t‘s a Tuesday night at the lag end ol‘ the I998 Iidinburgh
Iiringe. There‘s this show on at the 'I‘raverse. No one
knows much about it. Two actors. Steven .\Ic.\‘icolI and
Mark .\IcI)onneII. I‘ve seen them on the Scottish theatre circuit. l"ilth Iistate. 'I‘raverse. Royal Lyceum. I)undce Rep. that kinda thing. And here they are in a sell-written comedy callcd lz‘Iii/itv .Iesterv.
It‘s the story ol‘ two American vaudeville old-timers. a trawl through the silent movies. music-hall routines and (il gang shows ol‘ a second-rate double-act. The show is l‘ai' l‘rom sold out. but at the ctiitain call there‘s someone whooping with delight. It‘s me. And I never whoop.
The show was a joy. in its own small way a triumph. but there was a sting in the tail. ()ne ol‘ 'I‘lie .S'eotsiiiuii‘s scouts called in straight away to recommend it lot“ a I‘ringe I"irst. The
paper‘s then arts editor tipped McNicoIl and .\Icl)onneIl ol‘l‘
that they were heading l‘or an award. But then -- disaster the review was liIed and it turned otit the paper‘s critic. there the same night. hadn‘t liked it. The editor back-tracked. .\'o li‘ringe I“irst. No box-ol‘lice clamour. No runaway success.
Wind back another couple ol‘ years. and we lind .\'Ic.\'icoIl and McDonnell coming to their senses. ‘We‘d had ten years as actors sitting by the phone and we decided to take things into our own hands.‘ recalls McDonnell. They signed up l‘or a comedy writing workshop. met two writers. put on a show at Iidinburgh‘s late lamented (‘al‘e (iral‘l‘iti and. out ol‘ that one night. picked up not only a commission l‘rom Radio I“our. bill also a contract from Radio Scotland to work on a new series called I’e/vet ('ulmret. lias‘y'. innit'.’
The Radio Scotland sketch show brought McNicoII (the baby-laced one with hair) and McDonnell (the baby—laced one without hair) together with Julie Duncanson (aka .\‘urse I’at Reid in High Road) and (iavin Mitchell (most recently (‘asanova iii the Stispect (‘tilture production). The combination was the BB(“s idea. but all lour happened to have worked together previously. and they quickly gelled into the tightest ol‘ teams. They‘re the Boy/one ol‘ comedy. I suggest. ‘Iiscept without the unpleasantness.‘ counters McDonnell. ‘And the anodyne shite.‘
So l‘ast-l‘oi'ward to 2()()I and (ilasgow‘s Stand comedy clttb
where the Velvet team have just recorded an episode ol‘ their
autumn radio series. They‘ve gone down well with a sell-out audience. delivering a surprisingly polished set alter barely a day ol‘ rehearsal but. over their post-show pints. they admit it‘s a weird time for them. As long ago as last October they wrapped up liIming \elvet Soup. their bid l‘or TV stardom. and until the series is broadcast over the summer. they‘re just permanent balls ol‘ anticipation. They love the radio. have no plans to drop it. but TV is just so much bigger.
My guess is they needn‘t l‘ear. It shouldn‘t be long bel‘ore the nation warms to Baxter .\Icl.eish and William (‘ulloden. presenter and novelist on Scottish Bookcase. a brilliant TV aits show parody: Philip and Darren. the camp make-up attists with an irritating obsession with rhyming celebrity names: and the priest who‘s called to do an exorcism on a man possessed by the entire Hollywood rat pack plus Jimmy Savile.
When I catch tip with McDonnell and .\Ic.\'icoll again. a
levy weeks later in Iidinburgh‘s I~Iaymarket Bar. I ask them it
lilniing TV comedy is as boring as is ol‘ten said. Alter all. I'e/vet Soup. however funny the ﬁnal result. is lilmed and acted with the consummate care ol‘ a high-budget drama. about 80‘? ol‘ it on location. Not at all. they say. It was a hoot.
