independence – self-determination – autonomy

My Review of BBC Scotland’s Ewan Angus LIVE at The GFT!

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Two of the most frequent questions I get asked are –
1/ Hey Colin, you like extreme and graphic entertainment. What is the most bizarre thing you’ve ever witnessed in a cinema?
And
2/ Tell us some of your interesting experiences with BBC Scotland and the Scottish media.

Fortunately I can do both at the same time as I review… ‘Ewan Angus LIVE at The GFT!

Now I should point out straight away that I have absolutely nothing against BBC Scotland. I’m just not a fan of TV which is why I tend to side with the movies ‘Videodrome’ and ‘Network’ in viewing television as the physical incarnation of madness, unreality and ultimately death but nothing more critical than that. I also have nothing against Ewan Angus, the person located there who commissions comedy. Indeed he runs BBC Scotland’s comedy output in a traditionally Scottish way and one that has historical antecedents… such as The Darien Scheme or Culloden.

But first, a little background and context.

It was a few years ago and after producing ‘The Franz Kafka Big Band’ for BBC Radio Scotland and ‘The Atrocity Machine’ for Channel 4 Radio I was asked by BBC Scotland’s comedy department to submit a sitcom script that could be considered for Scottish TV. Despite having not paid a licence in over 16 years since giving up watching mainstream television, I went off and wrote a pilot script, handed it in and a couple of weeks later was called in for a meeting to discuss it with an exec producer.

“So Colin, we’ve read your script and it’s very good. It’s funny, well constructed and you’ve got a real ear for dialogue.”

“Thanks.” being very pleased to get such feedback although I could easily see the massive “But…” rearing its head over the horizon.

“But we can’t put it forward for commission. Your script has some serious problems.”

“Oh. What are they?”

I was then informed that because I mentioned the names of not one but TWO philosophers that Ewan Angus would reject the script immediately because he would deem it “too intellectual for television” and just bin it.

Now not getting the script picked-up didn’t bother me. Having a script commissioned for television is a massive long shot. There are so many hoops it has to jump through and if it fails just one then the entire project is screwed. I was under no illusions. Also, development work is valuable even if it doesn’t lead to anything. It gets your name about, gets you writing and at the end you still have a finished script you can hopefully be proud of. But the reason of it being “too intellectual”, especially as it was no more so than say an episode of Cheers (although not as funny), did bother me… a lot.
So you could say I was somewhat disappointed but certainly not angry or bitter. That came after what happened next.

So a few weeks go by and, like a guilty ex, I get another phone call from BBC Scotland asking if I could come in for meeting about my script.

“But I thought it was deemed too intellectual for television?”
“Oh, it’s different this time. We’ll explain when you come in.”

So I arrive at Pacific Quay where I am told that they want to pitch my sitcom to BBC 2 network down in London.

“Cool!” I said, although being under fewer illusions now as having the script commissioned by BBC 2 was an even longer shot than getting picked up by BBC Scotland. “But I thought you said my script was too intellectual for television?”

“Oh, that was only in regards to BBC Scotland and Ewan Angus. This time we want to pitch it to BBC 2 in London because English people are more, shall we say… “comfortable” with intelligent comedy. They feel less threatened by it.”

“Hang on!” I immediately interjected, “Are you saying that, according to BBC Scotland, English people are more intelligent than Scottish?”

The exec I was talking to sighed, leaned forward, and explained to me that according BBC Scotland that “Scottish people” are more working class and less educated than English people and, therefore, would feel intimidated and patronised if they watched a sitcom that mentioned philosophers, whereas English people can cope with more “cerebral” comedy without feeling as though they’re being made to feel stupid. So if I was going to pitch a script to BBC Scotland then I would have to make sure it was Glasgow, preferably male, centric and with no references to anything that could be construed as “intellectual” or cultured otherwise it would get immediately discarded.

I was left stunned and, depressingly, vindicated as I had always had the suspicion something like this had been going. But it also meant I was living in a country whose national broadcaster appeared to have absolutely zero respect or regard for its own population.

