Rab C Nesbitt. Robert McNeil’s Scottish Icons

IT is deplorable how other people sometimes depict Scots as violent, drunken, welfare scroungers. We’re quite capable of depicting ourselves like that, thank you very much.

True, it’s not how Scots see our better selves. There are some Scots, mainly in Edinburgh, who have neither signed on nor swigged fortified wine while sitting on an odiferous sofa beside a bonfire under a bridge. Indeed, let’s abandon the self-mocking pretence, 98.2% of us have never done the latter at least. Truly, we have never lived.

But, that said, other than a few sad cases amidst our wee peerie petit bourgeoisie, we all have an inner Rab. He sits on the smelly discarded sofa of our soul, slavering sagaciously that trying to get above ourselves is a waste of time, arguably indeed a lot of pi*h.

We are what we are. Doomed. Unlucky. Or at least Nesbitt is. That is, to give him his full handle, Rab C. Nesbitt, the C. being part of a family tradition. His grandfather was Rab A. Nesbitt, his father Rab B. Nesbitt, and he is Rab C. Nesbitt. Truly, he is a man of letters.

He is, furthermore, a philosopher, a “street philosopher”, as the term is often qualified, to stop people making the easy mistake of thinking him an academic. The string vest and grubby grey bandage round the pulsating napper give further clues to the fact the here is an autodidact, a nae-bother nihilist, who gives us the benefit of his epissedemology straight to camera. And, with his logically argued conclusion, “There ye are”, he vests his case.

Somebody mentioned the word “camera” and, for anyone looking in from ooter space, we note here for the record that Nesbitt was (and endures as) a TV character, played by an excellent Scottish actor, Gregor Fisher.

Rab was created by Ian Pattison, a Glaswegian writer who has also penned several well-received novels, including most recently Burning Down the House, about a breakdown of law and order following a narrow vote for independence. Yikes! Don’t go there.

Let’s go back instead to the comparative safety of 1986 when, on the BBC2 sketch series Naked Video, Rab first addressed the nation thus: “Are you talkin to me? Don’t you talk to me. Listen, ah’ll tell ye …” There follows his generously lubricated view that the then Tory Government had little to offer people like him, despite their being “nae better than ah am”. The point was certainly arguable.

In December 1988, there followed a Christmas special called Rab C Nesbitt’s Seasonal Greet, and the first series proper began in 1990, and continued for seven more, produced and directed by BBC Scotland’s Colin Gilbert.

To this day, you can easily find nostalgic remarks online about the show (comedy was always better in the past), many of these coming from English folk, and not in the usual Scot-mocking way, but out of appreciation for the quality of the writing, the genuine wit, the bacchanalian banter, the bandaged badinage. Furthermore, Nesbitt the series lucked out, if you will, in other ways: good signature tune, good opening sequence, good actors.

Bizarrely enough, Nesbitt the character had managed to create a family. But here’s the rub: while rarely considered a role-model as father and husband, the proudly unemployed skiver did keep the family together. He valued it. His long-suffering, slightly more ambitious wife “Mary Doll” (Elaine C – Constance – Smith), frequently despaired of him, even to the extent of walking out, before returning for the sake of the weans and, aye, even for the love of Rab.

The influence Nesbitt had on his offspring is debatable. In a good way, he probably ruined their lives. Gash (Andrew Fairlie and, later, Iain Robertson), the eldest is a seeker, sometimes of drugs, but also at times of spirituality (Hare Krishna) and political liberation (Scottish nationalism).

When Gash reminded his father that his brother had been “burnt to a crisp in a joyride”, Rab opined that “looking back it was overkill getting him cremated”. The younger brother, Wee Burney (the late Eric Cullen), probably had a harder time than Gash, and at times sought solace in painting and neo-Nazism.

Nesbitt also values his friends, first among them, after alcohol, Jamesie Cotter (Tony Roper), an endearingly shallow philanderer in a manky checked jacket pulled even more out of shape by an Irn Bru bottle nestling in a sadly sagging side-pocket.

Even his beehive-heided wife Ella (Barbara Rafferty) describes Jamesie as “a slippery-lookin’ article”. He and Rab go back a long way, as he has explained: “We started goin intae pubs together, then we went on tae secondary school.” Fair to say Cotter is a bad influence on Rab. Who is a bad influence on Cotter.

Rab’s other pals include Andra (Brian Pettifer), who has a comb-over and looks “like a Ninja Turtle”, and Dodie (the late Iain McColl) who, tiring of alcohol, allegedly investigated alternative means of intoxication, such as sniffing shoe polish.

They get together in – where else? – the local pub, their alma nutter, where they find community and, at times, solidarity. Or, failing that, scorn. The wider community is Govan, a characterful part of Glasgow where a chap can easily obtain a fish supper at 9am, by removing it “off a drunk that’s been lyin pis*ed outside a close all night”.

That might well be Nesbitt himself. Nesbitt: family man, good friend, valued member of the community, or at least a community of sorts. He might be, in his own words, scum, but he is scum with a heart of grease beating benignly beneath that mockit vest. All his wealth is contained in a Giro. He lies in the gutter, looking down at the drain. But, by making us laugh, he is curiously uplifting.

His creator, Ian Pattison, said recently that he doubted if such a series would make to our screens in today’s grimly sensitive times. So, we’re lucky we had him at all. In the meantime, to purloin his own oft-stated parting message: Right, youse. Beat it!

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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