‘Brian Jackson. our cameraman. who‘s got shitloads ol‘ experience. blew quite a l‘ew takes and he‘s a man who never
laughs: he ended up walking away from the camera during one ol‘ the Scottish Bookcases. The director comes running out saying “why‘s the bloody camera not moving round?" and Brian was in the corner giggling.‘
|.~\II this. incidentally. is said by both ol‘ them. equally. a phrase l‘i'om one. a hall-sentence lrom the other. like one mind with two mouths. They say it‘s the way they write too. .\‘either can write alone. btit together they lire along and. at the end ol~ it. they can‘t tell who wrote what. ‘\\‘e‘re only hall a w i‘itcr.‘ say s one ol‘ them. ()i' is it the ()lllc‘l".‘l
Btit how do they stop themser cs creasing tip on camera‘.’ ‘l‘llc‘l'c‘ Ltl'c‘ \tttttc‘ \L‘L‘HL‘\ littlttl‘l} Ullc‘ \lsL‘lc‘ll til lltv‘ L‘lttl til~ episode low in which they play two .\Ialia men evchanging eyeball to eyeball insults which surely take impossible levels ol‘ discipline'.’ ‘\\‘e doii‘t l‘ind each other lunny.‘ deadpans .\Ic.\‘icoll. ‘\\‘hen we‘re working. we know each other so well. there‘s very little that‘ll actually surprise tis. \\‘e have a laugh in between takes.‘
The Malia scene. it transpires. was improvised live on camera. Watch it and marvel.
Btit now here we are in the 3 I st century '. doii‘t they liiid the idea ol‘ a sketch show jtist too old—lashioned l‘or its own good‘.’ ‘The sketch show has been subverted twice in the last ten years.‘ says .\Icl)onnell. like his partner an avid comedy consumer. ‘l‘it'sl by The l'itvl Show by making quick cuts and \i‘:—Iike regular characters. and then in the opposite direction by lllt’ League ()l‘Geiit/enieii.‘
Btit. as .\Ic.\‘icoIl evplains. when they saw the shell—lile ol‘ such shows. they realised there was always room tor a new approach: ‘\\‘hen we started doing the radio show. The l‘il\l Show was the big thing; what a rev elation. .\'ovv you look at the repeats. post-league ()ltienilenten. and it‘s quite quaint. And it‘s only l‘our years or something.‘
So when they started otit. was there an old guard they were reacting against'.’ “There was the Scottiin \‘ai‘iety Iiangov'er.‘ says .\Ic.\‘icoII without hesitation. ‘The Seote/i .‘Jllll Il'ijv. Nit/veil
\tileu school. it‘s Big Comedy. it‘s Scottish. it‘s
swesre pies and mince. it‘s all
played lor laughs. it‘s
always (ilasgow. Wm” “L. started on the radio there i
was a lot (ii that material
still there. You‘re dealing unpleasantness with a much more
sophisticated audience now and the _ itlltl rm not dissing Rikki Sh|te_, I"tilton or any ol‘ these guys.
they‘re brilliant at what they
do btit as lar as TV comedy was concerned there was a huge hangover right through the Slls. In Scotland —r not nationally we were stuck in that \i'ariety-based west coast thing.‘
('lievviii‘ 'I‘lie l'tll. he says. was the l‘irst Scottiin sketch show to break the deadlock. Ah. yes. (‘lieivi'ii ‘ llN' l‘tll. Bit ol‘ a hit. that. Will they be able to avoid comparisons'.’ ‘It shouldn‘t be compared. but it will be.‘ says .\IcI)onne|l. who‘s known (ireg IlemphiII and Ford Kiernan l‘or years and reltises to see them as rivals. Bit sad. isn‘t it. that while London has churned out series alter comedy series. some remembered. most l‘orgotten. in Scotland the output is so meagre that every show has to be judged in the light ol‘ the last one'.’
Still. however the series lares. it won‘t be the last we hear ol‘ them. The same Ielvet Sou/i team has recorded a kind ol‘ sister series called Revolver which has the novel premise ol‘ bringing back sitcom heroes such as Roy Barraclough. .‘vIer‘yn Hayes and Molly Sugden. with the soup team in supporting roles (‘I.ioncl Blair having a wank: we‘ve seen that.‘ boasts McNicoIl. as well he might). It‘II go out on BB(‘ (‘hoice in July. Meanwhile. .\Ic.\‘icoII and McDonnell are working on two Radio 4 drama projects. in between regular acting gigs.
()h. and they say they‘d like to do lz‘iiipiy .le.vterv again.
Sorry. was that me'.’
Velvet Soup, starts BBC2, Sun 1 Jul, 10.15pm; the next series of Velvet Cabaret goes out on Radio Scotland in the autumn; Revolver starts on BBC Choice in late July.
I” . ‘ ,. 23’.‘ THE LIST 19