… to a big Thumbs up

Forgive what’s going to be a self-indulgent ramble, but it hit me the other day that it’s now eight years since I started podcasting.

I can never actually remember how the Thumbcast got started.  I’d been producing and overseeing podcasts through the dayjob, and somewhere along the way that turned into an idea about doing one myself.

But in all honesty I can’t remember how or why  or when, just that it must have happened.  One of those weird ideas that probably started as pub chat and ended up with, on June 29, my pal, the bold Craig McGill, and I sat at the dining table in my flat, either end of a Blue Snowball mic, chatting about… stuff.

Although on later shows we’d have a running order (all nicely printed out and usually never really stuck to) , that first show was literally the two of us just chatting about stuff.  We didn’t even have a name for the show at that point – it evolved out of a joke Craig made about Megan Fox’s thumbs being weird looking.

Recording the Thumbcast – the later home set-up

A mate once asked if we’d used the name because everything we talked about was stuff you operated with your thumb – games, remote controls, that kind of thing.  I wish we’d had the wit to come up with that.  It was entirely down to a cheap gag instead.

But it stuck, and the podcast rolled along.  After a couple of episodes were done via Skype we realised that didn’t work – a combination of crappy internet connections and talking over each other too much.  So instead, we stuck to doing the show face to face, finding time between work commitments and home life to record.  Usually over my dining room table, albeit with an ever more elaborate set-up thanks to my then-partner and her home studio gear, which meant that despite recording in a room the size of Wookey Hole, we managed to cut down on the echo and make it sound like a real podcast.

It’s weird listening to those early episodes.  There’s plenty of stuff that falls into the ‘probably seemed a good idea at the time’ – Stephen Hawking guest-hosting the Christmas episode, especially – and too many gags that in retrospect should have had the scissors taken to them.  But tonally, even if the structure isn’t quite there yet, it feels like we hit the ground at a decent jog and kept going from there.

Frankly, most of that is down to Craig.  Very much the funny one of the two of us.  If anything saved those early shows it’s him, having the wit and smarts to keep the show moving.  The tone of The Thumbcast was very much set by him, and there’s no way in hell it would have survived the way it did without him.  The few episodes he wasn’t on (for family reasons, work reasons, or because he was off having a camera shoved up his rectum), it always felt like something was missing. Except when Eddie Pearson – the Matalan McGill – stood in for him, obviously.

It was like that old line about The Mary Whitehouse Experience on radio – the episodes without Punt or Dennis were darker, the episodes without Baddiel were sillier (and the episodes without Newman, nobody noticed any difference… (none of which is true, by the way.)

If there was anything I learned from doing the show, it was this: always surround yourself with funny people.  It makes it a fucking sight easier to concentrate on the production and the process if your job is effectively to be the straight man.

That’s why the guests we had on the podcast were, with perhaps one exception, folk we knew and/or thought were great.  Not famous, Rab Florence aside perhaps, but folk we’d heard and seen elsewhere being effortlessly funny.  It’s why we kept asking back folk like Al Kennedy and Eddie Pearson. You could stick them in front of the mic and not need to give them any direction or try and lead the conversation – they were experienced enough and sharp enough to (rightly) steal the show.

Occasionally it didn’t quite work.  One guest turned out to be awful, without naming names – not offensive, just dull and virtually unsalvageable.  But that was a rare exception – by and large we were blessed, partly through knowing who would work, and partly through them just getting it when they walked in.

Craig and I recording the anniversary episode at Glasgow University in 2014. This is, as far as I know, the only photo of us doing the podcast. Thankfully.

All the guest episodes were recorded in studio.  By and large, we used Gogo Studios, just off the top of Sauchiehall St.  It was a cramped, third floor recording booth built in a townhouse. Most of the space in the soundproofed bit of the room was taken up by a drum kit none of us had the bottle to play, overseen by a studio manager-cum-engineer who, once he worked out we didn’t need much in the way of producing, used to disappear off onto the cool balcony of the sweatbox studio for a puff or two of what always smelled suspiciously like Iranian tobacco.

That studio was a gift and a curse.  Because it was a sealed, proper studio environment it cut out any external noise, and Phil the producer’s mastering of the tracks meant little actual work was needed on processing the audio – beyond editing the occasional slander, suspect joke or comment about [redacted] flogging CDs up the Barras.

But it was also cramped and stupidly hot.  I’d bring water in with me because frankly there was no way we’d get through a live recording without it – throats would dry up in the buzzy, sweltering atmosphere, even during the winter.

Having a drink was one of the great myths of the podcast though.  Craig and I have both been asked about how drunk we were doing it but the honest truth is we weren’t.

