If a week is a long time in politics, then a quarter of a century in Scottish football represents several geological epochs.
In the past 25 years we’ve had three league reconstructions, eight full-time Scotland managers, six top-flight broadcasters, 14 Junior Cup winners and arguably two Rangers… if you want to kick that particular hornet’s nest.
But throughout that time there has been one particular constant; a football scarf-adorned tent pole around which, if not the Scottish game, then at least the Hogmanay schedules have revolved.
The turn of the year marked the 25th Hogmanay Only An Excuse? since it transferred from cult radio series to staple part of the festive TV diet.
These days Only An Excuse? is taken for granted, showing up in the bumper Xmas Radio Times as regular as clockwork. It has now comfortably outlasted Scotch and Wry – the show it replaced as Hogmanay anchor – and has seen off challengers from such young pretenders to the festive TV crown as Still Game, Burnistoun and Limmy’s Show.
That familiarity has, for years, been breeding increasingly naked contempt. With 25 Hogmanay episodes in the bag – plus a handful of out-of-season specials – the reviews of Only An Excuse? among TV critics and on social media are often as predictable as the sketches themselves.
Yet in that time, Only An Excuse? has come to represent something more than just an annual sketch show, plugging the booze and shortbread-fuelled gap between a pithy documentary on Highland coos and whichever minor top-40 troubler is singing at the Fruitmarket with Phil and Aly.
Indeed, in many ways it has come to define Scottish football and the public perception of many of its biggest characters, particularly in the media. And amid the snark and fury over each year’s instalment these days, it’s easy to forget just how important – and how funny – Only An Excuse? has been.
A generation down south that has grown up with Jim White as the yellow-tied lead presenter bellowing histrionically on transfer deadline day must scratch its collective head in puzzlement at White’s continuing perception north of the border as the blue-nosed Brian Laudrup-doting presenter cemented by years of Jonathan Watson impersonations.
Similarly, the public perceptions of the likes of Frank McAvennie, Chick Young and Graeme Souness are, at least on this side of Hadrian’s Wall, as shaped by the annual skewering of them on Hogmanay as they are their real-life personas.
There’s a tale, likely apocryphal, often told of Young recording a voice-over for a radio advert, and the director demanding retakes because the real-life version of Young’s laugh wasn’t the same as the impersonation spoof.
“I should know how it goes,” Young is said to have retorted. “It’s my fucking laugh.”
The show originally started on Radio Scotland as a one-off spoof of the fabled 1986 documentary Only A Game, which looked at the evolution of football north of the border ahead of Scotland’s impending first-round exit from that year’s World Cup in Mexico.
Watson and Tony Roper were already familiar faces and voices from their roles on the station’s Naked Radio, and its recent TV transfer as Naked Video. Playwright and actor Roper was also a regular contributor to Scotch and Wry, while Watson had found fame as the oleaginous rival to Gerard Kelly’s Willie Melvin in popular Glasgow sitcom City Lights.
But the defining of much of Scottish football through its media personalities can be traced beyond that – back to the show’s earliest origins, as a skit on Naked Radio lampooning Radio Clyde’s football phone-in and, in particular, pundit Jimmy Sanderson.
Roper explained in his 2014 autobiography: “I wanted to do a pastiche sketch on him, but Colin Gilbert (Naked Radio’s producer) correctly pointed out that it was broadcast on Clyde, which only served Glasgow, and the BBC had to service all of Scotland.
“Eventually he gave in and we did do one featuring Sanderson. It was a great success, so naturally we did more. Then Johnny Watson announced he could do an impression of Jock Wallace.
“Soon we were doing sketches… lampooning the whole Scottish football scene.”
On the back of the Naked Radio skits, Philip Differ pitched doing a full episode and thus Only An Excuse? was born. It aired in May 1987, serving as a prelude to Radio Scotland’s coverage of St Mirren v Dundee United in the Scottish Cup final. Watson and Roper provided all the voices, with Watson linking the material via an impersonation of William McIlvanney – the writer whose distinctive tones had provided narration to Only A Game the year before.