You see, despite all the cries of “we only want working class comedy (whatever the fuck that actually means!) because Scotland is working class” is the fact that you’d be hard pushed to find anyone at BBC Scotland who actually IS working class! They’re either all highly educated Scots or, more often than not, have been flown up from England to meet various quotas. BBC Scotland producers are basically the media equivalent of those middle-class students you’d see at parties drinking Buckfast “ironically”. You know, the ones in beanie hats who make you think Pulp wrote Common People in vain as they laughingly guzzle their class-warfare juice knowing that they can do so without ever having to be exposed to the actual reality that drives the oppressed to alcohol in the first place. BBC Scotland producers and these students are basically the same… except BBC Scotland producers can afford better quality coke.

And despite BBC Scotland’s protestations that the Scottish populace is “uneducated”, the simple fact of the matter is that, for example, during the Independence referendum the “average person” on the street was engaging in a level of intelligent discourse that was far more informed and nuanced than anything BBC Scotland put out over that period. If you wanted to hear an intelligent argument you wouldn’t switch on the TV, you’d talk to anybody in the street. You’d hear talk of Noam Chomsky, Adam Smith, Joseph Stiglitz, the subtleties of constitutional politics etc in any pub or cafe you’d care to walk into. Switch on BBC Scotland and it was “tapps aff” gags and the feeling of a broadcaster paralysed with fear. So for BBC Scotland to look down on it’s own people as being intellectually inferior to the English is not only morally and professionally inexcusable, factually wrong but also deludedly condescending almost to the point of mental illness. Glasgow is an incredibly cosmopolitan city with a vast wealth of extraordinarily talented and creative people from varying walks of life but you’d never think that watching BBC Scotland’s representation of the place.

I left that meeting kinda depressed.but I swallowed down the entire disgusting load that BBC Scotland had just shot down my throat and despite gagging like crazy on its filthy aftertaste I just assumed that this was the way things were in TV. I also began to realise why nearly all the producers I’ve ever met at the BBC look so downright depressed. I remember I once met a woman at a party and when I asked how she was she broke down in tears and said she hated her life and her job. When I enquired what she did for a living she told me she was a producer at BBC Scotland, snorted a load of cocaine, cried some more and threw up in a bin. It was quite something to behold.

And so I thought that was pretty much about that… but then something happened.

It was a couple of months later and I went to a talk about Scottish comedy at the Glasgow Film Theatre at which Ewan Angus was one of the speakers. At first it was kinda difficult to make him out on the stage but fortunately I had brought along my opera glasses. As this was a celebration of Scottish comedy it was introduced by some clips of the greatest moments of Scottish TV comedy but what was, in effect, actually a promo for The Comedy Unit, but the audience politely sat there and roared with silence as we settled down for one of the most accurate representations of Scotland since ‘Braveheart’.

Then the floor was then open to questions and somebody, who amazingly wasn’t me, straight up asked Ewan Angus why he doesn’t commission more “intellectual or cosmopolitan comedy”, “more female driven comedy” and why it is that he nearly always seems to commission west-coast of Scotland, male, working-class centric programs tending to be made, primarily, by The Comedy Unit.

What followed was the most brazen tirade of complete lies and utter cowardice by a grown man I’ve experienced since my last girlfriend asked me “Who’s bra is this?” as he told the audience that hey, there was nothing he’d love more than to commission a comedy that played less to the “Glesga” crowd and that he wants to commission a female led vehicle but that it wasn’t his fault if the comedy writers in Scotland were working class Glaswegian males and that, in Scotland, it is only Glasgow males that want to be comedy writers. Also, it wasn’t his fault that there weren’t any female comedy writers in Scotland or writers that tackle more intellectual themes and as he can only commission the scripts that are put in front of him then it wasn’t his fault that the only ones he reads are by working class, west coast males. So don’t blame him, blame Scottish comedy writers

I totally taken aback listening to him speak but was also sort of distracted by the fact that, as he spoke these words, the irritation in his voice and his oddly disconnected stare gave him the appearance of a ill-tempered Scotty dog attempting to simultaneously gaze through time and space. It was quite something to behold.

