“Excuse Me, I Feel a Prayer Coming On…”

Chris Diamond on Scotch and Wry

First published January 2002

It might be difficult for those unfortunates residing in parts of Britain other than Scotland to fully grasp the impact that an hour-long programme broadcast only once a year had upon the audience. For 15 years those within the vicinity of a television set in Scotland on New Years Eve at around 11pm would undoubtedly be watching it. Everyone, raise your glasses to Scotch and Wry.

Scotch and Wry was shown in the same timeslot time after time: in the run up to the bells at midnight and – crucially – preceding the interminable Hogmanay Show, with its barely constrained chaos and forced jollity. But it did not take the programme long to establish itself as the focal point of a nation’s celebratory plans. Whilst organizing one’s itinerary of merrymaking, one’s whereabouts to watch Scotch and Wry had to be factored in from the outset. Families watched at home prior to the arrival of friends, neighbours and relations; pubs turned up the volume to allow the customers who had not cleared off to watch it at home to view it with pint in hand; those who had already embarked upon the longest night of the year set videos where possible to catch it when they had raised themselves from their stupor – usually around mid-January. (We should note that of course not everyone in the country got the joke and did not like the show, but we won’t dwell on them – it’s wicked to mock the afflicted).

The format of Scotch and Wry itself changed very little over the years it was aired, just as the personnel involved remained largely the same. Central to the merriment was of course the brilliant Rikki Fulton.

Fulton had been a mainstay of the Scottish comedy scene for more than 30 years when Scotch and Wry first materialized in 1978. Perhaps the only comic actor or comedian still working to have got a mention in The Goon Show (given a sideways name-check in “The Whistling Spy Enigma” due to Fulton’s early incarnation as host of a BBC Radio request show) he was already a firmly established legend on both stage and screen having partnered Jack Milroy in the double act of Francie and Josie (a pair of crêpe-soled and dandy Ted-types espousing a comedy already described in the 1960s as “ethnic” and which progressed to a television series in 1962), his regular and much vaunted pantomime appearances across the country and top of the bill turns in the spectacularly glamorous Five Past Eight shows at Glasgow’s much missed Alhambra Theatre.

Fulton’s star never seemed to rise as far as contemporaries such as Stanley Baxter or even at one point his partner in Francie and Josie, Jack Milroy (who won huge acclaim in the ’50s and ’60s on the West End stage in variety) in the respect that his fame was always far greater at home in Scotland than across the rest of Britain, but that always seemed to be by design than anything else. Whatever his far flung fame rating however, or the film and television credits he has clocked up over the years in projects as diverse as Tales of Para Handy (with ‘Wry sidekick Gregor Fisher) and Local Hero to Gorky Park, his celebrity at home in Scotland with Scotch and Wry has catapulted him well ahead of the likes of Stanley Baxter whose festive musings were merely another Christmas special and far from the necessary viewing that Fulton’s vehicle was to become.

Other mainstays of the show were Tony Roper (who was to find greater fame as Jamesie Cotter in the Rab C Nesbitt series and as playwright of eventual Hogmanay ratings challenger for STV, The Steamie) and particularly Gregor Fisher who was, to all intents and purposes, Fulton’s second string on the show.

Other recognizable faces who stopped in on their way to careers were Gerard Kelly and Jan Wilson, who both went on to appear in BBC Scotland’s successful City Lights and Tony Osoba, better known as MacLaren in Porridge, as well as a host of Scottish character actors such as John Bett and Julia Cadzow. For several years there was also the seemingly obligatory (at the time) musical Interlude with Barbara Dickson, providing the perfect opportunity to top up that glass and crack open another packet of shortbread before the hilarity recommenced.

The format was relatively simple and once the show hit its stride in the early 1980s remained unchanged until its eventual demise 10 years later. Nearly always the programme opened with one of the favourite characters, Supercop an idiot traffic policeman played by Fulton who introduced to the character excellent little pieces of business such as a protracted dismount from his bike and goggles flicked over his helmet. Repetitive? Perhaps. I would choose to say comfortingly familiar. The show would end an hour later with another stock character, although in more guises than are now remembered, the minister delivering the pastiche of the sonorous old BBC Scotland religious segment Late Call, entitled here “Last Call”. It is for this piece to camera involving Fulton alone that Scotch and Wry is most fondly remembered. These pieces were frequently delivered by a character by the name of the Rev I. M. Jolly, a person so unassailably miserable that to smile would be to render him unrecognizable. Other characters – all played by Fulton – took this spot as well such as the Rev W. E. Free, a Free Presbyterian caricature who made one appearance only (on reflection it must have seemed to much like swimming upstream to make a Wee Free funny more than once) and my personal favourite, the Rev David Goodchild, who enters smiling and pious and, by way of a bottle of gin mistakenly poured into his side table water vessel, descends eventually into drunken reminiscence and nonsense before stalking off to the bathroom with muttered plea, “I feel a prayer coming on.”

I.M. Jolly may well have gone on to become the most popular character and exist outwith Scotch and Wry in the form of two subsequent Hogmanay specials after the programme’s demise but it is Fulton’s performance as the Rev Goodchild that exemplifies his quality as a comic actor of some genius. To play a convincing drunk is, as any actor will tell you, extremely difficult. To portray a man going from sobriety to drunkenness in such brilliant style in the space of five minutes is simply extraordinary.