The success of the show was such that it was released as an audio cassette which quickly gained cult appeal, ending up being traded in playgrounds and bootlegged up the Barras in short order.
It would be another two years before the pair returned to the format, as they were kept busy with other projects, including for Roper the success of his play The Steamie which would itself become a New Year staple.
1989’s Only Another Excuse? A Tale of Two Seasons picked over the carcass of a tumultuous time in Scottish football, as Celtic celebrated their centenary while rivals Rangers signed Mo Johnston from under their noses in one of the biggest transfer shocks of the time.
The new episode was far more about recent football news headlines – many of which revolved around then-Rangers manager Graeme Souness.
Watson’s take on Souness is perhaps as perception-defining as anything from the radio run, carrying over with only minor refinements into the TV show.
“I was struggling with Graeme Souness for ages,” Watson would later admit, “until I heard him say that Terry Butcher was ‘a better player than ah first thought’.”
Souness himself clearly enjoyed the impersonation, filmed laughing himself silly in the audience for the stage show.
A third instalment, looking back over the national team’s performances at the World Cup finals from 1974 onwards, would be released across two cassettes in 1990 – ahead of Scotland’s impending first-round exit from that year’s World Cup in Italy.
Roper and Watson reunited for a live stage run at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, which served as a precursor to OAE?’s long-awaited jump to television. That first TV show aired on Hogmanay 1993 at 10.35pm – sandwiched in between a New Year special of Muriel Gray’s wonderfully kitsch quiz show The Golden Cagoule and ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly, where Rikki Fulton gave an extended outing to Scotch and Wry’s notorious Reverend IM Jolly following the parent show’s retirement the previous year.
The TV translation was a far more traditional sketch-based show than the radio and stage versions of Only An Excuse?, with the McIlvanney linking material largely dropped as make-up, costumes and captions made clear who was being lampooned.
One key impression from the start was former Celtic striker Frank McAvennie, already notorious for his playboy reputation and occasionally odd behaviour – famously, he’d be arrested by police in 1995 for having £100k in cash in his car, which he claimed was to fund deep sea treasure hunting. McAvennie became Frankie-boy, a sharp-suited, teeth-whitened shagger forever spouting his ‘Where’s the burdz?’ catchphrase. Ironically, given how associated the impression became with Watson, it was Roper who was responsible for the initial version of him on the show.
A special summer episode, which ended up being shown across the UK, aired in June 1994. Roper and Watson managed to do something the Scotland team couldn’t that summer – get to America, with the pair recording some skits in New York ahead of that year’s World Cup.
Using a broader spread of figures from British football, Watson and Roper added English Premier League stars such as Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona to their repertoires to try and appeal to a wider BBC1 audience. It wasn’t wholly successful – not least because, for all the Anglo-friendly inclusions, it still relied heavily on gags that would mean more to a Scottish audience, such as Roper’s barking take on Dundee United’s quirky manager Ivan Golac.
Since then, the show has remained a Scottish tradition – known largely only to viewers north of the border or those who tuned their Sky receiver into BBC One Scotland on Hogmanay because they couldn’t face another Jools Holland Hootenanny.
Someone who couldn’t face another Only An Excuse?, however, was Tony Roper, who bowed out from the show he founded following another stage run in late 1994.
“The show was still hugely popular, but I had somehow lost the enthusiasm for it,” he wrote in his autobiography afterwards.
“Philip was very understanding and asked why I felt that way. I explained that for me the constant repetition of the format was probably the reason and suggested mixing it up with non-football-orientated items as well. He was not really enamoured of that and so I decided to end my association with the show.
“I felt if my heart wasn’t in it then that would be detrimental to the show.”
