Sunday Times article July 17 2005 

Sunday Times article July 17 2005


Old ones are still the best for comedy duo

The comedians behind Chewin’ the Fat and Still Game can’t quite believe viewers keep coming back, finds Nick Thorpe

The first thing I notice about Greg Hemphill is his eye-catching T-shirt. Emblazoned with the word “Glasgow” and an improbable palm tree, it bears the colloquial small print: “That’ll be a tropical paradise by the way, so f*** the lot of yees.”
On an ordinary day here in Raintown it might pass as earthy underdog irony. Today, however, sipping latte at a sunny west end pavement cafe in temperatures nudging 30C, it sounds like gloating. Context is everything, agrees Hemphill, who recently offended a holidaymaker with it. He’s hoping his latest series won’t similarly misfire when it makes its network debut south of the border this week.

“The slot’s not ideal,” says the 35-year-old Glaswegian, still best known as the thinner one from cult comedy Chewin’ the Fat. “The show really works better in the winter. If I was sitting watching Still Game for the first time in summer, I’d be saying: ‘What the hell are these guys moaning about? Can’t they just go to the beach?’” He takes off his shades to reveal a mischievous glint in his steely blue eyes. “We ’ll have to digitally remaster the shots and put us in Bermuda shorts.”

Still Game, in case you haven’t tuned in, casts a heavily made-up Hemphill and his comedy partner, Ford Kiernan, as Victor and Jack, two blunt pensioners making the best of it in a tower block in the fictional Craiglang scheme. A kind of Last of the Summer Whisky, it’s commonly perceived as a spin-off from a sketch from Chewin’ the Fat, though the sitcom’s likeable buffers in fact date back to a live Edinburgh fringe show in 1997, when the friends were still unknown.

“They were based on my grandfather Sammy, and Ford’s Uncle Barney,” says Hemphill. “We just started talking about old people in our lives, things they said, and it went from there. I remembered my grandmother telling me, deadpan: ‘Your grandfather will sit and watch those nature programmes for hours. Apart from monkeys. He doesn’t like monkeys, can’t be bothered with them, chattery wee bastards.’ So we’ve known these characters an awful long time. We dedicated the stage show to them because we stole all their stories.”

Like most Scottish legends, the beginnings of the Kiernan-Hemphill partnership are shrouded in mystery. According to which past answers you believe, the two men first met in an internet chat room, a branch of Argos, a public lavatrory, or at a dinner party. “Ford says we met in a bar in 1989,” says Hemphill today. “We used to do a lot of stand-up comedy together.”

Wherever it was, they made an unlikely duo. Hemphill, the son of a chartered accountant, spent his formative years in Canada before returning to his native Scotland to study for an honours degree in theatre, film and television at Glasgow University, where he recently served as rector. Kiernan, meanwhile, seven years older and brought up in Dennistoun by his barmaid mother, got his only taste of university pulling pints. It was one of a succession of jobs he picked up after leaving school, ranging from tailor to travelling telephone salesman, which is how he met his wife and gained the confidence to hone his comic talent in stand-up.

“Ford teases me occasionally that I was born in some mansion, swinging on my father’s electrically operated gates,” laughs Hemphill.

“So I tell him he was like David Copperfield, pulling a dead cat out of the skip to take home for supper. But actually we’re not all that different. Unless you’re born in a bubble and never come out of it and see life, who’s to say you can’t make a contribution wherever you’re born?” Nevertheless, the middle-class/working-class labelling persists. And if Kiernan has a television reputation as the bruiser of the pair, it was only reinforced when he punched a taxi driver in a row over a parking space outside an Anniesland supermarket last year. The 42-year-old was last week “too busy” for face-to-face interviews, according to his publicist. On the phone, however, he bridles at my allusion to his “unfortunate incident”.

“I suppose the other guy would think it was an unfortunate incident,” growls Kiernan, who was fined £3,500. “But from my point of view, he was begging for it.” The row, ostensibly over Kiernan’s use of a designated taxi space when he pulled up outside Safeway, escalated after the taxi driver shouted: “Do you think you’re the Big Man?” — a reference to Kiernan’s gangland boss character in Chewin’ the Fat.

Whatever their differences in background and temperament, Hemphill and Kiernan have forged an industrious partnership and remain loyal friends, known in the industry as unpretentious and easy to work with. Both live in Glasgow’s west end with young families: Kiernan’s wife, Lesley, is a theatrical agent, while Hemphill’s wife, Julie Wilson Nimmo, is best known as Miss Hoolie from children’s hit Balamory. They even holiday together — the men typically working on scripts indoors for two weeks while their wives occupy the sun loungers.

“We’ve always brought out the best in each other,” says Hemphill. “Ford’s got a great turn of phrase — he can pull a line out of the air and it’s perfect. Whereas I like getting in among the story. We bring different things to the table. Ford wants everything yesterday — he’s extremely hard-working and impatient — whereas I like to stare at my belly button and say: ‘Is there a better line there?’” Chewin’ the Fat catchphrases still echo after them — “Gonnae no dae that!” is the enduring favourite — despite the fact that they drew a line under the cult hit years ago.

“The BBC wanted another series,” says Hemphill. “But we weren’t sure we had another series in us, so now we only do a half-hour Hogmanay special each year. It’s about treating your audience with respect. I’d hate for people to say the first three series were great, but it tailed off. This way you’re keeping your creativity alive.”

Both ultimately dream of following Bill Forsyth into the film industry and making a Scottish comedy. They recently fell at the final hurdle of a Scottish Screen selection process with a script about three Clydeside men who hatch a plan to build a rocket to the moon. In the meantime, however, they’re passionate about Still Game, with most of the year ahead devoted to writing, shooting and editing the fifth of six commissioned series.

On paper it’s an improbable hit: ageing yourself is all very well in a sketch show, when half the joke is recognising the familiar clown beneath the make-up, but surely riskier in a sitcom, where believable characters matter more. “I think everybody behaves like a 70-year-old at six in the morning,” jokes Kiernan. “I just have to carry it on from there.”

It seems to have worked in Scotland, where the first episode of the third series attracted 1.5m viewers, making it the most-watched BBC comedy episode here ever. Network controllers in London have proved harder to please, worried that viewers in the home counties would struggle to understand the thickly accented patter — until a network pilot run brought in an audience of more than 3m.
“There are two types of success: the type that gets you on prime time, and the cult type,” says Kiernan. “But 3m to 4m by today’s standards is a big audience share. We’re beginning to feel like establishment. It’s a constant surprise to us that they keep coming back for more.”

Nobody who watched Chewin’ the Fat — which at one point had sewage workers using excrement as face paint — will be surprised that Still Game has what you might call an earthy sense of humour. What’s more unexpected, and arguably the key to its success, is the characters’ disconcerting ability to touch you in the middle of a belly laugh.

“Billy Connolly said there was no such thing as Scottish comedy,” says Hemphill. “But I guess there’s Scottish humour — it’s like Irish humour, Jewish humour — extremely dark, irreverent, pessimistic.

“People sometimes say we’re in bad taste, but I don’t agree. There’s an absolute mountain of gags in there at old people’s expense, but they’re meant lovingly, maybe even in a tender way. The whole philosophy of Still Game is ‘do not go gentle into that good night’. Don’t write off people who still have a lot of life, a lot to give. I think people accept that. Finding humour in a very dark situation can be very uplifting. That’s what life is about, isn’t it?”

Return to Main Page


Add Comment

Search This Site

Syndicate this blog site

Powered by BlogEasy

Free Blog Hosting