’s own relationship, even if the characters are more “everyman than we are”. Dialogues about the latest computer games were reluctantly shelved.
“Burnistoun had a lot of physical stuff in it but this is just two guys sitting talking,” Florence says. “Weirdly, one guy on stage doing stand-up seems fine. But a bit of us wondered if people would ask, ‘Is this it?’”
Watching an old concert film of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones’ talking heads proved reassuring. And Florence elaborates upon their appeal. “I know the kind of guy my dad was,” he says. “But when you’re young, you don’t really know the inner life of your uncles. They’re these older guys who come into your life and they’re maybe loud and funny. As I’ve got older, it’s jumped into my head – you never ask an uncle, ‘How’s your week been?’”
He glances at his writing partner. “I’m 39 now, you’re about to hit 40. It’s time for us to write the next Last Of The Summer Wine that runs for 27 series and keeps us into our old age. Because I’ll no want to be on stage when I’m 60.”