They created a community where city planners failed, a high-rise town built on cornerstones of unflinching ribaldry, unshakable loyalty and unstinting companionship.
This week, they’ll take the first of six steps towards the final visit to Craiglang, the fictional Glasgow housing estate where the characters of BBC comedy Still Game have raged against the dying of the light for 20 years.
And as much as millions have enjoyed the humour in the high rises from Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, the show’s creators, writers and stars, they’ve been underpinned by more serious matters.
“If you look back at the first series, there was a wee nod,” says Kiernan, aka Jack Jarvis.
“Jack and Victor [McDade, Hemphill’s character] are walking up a hill in the first episode and they’re saying, ‘Craiglang! Modernity beckons! The future is here!’
“That was an indictment on Easterhouse and Castlemilk, these areas that were built supposedly to change people’s lives with underfloor heating, dryers inside the house, shops round about.
“They thought it would be like another city. And of course it didn’t quite work out that way.”
Kiernan is referring to an era in social policy which, in Glasgow for example, saw thousands of households decanted into new estates such as Castlemilk, Drumchapel and Easterhouse after row upon row of city-centre tenements had been condemned in the so-called Glasgow clearances.
His own family lived in high flats in the Gorbals and Sighthill, both areas known well beyond the city boundaries for their social complexities.
It definitely wasn’t a community,
“I lived in Sighthill when I was younger, in my 20s,” Kiernan says. “I tried to push for it to be the place where we filmed Still Game. For many years at Huntingdon Square there was a bookies, the Viking pub, a corner shop, a chip shop and a graveyard right next to it, showing you where you’re going when you’re done with the bookies and the pub.
“I liked Sighthill. The folk there weren’t any better or any worse. But it definitely wasn’t a community.”
There’s no sentimentalising, though – Kiernan despises what happened to Glasgow folk when the tenements came down and the towers went up, and has no time for the thinking of the experts behind plans to put people into cities in the sky.
“Basil Spence was a nutcase,” he says of the prominent, and controversial, architect behind such domestic monoliths as the Gorbals’ Hutchesontown C and Rainbow Estate in Shepperton, Middlesex. “Building these flats with shops on the 13th floor, that people would never need to leave the flats, that they could live in a high-rise city? A lot of nonsense. And right in the heart of the Gorbals. I was there the day they pulled them down. People living in those flats were privy to watching their homes being knocked down.
There were a lot of promises, but they didn’t work.
“The whole idea of Craiglang, and all those other places, was that there were a lot of promises, but they didn’t work. But in our characters’ lives, their bubble world, there’s community.”
It’s territory ripe for acerbic comedy, though, even if Craiglang didn’t escape paying society’s price for neglecting the importance of community. These pensioners might not be altogether over the hill, but neither do they live in Disneyland.
There’s been gambling, drug addiction and alcoholism in Still Game. Characters included Methadone Mick, a recovering addict and resident
sage, Pete the Jakey (“jakey” being Glasgow slang for alcoholic) and Stevie the Bookie.
“We don’t make jokes against Methadone Mick,” says Michael Hines, the series’ director. “We actually point out that he’s an individual, with personality. Mick is intelligent, well read, cultured. It was tricky putting him together. We were careful not the ‘pity the junkie’. He had to be funny and exist in his own right, because that’s empowering, and we’re not in the business of poverty porn.”
What they are in the business of is proving another point. The writers based the germ of their characters on Kiernan’s grandfather Sammy and Hemphill’s uncle Barney.
“What you’re trying to uncover when you’re making laughs with older characters is that they’re the same as younger characters,” says Hemphill. “That’s the whole paradox of it. Younger people put them in a box, and I suppose as writers we want to take them out of the box, acknowledging that there aren’t so many differences between older folk and younger folk in certain ways.”
Kiernan and Hemphill first conceived of Jack and Victor as fertile ground for comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997, then as two of many returning characters in their sketch series Chewin’ the Fat, originally broadcast from 1999 to 2005.
In Scotland, Still Game has become woven into the cultural tapestry. Children dress up as the core cast at Halloween. A pensioner in every Scottish family has, at some time or another, been affectionately mocked by family members as being their Isa, their Winston, their Tam. Being compared to Jack and Victor is the warmest of back-handed compliments, a barbed validation symptomatic of traditional Glasgow’s half-brick approach to affection.
The show has become part of how mainstream Scotland sees itself. That there was such a clamour for its return following an abrupt stop in 2007, when Hemphill and Kiernan fell out, attests to the fact.
When they did reunite, seven years later, it was with a live show at Glasgow’s vast SSE Hydro arena, before three more TV series. At the Hydro they played 21 performances to 12,000 people a time. They returned for 15 shows in 2017, and will bow out, for good, at the same venue this September with Still Game: the Final Farewell.
“We have one story left to tell,” says Hemphill. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
Before that, there are six more half-hour visits to Craiglang to look forward to. After a recent screening to record the audience laughter track, some viewers left the cinema in tears. Kiernan tells of meeting one woman on the street outside, who was distraught.
“She was in bits,” he says. “It’s interesting to see a result like that.”
But what of the show’s legacy? Will a comedy about OAPs in the pub, the corner shop and the bookies endure beyond its years once last orders are called at The Clansman, the shutters come down on Harrid’s store and two bunnets are hung up for good?
“I think it will,” says Hines. “It’ll stand the test of time because it’s universal. Everybody has old people in their life, most of us will be old. I think we’ll be watching it for years to come.”
Still Game returns on February 24 on BBC Scotland, and will be repeated on BBC1 network later in the year