I’ve read a couple of books on Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I get who he is, or was. Armando Iannucci concentrates on Stalin’s death and the scramble for power among his henchmen of torturers and mass murderers. It’s played out as farce. For example, in the opening scenes Stalin, who loved music (and books) rings a studio in Moscow and tells the presenter of the radio performance that he’d like a recording and he’ll send someone to pick it up in 17 minutes. You can’t say no to Stalin. The orchestra has to replay the concert and an audience rounded up to fill the theatre and clap at the appropriate moments. Then it has to be recorded and sent to Stalin. Chaos has to be managed.
The apparently droll humour of Iannucci’s Yes Minister and The Thick of It translated into the grim Soviet era of 1953, Moscow. But I just don’t get that kind of stuff, and found it as funny as Benny Hill chasing after a Page 3 girl. I didn’t laugh once and switched over to Match of the Day before it finished. I guess these kinds of programmes aren’t made for the proletariat.
Most people my age fondly remember Boys from The Black Stuff shown in the early 1980s. Yosser Hughes’s (Bernard Hill) catchphrase: ‘I can do that, gie’s a job!’ The Black Stuff was a prequel to Boys from The Black Stuff. It had the kind of audience figures—I’d guess around 15-20 million—that had cultural resonance in its depiction of working-class life in rundown Liverpool. Ironically, the repeat of The Black Stuff on BBC 4 was preceded by another programme, as it was in real life, Thatcher: A Very British Revolution.
It was the latter, rather than the former that was essential viewing. Alan Bleasdale’s drama hasn’t aged well. At just over an hour and a half it was overlong, and I thought it was shite.
Yosser Hughes was a bit-part player in The Boys From the Black Stuff series, yet he reached iconic status. Here we get the back story. He’s a misogynist wife beater, with a couple of kids, whose wife is cheating on him. His main gripe against Chrissie Todd (Michael Angelis) is that ‘he’s too nice’.
Nice doesn’t get you anywhere in a Thatcherite world. Chrissie even admits to being nice and what’s worse, being happy. He shows he’s being nice by bringing a goose, ferret and some other animal in the work van with him as he drives to the tarring job they got lined up in some new housing estate in the Midlands. They’re staying in swanky digs and he claims nobody will feed the animals.
Chrissie is too nice to be the gaffer. Gaffers are always bastards. Dixie Dean (Tom Georgeson) is fighting a losing battle with Yosser from the start. The men want more money. And even when Dixie gets it from his boss, McAuley, the men still aren’t happy. Yosser demands the men get a five pound a day rise, then when McAuley agrees says they should have asked for an extra tenner.
The only worker Dixie has power to bully is his son Kev (Gary Bleasdale—I guess a bit of nepotism here with the writer’s son getting a key role in the production). They play this for laughs, and was about as funny as Benny Hill.
Kev, for example, ogles a female student in the petrol-station café who is holding a sign for Leeds. Loggo Logmond (Alan Igbon) nicks his food from the counter but finds its display only, not edible, and then nicks food from his mates’ plates. Inevitably, been nice, Chrissie picks the female hitchhiker up and gives her a lift. Yosser gives her a hard time about being a student, and even worse, being female. Saudi Arabia’s got it about right he says were females are shackled to men’s needs. She gives as good as she gets with a feminist manifesto that includes details such as it’s not a good idea to threaten to rape female hitchhikers, while finding time to talk to shy Kev, and make him admit that he too had dreams—but hey, needs must, we live in the real world.
Booking into the hotel, Dixie tells Kev to stop staring at the female customers and gives him money to go to the pictures. Make sure it’s not one of those Emmanuel type movies is his advice.
Chrissie’s worried about old George Malone (Peter Kerrigan) he’s heard him spewing up in the toilets. Old George is about my age now. George says he’s fine. A former Communist, Chrissie tell his fellow workers in a whisper with some admiration and a grudging respect. He needs to work and takes painkillers to sleep.
Kev, in Benny-Hill mode, finds out the hotel has a masseur that does extras. Naturally, there’s a bit of a mix-up. £4 for a masseur, £15 for extras. I found the financial details more interesting than the smutty strand of the storyline, which makes me think, I might be turning into my da.
The major storyline also relies on stereotypes. Here you have a major turning point. Hardcore on a farm laid, but no tar to finish it. Yosser is willing to cut a deal and drag his mates along. But they two Irish ‘gypos’ type. Easy to stiff. Right from the off, the plot goes as you’d expect. If you can’t see the ending then you too must have been on the hard stuff.
I’m sure Boys from the Blackstuff was good at the time. Maybe I should have left it there. You never step into the same stream twice argument. To think I used to watch Benny Hill—fuck off. To think unemployment was around the fifteen percent mark in the early eighties. It’s only five percent now. Dream on. Nobody’s laughing.
Billy Connolly might well be Scotland’s greatest export after whisky. Both ITV and BBC are competing to squeeze the last dregs of life out of The Big Yin. I’ve checked, he’s not dead yet. But he does have motor- neurone disease and he’s coming up for seventy-five. He said it himself, other people’s success tend to form an inverted U-shaped curve. His success is of the hockey-stick variety. Everything he shites turns to gold. Even his doodles are framed, exhibited as art in Glasgow’s People’s Palace. He’s come a long way from strumming a banjo and being a Humblebum. Remember Baker Street and Gerry Rafferty? Unlikely, unless you’re an old codger. Here’s a reminder. I once danced to this song, or at least moved my feet, which was much the same thing.
Billy Connolly conquered Scotland with his Wellie boots and took on the bigots with his Crucifixion. He conquered London, by which I mean England, when he appeared on The Parkinson Show in 1975. But the Big Yin wasn’t as big as Benny Hill. Remember him? Semi-nude woman and eye rolling and a chase that went on for an hour. That was comedy then. They’d chase you for that now. For drama try on Frankie Miller. Billy Connolly had a part in Peter McDougall’s Just A Boy’s Game, one of the Play’s for Today, everybody in Scotland watched and said—fuck—that’s us in Glasgow around 1979, the time of the first Referendum.
Now fuck off with Boris fucking Johnson. It wasn’t until Braveheart in nationwide cinema that its small-screen reach could be matched and let’s face it, Braveheart was Mel Gibson chalked blue and talking shite. But in the United States, where they they’re not keen on anyone that’s not American and even then they’re a bit iffy, Billy Connolly is known. He’s a brand. That Scottish guy with the hairy face that’s been in a couple of films, nobody much watched. But Billy Connolly’s loaded anyway, so that makes him half American. It doesn’t matter. He’s one of us.
I’ll tell you a secret, I remember Billy Connolly and I heard his jokes, but I didn’t laugh. I’m funny that way. I get them, I really do. He’s a representation of the guy we all know that’s funny as fuck. Connolly is a nostalgia feedbag for a better Scotland that you can strap over your nose to feel better. I like him better now. I often chuckle at his jokes now I know the punchline, in a way I never did then. Drumchapel, a desert wae windows—that’s genius, in anybody’s language.
Billy Connolly is still working, he must have Cadogan Street on his back. 5000 folk died while waiting to be re-assessed and that’s no joke. That’s the Scotland we live in now, so there’s a lot to be said for nostalgia.
While the BBC archives are trawled for stuff that tells the Billy Connolly story it’s wrapped around a poor man’s excuse—it’s all about art. Here’s the sketch, three different artists get to paint a picture of the Big Yin. Cover your ears, I never thought I’d say I was a conservative, but see that modern art-shite. I’ve really got no standards worth talking about. Here’s my preference reading from left to far right: John Byrne, Jack Vettriano and Rachel Maclean.