© Mark Fisher - published in Scotland on Sunday
The return of Rab C Nesbitt
IT'S A couple of years ago and Ian Pattison, Gregor Fisher and Colin Gilbert are tucking into a swanky meal at an upmarket Glasgow restaurant. The writer, actor and director are discussing the possibility of bringing back Rab C Nesbitt, the string-vested lowlife philosopher who kept them on top of the comedy heap through eight series until 1999.
Pattison is not keen and he can't help but see the irony. "We're talking about bringing this character back and look at this lunch we're eating," he tells them. "It's about £200 worth. What right have we to revisit this territory?"
The table goes silent.
Some months later, Pattison is watching the television news in a hotel room in Hungary as a terrorist jeep crashes into the glass frontage of Glasgow Airport. He surprises himself with his own reaction. "I wish Rab was back now," he thinks. "He'd have something to say about that."
The thought is enough to persuade him to write one more 45-minute script, which means Govan's most famous street philosopher will be back on our screens by Christmas.
"Going back to Nesbitt is a double-edged sword," says Pattison when we meet in Òran Mór where his new comedy Mums And Lovers is launching the autumn season of A Play, A Pie And A Pint lunchtime theatre. "It's easier because you know thoroughly who all these characters are and how they behave in any situation. But against that, there's more pressure because it's a success and people are already sharpening their claws. It's probably a stupid decision to bring him back, but one that was inevitable."
Pattison has good reason to be cautious. When he first brought Nesbitt to life in a Naked Video sketch in 1986, the writer was in his mid-30s, still a lowly sketch writer, and his memories of his own Govan childhood were strong. These days, however, the success of Rab C Nesbitt, which routinely played to six million people, means he's most at home in Glasgow's fashionable West End, a milieu he wrote about in Looking At The Stars (2006), his third novel, set between Scotland and Hollywood.
"Roughing it for me these days means having no lemon slice for my Earl Grey tea," Pattison deadpans.
He has also learnt to his cost what can go wrong when you don't write from experience. Living in Lambeth at the start of the decade, he decided to write a sitcom about the Caribbean people he saw every day. He submitted the script of The Crouches to the BBC under a pseudonym, certain they would reject it if they knew it was by a white man from Scotland, and didn't reveal his identity until they'd given it the go-ahead. That's when the problems started. It was a culture he simply didn't know well enough.
"I was entirely naive," he says. "It wasn't a particularly good sitcom. I made mistakes. I had to learn the moral lines as I went along. The cast were great and so supportive. It was very difficult for them because they had to justify this white writer to their own people and at the same time be supportive to me. It's a very political issue. I bailed out of The Crouches, which made everybody's life easier. The second series was all black writers."
Luckily, it is less controversial for a man to write about women, as he has done in Mums And Lovers. Starring Gabrielle Quigley, Julie Austin and Shonagh Price, the comedy is about three married women who find themselves tempted to stray on a night out.
"People will recognise the characters and, yes, to some extent they are based on people I know," Pattison says. "In true sitcom tradition, the characters are trapped. The three women are offered a quickening of the pulse, which has been missing from their lives, but it comes at a cost and they have to make that calculation about whether it's worth doing."
If this week's run goes down well, he has a full-length version ready to roll. He always liked writing for Elaine C Smith and Helen Lederer in Naked Video and relishes the chance of putting feisty language into the mouths of the actors. "I find writing for women liberating because you have a licence to say outrageous things," he says. "I don't imagine that I'm some kind of surrogate female, but I can bring the directness of male speech to female communication and that works quite well."
As with Rab C Nesbitt, he has tried to root the play in reality, without forcing a political argument on it. "If you don't bring in the external world, it always seems like half a play," he says. "I don't like things to be too self-contained and self-referential. I want to know what's happening outside that door and what happened before these people arrived at that table.
"The politics should be implicit. If they're not bedded in, these things tend to sit on the play like congealed lard on a stew; ill-fitting. Everything must come from character. If you feel instinctively that you're crowbarring a line into a character's mouth, that small voice will find you out at some point."
He can't bring himself to call Mums And Lovers a comedy in case nobody laughs, but we can reasonably assume they will. Ask him about Glasgow humour, however, and this writer, whose name is synonymous with Rab C Nesbitt, says he doesn't believe it is unique.
"I really don't think there's a Glasgow sense of humour," he says. "I used to think it was class-bound and that working-class humour was pretty much the same up and down the country.
"Then I thought maybe we have something more akin to American humour because it's more direct. When Cheers was shown originally, it had a higher audience figure in Scotland than in the whole network. A lot of the comedy we were being fed on the network was class-bound; it was about the comedy of repression, about people not saying things. Working-class and American humour is in-your-face. If somebody's got an attitude about you, out comes the line."
Whether Glasgow is a uniquely funny place or not, he believes it's time to care less about image and more about real social issues. The man who so brilliantly satirised the values of Glasgow's European City of Culture in 1990 – and provoked one councillor to demand Rab C Nesbitt be axed for projecting a negative image – is adamant that the city should look at the reality, warts and all.
"We caught that mood of change back then," Pattison says. "Here was the old Glasgow clashing with the new, which creates a tension, which creates comedy. What worries me is when the reality is continually flossed to hide everything that's a problem. We should be mature enough to say we have big social problems. Let's admit them."
He is keeping tight-lipped about the plot of the new Rab C Nesbitt script – saying only that "he's an older individual and it would be remiss of me not to take that into account" – but Pattison is keeping open the possibility of more to come. "It'll probably be a one-off, but who knows?" he says. "I suppose it's in the viewers' hands." v
Mums And Lovers, Òran Mór, Glasgow, tomorrow until Saturday www.oran-mor.co.uk
© Mark Fisher, 2008
Sunday, August 31, 2008
© Mark Fisher - published in Scotland on Sunday