They take their football seriously at
BBC Scotland’s Comedy Unit. Since .
1986, when they ﬁrst produced what they thought would be a one-off parody of the Only A Game? series, producer and chief writer Philip Differ, and performers Jonathan Watson and Tony Roper, have had their lives increasingly taken up by the sport. The third tape in the series, Only Another Excuse, was released last autumn and reached number 14in the indie charts. Before the fourth tape, OnlyA World Cup, has even been edited for broadcast, the team are having to think about the stage show they might do under the aegis of Wildcat theatre company. BBC Enterprises are pushing them to do a ﬁfth tape in time for the start of the new football season in August. And all because they used to sit around bars doing William Mcllvanney impersonations.
Mcllvanney narrated Only A Game?, a six-part TV series which examined various aspects of the national sport. Humour wasn’t one of them, and the author’s po-faced approach was the perfect starting point for Differ, Bob Black (now best known for City Lights) and the other members of the writing team to deﬂate football’s pretensions. Watson and Roper presented a near-perfect half-hour comic history of the Scottish game, with ‘McIlvanney’ narrating. Requests for repeats, or for copies of the tape , ﬁltered in, and so, slowly, a cult was born.
In the four years since Only An Excuse was ﬁrst broadcast, the game has done what previously would have seemed impossible — attained an even greater role in national life. Attendances have boomed, huge sums of capital have been injected by sponsors and new directors, and some top clubs have been incorporated into far larger business empires.
Football, in other words, is potentially a more lucrative business than ever before. But fortunately, Differ and his associates are not alone in providing a welcome counter-balance to this commercialisation. In the last few years a plethora of football fanzines have appeared, some sub-literate , others by now semi-professional , but
all expressing the point of view of the ordinary supporter. Fanzines have played a crucial role in the success of the Only An Excuse series: not only have they given it much free, and very favourable, publicity, they have also accustomed a wider audience to an irreverential treatment of the game.
Yet, amidst all these changes, two things have remained constant: Scotland’s ability to qualify for the finals of the World Cup, and their extreme ineptitude once they get there. Only A World Cup looks back at the disasters of the last four tournaments, which included such highlights as a 1-1 draw in 1978 with the mighty Iran, and ends by asking whether we can expect any better in Italy this summer.
For a fan like Differ, researching material for the programme was clearly a labour of love. ‘We got a lot of fun just looking at the players who were in past squads,’ he says. ‘Some of them were unbelievably bad. The 1978 campaign was the strongest for us to get material from, with Ally McLeod tearing his hair out; but 1982 was difﬁcult - Jock Stein had adopted a very pragmatic approach, and of course you cannae take the piss out of him because he’s dead. We still take the piss out of everyone else, though.’
While some players and managers — or rather, Watson and Roper’s impersonations of them - make their appearance for the ﬁrst time on this show, many characters, such as Billy McNeill, Graeme Souness and Maurice Johnston, will be familiar from previous tapes. William McIlvanney’s reaction to his role is still a mystery, but most of the footballing ﬁgures, as Differ explains, delight in making a proxy appearance on the show. ‘I don’t think any of them have been annoyed at all, in fact they’re more upset if they’re left out, because if they’re included it means they’re up there, still important. In fact Tommy Craig (Celtic’s assistant manager) told Tony Roper that he had got his lisp just a wee bit too thick: he started coaching Tony on how to get it right.’
One problem this time has been using players from the past whose voices are not readily recognisable even by the footballing public. The
more pricks than kicks... .
solution adopted was blatantly simple: ‘We made the older characters sound thick. Just gave them Thick Voice No. ZSB.’
For all that he debunks the game‘s authorities, Differ is no hopeless idealist: he regards most ordinary punters as pretty damn stupid too. ‘Did you see that documentary where they talked to some Rangers fans in the Rosevale Bar?’ he asks. ‘Remember the guy who said “I don’t hate Roman Catholics, right, I’m married to a Roman Catholic and. . .er. . . Igetonno’badwi’ her”.’
As a Celtic supporter, Differ is well used to the sectarianism which all too often blights the game, particularly in the West. Bearing in mind the continuing strength of the sectarian divide , why will supporters who are at each other’s throats on a Saturday unite in fanatical allegiance to Scotland for international matches? What is it about the sport that evokes such devotion?
‘That’s a difﬁcult one,’ says Differ. ‘That’s a socio-economic question , isn’t it?’ he asks suspiciously.
Er, yes, it is.
‘I think it’s Scottish history, and the way the national team reﬂects that. You get used to defeat - there’s the odd victory, but you usually end up shooting yourself in the foot. It’s like the bit on the tape: ‘For every Flodden there is a Bannockburn; for every Culloden there is a . . . Bannockbum’. It’s always Bannockbum, cos that’s the only one we can bring up. And it’s the Scottish psyche, too; I think we like to laugh at ourselves.’
This peculiar combination of fanatical devotion to a cause with the ability to ridicule oneself precisely because of that devotion results in the state which we doctors call being mental. In footballing terms, it often means laughing in the face of defeat. Differ recalls one match when, after their heroes had been beaten off the park by Dundee United, the Celtic supporters stayed behind for 15 minutes after the game, just singing their songs. ‘It’s got a lot to do with our attitude when we’re getting beat’, he adds. ‘I even remember one time on University Challenge, when a team from Glasgow were on: it was, like, Mad Dog College, Glasgow, against Magdalen College,
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6 The List 23 March - 5 April 1990