Between the opening and closing sketches there would come a torrent of brilliantly acted, well-produced and wonderfully scripted pieces which at its peak made Scotch and Wry a joy to watch. Writers such as John Byrne, Bob Black and Bill Craig (amongst dozens of others as well as Fulton himself) submitted and honed scripts to produce not just great comedy, but crucially a comedy that was appropriate to the show itself and here was where the success of the programme was to lie.

The British have always had a peculiarly regional sense of comedy. They laugh most at that which they recognize easiest. Whether the North of England, Northern Ireland, Wales, the South East or latterly comedy based upon a shared ethnic or racial experience, we enjoy comedy with which we can directly relate. So Scotch and Wry was a show made in Scotland and resolutely for Scotland. Never networked it was nevertheless a massive success within its region because it strove to represent all parts of that region and its culture in comedy. Certainly it was biased towards the West Coast and Glasgow because that was where its writers, performers and studio audience were but the themes it tackled were peculiarly Scottish themes: sectarianism, politics, history were all seen with a Scottish slant and even Scottish television programmes (its Beechgrove Garden parody being one of its most successful pieces) were grist to the mill. It paid no attention to England or the outside world because that did not concern it. The scripts were tuned to the ears of Scots watching on a peculiarly Scottish occasion; Hogmanay, when everything turns tartan, shortbread abounds and the strains of Ally Bain and Jimmy Shand are positively welcomed for one night of the year (and one night of the year only).

So in Scotch and Wry when a set up had us transported to Dirty Dick’s Delicat’messen (that’s supposed to be Delicatessen but if you don’t get it I really don’t have the time or space to explain it to you) to listen to the Gallowgate Gourmet – Fulton in an appallingly dirty kitchen disclaiming hideous recipes to camera such as, at the time, only the likes of Delia or the Roux Brothers were apt to do – then a the studio audience’s huge guttural laughter will confirm the success of the show. This is a sketch that was not designed to work anywhere but in Scotland and nor would it have. Indeed, if the majority of these sketches were to be understood too clearly by non-Scots then the writers would most likely have failed in what they were supposed to achieve.

As I have said the British love their humour to be regional. Not all of it to be sure, but it is this regionalized (I deliberately avoid the dreadfully patronizing label of “provincial”) comedy that they cling to most dearly. In the North of England they too enjoy Fawlty Towers and Porridge as much as anywhere else in the UK, but it is with the mention of Robb Wilton and Frank Randall that many will go dewy eyed and this is an example that could be replicated across the whole country if one were to substitute the names for different places. How many outside of Northern Ireland have any knowledge never mind appreciation of Wee Jimmy Young, for instance? But it is this name which will instantly raise a smile in Ulster.

It was a happy moment then when such an identifiably Scottish show as Scotch and Wry was then paired with the quintessential Scottish celebration of Hogmanay. Such a recipe reaps powerful rewards. As a result of this the 15 years that the show ran for are seen as something of a golden age of television in Scotland. BBC Scotland might have turned out drivel for the rest of the year (and by god, it certainly did) and even the show that followed it may have unutterably poor (the Hogmanay Show was even lampooned by Scotch and Wry with the quick sketch after the credits invariably being Rikki Fulton interrupting a party to hurriedly throw the television out of the window before it came on) but as long as it produced our yearly tonic it was forgiven much.

Harder to forgive was the eventual deterioration in the quality of Scotland’s favourite show.

By 1990 Scotch and Wry seemed to be running out of steam. Sketches seemed stale and the original winning formula – Fulton as the Scottish everyman appearing in increasingly unlikely circumstances; astronaut, film star, Frankenstein’s monster even, memorably, as Michael Jackson (from Jordanhill) – seemed to have been forgotten as film pastiches were played almost straight defeating the entire purpose of the show. The regionalism was lost and the identity of the programme with it. Perhaps BBC Scotland had an eye on the network? Who knows – all are tight lipped at Queen Margaret Drive. Or perhaps the scripts were just poorer and the show had nowhere else to go? When it was announced that there was to be no Scotch and Wry for 1993 there was a palpable sense of disappointment and even sadness. Yet I must confess that I was more than a little happy. I had been a fan since as long as I could remember. So much so that when, in 1986, six half hour editions were put together from previous episodes and transmitted on Saturday nights as a run up to the release of the first video compilation later that year, I considered it to be the televisual highlight of that year.

As mentioned above, I.M. Jolly returned for the next two years with two specials which were successful, although not quite as compulsive viewing as the original. Tis the Season to be Jolly and Jolly: A Life Less Ordinary both penned by Bob Black were well received and gained respectable viewing figures but neither set the heather alight nor did they clear the pubs before the Hogmanay Show. Now the mantle of the regional comedy special for Hogmanay resides with Chewin’ the Fat, a rather more coarse, less subtle affair which this year rests for its second year in Scotch and Wry‘s bunk, successful but with still a long way to go if it hopes to last for 15 memorable years.

In 1996 Rikki Fulton celebrated 50 years in showbusiness and was afforded a fulsome tribute by BBC Scotland, who owe him so much. He fronted a show where he picked his favourite sketches from Scotch and Wry which were hugely well received with an affection beyond what one might normally expect for a comedy show. And this is the essence of Scotch and Wry. It may have something to do with the esteem Fulton is held in, or the time of year the show was broadcast or the quality of the comedy on offer or most likely a heady combination of all of these, but it is principally a feeling of affection that Scotch and Wry is held in Scotland. Admiration, yes; laughs, certainly. But above all, affection.

So, I miss Scotch and Wry but I am glad to have known it. And to you, the reader I say …

A very happy New Year.