Interview: Jonathan Watson on the last ever Only an Excuse?

He has none of the familiar props - no flyaway hair or sheepskin collars or on-parade red, white and blue ties or glinting sovvy rings or twinkling comedy gnashers. This time Jonathan Watson relies on a hesitant smile, sad eyes and a telltale cough.

It's the final whistle for Jonathan Watson's football mimicry as Only an Excuse? ends after 27 years
It's the final whistle for Jonathan Watson's football mimicry as Only an Excuse? ends after 27 years

Mug’s Game is a short film which reminds you, or maybe even tells you something you didn’t know: that there’s a whole lot more to him than football mimicry. Watson plays Jack, who as a new apprentice with Upper Clyde Shipbuilders is told that the dust from the asbestos is good for him. He requests a mask but in the macho culture of the time - 1971 - is rebuked for this. He switches to a job hopefully involving less exposure though this means a wage cut. He takes part in the famous yard work-in when he snaffles a rose from the bouquet sent in support of the men by John Lennon. Proudly displaying the flower on his mantelpiece he’s asked if he’d change anything about his life. No, he says, almost certainly meaning yes, for he hasn’t escaped mesothelioma, the cancer asbestos causes. Back in the summer The Scotsman’s theatre critic Joyce McMillan called the film “glorious” with Watson delivering “the performance of his life”.

Now, Mug’s Game is not quite seven minutes long. That’s the equivalent of a generous post-match interview with a manager or player, Watson’s nuts and bolts for Only an Excuse? And yet what do these scenelets throw up, particularly in recent years, or as Walter Smith would have it, pur-tic-ulurly? Often very little. Sometimes damn all. Watson might only need a word like pur-tic-ulurly and he can work this up into a full-blown impression. Yet in the great theatre of oor fitba - the Bayview Tapestry - he struggles for new material and fresh lampoons. Next Friday’s Hogmanay edition of Only an Excuse?, then, will be the last-ever.

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“Where’s the burds?” might be the most well-worn catchphrase from the aged show, delivered by Frank McAvennie of course, but I’m wondering if “Where’s the characters?” might be an accurate sign-off.

Watson as Frank McAvennie, one of the show's best-loved lampoons

“That’s a good question - it could be,” says Watson, 63, when we meet at BBC Scotland HQ. “With the greatest respect to the guys now, there haven’t been as many recognisable figures coming into the game as they did in the past.

“Maybe the money is no longer here in the way it once was because a lot of the players you’ve never heard of. They’ve been signed from clubs you’ve never heard of. Even if you’ve kept all your issues of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, and like to consult them every night, you’d be struggling to know who some of these fellas are.”

But there’s no direct blame attached to the current generation for Only an Excuse? ending; this is a decision that Watson and chief writer Phil Differ - the midfield playmaker who dinks those passes for our man to finish off - have reached by themselves.

“We just felt the time was right to stop. Philip and I have worked together for a long time and we have this instinctive shorthand between us. Nothing needs discussing at length. After the show last Hogmanay we both thought that if we got commissioned again this should be the final one. You have to appreciate that things can’t go on for ever.”

Sending up Jim White

Well right now I’m not sure I can appreciate this. I think I loved Only an Excuse? for longer than some; indeed remembering a few of the critiques on Twitter over the past few years - hardly summoning the spirit of Kenneth Tynan, you lot - I know I did. I will miss it hugely.

No comedy comprising a rapid-fire sequence of sketches has ever scored with all them. I didn’t much care for Dick Emery’s skinhead or Bob Fleming, The Fast Show’s rustic oracle with the hacking cough, and I disliked most of Little Britain. But, from the last Hogmanay special The Oirishman, a spoof of Martin Scorcese’s gangster epic, was classic Only an Excuse? for having Watson as “Brandon Rodgers” subjected to a spotlight-and-thumbscrews interrogation: “Have you ever stuffed a club by legging it at the crucial stage of the season?”

I wrote in defence of the show 12 months ago and did the same the year before that. “Who finds this p*** funny?” a dissenting voice had tweeted then, and I reckoned this must have been a Celtic fan narked by Watson portraying the sainted manager as “Brendan O’Rodgers”, Emerald Isle singing sensation. In one of Val Doonican’s old cardies he ambled with a shepherd’s crook by a babbling stream and warbled songs from his latest smash-hit LP including “I nearly threw a wobbler over John McGinn” and “Put your head next to mine on the sunbed”.

Come on, guys, what’s not funny about that? Who knows, maybe we call Rodgers the last of the men of stature - those characters - to grace the Scottish game with his presence. I think he might like that. The last ha-ha of Only an Excuse? is, as we speak, still being edited but, even though he’s exited the SPFL, I’m hoping there will be one more Rodgers send-up.

And Gordon Strachan

Don’t, by the way, call Watson an impressionist; he’s an actor. He shouldn’t take this the wrong way but those pan-loaf features must be a big plus in his line of work. They’re a blank canvas - a bare goalmouth. He can be anyone he wants.

The very first voice he discovered he could mimic was that of Oliver Postgate, narrator of Noggin the Nog, the charmingly clunky Vikingesque animation show he watched as a small boy. From there he graduated to Eddie Waring’s “oop ’n’ unders” and Malcolm Muggeridge’s cerebral convulsions.