I hadn’t been that confused, baffled and annoyed in a cinema since I first saw ‘Battlefield Earth’ because almost every single comedy writer I have known had been told the same by BBC Scotland that to “under no circumstances” submit anything that could even be vaguely classed as “intelligent” and I have also known incredibly talented female comedy writers give up comedy because pitching to BBC Scotland felt like a hermetically sealed boys club, which it basically is. And this is where the biggest regret of my life comes in as I still feel the shame of not immediately standing up and calling Ewan Angus out and quoting Camus and Spinoza to him to help him understand his total inconsistancy and utter lack of responsibility. Here he is giving explicit edicts that are passed down and reluctantly internalised by his staff that only a certain style of comedy will be tolerated in Scotland, but to then turn round and blame the writing community itself seemed spectacularly disingenuous.

But amazingly he hadn’t finished as, like the magic porridge pot but filled with toxic waste, his effluence continued to spill forth across the stage as he was then asked why he hasn’t commissioned another showcase for Scottish stand up comedians such as The Live Floor Show which was on TV years back. His reply was one of the most spectacular pieces of betrayal of his own nation by someone since John De Menteith betrayed Wallace, except with fewer laughs, as Ewan Angus explained that apart from the two big hitters of Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges that Scottish stand up comedians “weren’t good enough to be put on TV” and, in fact, putting them on television would be extremely counter-productive as it would highlight just how poor the standard of Scottish stand up comedy was and would do more harm than good. So no, he would not be commissioning a live stand up show as it would just end up being an embarrassment to Scottish comedy.

Bugger my balls! And this was meant to be a celebration of Scottish comedy?! I hadn’t been so tempted to walk out of the GFT since Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’… which is shit!

So I kinda missed his closing statements as I was too busy trying to drown out the sound of the word “TWAT!!!” from violently bouncing around inside my skull like a trapped pigeon for some totally unconnected reason, but there are a couple of extremely important issues here. Firstly, Ewan Angus was totally wrong. The Scottish stand up scene is in great shape and has been for ages. You are guaranteed of seeing comedy of a vastly higher standard any night of the week in this country live than you ever will be by putting on the television. Scottish stand up actually emphasises BBC Scotland’s comedy output for what it is — i.e. in my opinion: anemic, anodyne and sometimes willfully wallowing in inverted snobbery and lazy class cliches.

Now I would like to point out that this hasn’t been written out of bitterness at a lack of commissions or having scripts turned down etc. As soon as I realised that making comedy for BBC Scotland was such a condescending mess I pretty much walked away and happily so. Besides, I’m a radio and prose person and also have been extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to make radio programs on my own terms, a level of freedom a lot of people would give their right arm for. I am aware that I have been exceptionally lucky and I am also aware of how I have grasped that freedom and completely ran with it as I indulged myself on a scale of Caligula-esque proportions.

But it is annoying that things are in this state where our national broadcaster thinks the neighbours are cleverer than the people they represent, that unless comedy is focused purely on west-coast cliches that anything else is either irrelevant of “high-falutin”. Luckily all is not in vain and I have some solutions for this current cultural nadir:

1/ Ewan Angus to be frozen in carbonite for five hundred years or until a point in the future in which technology has advanced enough to detect his sense of respect for his own people.

2/ BBC Scotland to commission a sitcom by a female writer that has a cosmopolitan and non-Glasgow centric view. You’ve done it before after all with ‘The Book Group’… hang on, that was Channel 4. And about fifteen years ago. Oh well, that’s that idea fucked!

3/ Control of The Comedy Unit to revert back to the secret experimental Nazi SS unit that originally created it during WW II as a force for large-scale cultural destruction as they would be the only ones who possess the occult technology to safely dismantle the production company.

4/ Commission a live stand up show. A good place to start would be to, I don’t know… start going to comedy gigs?!