There’s one Christmas episode where we’re both having a glass of wine during it, and one where everyone involved’s had a pint while we waited to get into the studio.  But there was only one episode where anyone was actually properly drunk – Cara Ellison’s guest appearance, when she joined the show having been on the piss with Rab Florence for the afternoon.  But it turned out to be probably one of the best episodes we did.  Certainly one of the two most talked about.

The other was the Fighting Talk episode, which comes up again and again whenever the Thumbcast gets mentioned.  

It was, undoubtedly, the most listened-to episode we did in the run – to the extent that it broke into the iTunes top ten chart, albeit briefly and back in the days when there wasn’t quite so podcasting competition. 

iTunes UK, April 2010. Back when the internet wasn’t quite so populated by loons.

It was also the most divisive thing we ever did on the show.  For a lot of people coming to the podcast because of the appearances of Al and Paul, Damon and Ewan, it was the entry point, but a lot of the regular listeners complained that it was too self-indulgent and not what they expected from an episode.

They probably had a point.  The show had a format by then which Fighting Talk ran a coach and horses through.  But it was never meant to be seen as a regular show (it’s technically labelled as episode 9A) and it was about us just seeing what we could and couldn’t do as a show, rather than deliberately changing the structure forever.

The FT episode was a riot. We recorded in Edinburgh – the only episode of the original run not to be recorded in Glasgow – at Banana Row studios, getting a pint in beforehand.  Paul O’Brien did genuinely win a bottle of Jack Daniels for his defend the indefensible.  Ewan Spence brought along his hand puppet of Cthulhu and got it out in the pub, getting a Billy Connolly-esque look from Damon.  The studio had no idea what we were doing, and the occasionally baffled looks from through the glass in the control room were as funny as anything on the podcast.

And it was funny.  For all folk might have thought it was self indulgent, it’s got three gags that I still maintain to this day were the funniest on the podcast – Craig’s revamp of the Meddling Monk, Damon’s Schindler’s List line, and Al’s film suggestion for a 3D reboot which genuinely brought the house down.

Thumbcast Episode 9A – The copyright baiting Fighting Talk episode from 2010…

We talked, at one point, about doing FT as a regular thing, running a second panel-game podcast alongside the main one.  So all the naysayers dodged a bullet.

I asked the other day on Twitter what people’s favourite episode or moment was.  FT and Drunk Cara always come up, although occasionally the answers were a bit more unexpected…

We fucked about with the show a lot.  Changing format, release schedule, presenters, theme music (the ukulele version arranged by a pal who’d produce the fifth anniversary episode at Glasgow Uni for us).  Trying a video episode, with varying degrees of failure, before the growth of Youtubers was a thing.  Even the length became flexible, with the previously strictly 45-min episodes running up to a brutal 100+mins plus at times.

Despite that, we weirdly managed to hang on to a lot of our audience.  Craig got recognised at the GFT.  I got asked to talk about pop culture on Radio Scotland.  The daft wee show we did every few weeks, making daft jokes about Barrowman and Batman ended up doing rather well.

The last ever running order from the original series – and the results for the Christmas awards show

The original run ended when I fucked off to the Gulf for work.  We played about with doing a couple of live music episodes, after the Christmas soundtrack episode turned out well, and did a few more after a surprise fifth anniversary reunion in 2014, but distance and time and the state of the podcast market meant it never quite clicked – despite some of those episodes being pretty damn great in themselves (Aaron Smithies‘ despairing review of Lucy being a particularly brilliant moment).

Craig and I have threatened, semi-jokingly, to do a 10th anniversary episode in 2019, assuming we’re not living in a Trumpian recreation of the second half of Threads by that point.  That said, the episodes are offline now, the website gone – even the URL’s been grabbed by some spam artists.  So this is as much a eulogy as a rambling remembrance.

It’s hard to do justice to the 40-odd episodes in just a few hundred words. Craig’s Bono story.  Reviewing the awful Macbeth remake with Sam Worthington. Eddie’s True Blood rant.  Al’s Brian Cox impression.  Too many silly tales and fond memories.

And of everything I’ve done, professionally and in my usual amateurish way, I’m probably most proud of that show.  More than anything else, doing The Thumbcast gave me the confidence to do other stuff.  It made me a better communicator, and a better critic.  It made me more confident at public speaking. I’d never have done proper radio, let alone hosting my own radio show, had I not had the experience of working in front of a mic doing the podcast.

And I’d never have had the chance to meet and work with ridiculously talented, brilliantly funny men and women up and down the land – folk it’s an honour to call friends – had I not done it. And I’d certainly never have done FTS or Braw without having done the Thumbcast.

So whatever happens, I owe it and everyone involved in it a big debt of gratitude.  Or at the very least, given it’s the eighth anniversary, a bronze medal.

And thanks Megan.  Big thumbs up from me.

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