Only an Excuse: The Final Whistle

BBC1 Scotland/iPlayer ***

SIR Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Kirsty Wark - you could judge the importance of Only an Excuse in Scottish life by the great and the good who turned out to wave it cheerio.

Alas, you could also see why this was the last ever outing for the BBC1 Scotland show, a Hogmanay TV regular since 1993. If a week is a long time in politics it is an aeon on television. The programme that originally replaced Scotch and Wry was as ready for the Fran and Anna Retirement Home as Still Game had been before it.

The last episode under creator Phil Differ and the show’s star, Jonathan Watson, was an hour long blend of tribute with a handful of new sketches dotted here and there. The contemporary stuff was inevitably Covid-driven and obvious, not a lot to detain viewers there.

What we came for, what we always came for in good years and bad, were Watson’s impressions of the big names, of King Kenny, Sir Alex, and the first grade wallopers, led by Frank “Where’s the burdz?” McAvennie. All, with the absence of Fergie, came to praise Watson for getting them just right, from McAvennie’s child-like glee (“Brilliant”) to Souness’s rather more tight-lipped testimonial (“He’s got me.”)

There was a minibus full of well-kent BBC faces, from Cosgrove and Cowan to a new double act of Muriel Gray and Kirsty Wark (a Waitrose Statler and Wardorf if ever there was one), both of whom attested to Only An Excuse’s legendary ability to attract women viewers who did not give a free kick about football.

As Sir Kenny said, “Everybody took it in good nature. It was just fun. If you cannae laugh at yourself you’ve got a problem, haven’t you?”

Only an Excuse was indeed Scotland laughing at itself for the good stuff - the fitba craziness, the sentimentality, the inextinguishable dreams of greatness regained.

Here and there, it had bravely broached the ugly stuff as well, sectarianism chief among them. The spoof of the Cadbury ad featuring a gorilla, Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, and “Sons of Larkhall” drum, repeated last night, still took the breath away with its daring. This was genuinely courageous comedy, the kind of material that fearful types stayed away from lest it resulted in hassle in the street (or God forbid worse). Only an Excuse got away with it because it gave both Celtic and Rangers pelters with equal gusto.

If there had been more of this edgier material the show might have lasted longer. But this is the age of Frankie Boyle and Charlie Brooker, the take no prisoners era. Satire should not be greeted warmly by the world it lampoons. You would never catch David Steel, for instance, praising the depiction of himself in Spitting Image as a little squirt in David Owen’s jacket pocket, or Norman Tebbit loving his “skinhead” look.

For the most part, Only an Excuse was happy to be a pal to football and Scottish society in general. The same auld face that came round every Hogmanay was proof that while nothing stood still - he died, she moved away, the grand weans came along - some things would always remain the same.

At the centre of it all was Watson, Scottish comedy’s strongest man, the performer who carried the show almost single handedly for more than a quarter of a century. Like some mad chef he reduced football’s famous faces to their essence and watched as we dunked in our bread and soaked it up. It is time he moved on.

Time, too, for Only an Excuse to come to a close. As we were reminded in the last episode, the new face of Scottish sport is more likely to be young and female rather than middle-aged and male. Scotland needs fresh comedy, material that reflects a changing nation, although for heaven’s sake let us always retain the ability to laugh at ourselves.

By hour’s end it was time to get the collective coat and head off towards the bells. What better way to do so than with a montage to Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, the new, unofficial Scotland anthem. Dear Only an Excuse, at your best you could dance like Travolta, and for that we bid you a fond, very fond, farewell.