5/ Just a bit of general advice — never admit to a TV exec you think his media represents “madness and death”. Although, most unsettlingly, it does actually get a laugh from them if you do.

6/ Realise that there is more to Scotland and Scottish culture than the city of Glasgow. Sure, it might contain the largest population in the country but constantly playing to that Glasgow gallery (and sometimes in a socially sneering way) purely for viewing figures just doesn’t make sense or seem particularly fair to the rest of the nation.

Oh, and the names of the two philosophers I had the audacity to write into a script that “Scottish people” wouldn’t understand? Socrates and Plato. Yeah, those two utterly obscure fannies, although if you’re from Scotland you might want to google them to find out who they are because according to your national broadcaster, you don’t have a bloody clue.

Now I should point out that some of this isn’t really a BBC Scotland issue. It’s a combination of a myriad of elements ranging from the rampancy of Capitalism, the state of the media in general, an exertion of limitations by the BBC in London and, in the end, the same age old reason — money and ratings. It’s media heating exchanges, funnelations of power. And also, from what I hear, Ewan is actually a decent bloke trying to do his best in a tough situation, like that little robot dude in ‘The Black Hole’.

So if you were to ask me what is a legitimate target for mockery in Scotland, what is up for being held up and laughed at then I never think for a second of Glasgow stereotypes, neds, zombiefied anachronisms or all the other easy targets that always seem to get talked down to. No, when asked that question I immediately think of those cognitive dissonance riddled, highly-paid maniacs working inside a glass oblong that resembles a malfunctioning Orac from Blake’s 7 on the banks of the Clyde pissing on their own nation. Now that’s comedy to me.

So that was my most bizarre experience in a cinema.

Anyway, more to come (seriously, I’ve got of mountains of this shit). And tune in next week where I shall be reviewing Chuck Norris in… ‘The Octagon’!

 

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14 Comments

  • George Gunn 4 months ago

    i have had similar experiences talking to theatre producers about the Highlands. Sad.

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  • Gashty McGonnard 4 months ago

    Thanks for finding the humour in a sick situation. The more I learn about Auntie McBeeb, the less I care for her.

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  • Kevin Williamson 4 months ago

    Absolutely jaw dropping. And very funny. Except it isnt. Share widely.

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  • Jo 4 months ago

    Interesting and accurate reflection, Colin. I'm a female Scottish comedy writer who's been to PQ a few times and has a couple of small writing credits. I have the impression their hands are extremely tied by the BBC London lot. BBC Scotland's first sitcom commission in around a decade (or more?) was Miller's Mountain, and I think they had to fight for the chance to make it.

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  • Alastair McIver 4 months ago

    Wow. I am equally at home with Black Books; Yes, Prime Minister and Blackadder as I am with Still Game and Rab C. It's all funny stuff, but different kinds of funny. But I have, on occasion, wondered: where's our Yes, Prime Minister? Little did I realise the PTB are explicitly refusing to make it because we're no brainy enough!

    Some day soon we'll figure out that we've been insulted! Then there'll be trouble!

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  • Anton 4 months ago

    "During the Independence referendum the “average person” on the street was engaging in a level of intelligent discourse that was far more informed and nuanced than anything BBC Scotland put out over that period. If you wanted to hear an intelligent argument you wouldn’t switch on the TV, you’d talk to anybody in the street. You’d hear talk of Noam Chomsky, Adam Smith, Joseph Stiglitz, the subtleties of constitutional politics etc in any pub or cafe you’d care to walk into."

    Why yes. In my local café in Leith the talk was of little else besides information asymmetry, the Shapiro-Stiglitz efficiency wage model, and the practical implications of the Stiglitz theorems. Of course that was only when the "average person" could tear themselves away from due consideration of Chomsky's theory of transformational generative grammar. Luckily we had a community of interest, given that we'd all read and reflected on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    Which planet are you on?

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    • Neil Anderson 4 months ago

      A different one from you. Plainly.

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  • George Docherty 4 months ago

    Everyone who works is the arts scotkand and has dealings with BBC Scotland , knows that this blog is accurate.