Roper would instead go off to become one of the team captains on A Game Of Two Halves, STV’s little-watched and even less fondly remembered Poundland version of They Think It’s All Over – ironically alongside two of the figures which OAE? had spent so long lampooning: Jim White and Denis Law.
Drafted in to replace Roper were two familiar names. Lewis MacLeod was already a well-kent voice and face from comedy roles on TV, while Greg Hemphill – who would go on to greater success with Chewin’ The Fat and Still Game – was fresh from hosting the controversial debut run of Radio Scotland’s football phone-in, Off The Ball, alongside Sanjeev Kohli and sometime OAE? writer Tam Cowan.
The change in format meant Watson taking on some of Roper’s former impersonations, including Sir Alex Ferguson and McAvennie, with talented impressionist MacLeod doing the heavy lifting in terms of the remaining voices.
MacLeod and Hemphill were joined by English impressionist Alistair McGowan – already well known for hosting various football and sports comedy videos and Radio 5 Live shows – who would contribute skits to Only An Excuse? over the next couple of years.
As the 1990s progressed Only An Excuse? coalesced around Watson and his repertoire, meaning a larger focus on the likes of McAvennie and Law. Various comedy performers from the Scottish circuit would join in supporting roles – including Absolutely’s Gordon Kennedy – but the core of the show was Watson’s performances.
He and Differ would spin the show off into new ventures, with Watson regularly popping up on Cowan’s TV sports chat show Offside to do a weekly impression segment. The theatre shows continued on until the mid-2000s, accompanied by a script book. Most bafflingly of all, Differ and Watson would write an Evening Times column in the style of the various characters, remarking on the week’s news.
New blood would join the writing staff of the shows over the years as the show slowly broadened its horizons and targets. It never fully embraced the non-sports approach that Roper had asked for in 1995, but gradually new writers, including the likes of Burnistoun’s Robert Florence, would touch on non-football topical issues, or have the show’s regular characters increasingly commenting on stories from the front rather than back pages.
“What’s helped is how it has evolved over the years,” Watson once claimed in an interview. “It’s now completely different. We take in other aspects of life, politics [and] news stories.”
As a result, Watson’s repertoire of roles – by now also being honed on his regular Radio Scotland topical comedy series – expanded to include the likes of Gordon Ramsay and former First Minister-turned-Russian TV host Alex Salmond. But the show still clung to its Old Firm friendly roots, meaning that even in 2016, long after the end of his playing career and reduced media profile, McAvennie was still a key character. He had become the show’s own IM Jolly or Papa Lazarou – an easy go-to crowd favourite for audiences to join in with at home.
“Johnny put the wig and the teeth on again to do me… and that’s a sign of what he and Phil Differ are up against,” McAvennie said last year.
“I’ve not played the game for over 20 years. Having said that, it’s a great character. Johnny’s always been kind to me and kept the ribbing good natured.”
That ‘good natured’ ribbing and shift in focus to a wider range of topics has become the bedrock of the modern OAE?, for better and worse. Watching, and listening, to older episodes now, it certainly feels like a different show.
With the refocusing of the programme at the tail end of the 90s to become, understandably, the Jonathan Watson Show, the topicality – and indeed the edge – of OAE? has become blunted as the years have progressed.
It doesn’t quite have the savage bite of its earliest days, when some of the jokes had a tendency to go in studs up – such as their skits on the old Celtic board during the Fergus McCann takeover, for instance – although there are still flashes of the teeth which made the show’s name.
There’s an argument to be made that 25 years is long enough, and possibly too long, for a comedy show to run – even one which, like Ryan Scully, only gets a runout once a year. But Scotland’s not great at celebrating its recent comic heritage, and Only An Excuse? is very much a key part of that field.
Any show hitting 25 years feels like it deserves a proper celebration for reaching a landmark few other shows manage, particularly one that’s been so influential and continues at a time when for some reason so few of Scotland’s other classic comedy shows from the ’80s and ’90s are available to buy or rewatch.
And for that, there’s really no excuse.