I DON'T like to look a gift horse in the mouth. For a start, I'm not particularly horsey - I've borne an equestrian grudge ever since I was violently decanted during a pony trek in Arran.
But I also don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth lest I deconstruct said gift horse and cause its evaporation. For the purposes of this article, though, I am choosing to hold my breath and fix my lasers on the tonsils of a particularly gratifying horse of the species "gift".
Let me spell it out for you: Still Game. It started as a small stage play back in 1997; it was about two Glasgow pensioners, old pals and widowers who live on the same floor of a tower block. Then Jack and Victor were regular characters in BBC1 sketch show Chewin' The Fat.
In 2002, they graduated to full TV sitcom, which saw them fannying about their scheme, incorporating a lot of chat in their front rooms, with occasional visits to the pub, the bookies and the local shop.
And now there's to be a stage show. Ticket sales? 200,000, and counting. As Scooby-Doo once said: "Huh?"
What exactly is the appeal of Still Game? I've never been in any doubt the show was popular. Despite having never made an episode since 2007, I was getting two or three people daily asking me when the show was coming back.
At least once a week someone will brandish a phone in my direction and ask me to call his wife a "boot". This is a reference to my character Navid Harrid's favourite insult to his wife, Meena. (Either that or it's a particularly maverick form of marriage guidance, and one that I hope bears dividends for a guy, Dougie, I met in aisle 37 in Ikea.)
The Dalai Lama even went on hunger strike, promising to break it only if "those eejits knock their heids thegither and make mair Still Game for f***'s sake".
OK, that last one was a lie. But it would have been no more surprising than the actual reality that kicked in the other week, when plans for next year's stage show were first announced. Surreal doesn't even begin to cover it.
On Wednesday, October 23, the Still Game cast gathered for a press conference in Glasgow's new Hydro arena. Standing in that vast building, I had two thoughts: "You could play a game of cricket in here and the ball wouldn't hit the ceiling."
And: "I wonder if they're all pure shiting it as well." Fourteen dinner plates for eyes answered my second question beyond all reasonable doubt.
I know for a fact Greg (Hemphill) was worried. He told me later that, standing in that empty Hydro, he'd seriously wondered if he and Ford (Kiernan) had oversold the show. Could they really fill the Hydro once, let alone four times? One Tyson-Holyfield scale press conference and 36 hours later, that question was answered.
Now? We're staring down the barrel of a 16-show run in the biggest venue in Scotland. Even as I write those words, the gift horse is getting a serious case of tonsillitis. People love this show even more than any of us, probably even collectively, had ever imagined.
Now, let me clear something up. I am not pure up myself. I do not write this show. Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan created all of these characters and write every single word (as well as co-starring as Jack and Victor). In latter years, yes, they have hired a Bangladeshi orphan to do all the punctuation, but they are the towering geniuses presiding over this phenomenon.
I, frankly, show up, stick a beard on my coupon, shove a pillow up my duke, strap my Govanhill Glasgow-Asian twang on and say the words. I have been incredibly fortunate to be involved in the show at all, and recent mind-blowing events have merely served to put the tin lid on it.
I am as big a fan of Still Game as anyone. I adored the original stage show; if you haven't seen it, seek it out on DVD, and if after that the words "South Africa" don't make you spit tea through your nose, I suggest you have a swinging brick for a heart. In Chewin' The Fat, Jack and Victor were among my favourites. Here was where we first got a taste of what set the characters apart: violence and swearing.
The belting dialogue and characterisation were a given - Ford and Greg are the most gifted writer/performers we have - but I think it was the violence/swearing axis that made these guys unique. I couldn't imagine any other show where one pensioner would deliberately Taser another pensioner in the testicles, or use the words: "I hold you responsible, ya arsehole" (a phrase that is bandied around in our house to this day).
That, I felt, was the point of these characters, indeed their unique selling point: they still had a bit of grit, a bit of attitude. Too often older characters on television are bland, like they've been through the dishwasher one too many times. Horribly patronising. These two gentlemen were "dishwasher-safe", indirectly making the supremely valid point that our older citizens are every bit as relevant as they were during their younger years.
And then they spun it off into the TV series, Still Game. A logical move; even if you'd never seen the original stage show, it was clear that Jack and Victor had a rich history that was there for the plundering. But then they created this wonderful ensemble of characters. It's a wonderful, because, like the Simpsons, everyone has their favourite.
And, like the Simpsons, that favourite can change from week to week. I know mine does. Between Jack making the carrot pipe, and Victor doing The Slosh, and Tam saying "cancer" in his wonderful sing-song voice, and Isa's reaction to Navid's hair-dye job, and Winston's look when his false leg flies out of the window, and Boabby the barman's beautifully awkward demeanour when he thinks the boys are gay - in itself, a refreshingly non-obvious reaction - and pretty much everything Meena says ... it's hard to pick a winner.
But I'm going to concentrate on the one I know best. And that's Navid. I must admit to having slight reservations when I was first approached to play the character. I personally was delighted, but I did worry what the reaction might be: "One Scottish Asian on the telly? And he's a shopkeeper?"
Did I really want to prop up this stereotype? I decided that the answer was "yes". Because the fact is, it's a stereotype because it's true: there are a disproportionate number of Asian families in Scotland (and the UK) running convenience stores.
