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Meeting the Still Game gang

The sun's blazing down on a Glasgow still thronged with Commonwealth Games visitors and I'm sitting in the posh west end eaterie of a posh west end hotel, growing steadily more convinced of this fact:

The Still Game cast in full swing during series two of the hugely popular show
The Still Game cast in full swing during series two of the hugely popular show

that anyone who thinks herding cats is the best way to describe trying to impose order on chaos has never sat down to lunch with the cast of Still Game. Better make mine a double, barman.

I'm here because you - 200,000 people and counting - have bought tickets to see them - actors Paul Riley, Sanjeev Kohli, Gavin Mitchell, Jane McCarry and Mark Cox - slap on wigs, latex and dubious facial hair and join Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill on stage at the SSE Hydro for a revival of the much-loved sitcom.

Still Game: Live At The Hydro was initially slated for a four-night run, but such was the demand for tickets, it has been extended to 16 nights and a whopping 21 performances. Naturally it has sold out - no small feat given the venue's 13,000 capacity. Last week, a further 10,000 tickets were made available. They're fast on their way to vanishing too.

Curtain up is September 19, still a month away yet, but phenomenal ticket sales mean a phenomenal level of expectation. So I'm here to talk to these five Glaswegian actors about what they think Still Game means to the tens of thousands of fans who have paid up to £45 for tickets to see the world of Jack Jarvis and Victor McDade remade for the stage.

But before I can direct their attention to the subject at hand, there are one or two false turns and conversational cul-de-sacs to be dragged down. Like I said, herding cats has nothing on this lot. There is, for instance, the question of who's paying for this lunch. It matters because there's already a mounting drinks bill.

"Is this going to be like a record company where you end up paying for it yourself?" asks Sanjeev Kohli. "I always remember that George Michael story about the first time Wham! were on Top Of The Pops and had to get the bus home because their money hadn't come through ..."

There's also Gavin Mitchell's Rolf Harris impersonations to suffer - topical, if not exactly tasteful - and the question of whether it's true David Bowie once wrote a song for Elvis Presley. Kohli raises the issue. I have no idea why. It's not like there's an embarrassing lull in the conversation that needs filling.

Mitchell has a ready answer, though. "No," he snaps with such an air of authority that everyone stops worrying about the bill and his Rolf Harris impression and what the menu might mean by "mushroom veloute" and listens in. "Bowie entered a competition to write the lyrics for My Way for Sinatra. It's very rare, but you can get his version on YouTube. But it was originally by a French guy, Claude someone. He did the melody."

Mitchell knows this because (a) he's a Bowie obsessive and (b) he recently spent a day on Facebook discussing it with other Bowie obsessives. "And by sheer coincidence, the day we were doing that was the 30th anniversary of the day the French guy died. He died changing a light bulb in the bath."

For the record, it was Claude Francois and that was indeed how he met his end.

Anyway, now that's sorted it's time for a question: how did they find out that Kiernan and Hemphill had squared their differences and were getting the old team back together?

"Initially it was a conversation between myself and Greg and Ford," says Riley, who plays Winston Ingram, Jack and Victor's money-loving friend. "Then Jane found out through Mark and so on. Then it became official when it went down south and a promoter took charge of it. Next thing we knew was the press conference."

That was last October. Reflecting then on the dissolution of his creative partnership with Kiernan in 2007, Hemphill said: "We never really stopped talking completely, so there was always the chance we would get around to bringing the show back. But for me, the catalyst was watching the arrival of The Hydro. We figured it would be an incredible arena to play. And now that is what we're planning to do."

"I don't think Still Game has ever been out of the public consciousness," says Mitchell. "On a daily basis we're all asked about it. It's been a huge part of our lives. It was just on pause, really."

"I felt that to come back it would have to be something different or something special," says McCarry. She plays Isa Drennan, Jack and Victor's gossiping neighbour. "So when I heard that we were going to do it again, I was glad that it was going to be something completely different."

"I was a prisoner of war so it was harder to get the news through to me," adds Kohli, who plays sarcastic and heavily-bearded Asian shopkeeper Navid Harrid. "I was in this cane cage ..."

