Still Game

Saturday, January 24, 2004 by

It seems a little odd for BBC2 to follow Britain’s Greatest Sitcom with two brand new series of that same genre, suggesting perhaps that these new shows will be deemed worthy of joining such illustrious company in years to come. In truth, the word “new” isn’t 100% applicable, as both are full-length vehicles for characters previously established in sketch shows. Simon Day’s much vaunted Grass is supposedly based on his character Billy Bleach from The Fast Show, although in truth this seems to be a very flimsy way of attracting Fast Show fans (Bleach even has his name changed by the end of episode one). Straight after comes Still Game, starring Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill as Jack and Victor, the two elderly widowers from the duo’s sketch show, Chewin’ the Fat.

Still Game received a much more low-key launch, which is a great shame as it is a corker of a sitcom, with Jack and Victor emerging as wonderful characters. Neither seems to have any particular aspirations, other than to keep surviving and to maintain their dignity in the face of old age. They aren’t particularly angry about their situation, and generally seem to accept their lot with a good natured optimism. They look forward to their little treats, like the occasional pint, a trip to the park to feed the ducks, or a trip to the shops. While this doesn’t sound too promising, the life-long bond between the two provides plenty to occupy our time.

In the second episode of the series, “Courting”, we join our doddery duo with Victor looking forward to visiting the charity shop, so that the pair can chat up Barbara, the old lady who works there: “Just like the old days; the old patter”. Jack is not at all keen and wants nothing to do with it. Later Victor realises that Jack simply can’t bring himself to be unfaithful to his wife, who died almost exactly 10 years ago. This unfolds into a surprisingly touching scene where Victor has to console him and persuade him not to hold onto the past. Kiernan and Hemphill show a deft touch in making us care about the characters, and considering that we’re only on the second episode, it’s amazing how much we are able to share a sense of how long the two have been friends, and how much history they have between them.

A neat sub-plot is played out with Winston (Paul Riley), one of the regulars at Jack and Victor’s local. A very mild mannered man, Winston goes totally over the top whenever he is angered, and finds himself barred. Unable to comprehend life without the pub, he takes to sitting on the doorstep, persuading other regulars to bring him out drinks, before going off to discover alternative ways to spend his days. We see him drinking alco-pops with local children, and making small talk with old biddies at the Bingo Hall. His desperation to fill his time leads to his proud boast that he has taught himself chess, is taking clarinet lessons, and all sorts of weird and wonderful pastimes.

When Jack gets his girl, it is a classic story of the friend feeling rejected. Victor shuffles through life feeling lonely. The situation is not helped by the fact that he is offered a date with Barbara’s sister, who turns out to be what Winston describes as “a munchkin”. Again, Victor’s plight is expertly played out, allowing us to see his dilemma, as he feels dejected, but somehow pleased for Jack. A visit to the local shop makes him feel no better – “Just one Chunky Kit-Kat, Victor? Fancy not buying one for your old friend Jack”. While there, he meets another superb support character, local gossip Isa. In a brilliantly meandering tale, motormouth Isa roars through the story of how she came to discover Barbara has a husband. Eventually, Jack finds out, and after some more soul-searching with Victor, everything’s back to normal, ready for next week’s episode.

The real strength of Still Game is the sheer warmth of the characters. Jack and Victor are good people, and their life-long friendship creates a very believable bond between the two. Kiernan and Hemphill portray their characters beautifully, while their scripts strike a good balance between the slow paced humour of Jack and Victor’s conversation, and the more immediate comedy of the supporting characters. Winston and Isa may seem like they could have come straight out of Father Ted, but they are kept just on the right side of believability. Among them all, however, there is a sense of community, a sense that they’re all in the same boat, but are just taking different approaches to solving the problems presented by the need to fill their days. There is very little actual conflict in Still Game, just plenty of good-natured banter and bickering, which in turn makes for fun viewing.

But there is one potential problem. The whole thing is conducted in very strong Scottish accents, which, as with Rab C Nesbitt, may lead to people south of the border scratching their heads. Thank goodness for Ceefax subtitles, which give you the gist of what’s going on in less colourful vernacular. This problem is sometimes turned to the show’s advantage however, particularly in Isa’s rambles which degenerate into near-incomprehensible high-speed lectures about all manner of unseen characters and their various weaknesses and then veer off wildly into all manner of unrelated gossip. For the most part, though, it is all too easy to find yourself concentrating on deciphering what is going on, rather than actually appreciating the subtleties of what you’re being shown.

Of all of the BBC’s new comedy output so far this year (and OK, we’re only three weeks in), Still Game is easily the finest and has the greatest chance of becoming a long-term success. It may not provide many laugh-out-loud moments, but those there are hit the spot every time, while the interplay between the characters is up there with the very best sitcoms around. The decision to base the programme on elderly characters certainly makes a refreshing change from youth-orientated forgettable shows like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, and allows us to believe that the characters have had a real life outside the confines of the programme – making us feel involved in their relationship in a way that most sitcoms only manage to do over time.

OK, maybe it won’t figure in the top 10 if Britain’s Greatest Sitcom were to be re-staged a couple of decades in the future, and to be honest it seems destined to be one of a long line of underrated comedies, but it is an excellent show all the same. In fact, change the accents, and you could almost submit Still Game‘s scripts as a current day series of Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads. And that’s some tribute.


Comments are closed.