However, I feel this is a positive stereotype and something to be celebrated. It means that: a) the Asian community is displaying a solid work ethic b) the Asian community is displaying self-sufficiency and resilience in an often hostile job market c) the Asian community is controlling the economy indirectly through sales of Gypsy Creams and bin bags and d) the Asian community has unlimited access to chocolate tools. All worth singing from the rooftops.
I'm sure this sociological treatise was nothing to do with Greg and Ford's characterisation of Navid. They just wanted to write someone funny. And authentic. Because this is a very important point - if Navid had even been half a note wrong, I would have got pelters. In order to walk the tightrope of ethnic portrayal, Navid had to be on the money. My job was to bring the authentic voice and physicality. The boys' job was to bring the authentic words and the characterisation.
Did they manage it? Well, let's put it this way, judging by approximately 300 conversations I've had over the last decade, Navid is based on a shopkeeper in Shettleston, Bishopbriggs, Falkirk, Peterhead, Shawlands, Dunfermline, Ullapool or Greenock. The boys nailed it. And I know for a fact that, in the same way, everyone knows a Jack, a Victor, Winston, a Tam, an Isa, a Boabby. Ford and Greg's observational skills cannot go underestimated.
I guess what's particularly gratifying for me as an Asian who grew up in Scotland is that a 59-year-old Muslim shopkeeper, albeit fictional, would prove so popular. Let's be honest - the portrayal of Asians/Muslims on television and in cinema is far from ideal. And that's because it's tricky. Trust me, I've done it enough times.
The problem is this: how much do you reference the ethnicity? If you over-reference, you're in danger of negative stereotyping; if you under-reference, you start to lose that all-important authenticity. But Navid pulls it off. Because he doesn't come with all the usual hackneyed cultural baggage, eg wishing to immolate his daughter for going out with a white guy and "bringing shame to the family".
No. He's rude, he's witty, he's sarcastic, he takes the piss out of his wife and she gives better than she takes. In a culture which too often demonises Muslims, Still Game humanises them. Well, two of them anyway. But it celebrates the 95% that the ethnic communities have in common with the white community while other productions concentrate on the other 5%.
Seriously, nothing gives me more pleasure than saying "quality" or "tin of totties" in Navid's voice. But here's the clincher for me: equally, Navid's ethnicity is not completely ignored. Yes, he organises his daughter's wedding. Yes, there are Mercs involved. Of course there are. He's Asian. But he doesn't do it in episode one. He does it in episode six. It's a subtle point that might be lost on most people, but it speaks volumes for the subtlety of the writing.
Now, I'm sure Still Game viewers haven't considered any of this on a conscious level. But they've taken it to their hearts. There's a palpably fierce sense of ownership that the people of Scotland reserve for the show. It's the reason they send DVDs to relatives in Canada, Australia and the Middle East. And it's the reason for the ticket sales that caused the website to crash for six hours last Friday week. Which does beggar the question - is it regarded as a particularly Scottish show?
Well, not by me. I don't regard The Royle Family as a particularly Mancunian comedy. There might be a few references I don't completely understand, but that just means I have to do a bit of work to access that world, and with a show as good as The Royle Family it's worth the effort. It's certainly not excluding.
Still Game is undeniably set in Scotland, with some undeniably Scottish vernacular being delivered and some undeniably Scottish Tunnock's items being consumed, but the themes and the comedy are universal. I've spoken to Americans and Germans who have said that Jack and Victor reminded them of their grandfathers. I can't imagine that was down to Tunnock's consumption.
No, I think the reason people have taken the show to their hearts is that the show has a heart itself. Still Game has never been scared of pathos. While sometimes they will undercut the pathos with some vicious black humour (the "hypothermia sweepstake" was inspired), at other times they let the pathos linger and run its course.
One of my favourite Still Game scenes is when Jack and Victor are having a full-on row because Jack is going to see his daughter in Canada and has suggested that Victor phone his son, who, predictably, turns out to be uninterested in his old man's welfare. It's the first time the pair fight - it's joke-free and we really care. After that episode was broadcast, a good friend of mine told me that several people he knew had made a point of phoning their parents that night.
It's this heart that provides a delicious counterpoint for all the earthiness. So many people have told me that it's the only show with swearing in it that they'll let their kids watch. I have only recently let my own kids (aged 12, nine and six) start watching it. I look forward to them seeing the only televisual portrayal I can recall of a pensioner with a full-on erection. Oh, and having to explain to them what a "fanny magnet" is.
Sorry if this has all sounded a bit gushy. But like I say, I'm a fan. As is every plumber who's worked in my house. As is a table of incredibly well-preserved Bearsden "ladies who lunch" who jumped me once at a charity do. As is the actor James McAvoy. As is a skinny band with elaborate hair that got their picture taken with me at T in the Park nine years ago. As is a freckly nine-year-old boy who shouted "Meena, ya boot" at me in a disturbingly low voice while I was playing football.
Still Game seems to have caught every demographic, and I'm sure that they all have their own theories regarding its popularity. I now invite the gift horse to shut its geggy and gallop once more in the fields of oblivion.
(Also, I have to say I like Still Game because I'm not fully signed up to play Navid in the stage show, and Ford and Greg have dropped several heavy hints that they have Ben Kingsley on stand-by.)
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