Rab C Nesbitt – who started life in Naked Video in 1986 – was once called Scotland’s reply to Thatcherism. Do you see the show’s ongoing revival as responding to the recession and the government’s austerity measures?
I don’t think it’s tackling the recession per se and it’s only political because it couldn’t be anything else. Because Rab comes from the underbelly of society, smokes 40 fags a day, has been a big drinker, and has had cancer – that’s where he’s at, the razor sharp end of the recession, bottom of the shitpile. If we were putting something on for the sake of having our finger on the pulse, it wouldn’t work. It has to come from the other direction, inside out.
Is it reflecting public anger?
I don’t know if it expresses people’s anger, beyond expressing his anger, his frustrations. And I think that’s all we need to do really. Go beyond that and it becomes something different. It’s his little world, not the real world, it’s a heightened version. But at the core is a truth and if that wasn’t there, you wouldn’t turn on would you? If he was just some nutcase alcoholic, you’d reach for the off switch pretty quick.
Why has Rab endured?
Because there’s nothing more attractive than the little guy surviving to fight another day. With his warts, his flaws, the bad breath, the alcoholism, Nesbitt is not a person you’d want to share a seat on the bus with. Nevertheless, when you’re in the comfort of your living room, watching him on the television, you can glory in his little victories and his survival, his lust for life. He has some long nights of the soul but he always gets through them, there’s always something to recommend he keeps going, don’t let the bastards grind you down. Not just the Scottish, but the British, we like that.
Do you discuss the scripts much with the writer, Ian Pattison?
I have no discussions with Ian, he does his job and I do mine. It’s not that we hate each other, we’ve not got a bad relationship. It’s just always been like that. He writes the music and I try to interpret it. We don’t workshop it because he’s the kind of writer who already has all the commas, accentuations and exclamations, the sotto voce in place. An Ian Pattison script is like a fine piece of orchestral music. I mean that, because I’ve had a lot of scripts in my time and a lot of crap.
In the new series we see Rab gazing thoughtfully at photos of his lost sons. He’s become a grandfather and supposedly tee-total, so is there greater poignancy to the character now?
Well, he’s evolved over 25 years. Like most people in their late 50s who’ve led a colourful life, the writer has to have him reflecting, though not too much. I’m not saying there aren’t moments of introspection, as opposed to moments of slaparse slapstick. But that’s what makes him real and if he wasn’t real in his essence, you wouldn’t believe. So if you have some sympathy with him in his lower moments, you’ll enjoy his little victories and you’ll tune in to see if he’s survived or the inevitable has happened and he’s sunk beneath the waves.
Do you envy his adventures?
I envy his honesty. On occasion, I’d like to be exactly like him and say exactly what I thought of people, many of whom are in this business.
Do you mean in terms of BBC compliance rules? I read there was an issue about Rab still giving the finger.
Yes, I suppose. There are certain things you can and can’t do. And rightly so, that’s the way of it, shut up and get on with it. But sometimes, it’s so petty and idiotic you wonder what’s the beef about this, why on earth can’t we do that?
When I consider some of the subjects we’ve tackled – child abuse, Mary’s rape, cancer – which I have to say, when I read initially, it was like having lemon squirted in my eyes. Can we do this? Really? I had so many letters for the cancer episode saying ‘well done’. And I think two from Mr and Mrs Irate of Clarkston.
I know about cancer, my family dies of it regularly, so it’s not like I tackle the subject lightly. They can be nippy the good old BBC but then everybody’s got into that compliance culture. It’s a load of nonsense, a load of bollocks. It doesn’t stop the programme but sometimes you think, why’s that got to be edited?
We did a show where Nesbitt was trying to convince the dole that he was mentally ill, that he dressed as a woman. That was a big issue. They were very, very concerned that we were taking the piss out of transvestites. I didn’t think for a moment that we were but they were very nervous about it and it had to be presented in a cast iron, solid way that made it obvious we weren’t but which was to the detriment of the script.
I found myself saying things that wouldn’t have come out of his mouth for the sake of not offending anyone. And in essence, sometimes comedy is offence, it is cruel, that’s the nature of the beast.
Do you take pride in the fact that the show featured some of those tougher issues?
I do take pride in that because it really is a fine line if you’re too cocky and think you can do whatever you like. You’ve always got to remember you’re in a privileged position and to treat these things with care, which Ian does.
Having said that, my mother died many years ago, before Nesbitt was on and even now I think, ‘Oooh, she wouldn’t have liked that’. A churchgoer and a wonderful woman, she wasn’t a prude. But the phrase that always comes to mind is: ‘just showing off’.
Are you ready to be a Scottish icon again?
People don’t normally approach me in the street. One of the fringe benefits of playing a character like this is that people avoid that because [mimes a Glaswegian kiss] they think ‘I could get a sore face if I say the wrong thing’. But I’m not an aggressive chap, I’m just a wee, fat Glasgow man.
Rab C Nesbitt has won plenty of awards. But as someone who has played both comic and dramatic roles, do you think comic acting is sometimes underappreciated?
I certainly think some people who’ve come on the show, who shall remain nameless, have thought it will be a breeze and perhaps discovered that it’s not quite as easy as they thought. Some people can do comedy and some people can’t, that’s the truth.
You also made Empty, Robert Florence and Iain Connell’s Scottish sitcom for BBC Two. Do you always hope to work in Scotland?
I live in Lincolnshire and go off and do other things, dramas and period pieces, usually whiskered parts, I wear them a lot. But no, Scotland is my home. I like being here and I’m about to move back. I did Empty because I liked the idea. If we knew beforehand what was going to be a hit and what wasn’t, we’d all be rich.
Glasgow and Govan have changed a lot in 25 years, do you think the show conveys that?
Yeah, I think Ian’s a very good writer because he cares. In the initial stages of this, I wondered how we could make a couple of extra quid out of this. Rab C Nesbitt was never going to advertise Jaguar cars but I thought there might be some lucrative little endorsement. But Ian owns the character and quite rightly would never let that happen. He cares about what Rab represents, he’s his baby.
How long can you see Rab continuing? The rascally Scottish pensioners sitcom has been done with Still Game.
It’s well documented that I didn’t want to get involved with Rab in the first place because I thought it was guff. But stupid, silly me. If you’d told me I’d still be talking about it 25 years later, I’d have been like “aye, right”. So I really don’t know. This is a one day at a time business, always has been.
You’ve had two iconic comedy characters, Rab and the Baldy Man, do you feel fortunate?
Listen, I’m an adopted boy from, I think, Bridge of Allan, who somebody’s decided to sprinkle with fairy dust. I’ve been a very lucky boy. Though I think the fact that I’m fat and have a mobile face helps.