These impressions were for his own amusement but then he enrolled on a course for kids at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “It was my father who suggested it. I’m an only child and I think when you’re the parent on one, as I am myself, you’re always looking for things they can do where they’ll meet children their own age. BBC Scotland, when they needed child actors, would look in on our sessions. My first telly part was in 1969, a Wednesday Play called The Boy Who Wanted Peace, about these poor Glasgow kids who discover a crateful of stolen money.”

By that stage Watson looked like he might follow his father into advertising but never turned up for the first day’s tutorial. “On the bus home from the TV studios the night before I just thought: ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Denis Law has been another favourite of the show

Another likely lad on that junior course was Alex Norton, the future Taggart and Watson’s co-star in his other festive TV offering, Two Doors Down, the ghastly neighbours sitcom. Colin, Watson’s character, isn’t a football man, his wife (played by Doon Mackichan) rarely allowing him to have even an opinion of his own. Watson grew up a Rangers supporter but later made a decision to stop watching them. “I got married and then my son came along. When Rangers were booted down to the bottom division I was going to go back to Ibrox to give them a wee cheer, but when they didn’t reduce the price of a season ticket I was like: ‘Good luck, boys.’”

Like everyone else, Watson’s 2020 has been disrupted by Covid. The fifth series proper of Two Doors Down will now start shooting in March and he’s also looking forward to going out on tour with Fibres, the stage play which begat Mug’s Game and a work of some resonance to right now. “The film was shot when there was no sign of a cure for coronavirus. There isn’t one for mesothelioma - it’s a death sentence.” Like all actors, he’s excited about the next thing, the “biggie” he’s not allowed to tell me about, but is proud of Only an Excuse?, as well he should be.

It began life on the radio in 1986 and originally consisted of just two spoofs - Denis Law and the novelist William McIlvanney who the previous year had narrated, in especially mournful fashion, the Only a Game investigation of Scotland’s football obsession.

The big-money transfer to TV happened in 1993. Watson didn’t believe it would last so long. You could say, as he’s often had Graeme Souness saying, that it was “better than ah first thought”. “But I suppose there was nothing else like it at the time,” he continues, and indeed there wasn’t. Off the Ball didn’t kick off until 1994. And you beat Fantasy Football League as well, I say. “Really, did we?” The modest master-mimic is unaware of just how pioneering his show has been in mining the game for laughs.

“One of the reasons for its longevity is that while Scots love their football and take it seriously, they don’t take it that seriously. We’re not po-faced about it, we can see the funny side. But, amazingly, people who wouldn’t class themselves as football fans have enjoyed it as well.”

Maybe these non-believers liked the moments when Watson has sold a dummy to the general theme and dived into the dressing-up box to re-emerge as Nicola Sturgeon or Greta Thunberg. You can’t accuse Only an Excuse? of standing still, although some have tried.

Watson is aware of the criticism of recent editions. “The zoomers and munters of social media,” he says. “I pay no attention to any of that.” While some comedians complain that the immediacy of Twitter can rob them of material, he doesn’t think his show has been unduly affected. “I like Twitter and loathe it. Some of it is funny but a lot is rubbish. We’ve always had really good writers.”

To his wry amusement, McAvennie has been among the carpers. Watson doesn’t go as far as to claim the former Scotland striker’s profile has been kept buoyant by the show but I might. Would Macca have his tabloid column without Watson’s regular and hilarious send-ups?

Not so regular recently as Only an Excuse? in the woke era maybe couldn’t get away with the garage skit. You remember this one: Macca paying for his petrol and the attendant asking “Pump two?” as a pair of giggling blondes hove into view. “Do my best,” he smirks. Hopefully, though, it makes the grand finale, an hour-long celebration of old favourites and new stuff inspired by what football has been played this year, plus contributions from such reliable sources of mirth as Souness, Smith, Kenny Dalglish and the bold Frankie.

These guys took the jokes well but has anyone been offended? “If they were they didn’t let on. I think the show got away with an awful lot because the targets could see that we were fans of the game. Our litmus test was always: if the guy who’d just been the subject of a gag walked into the room a bit dischuffed, would we feel awkward? If we did maybe the joke would be cut.”

Down the seasons Only an Excuse? has wielded considerable power and influence, with Chick Young supplying Watson with the incontrovertible proof: “This was about his laugh. In the show I always did it with a third ‘heh’. One time Chick was recording a voiceover for an ad but the director kept asking for more takes until he said: ‘No no, you’re doing it wrong. It’s ‘heh heh heh.’ Chick said: ‘But it’s my f****n’ laugh!’”

Watson deserves thanks for making us “heh heh heh” so much but who’s he enjoyed mildly ridiculing the most? “It’s difficult to pick one but maybe my favourite sketch came when we persuaded the Beeb to let us fly out to the States in 1994 to film a World Cup special even though Scotland had failed to qualify. The scene was Times Square, New York, all that iconic neon round about, and as the great Denis Law I peered down the barrel of the camera lens and said: ‘Welcome to Soccer Babylon.’”

Jonathan Watson was my first Saturday Interview 11 years ago when, during a glum spell for Scottish football - you know the kind - he conceded that further travails would be good for Only an Excuse? but he fervently hoped the national team would return to the big time eventually. Now that they’re about to do so, maybe this is a suitable moment - even though it’s set to continue in podcast form - to blow the final whistle.

There is no sadness about this. “I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years now,” he says. “Shows come to an end but I don’t get sentimental, no matter how much I’ve loved them. We’ve had a good kick at the ball.”

The last-ever Only an Excuse? is on Hogmanay on BBC1 at 10.25pm. The festive edition of Two Doors Down is on Monday, BBC2, 9pm.

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