"... in Millport," quips Mitchell.

"No I got an email," Kohli continues. "I went: 'A stage show? Really?' It was quite surreal … We knew it was going to be the Hydro but we were told Crieff."

Cox, who plays Tam Mullen, is more sanguine about the project and the challenges it presents.

"A lot of the work was in place," he says. "It's not like we're putting on new characters. People know what they're coming to see. So that's a part of it. It's not new ground, and that's very important."

"Not as important as ordering," says Riley as a waitress arrives for our starter orders.

"Do you do steak bakes?" asks Mitchell.

Riley: "Whit's a mushroom veloute?"

REWIND nearly 20 years. It's 1997 and Jack, Victor and Winston are making their stage debut in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe. Hemphill and Kiernan are playing Victor and Jack, of course, reprising characters they first aired in short-lived TV comedy series Pulp Video. Mitchell had played Winston in that show but has been replaced by Riley - or "super sub", as he puts it. Isa is referred to but never seen and most of the action takes place in a block of flats with a broken lift.

"We did the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh, that was the first port of call," says Riley. "It held about 150 people. We got the carpet out of my maw's loft, cadged a suite from someone and ran toothpaste through our hair. That was the concession to being old. We just got on and did it. It started half-full then started to fill up through word of mouth."

Karen Koren, doyenne of Fringe comedy, put her not inconsiderable muscle behind the show and it toured to Newcastle, Belfast and, eventually, Canada. It was there that Riley had his first (but not his last) experience of being the butt of the Kiernan/Hemphill humour. It started when they told him he'd have to take a certain domestic appliance with him to North America.

"They said, 'It's the electrics and a' that, it's a' different' and I bought it. I checked in a Hoover at the airport."

From there, Riley, Kiernan and Hemphill found their way into Chewin' The Fat. The BBC Scotland comedy sketch show ran between 1999 and 2002, and soon had schoolchildren across the country trotting out catchphrases like "Gonnae no dae that?" and "Ah smell s***e".

Then, on September 1, 2002, Still Game made its debut on BBC One Scotland. The spin-off provided Jack and Victor with their own show and introduced the watching world to Winston, Isa, Navid and Tam. Mitchell was handed the role of Boaby, barman in local boozer The Clansman. The series ran for 44 episodes, including Christmas and Hogmanay specials and, from series three onwards, it was networked UK-wide. It found particular favour in northern England, as Mitchell discovered one day in Blackpool when he was accosted by a mixed group of English and Scottish fans. He was touring at the time with the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Tutti Frutti and was on his way to the theatre for a matinee performance. And then this happened ...

"I just suddenly got grabbed by the arms," he says "I thought I was getting mugged at first. Then they grabbed my legs and just lifted me up like a rag doll and held me above their heads and started going 'Boaby, Boaby! Boaby, Boaby!'. They turned me round and ran into a pub with me. Then they threw me around between them and sat me on the bar like a wee kid and said, 'What are ye havin' to drink, big man?' I said 'I'm on my way to work' and they said 'F*** off, you'll have a drink'. So eventually I had to have a drink with them and talk them into letting me go."

"That's a w*****'s pudding," says Riley to Cox, as the dessert orders are taken. He's opted for pear tart, to his colleague's extreme disapproval. Someone mentions banoffee pie Friday, which was something of an on-set ritual during filming of Still Game. I think I hear the words sticky toffee pudding from someone else and suddenly we're off down another conversational by-road, this one sugar-coated.

Rehearsals proper for Still Game's new, banoffee pie Friday-free 2014 manifestation haven't started when we meet. But the cast have seen the script, and Riley and Mitchell have been to the Hydro for a recce: they went to see Peter Gabriel perform there shortly after that October press conference.

"Everyone was looking at Gabriel and I'm looking the opposite way checking out the building going, 'Naw, this isn't remotely intimidating'," says Mitchell. But he takes solace from the loyalty of the fans he meets. "People are saying to me 'What are you nervous for? It's going to be brilliant.' They have every faith in you, and that's lovely. None of them are going: 'Ho ho, you're gonnae die.'"