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  • tartanfever 4 months ago

    Thanks for sharing Colin.

    I have mentioned the Kenneth Branagh version of Wallander before as it tells an interesting story of the BBC Scotland budget and it seems worth revisiting, especially as the final series is about to air on BBC4

    The first 3 series were produced by BBC Scotland in co-production with some others including Film Skane, the regional Swedish film board.

    How did Scotland benefit considering production monies presumably came from the BBC Scotland budget ?

    We didn't.

    Produced for the BBC by Left Bank Pictures, a London based Production Company. Production staff based at their offices in the city and on location in Sweden.

    Filmed in Sweden, and the first series was known to have been edited in Stockholm and finished at another facility in London.

    Filmed using exclusively English or southern based production crew or by picking up local talent in Sweden.

    Cast using all English actors, many regional English accents on display, but no-one from north of the border.

    Obviously, being filmed in Ystad Sweden, the local economy benefited from the introduction of a large film crew - hotel accommodation, local restaurants etc and the advertising of the local area through the tv series promotion.

    There isn't one aspect of the entire production of the Wallander series that directly benefitted any Scottish enterprise, be that actors, production crew or the local economy, yet the £1m + per episode paid by the BBC came from Scotland's budget.

    What it did do, in the same way that Waterloo Road, is that it fills the 'Scottish quota' for regional drama production without actually letting any Scottish industry professionals near it.

    (Waterloo Road being wholly transplanted from an established English base north of the border)

    If you're a fan of Wallander and find yourself watching, just watch the credits to the end and see if it says BBC Scotland. Then think back and try remembering just what 'Scottish' involvement there is.

    It could be that after 3 series of these shenanigans that the BBC no longer thinks it can get away with this behaviour and will brand the series as 'BBC Drama', but one thing is for certain, a lot more scrutiny is required on just how our paltry BBC budget that is allocated for Scotland is actually spent.

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  • Alastair McIntosh 4 months ago

    This article is what it looks like to witness a subaltern(ised) culture start to take control of its own affairs through Freirian-like (whoops sorry) conscientisation (double whoops).

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    • Graeme Purves 4 months ago

      But whit aboot the fitba?

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  • 1314 4 months ago

    Did Socrates ever score with Mickey Mouse's dawg?

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  • Hilary 4 months ago

    Trying to get through to the BBC is pointless. About 12 years ago I wrote to Radio Scotland suggesting that they had 1.short story programmes with stories of Stevenson, Violet Jacob etc, writers who are out of copyright 2. a short story competitionfor Scottish writers or themes to be read by drama students who wanted experience. (I take account of the famous/infamous BBC brokeness) 3. that they made a radio version of the biographical 3 actor play about George Mackay Brown and taken from his work and words. I had just seen it twice. It had been compared to Under Milk Wood. I suggested that they then make a cd of it and sell it.

    I had an abominably rude letter back saying that Radio Scotland was not there for culture but for news, sport and phone ins. Full Stop.

    I was so angryand stupid that I threw the letter away. I should of course have sent it to a newspaper and had it printed. (What a hope!)

    It's not just that they don't care it's that they 'care against' Sure they have some brilliant programmes at 6.30 0n Saturday morning and keep them secret from then on.

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    • Jay 4 months ago

      No disrespect Hilary, but the BBC doesn't accept ideas (however weak or strong) from any old person. Needs to be done through a production company or you find the executive producer for the area and email them directly.

      I feel that bringing up an experience from 2004 is rather irrelevant. BBC has changed loads since then, regardless of your opinion about how positive or not the change has been.

      I think anyone can realise that your suggestion of trying to get the BBC to "sell a CD" of something is absolutely ludicrous. Your suggestions are also too specific and quite outdated (even for 2004). The BBC's charter is modern and diverse. Your suggestions don't cut that mustard. Plus the letter is right, literature items like that are for other channels. Don't really know anyone who would listen.

      Whether you agree with what I've said or not, I don't care. The facts about the BBC are correct.

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