The flooring of Andrew Marr has the makings of a cult classic



The funniest broadcast – as in fall-about funny – I ever heard as a television critic was an interview with Jimmy Shand by Bill McCue. Although my column in Scotland on Sunday that week has been twice anthologised, I claim no credit: it wrote itself. Or rather Jimmy and Bill wrote it for me.      
      Poor Bill must have imagined that he could break down the verbal defences of Auchtermuchty’s most celebrated citizen. Jimmy, however, played true to form, fully justifying his reputation for elevating the humble monosyllable to the status of an art form.
     About his musicianship, the lovely man had least of all to say. ‘It was a new technique you were developing,’ Bill reminded him. ‘Ah wouldna’ say it was new,’ Jimmy mumbled darkly.
     Next Bill asked him to name some of the interesting places he had visited.
‘All over,’ Jimmy replied. Indeed: all over in more ways than one. But with another 20 minutes to fill somehow, Bill had no alternative but to plough on.
      How about hobbies? Hadn’t he been a keen motor-cyclist? He had.
     ‘Aye,’ said Bill, ‘there’s no’ many hedges you havenae been ower in Auchtermuchty.’
     ‘I wouldna’ say that,’ Jimmy replied.
     ‘What were your other hobbies?’
     ‘No’ many.’
     With some difficulty Bill established that Jimmy was moderately keen on sailing.
     ‘Where did you keep your boat?’
     ‘Where did you sail?’
     ‘In the Tay.’
     ‘You never ventured into the deep blue sea?’
     Well, that seemed to be Jimmy’s hobbies all wrapped up: in a nutshell, so to speak. By this stage, it was Bill McCue who was in the deep blue sea – drowning in it.

Art college is written off with admirable candour: ‘I just wanted to draw bare naked women’.

     I never thought I would live to hear anything funnier than this legendary encounter. But Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ last Monday came close. I do not refer to David Starkey’s disobliging opinions about Glasgow, which seemed to this listener tediously predictable. I am thinking about the comic glory of Andrew Marr’s opening exchange with Alasdair Gray.
     Mr Gray is one of Scotland’s most versatile people. He writes novels, he writes plays, he draws and paints, all with great skill. I went to his house for dinner once, and can testify that he cooks as weel. There seems to be very little that Alasdair Gray does not do well. He is also a man of endearing vocal eccentricity, a superlative roller of the letter r, whose range within the same short sentence is countertenor to bass with every register between. But, until last Monday morning, I had not thought of him as a torturer of London-based Scottish telly personalities.
     Since there were comparatively few witnesses to Mr Gray’s wiping of the floor with Andrew Marr, it is worth transcribing the opening minutes unedited:

Alasdair, on the cover of one of your books you have in gold the words: ‘Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’. And much of what you have done is trying to create a stronger sense of parts of that nation…a stronger sense of place.
Oh, good. (Strangulated tone). I did not mean to. I just wanted to tell stories and make pictures that people would enjoy.
And yet it’s almost impossible to imagine your drawing and your – your – writing without your native city. I mean, you seem to be as rooted in Glasgow and Glasgow is as important for you as, you know, parts of Northern Ireland are for Seamus Heaney, or one could go on.
(In a high pitch)
Or St Petersburg for Dostoevsky or Dickens for London! Yes, I’m perfectly ordinary that way!
     After this disconcerting start, Mr Marr insists on digging an even bigger hole for himself. He asks Mr Gray about the origins of his style as an artist.
     ‘Partly from Walt Disney and partly from the Beano and the Dandy comics,’ comes the reply, ‘and then every other artist who ever lived.’
     Art college is written off with admirable candour: ‘I just wanted to draw bare naked women’.
     Is there anywhere left for this interview to go? It seems there is.

This is a book of pictures. One of the many interesting parts of it is very early on you just show some of the many illustrated books that you grew up with as a child and it strikes me that we live now in a world of screens and television and so on, but the notion of gorgeously illustrated, carefully drawn and illustrated books has rather fallen out of the culture and this is a diminishment…
(Adopting mock-American accent)
Yes! I can only agree with you, sirrr!
I’m going to stop asking such long questions, and then we’ll get some kind of answers.

     Alasdair Gray has, however, given a perfectly reasonable answer to the question, if it was a question in the first place. Mr Marr has suggested that the passing of the tradition of illustrated books has been a diminishment of the culture and Mr Gray has agreed. What else is there to say? Mr Marr has answered the question himself, at some length, as interviewers do.
     Mr Marr does then attempt to express himself more succinctly. He goes on to propose to Alasdair Gray that there had been a ‘busy’ world of writers and artists in Glasgow when the interviewee was making his way.
     ‘I just wondered if that’s faded a bit these days,’ he adds helpfully.
     Painful pause; clearing of throat.
     ‘I don’t think it was a busy scene at all. I knew a few folk. Not many. Only Archie Hind, and Betty Clark the playwright. Largely ignored.’
     Well, the hapless interviewer persists, it must be better now for writers and artists. For once, Mr Gray is merciful. He agrees. Then adds: ‘But every other industry in Scotland has been destroyed. Except tourism’. As for Scottish education, once the envy of the world, it exists now ‘to get jobs for the clever boys in England’. He is looking at Mr Marr.

So Mr Marr was due his come-uppance and, on ‘Start the Week’, he duly got it. For performing this public service, Alasdair Gray deserves the gratitude of the nation.

     I have not quite forgiven Andrew Marr for his interview with the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, in which he suggested that Mr Brown was taking something to enable him to ‘get through’ the day. What were we meant to think? That Gordon Brown was not really up to the job? It was innuendo of the meanest sort and probably did a lot of damage by implanting a doubt in people’s minds about the prime minister’s mental state. So Mr Marr was due his come-uppance and, on ‘Start the Week’, he duly got it. For performing this public service, Alasdair Gray deserves the gratitude of the nation.
     We once tried to launch an SR series on dream dinner parties. It bombed. It occurs to me that a series on nightmare dinner parties might have been more popular. Here’s my invitation list: Andrew Marr, Alasdair Gray, Jimmy Shand and Bill McCue. With Alasdair doing the cooking.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.