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28 February 2000

Pushing the boundaries of taste

New Statesman Scotland - Billy Connolly may seek to deny his Scottishness, but Tom Brownthi

By Tom Brown

Picture a lonely lighthouse; one keeper reading a book discovers that the vital last page is missing. He looks up and his fellow keeper has it in his mouth. Keeper No 1 says beseechingly: “Gonny no dae that?” Second keeper: “Why?” First keeper, despairingly: “Jist . . . gonny . . . no?” But Keeper No 2 eats the page anyway . . .

The catchphrase “Gonny no dae that?” is now heard everywhere in Scotland (even appearing in the Edinburgh parliament’s Hansard), because it has a universal resonance. It encapsulates the feelings of the long-suffering partner inescapably thirled to an opposite number whose habits are increasingly annoying and whose jokes have long since worn to transparency.

It is also the essence of modern Scottish humour, which long ago left behind the kilt-waggling, sporran-swinging, “Roamin’ in the Gloamin'” stereotypes spawned by Sir Harry Lauder. True Caledonian comedy has always been character-based and deeply rooted in social observation; now it is shrewder and sharper.

The lighthouse keepers are staple characters of the BBC TV series Chewin’ the Fat, featuring the rude and irreverent talents of Ford Kiernan, Greg Hemphill and Karen Dunbar, which has achieved cult status with its second series. Following in the unsteady footsteps of Rab C Nesbitt, a series of six specially edited editions will be shown UK-wide in spring.

The impossible task of defining Scottish humour has been reactivated by the labelling of Billy Connolly as “po-faced” for refusing to take part in a BBC Scotland series on the subject. He would not allow clips of his performances to be used for “ideological” reasons, because he now sees himself as “internationalist” rather than Scottish.

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Connolly’s stance seems strange for a man whose career was built on presenting an uncompromising Scottishness to the taken-aback Parkinson audience. Nor was his success solely due to saying “jobbie” and “willie” on national TV. His Gorbals crucifixion and his public exploration of his sexual psyche rocked the Hammersmith Odeon and the Sydney Opera House, but they sprang from the Govan shipyards and the Glasgow pubs.

Connolly is as simultaneously Scottish and universal as Lauder – and doing just as well out of it. Lauder earnt the then astonishing sum of £1,000 a week as a globe-trotting headliner in 1914; Connolly is known around the world as a comedian-actor, and he is now Highland laird and neighbour of the folk at Balmoral.

But what he is selling is still gritty, in-yer-face-Jimmy Scottishness for which there will always be a market as long as the English are shockable, Americans are prissy and third-generation Aussies are seeking an identity.

If he had kept in touch, he would know that there is a thriving Scottish comedy industry that crosses borders without compromising its national identity nor its wide contemporary appeal, complete with obligatory crudity.

Chewin’ the Fat will be shown on the national network with the full complement of sketch characters – including a pair of pseudo-Gaelic-speaking sock puppets; news with Signing for Neds; and the disastrous auditions of Ronald Villiers, the world’s worst would-be actor.

As with Connolly and Nesbitt, there will be no dubbing or “Parliamo Glesca” subtitles. Colin Gilbert, the producer of the series, recalled: “With Rab C, we anglicised the first episode of the networked series, but could see the whole thing going down the drain, so we had to stop.

“Rab C was a big gamble for the BBC because it was difficult for people down south to understand, but it paid off. I don’t think Chewin’ the Fat has half of the problems with intelligibility that Rab C has.”

With Nesbitt, McSocrates in a soiled string vest, south-of-the-border Scots had to translate some of the rants. But that soon stopped – a heidbanger is a heidbanger in any language.

As with Connolly, the new comedians are continually pushing out the boundaries of taste. The CTF team were headlined by one tight-corseted Scottish Sunday paper as “The most offensive comics in Britain”. Their repertoire includes a family of smokers who have had their larynxes removed and talk through throat-mike simulators, and the randy OAP Betty confiding her lewd reminiscences of the war to a goggle-eyed interviewer. The only taboo is to be unfunny.

They may be harder-edged, but the Scottish modernists are following in the situation-sketch tradition that goes back to the “penny geggies” of the 19th century. From the Glasgow word to “gag”, they began as booth theatres on Glasgow Green at the annual trades holidays and toured the country, with the emphasis on quick- witted interaction between the performers and their working-class audiences.

Their successors – Lauder, Harry Gordon (the “Laird of Inversnecky”), Will Fyffe of “I Belong to Glasgow”, the Max Miller-ish Lex McLean, Andy Stewart, Jimmy Logan and Stanley Baxter – learnt to switch in and out of character in the music halls.

Scottish character humour reached its zenith in the recently retired Rikki Fulton, whose Reverend I M Jolly, the dog- collared depressive on Late Call, is still an indispensable first-footer without whom Hogmanay is not complete.

His partnership with Jack Milroy as Francie and Josie, two lads-about-Glesga, transferred from variety to TV (although, sadly for Sassenachs, not UK-wide) and back again. Fulton’s Josie is only slightly more intelligent that Milroy’s Francie, and both are a few chips short of a fish supper. To see them work live is to watch performers and audience become one.

Their lesson in Barraland dance-hall protocol is straight from real-life west of Scotland courtship. From the greeting “Hullawrerr, fair midden” (the malapropic joke is that it is meant to be “maiden”, but “midden” is a rubbish dump) to the laconically ritual interchange: “Yiz daancin’?” “Yiz aaskin’?” “Ah’m aaskin’.” “Ah’m daancin’.” And on to “Yir wan in a million” – “So’s yir chances!”

Their Arbroath joke is one of the worst ever told, but that is the very point. The essence is that a man knocks at the door and asks if his lady friend is in, only to be told: “No, she’s at Arbroath.” To which the caller replies: “That’s OK, I’ll jist wait ’til she’s finished.”

Geddit? Not if you’re a Sassenach, you won’t, because it is a play on the place name, and the caller thinks that she’s “at her broth” . . . aw, forget it.

The real point is that Fulton and Milroy spin this out into a ten-minute routine. They are laughing at the prospect of telling it, mess up the punchline and have to keep re-telling it with variations. The routine is so well known that the audience is mouthing the words with them, while stout parties are collapsing in the stalls with tears running down their cheeks, holding their sides in an agony of laughter and threatened incontinence. Despite its familiarity, it never fails, even on repeatedly played videos. You see, it’s the way they tell them – in character.

Whether he likes to admit it or not, Connolly owes a lot to that tradition. Next time he tries to disown it, someone should tell him: “Gonny no dae that?”