Hogmanay comedies come and go on BBC Scotland.
From the groundbreaking Scotched Earth Show of 1977 to the holiday specials of Still Game and relative newcomer Scot Squad, via the landmark Scotch and Wry (which marks its 40th anniversary next year), the annual tradition of a comedy show giving the families crammed into the front room awaiting midnight something to laugh at has been a key part of the build up to the bells.
But one show has stood the test of time, with this year’s outing due to become the 25th consecutive Hogmanay edition of Only An Excuse? — the football-decorated tent pole around which the BBC Scotland Hogmanay schedules are constructed.
Notably 2017 also marks the 30th anniversary of the show’s first episode where, like sister show Naked Video, it had begun as a comedy on BBC Radio Scotland.
If you’re not from Scotland, or even have a passing interest in Scottish football, it’s virtually impossible to convey how much a part of the cultural firmament OAE has become in that time. And as with Rory Bremner and Barry Norman, or Mike Yarwood and Harold Wilson, the impersonations of certain figures on the show have come to define the public perception of them far more than the reality.
I first came to it when my cousin loaned me his tape of the radio episodes in the late 1980s. Living in England at the time, some of the characters were unfamiliar, and some of the jokes went higher over my head than a Peter Van Vossen shot on goal.
But what I did understand as a callow youth I laughed at, hysterically. Like most people who heard it, and for whom it remains a circled part of their Radio Times.
The show originally started on Radio Scotland, as a one off spoof of the fabled 1986 BBC Scotland documentary Only A Game, which looked at the evolution of Scottish football ahead of Scotland’s impending first round exit from that year’s World Cup in Mexico.
Jonathan Watson and Tony Roper were already familiar faces and voices from their roles on Naked Radio and its recent TV transfer Naked Video. Playwright and actor Roper was one of the regular contributors on Hogmanay favourite Scotch and Wry, while Watson had found fame as the obsequious rival to Gerard Kelly’s Willie Melvin in popular Scottish sitcom City Lights.
While making Naked Radio, Roper hit upon the idea of doing a football phone-in spoof, based on the legendary Super Scoreboard show on Radio Clyde – and in particular its regular pundit, journalist Jimmy Sanderson.
Roper wrote in his 2014 autobiography:
“Sanderson [was] an expert at getting the callers backs up and then tormenting them by using words they had never heard of,”
“I wanted to do a pastiche sketch on him, but Colin Gilbert [Naked Radios producer] correctly pointed out that it was broadcast on Clyde, which only served Glasgow, and the BBC had to service all of Scotland.
“Eventually he gave in and we did do one featuring Sanderson. It was a great success, so naturally we did more. Then Johnny Watson announced he could do an impression of Jock Wallace, the Rangers manager. Soon we were doing sketches that did not involve Radio Clyde and we started lampooning the whole Scottish football scene.
“Philip went to the head of programmes with the idea of doing a spoof version of Only a Game and Only an Excuse? was born.”
Roper’s impersonation of Sanderson would feature as one of the key skits in the first Only An Excuse?:
Only An Excuse? aired in May 1987, ahead of the station’s coverage of that year’s Scottish Cup final. Watson and Roper provided all the voices, with Watson linking the material via an impression of William McIlvanney, the writer whose distinctive tones had provided narration to Only A Game the year before.
The success of the show was such that it was released by the BBC as an audio cassette, which quickly gained cult appeal, ending up being traded in playgrounds and bootlegged up the Barras in short order.
The pair reunited for a follow-up two years later, with Only Another Excuse?: A Tale of Two Seasons. In the interim Roper had been kept busy, both on screen — thanks to Rab C Nesbitt spinning off from its Naked Video sketch origins to its own sitcom — and off, with his play The Steamie becoming a major hit. Meanwhile Watson was still a regular face on Scottish screens, appearing in both Naked Video and City Lights in the interim.
The new OAE picked over the bones of a tumultuous time in Scottish football as Celtic celebrated their anniversary while rivals Rangers signed Mo Johnson from under their noses in one of the biggest transfer shocks of the time.
A third run, looking at the national team’s performances in the World Cup from 1974 onward, was produced and released across two BBC cassettes in 1990 – ahead of Scotland’s impending first round exit from that year’s World Cup in Italy.
The reputation of the radio shows and the success of the first TV episode lead to Only An Excuse? transferring to the stage in late 1993, under the production of The Comedy Unit, with Watson and Roper performing a mix of topical routines and greatest hits from the previous radio appearances.
“The stage show was a delight to do,” wrote Roper. “Johnny did the Celtic fan and I did the Rangers fan. We both set out to annoy the various factions as much as possible.”
One of the theatre performances was recorded before a celebrity audience — largely comprising personalities being lampooned by the pair, including Rangers manager Walter Smith – and released on VHS, complete with plenty of cutaways to their awkward and clearly not forced in any way whatsoever laughter at having the piss ripped out of them.
And if you keep a close eye on the wide shots, you might just see a 15-year-old me laughing hysterically in the front row…
The stage show came as a precursor to OAE’s jump to television, airing that Hogmanay at 10.35pm — sandwiched in between a New Year’s special of Muriel Gray’s kitsch quiz show The Golden Cagoule and ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly, with Rikki Fulton giving an extended outing to his old reverend character following the retirement of Scotch and Wry the previous year.
