'Witty, warm and wise'' Frank Skinner and Denise Mina on Boswell & Johnson’s Scottish Road Trip

What, you say, another comedian ropes in a chum for a hire-car travelogue of this septic isle where the pair joke, put on funny voices, sample the local cuisine and tramp round places of interest - can’t TV come up with something original?

Frank Skinner (a huge Johnson fan), and Scottish novelist Denise Mina will re-trace Johnson and Boswell's journey
Frank Skinner (a huge Johnson fan), and Scottish novelist Denise Mina will re-trace Johnson and Boswell's journey

Well, Boswell & Johnson’s Scottish Road Trip (Sky Arts) is different. It’s not about male mid-life crisis (The Trip) and no one gets off with a chambermaid (The Trip again). There’s no drinking in it because Frank Skinner is a reformed imbiber and not even a ferocious welcome more like a command from an Arbroath landlady - “Dinna be shy, yer mother wisna” - can persuade him to stop for a refreshment.

Unlike in Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, the catch gets eaten (haddock, turned into a smokie). And Skinner’s companion isn’t another funster but Scottish crime writer Denise Mina. They make a winning double-act and their show is witty, warm and wise.

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Skinner is a Samuel Johnson devotee (two dissertations on him at uni) and has long wanted to recreate the great man of letters’ Grand Tour of 1773. In London he’s able to bid farewell to Johnson’s statue but in Edinburgh, as Mina discovers, no such memorial to Boswell exists, just a plaque halfway up a dark Old Town close - “Mean and shameful,” she calls this.

Ian Rankin on Muriel Spark

Fellow writer Andrew O’Hagan, great value for his five minutes, possibly articulates Georgian Edinburgh’s discomfiture with Johnson when he describes a day in the life: “Consorts with prostitutes at 6pm, church at seven, hosts a meeting about moral philosophy at nine and upside down drunk by ten.” But I’m sure that bigger rapscallions than Bozza have statues - inferior writers, too.

Anyway, off our twosome trot, initially by horse and carriage, reading excerpts from the published accounts of the tour, passing through St Andrews (“Pining in decay and struggling for life”) and Dundee (“Where I remember nothing remarkable”). These put-downs come from Johnson’s book with the latter being unmoved by the case for Scottish independence when debating the issue with Boswell, pointing out that Mary Queen of Scots languished in an English jail for 20 years and no one from her homeland tried to rescue her.

A kind of Trip-unadvisor for all places Scottish, Johnson’s mood would brighten when he reached Forres and Cawdor - Macbeth country for this Shakespeare scholar. My mood, already bright while watching this, is further improved by Dr Feelgood turning up on the soundtrack. There are two more parts to come.

Round about the same time as Skinner was writing his dissertations on Johnson, young Ian Rankin was beavering away on his PhD on Muriel Spark. Well, when he says beavering, he was actually using the time to knock out his own first attempts at novel-writing, one of which would be the debut Rebus thriller.

Adult Material

Nevertheless, he was and remains a “fanboy”, as Muriel Spark by Ian Rankin (Sky Arts) confirms. His writerly heroine, he declares, “unleashed on the 20th century some of the best sentences written in the English language”.

Most of the archive footage of Spark - such as when she described how her novels were written in the same exercise books she used as a schoolgirl, “ordered by the dozen from James Thin of South Bridge, Edinburgh” - comes from the old BBC Scotland arts magazine Scope. This must be just about the only film that remains of her in conversation in her pomp because it always turns up. But I never tire of seeing the clips because that’s my late father interviewing the Jean Brodie authoress who, in 1971, was a very glamorous woman indeed.

Good old, bad old Channel 4 still going further than any other network with a drama like Adult Material, further than you might think necessary. This drama about the porn industry begins amusingly with actress Jolene (Hayley Squires) simulating the throes if ecstasy while in her head remembering the household chores: "Wash the whites tonight, colours in the morning, take the mince out of the freezer."

But then it turns more grim. So grim I'm moved to recall the spluttering catchphrase of an old editor: "No no no, people don't want this with their ham and eggs!" But I guess that’s the point writer Lucy Kirkwood is making here. There’s really nothing amusing about porn for its participants.

Jolene has achieved a level of success, status and respect, but these can only take her so far in what you would call the business of doing pleasure. See, there I go: making jokes. It’s only to stop myself thinking about Phil Daniels’ butt-crack. And Rupert Everett in a Dolly Parton wig. And worse, much worse, than this pair of sleazeballs.

Les Dawson makes jokes about the business of doing pleasure in Urban Myths (Sky Arts again, a good week for the channel, now free to air). John Bradley plays the comedian before his breakthrough, renting a Parisian garret to write the great novel, only to be duped into becoming the piano-player in a knocking-shop. “I was a brothel Beethoven, a prostitute’s Prokofiev, a cathouse Cacciatore - a failure,” he laments.

Is this true? Who cares, it’s fun to think that Dawson might have had the path to success and hosting Blankety Blank revealed by Jean-Paul Sartre. And after Matt Hanock’s overuse of “existentialist crisis” it’s good to have the theory returned to the Left Bank, or indeed the Blankety Bank.

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