Despite having never acted on stage before, Kohli is equally unfazed by the prospect of performing live in front of 13,000 people.

"As much as the script is amazing, it will be enough just for everyone to be in that room," he says. "Because on the first night we can't predict how things are going to pan out, the audience will be very forgiving, I think. Because we will still be finding out feet, hopefully we can't lose. I take solace from the fact that it's new for everyone in the sense of doing something this size on a stage like that."

"Is that all you're hanging onto?" snorts Riley from the other end of the table.

The cast are under instructions not to divulge any specific script details, so I try digging for others instead. Like: what's the running time?

"If nobody laughs, 30 minutes," says Kohli.

And the set?

"It's all done on ice."

There's a moon sequence too, he claims, while Mitchell says he's heard they'll be wearing oversized It's A Knockout-style mock-ups of their characters. Not for the first time today, I reach for a pinch of salt. This being a posh west end eaterie in a posh west end hotel, it's probably of the smoked Cornish rock variety.

Cox, at least, is a little more generous with the information.

"I think it's fair to say we haven't moved far from the environment that was on the television, so there'll be representations of those various places." Expect all the favourite haunts then, and maybe a few extras into the bargain. It's a big stage, after all.

And who, I ask, is going to have the most difficult make-up job on the night?

"Me, because I'm not Asian," says Kohli, to guffaws of laughter. "This is all make-up." He points to his skin. Mind you, he admits, "I do have the most face furniture." Couldn't he just grow a beard, instead of having to have a stick-on one? "My beard isn't as white as Navid's," he explains. "I've got two white streaks on the chin, so I'd look like I'd swallowed a skunk and left the tail hanging out. Mind you, I'd probably rather do that because it's mad itchy."

"My make-up will eventually be the longest," adds Mitchell, at 49 the oldest cast member present. "I'll be the only one who really ages, so they'll have to make me look young. I'll be going in the opposite direction. It'll be like an episode of Dr Who."

Actually, viewing Still Game as an exercise in time travel isn't as stupid as it sounds. The other actors are still in their early to mid-40s and even Kiernan is only 52 while the characters they play are a full 30 years older. In other words, there are going to be plenty more opportunities like this to dust them down - and isn't the prospect of seeing the Still Gamers perform in their 70s a mouth-watering one?

But, more poignantly, how does their own experience of ageing in the 12 years since they became Isa, Tam, Winston, Boaby and Navid change how they view a show which is, in part at least, about that same thing?

"I suppose everyone's become fathers or mothers and also lost people," says Mitchell. "It's just the journey of life and a lot of those episodes of Still Game reflect that. So it does resonate."

"I think it's quite truthful in many ways," says Cox. "It's not outrageous. People really buy into it."

Truthful to what?

"To universal truths about growing older," says Mitchell. "About dealing with problems and just surviving."

For McCarry, it's also a show about community "and people want to see that. They want to see people like their neighbours, like their family members. And while we don't have any money in the show, what we do have is really lovely in that we're all close".

So is it about nostalgia, too?

No, says Kohli. "I don't think it is, because eight-year-old boys love it. It's one of the few shows that families will watch together even though there's swearing in it, and Ford and Greg have been very clever because they let the pathos breathe. There's a beautiful moment in one episode where Jack and Victor have a stand-up argument. There's about 45 seconds or a minute with no laughs in it and they're not afraid to let those moments run. It gets undercut in the end, but I think that's one of the reasons people get so behind it."

And people are still getting behind it as Cox, Riley, Kohli, Mitchell and McCarry well know. I hear stories from them of people passing round Still Game boxsets in Los Angeles, of Mexican barmen who adore the show, of fans in Paris who have never been to Glasgow but who have (somehow) seen it. And why all the love? Because Still Game is real and funny and sometimes sad, I suppose, and because it shows that mostly you can rely on your friends but sometimes you can't - and that's a pretty good summation of life.

Still Game: Live At The Hydro runs from September 19 to October 10. Visit www.thessehydro.com or www.ticketmaster.co.uk for more information or call 0844 395 4000

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