The TV translation was far more sketch-based than the radio and stage versions of Only An Excuse?, with the McIlvanney linking material dropped as unnecessary as make-up, costumes and captions made clear who the figures were being lampooned.
One key impression from the start was that of Frank McAvennie, the former Celtic and West Ham striker whose party lifestyle reputation and occasionally odd behaviour — he’d be arrested by police in 1995 for having £100k in cash in his car, which he claimed was to fund deep sea treasure hunting — was turned into an iconic impersonation by Watson that continues to this day.
The TV version of Only An Excuse? quickly defined certain figures from Scottish football. Jim White, Chick Young, Graeme Souness and Denis Law were perhaps the biggest victims — or beneficiaries — of the TV version, with Watson’s impersonations of Young in particular as famous, if not more so, than the real thing.
A special summer episode, which received a surprise network airing, was aired in June 1994 – although this didn’t precede Scotland’s impending exit from that year’s World Cup in the USA as the national team had failed to qualify. Mind you, England hadn’t qualified either.
Using a broader spread of figures from British football than the confines of the Scottish Premier League, Watson and Roper added some new faces to their repertoire — such as Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona – to try and appeal to the wider BBC 1 audience.
It wasn’t wholly successful — probably not least because, for all the Anglo-friendly inclusions, it still relied heavily on gags that would mean more to a Scottish audience, such as Roper’s barking mad take on Dundee United’s odd manager Ivan Golac.
Instead, barring another networked special in 1996, the show would remain a fiercely Scottish tradition, known only to viewers north of the border or those who tuned their Sky receiver into BBC One Scotland on Hogmanay because they couldn’t face another Hootenanny.
After another stage run in late 1994, Roper would bow out from Only An Excuse?, admitting that he was struggling to maintain enthusiasm for the format after nearly a decade working on it’s various formats.
In his autobiography, he wrote:
“The show was still hugely popular, but I had somehow lost the enthusiasm for it.
“Philip [Differ, OAE’s producer] was very understanding and asked why I felt that way. I explained that for me the constant repetition of the format was probably the reason and suggested mixing it up with non-football-orientated items as well. He was not really enamoured of that and so I decided to end my association with the show.
“Isobel thought I was off my head, but I felt if my heart wasn’t in it then that would be detrimental to the show and I had no wish for that to happen.”
Drafted in to replace Roper were two new faces. Lewis MacLeod was already a well kent voice and face from comedy roles on TV, while Greg Hemphill had been hosting the first – and most controversial – run of Radio Scotland’s own comedy football phone-in, Off The Ball, alongside Sanjeev Kholi and OAE writer Tam Cowan.
The change in format meant Watson taking on some of Roper’s former impersonations — including Sir Alex Ferguson, with Macleod doing the heavy lifting in terms of the remaining voices.
The following year, MacLeod and Hemphill were replaced by English impressionist Alistair McGowan – well known for hosting various football and sports comedy videos and Radio Five Live shows, who would contribute skits over the next couple of years.
But as the 1990s progressed Only An Excuse? became focused around Watson, and his repertoire of impersonations, meaning a larger focus on the likes of McAvennie and Denis Law. Various comedy performers from the Scottish circuit would join in supporting roles, but the focus would firmly now be on Watson’s performances.
Watson and Philip Differ would spin the show off into new ventures as well — with Watson popping up on former writer Cowan’s sports chat show Offside to do a weekly stand-up impression segment. The theatre shows continued on until the mid 2000s, while most bafflingly of all, Differ and Watson would write an Evening Times column in the style of the various characters, remarking on the week’s news.
New blood would join the writing staff of the shows over the years as the show slowly broadened its horizons and targets. It never fully embraced the non-sports approach that Roper had asked for in 1995, but gradually new writers — including the likes of Burnistoun’s Robert Florence – would touch on non-football topical issues, or have the show’s regular characters commenting on topical issues.
As a result, Watson’s repertoire expanded, including the likes of Gordon Ramsey and former First Minister and Russian TV host Alex Salmond. But the show clung to its Old Firm friendly roots — meaning that, even in 2016, McAvennie was still a key part of the sketches, having become the show’s IM Jolly in as much as it was a crowd favourite anchoring the rest of the skits.
Over the years new shows would join it in the Hogmanay line-up, perhaps most notably the double whammy of Chewin’ The Fat and Still Game, both co-written and co-starring former OAE cast member Hemphill, which threatened to eclipse Only An Excuse? in terms of popularity.
After 25 years, it is safe to say a little bit of the edge has gone from Only An Excuse?. No longer the lean and hungry young striker looking to make a name for itself, it’s become instead a veteran workhorse, ready to come off the bench for another crowd-pleasing appearance and seeing off various challengers to its squad number over the decades.
And that familiarity has bred a degree of contempt in recent years. With any long-running show there’s always a chorus of ‘it’s not as good as it used to be’, but OAE has become as divisive as anything on the box. Do a social media search on New Year’s Day and see what I mean.
There’s no denying some of the brutality of those earlier episodes has given way to a sense of chumminess – but even back in the day, arch Celtic fan Roper and devout Rangers supporter Watson were pals with many of the figures they used to lampoon, such is the small pool of Scottish celebrity.
However, 25 consecutive years is a heck of an achievement, regardless of your footballing affiliations or comedy leanings, and when it hits, the show remains as able to land a punch as that original radio series 30 years ago. And that’s something that should definitely be celebrated, no excuses.