Comedy interview: Jack Docherty on his Fringe show Miekelson and McGlashan, Serious Men

Jack Docherty is giving his blue-light mockumentary Scot Squad characters Miekelson and McGlashan a rare live stage outing '“ and hoping to add to his happiest Edinburgh memories

Docherty as McGlashen
Docherty as McGlashen

“They’re all lovable, even my character,” Jack Docherty suggests, reflecting on why Scot Squad has been a success. Leaning back in his chair, very much in the style of Chief Commissioner Cameron Miekelson, he airily gesticulates: “His complete obliviousness, the dependence on [long-suffering, off-camera assistant] Jean. People really warm to that.”

We’re chatting at the Glasgow offices of production company The Comedy Unit as Docherty gets ready to shoot the forthcoming fifth series of BBC Scotland’s blue-light mockumentary, while contemplating only his second live performance as the Chief, with a full run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Although the spit of his grandfather in uniform, a former chief superintendent in Hamilton, he reckons gaffe-prone Miekelson owes considerably more to his parents’ marriage.

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“A lot of my stuff has been based on my dad, which is weirder and weirder for my mum as I get older” the 56-year-old reveals. “Jean was a moment of improvisation, just a memory of my dad shouting into the kitchen, ‘Joan, have you got a biscuit?’

“Everything was always deflected off, Joan will sort it out. That generation of men couldn’t boil an egg. A nice guy, but he always talked about doing the done thing. He was an authority figure, his way or the highway.”

Docherty has often sought the highway, quitting a law degree in Aberdeen to move to London 36 years ago as an in-house BBC comedy writer. Edinburgh-born, at 14 he was skipping family holidays to roam the Fringe, “a festival that’s given me so many of my happiest memories”.

His sketch group, The Bodgers, which would go on to form the core of cult Channel 4 show Absolutely, were nominated for the Perrier Award in 1984 and 1985, his final Fringe appearance, and integral to establishing the Pleasance as a venue, “something I always remind [founder] Chris Richardson of”.

Absolutely ran for four series from 1989, with a further spin-off series for the Mr Don and Mr George characters. But after working for the likes of Spitting Image, Vic and Bob and Smith and Jones, Docherty came to think of himself as a writer first and foremost. “There was no real reason I fell out of love with performing, just nothing I really fancied,” he says.

Even so, his increasingly experimental and ill-fated attempt to emulate the US late-night talkshow model, The Jack Docherty Show on Channel 5 in the late 1990s, showed he was unafraid of taking risks. And when the chance came “out of the blue” to send up the newly unified Police Scotland, he was attracted to a sitcom that wasn’t “a hard-hitting satire on what’s wrong with the police, rather just people struggling to do their jobs”.

Scot Squad asked him to improvise for the first time. And he found he rather enjoyed it, emboldening him to try a one-off, well-received show at the 2016 Glasgow Comedy Festival as Miekelson, ultimately convincing him he could cut it live at the Fringe again after 23 years.

Living in London, Docherty had hitherto been largely unaware of the travails of Police Scotland’s real-life chiefs Stephen House and Phil Gormley. But those are channelled in the forthcoming television episodes, with Miekelson suspended and replaced by John Gordon Sinclair’s more competent commissioner.

There is a “Trumpian” gap “between who [Miekelson] thinks he is and who he actually is” Docherty acknowledges. “Everything he says is correct, everything that goes wrong isn’t his fault. It’s very easy to do that pomposity.”

Docherty will be tweaking the Fringe show up to the last minute to account for the President’s latest outburst or any breaking Brexit or Scottish independence news – subjects that, along with England’s World Cup exploits, also preoccupy McGlashen, the rabid ultra-nationalist whom Miekleson bookends in the Fringe show. One of Absolutely’s best-loved characters, revived for Channel 4’s 2014 indy ref mockumentary Scotland In A Day, he was inspired by an encounter in London.

“It was an expat in The George pub on Wardour Street, a wild-haired Scotsman, who literally gave me the line that I then used,” Docherty says. “‘I see that you’re sitting on that f***king chair! What were we sitting on before a Scotsman came up with the idea? Your f***king arse you’d be sitting on!’”

Becoming “part of the culture really quickly”, the last time Docherty played McGlashen live “was around the time of Reservoir Dogs. So I went out into the audience to find this English guy, a plant. I got him on stage and was torturing him to Stuck In The Middle With You, force-feeding him haggis and throwing Irn-Bru over him. And I remember a guy in the crowd stood up and screamed ‘F***ing kill him!’ It was wild.”

The rest of Absolutely – Peter Baikie, Morwenna Banks, Moray Hunter, Gordon Kennedy and John Sparkes - reunited in 2012. And Docherty admits to questioning if he made the right choice to commit to Miekelson instead of joining them. “I remember standing in the wings at the Glasgow Comedy Festival around the time they were recording their radio show, nervously thinking, ‘That would have been so much easier’.

But he doesn’t miss that “collegiate thing”. And as his friends approach their third revived Radio 4 series, “tragically, they seem to be doing very well without me,” he says, with a smile. “Which is obviously a great disappointment.”

Docherty is genuinely dismayed that his Radio 4 comedy about middle-aged relationships, Start/Stop, didn’t get picked up for a television series after a 2016 BBC One pilot. But he has further scripts in development with the BBC and Channel 4. And lately there have been inquiries about taking the idea to another channel. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by cast member Charlie Higson’s suggestion that he takes the frustrations expressed in it and turn them into a play. Or even stand-up.

“My formative influences were people in costumes pretending to be somebody else, not Richard Pryor,” he says. “But I really admire someone like AL Kennedy coming to stand-up late. And the older I get, the more I’d like to.”

He’s relishing bringing his children up to the festival for the first time, with his 17-year-old stepdaughter appearing in a production of Medea at the Greenside venue in Nicolson Square.

And he’s spoken to Channel 4 about setting something at the Fringe, “half real, half not real”, a counterpoint to Annie Griffin’s 2005 film, Festival, which “was a very negative view. Actually, the experience for the Fringe for most people is that it’s summer, you’re young, your whole life’s ahead of you, everyone’s having sex with everyone else and it’s the greatest thing. I’d love to try and capture that somehow,” he enthuses, before catching himself. “Of course, my kids might hate it. Hopefully, I’m suitably woke enough that I won’t say anything too embarrassing for them.”

Jack Docherty: Miekelson And McGlashan – Serious Men, Gilded Balloon at the Museum, 1-27 August