Colin Gilbert is on the telephone to his wife. trying to recall their PIN number which would allow all chez Gilbert to eat that week: ‘I think it‘s 471 . . . no.hangon. itmight be4l7. . . you only get three chances and then the machine swallows the card. . . ’
As he continues to fret over the family finances. I take the opportunity to sip my BBC tea and take in the somewhat eccentric artefacts dotted around Gilbert‘s office deep in the bowels of Broadcasting House.
Pope John Paul shares a wall rather uneasily with Masonic notices. while a life-sized Roy ofthe Rovers fights an imaginary free kick below the predictably leering face of Rik Mayall. Elsewhere photographs ofa younger and considerably more hirsute Colin Gilbert are attached to various pieces of bare wall. Meanwhile Gilbert himself has come to some kind ofdecision cash dispenser-wise and has hurried next door to tap a cigarette from his secretary.
He is soon back and. after luxuriatingly lighting up. he explains how he is currently loving his first ‘real job‘. Well he might. A new series of Naked Video started on Thursday and City Lights. BBC Scotland‘s first situation comedy since The Vita/Spark. is set for an overdue network screening. From the frankly terrible Kick Up The Eighties to the patchiness of Laugh. . . I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee to the sheer brilliance of ()2in An Excuse. Colin Gilbert is almost single-handedly responsible for creating a team fit to make the truly funny and original programmes.
Scotland. it is fair to say. has not been particularly well-served with good comedy in the recent past. Glasgow‘s reputation as a home of natural wit was getting us nowhere. While Merseyside. with a similar reputation. was dredging up more seriously grim Liverpudlian sitcoms than you could shake a stick at. up North we were suffering endless re-runs ofJohn Grieve dropping into Brodick Harbour.
Since Gilbert arrived at Queen Margaret Drive in 1970. however. he has quietly set about instigating a revolution in Scottish broadcasting. In the past couple of years he looks to have succeeded — the first series of Naked Video having won viewing figures which had the producers of Alas Smith andJones drooling.
He started earlier than tnost. As a small boy he had watched his father. also a comedy producer. at work and after graduating from York (no. not Cambridge) University. he applied for various BBC jobs in towns which he knew best as ‘third division football teams‘; jobs which he now ‘thanks God‘ he didn‘t get. Eventually he arrived at BBC Scotland. starting as a deputy floor manager. apparently only one step up from a tea boy; and a not very large step at that. This involved ‘knocking on a lot ofdressing room doors.‘ Before moving north he had helped on shows like Week Ending and News lluddlines. a variety of
The man behind the Comedy Unit. Colin Gilbert has revitalized BBC Scotland’s comedy output. With a networked repeat of City Lights and Naked Video
work which came in handy when he worked on Kick Up The Eighties.
An only intermittently funny show. which nevertheless had the merit of introducing the great British public to Rik Mayall. Kick Up The Eighties was primarily a vehicle for the dubious talents of Richard Stilgoe. Gilbert describes him as ‘a very funny man' who. unfortunately doesn‘t come across particularly well on screen.
‘Working with Rik Mayall was rather bizarre.‘ he recalls. ‘Sitting in this office writing Kevin Turvey sketches and‘ — he adopts a thick Brummie accent — ‘talking like this. At first I just couldn‘t get into what he was doing. but I did tune in after a while.‘
It was in Scotland that he was talent spotted by John Lloyd. producer of Not The .the ()'( lock .‘V'eti‘s. ‘I Ie asked me down to work on the programme. Since I was so interesed in establishing a comic base in Scotland I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to learn and they
starting a second series. he talked to Graham Caldwell.
let me go.‘ Once there. he worked as a researcher on the first two series and as script editor on the third.
‘lt was a great compliment and a great responsibility that John Loyd trusted me to go through scripts and throw away the ones that were crap.‘ Unfortunately. some of the aforementioned ‘crap' had been submitted by [an Ilyslop. then a spotty undergraduate. Private Eye contributor and protegee of Lord Gnome himself. With the pctty-mindedness for which Private Eye is justly noted. Gilbert‘s fatnin connections — from which he had been at pains to disassociate himself — were dredged up. and amidst charges of nepotism and incompetence. the knife went in. ‘lt was just one ofthose things: maybe I shouldn‘t have thrown his scripts in the bucket.’
Returning to Glasgow. Gilbert went back to work. constantly on the lookout for fresh talent. An announcement in the Daily Record prompted ‘hundreds of replies — not
one ofwhich was any use.‘
Eventually a crop of writers turned up from ‘here and there‘ in Scotland. Gilbert. Scots-born himself. says he was ‘keen to break away from the metropolitan group of
London-based writers who write almost everything that is broadcast .' This dislike ofthe ‘inbuilt racism‘ of the south found an outlet in the first series of Naked l'ideo. ‘When there was a sketch which wasn't identifiany Scottish in nature there was a temptation to do it in a neutral accent. but I said. why not just do it in Scots? A move which brought a gratifyineg ‘minimal' number of complaints from south of the border.
The network success of Naked Video and the upcoming nationwide repeat of ( 'ity Lights will. hopefully. squash the rumours of a lack of co-operation from London executives. Gilbert plays down the ‘fat bastard with a big cigar" image of the capital’s bigwigs put about by some sections of the media saying: ‘We don‘t have a combative relationship with them and l don‘t think it would be wise to found one.‘
Being at the centre ofthis rib-tickling rebirth and head of the Comedy Unit brings with it the obvious accusation that he is an arbiterof what is and is not funny. ‘No you can‘t be . . . well. you have to go with what you think is funny — if it doesn‘t amuse you. how can you be sure it will amuse a studio audience'."
Although surrounded by a team of exceptional talent. he is on the lookout for more. No easy task as he assures rne that the one thing there is no shortage of is ‘people with no talent‘. One person who does interest him is Maryhill's own ( ‘raig Ferguson. "I'hat name though . . . I don't think he perhaps realises how many Jewish agents there are in London.‘
At some point surely. Gilbert will outgrow the confines of Queen Margaret Drive and succumb to the lure ofthe bright lights‘.’ ‘I like living here. [don‘t really want to live in London. he says earnestly. ‘lfyou are in London then you are going to be given the fifth series of Alas Smith andJo/tes and the 20th series of The Two Ronnies. Meaning no disrespect to those shows. but it‘s better to be involved in shows in which you have a direct interest.’
But as far as the more immediate future is concerned. there will be a second series of ( 'ity Lights and this new Naked Video. Robbie Coltrane continues to figure in his plans and he would love sortie kind of vehicle for Craig Ferguson in his Bing l litler guise.
Whatever he does. Colin Gilbert clearly has the commitment and the sense of humour to ensure that Scots viewers no longer have to live in a comic wilderness — quenched only by an annual outing for Rikki liulton and the ubiquitous Para I landy.
Chust so. . . (‘hust so.
Naked Video is running on Thursdays on l)’ [K '2. ( 'ity Lights is scheduled to be shown nationwide in late May.
4 The List 17 — 30 April