Preview: Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2014

Does indy comedy stand-up?

As the Glasgow International Comedy Festival prepares to get underway, Mark Brown asks two of Scotland’s top comedians if the independence referendum is funny.

Scotland’s independence debate has generated a lot of high profile commentary of late. David Bowie ‘s now infamous four-word message at the end of his Brit Awards acceptance statement has added a bit of glamour to the debate. Much needed, some might say, given that other recent celebs chucking in their opinions have included TV and pantomime star John Barrowman and hair stylist to the famous Nicky Clarke.

There might be a bit of unintended humour in Margaret Thatcher’s former hairdresser lecturing the people of Scotland on economics, but is the indy referendum actually funny? As Glasgow prepares to host its annual International Comedy Festival, who better to ask than two of Scotland’s top comedians, Fred MacAulay and Bruce Morton?

The debate running up to the plebiscite had “f***ing better be” funny, says MacAulay. “At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe I’m doing a show called The Frederendum, and it’s going to be entirely about Scotland and the coming referendum. So, if the campaign’s not become funny by then, I’m going to end up giving a lecture, and I’m not qualified to do that.”

The comic and BBC Radio Scotland presenter (who plays Glasgow’s King’s Theatre on March 26 as part the Comedy Festival) is a bit bemused by recent commentary to the effect that comedians aren’t picking up the referendum gauntlet. “You only have to set foot inside a comedy club in Scotland and you’ll find that plenty of people are talking about it.”

He cites, for example, Aye Right? How no’? The Comedy Countdown To The Referendum – a self-defined “mix of stand-up and panel-show comedy, poetry, political comment, music and spoken word” – which is hosted by Vladimir McTavish and Keir McAllister at The Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh (March 26) and Glasgow (April 21), with other shows in the pipeline.I’m trying to get a date to do that”, says MacAulay. ” I think everybody who’s in comedy in Scotland wants, in the six months that are left, to have a right good go at the referendum.”

Which is not to say that MacAulay is about to declare his voting intentions. Perhaps mindful, as a Radio Scotland presenter, of the BBC’s guidelines on balance, he’s taking the Billy Connolly position, and refusing to publicly back either side.

If he’s avoiding controversy, he’s not sure David Bowie intended to cause as much of a stramash as he did. “I think there was a glitch” [in the message read out at the Brits], he says. “I think it was like when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and it was meant to be, ‘one giant step for a man’, but it came out as, ‘one giant step for man’. I think Bowie actually said, ‘Scotland, come and stay with us’. He was inviting us all to go and have a wee break in Manhattan.”

For his part, Bruce Morton (whose show, The Greater Shawlands Republic, is at The Stand, Glasgow on March 14) is somewhat less charitable where Bowie is concerned. “From my point of view, Bowie’s an overrated pantomime act who would struggle to get a gig at the Pavilion”, says the comedian.

“It was hilarious the day after [the Brits] at First Ministers Questions when [Conservative leader] Ruth Davidson was quoting David Bowie lines”, Morton remembers. “The ‘No’ campaign must have been excited.”

In fact, Morton’s still chortling at Scots-American Barrowman’s much-derided broadcast for the Better Together campaign. “Not only did he put on a Scottish accent, but he also put on a suit of the kind of tartan you’d usually only see on the seat covers on a Cal Mac ferry.”

Unlike Connolly and MacAulay, Morton is more than happy to pin his referendum colours to the mast. In fact, he is actively campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, and recently chaired a pro-independence meeting in the East End of Glasgow at which former Labour and Scottish Nationalist MP Jim Sillars was a guest speaker.

Although he’s publicly arguing the Yes case, Morton makes no criticism of Connolly for preferring to keep his views private. “We all recall his comment about ‘the wee, pretendy parliament’. If he’s decided he wants to stay out of the referendum debate, then fair play to him. It may be that’s he’s being altruistic in that decision, or it may be that he doesn’t want to get popped at by either side.”

However, he adds, “I’m not sure those of us on the pro-independence side are particularly concerned about being pilloried. I mean, how many Valium am I going to need if I get pilloried by [Conservative MSP] Murdo Fraser?”, he asks rhetorically.

There is, for Morton, a serious point in the fears of some celebrities that stating their views on the indy debate publicly might lead them into trouble. “Traditionally in the arts it’s people who are on the right who feel that they have to keep their mouths shut. I remember, some years ago, Gary Numan saying he’d always felt disinclined to raise the flag as a Conservative voter, because he knew he’d get pelters for it. That does seem a little unfair. I’ve always said that people should stand up for what they believe in.”

The Glasgow International Comedy Festival runs from March 14 to April 5. For full programme information, visit: glasgowcomedyfestival.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 9, 2013

© Mark Brown

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