ICYMI: Emily Benita on Still Game
Glasgow-based stand-up Emily Benita takes a look at the ultimate Scottish sitcom Still Game. Get it roond ye
Seven years ago, I moved to Scotland for a laugh. Smack bang in the middle of a minor mental breakdown, I sent all my belongings to take the low road – so they could be there before me, natch – while I bought a one-way train ticket, arriving in my new home on April Fool’s Day. It’s the least foolish thing I’ve ever done. Warmly welcomed by the locals, I delved into comedy to do my best to integrate. Though I can quote Burnistoun, Limmy’s Show and Scot Squad – doing the respectful thing by not even attempting an accent – I’ve somehow never managed to see an episode of Still Game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d been raised on a varied, balanced diet of comedy growing up, shot through with a strong Scottish streak. I knew Rab C. Nesbitt because my mum was an avid fan of the philosopher of Govan. He would cheekily peer out of the boxy TV set in her bedroom, look me right in the eye and dispense his own brand of wisdom, string-vest and all. Gregor Fisher did make you feel as if he was talking to you and you alone.
I am forever indebted to the Glaswegian family friends who first showed me Chewin’ the Fat, starring Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan, as well as the dynamic Karen Dunbar. Cross-legged in front of my friends’ TV, the tracking on the VHS shooting a lightning crease across the picture now and again, I gawped as a boy let a swingball hit him again and again in the face because his mother had just told their neighbour she was having to wash the sheets again because he wouldn’t stop masturbating. I don’t think I’d heard anyone use that word on TV before. Oh, and don’t get me started on Invisible Boss. How are they allowed to be this funny? I thought to myself.
So I must have met Jack and Victor at some point back in the day but it wasn’t until now that I got to see them in their final forms. Still Game is set in the fictional Glaswegian borough of Craiglang, which looks eerily like Maryhill. In the first episode, Flittin’, Jack and Victor end up living together in a looming high rise, Osprey Heights. Of all the characters in Chewin’ the Fat, Jack and Victor didn’t seem like the break-out stars who could make the transition to a full series. But the beauty in Hemphill and Kiernan’s writing and performing is that Jack and Victor are well-rounded characters, not caricatures. It’s not what I expected at all.
As we learn from the opening credit sequence, Jack and Victor have been laughing beside each other for a long, long time. They get on each other’s nerves but they’re not bitter or cruel. They’re just crabbit. Without wives or family nearby, it’s the two of them against the world. Beneath the bravado, they’re best friends. And, in quiet moments, they talk to each other about grief and loneliness. It’s astonishing how forward-thinking this feels, given that the first series was broadcast back in 2002, before men’s mental health and elderly isolation were widely discussed.
Compared to Last of the Summer Wine, none of these emotional or slapstick notes are overly sentimental or played for ridicule. Shifts in status and the rally of power dynamics are fertile ground for comedy, which is distinctly different from bullying. It’s holding your head up high, convinced that your Timpsons shoe grips will protect you before you slip on the ice that makes a pratfall funny. Jack and Victor hold their own as they’re faced with the death of their peers, unstable living conditions and growing old disgracefully. Instead of relying on hack, ageist gags, it’s Jack and Victor’s gallus personalities along with the flaws and foibles of their pals that bring the laughs.
Still Game is a love letter to Glasgow and the people who make it. But Jack would just say I’m talking birthday caird pish. That’s me telt.
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