Published in Scotland on Sunday
IT’S 2007 and Des McLean is trying to think up the least likely place that Tommy Sheridan could find himself. As a noted impersonator of the socialist firebrand, McLean has been making a series of prank calls for his Clyde 1 radio show, each one more outrageous than the last.
So, with a figurative clenched fist and a voice that rumbles from the back of his throat in a languid west-coast drawl, he puts in a call to the Big Brother production office. “Ah, sister, it’s, er, Tommy here,” he says.
The answer, though, is a surprise. “Tommy, thank God you’ve phoned in person,” says the researcher and before he knows it, McLean is in negotiations for Sheridan’s multi-thousand pound fee. “I kept going: ‘Nae bother, sister,’” says McLean today. “They’d already asked him and she’s telling me how much he’s getting. So I ran out and phoned Tommy and said, ‘I think I’ve gone too far.’ He laughed about it.”
Whether Sheridan is still seeing the funny side of McLean’s impersonations remains to be seen. As the comedian says, Sheridan is not one to take the huff, but since going ahead with the Big Brother appearance in 2009, the charismatic left-winger has suffered a spectacular fall from grace.
Watching Sheridan’s calamitous journey has become a national past-time. Because of conflicting evidence in his initially successful defamation case against the News Of The World in 2006, the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party was charged with perjury. At first, he laughed off allegations that he had attended sex parties in Glasgow and Manchester. He even opened his 2007 Fringe chat show with The Jungle Book’s I Wanna Be Like You with the famous refrain of “I’m the king of the swingers” – not to mention a selection of McLean’s wind-up prank calls.
That was before he was given a three-year prison sentence. He served 13 months in Barlinnie and Castle Huntly open prison and regained his freedom earlier this year. It’s a rise-and-fall story that has the arc of a Shakespearean tragedy: the hero named by the people as the second greatest Scot after Sir Sean Connery, brought down by a fatal flaw. Or perhaps it has the shape of a classic comedy: the much-loved funny man who falls flat on his face.
That was the thought that struck Rab C Nesbitt writer Ian Pattison whose I, Tommy brings Sheridan, the man and the myth, to the stage. And who better to play the lead than McLean, a stand-up who slips into Sheridan mode at the drop of a hammer and sickle. “Everything’s a speech,” he says, during a lunchtime rehearsal break. “It doesn’t matter if he’s asking you if you want a coffee, he’ll tell you, ‘Why are you having a coffee, because once again, brother, this is all down to…’”
Sitting opposite him, Pattison is anxious not to be misconstrued. To dramatise the life of a living person, let alone one as polarising as Sheridan, could expose any playwright to the charge of manipulating history for their own ends. I, Tommy is unquestionably a comedy, albeit with a sad and serious undercurrent, but it is also based on fact.
Pattison can’t say whether the Sheridans would enjoy it (Gail is played by Michele Gallagher), but he has tried to tell their story with a degree of objectivity. Drawing on the welter of material in the public domain, from newspaper articles to YouTube clips, he has attempted to reach a neutral overview of his own. “The people who come in pro-Tommy will go out pro-Tommy,” he says. “The ones that come in anti-Tommy will go out anti-Tommy. I don’t think there’s anything that changes people’s minds at this stage in the game.”
His solution was to take one step back. “Your personal feelings about that story are neither here nor there. You’re just looking at the arc of events, which is what I’ve tried to do as dispassionately as possible – although with a comic spin. With Des and myself it can’t be anything else because we don’t have a choice, that’s the way it comes out of us. It’s got a dramatic spine with comedy clothes on top.”
For McLean, the challenge of taking on such an archetypal story was too tempting to resist. “Tommy, everybody knows,” he says. “People grew up with Tommy in the 1980s. How many other politicians would you want to go and see their story? I can’t think of any. The Alex Salmond Story? But Tommy, people see him in different lights. They see him as a celeb, as a politician, as a charismatic guy who took on the poll tax… everyone’s got an opinion on Tommy.”
This is the reason Pattison thinks the story has ramifications beyond the fall of one politician. “This is a very small country and Tommy was such a popular guy, it feels like a rift in the family,” he says. “When Tommy left the SSP, it was a bit like Hen Broon had fallen out with Joe Broon; we felt it personally and I don’t think it’s ever been quite resolved. That’s been to the detriment of the left because, arguably, we need a cohesive left in Scotland more than we have done for some time. For the body politic, it’s good to have disparate voices.”
And much as it’s tempting to make light of Sheridan’s downfall, we can’t deny our own complicity. “Whatever happened to Tommy happened to us,” says Pattison. “We are to blame as much as he is to blame. This is a very small culture and maybe there’s a lesson for us for the future. Maybe the lesson is distrust leaders, be more critical. The press lapped up Tommy in the same way that the voters did. They became uncritical. We let our guard down. It didn’t do Tommy any favours and it didn’t do us any favours. Maybe we should just be careful about hero worship.”
I, Tommy, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Friday until 27 August. www.gildedballoon.co.uk. Tours Scotland in the autumn