Glasgow Comedy Festival Interview: Stuart Cosgrove

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Stuart Cosgrove is at a crucial point in the morning when we phone him at his home. He’s making an online purchase and needs to input some information to a website. Concentration is required. He apologies and there’s a pause, which gives me enough time to peruse my notes and contemplate making a cup of tea.

Cosgrove is one half of a long established radio double-act with Tam Cowan. They present Off the Ball on BBC Radio Scotland – a football show, but not a football phone-in show. More on that later.

He was born in Perth and supports St Johnstone. He’s a writer, journalist and was a television executive at Channel 4 for eight years.

Cosgrove and Cowan will present a “blend of chat on football, scandal and self-revelation” with their Off the Bawl show at the Glasgow Comedy Festival.

After much tapping of keyboard keys, Stuart returns to the phone, eager to chat about the live show, football and living in Dennistoun.

How does your week usually work – how do you put the radio show together?

I think one of the first things is that you carry with you all the kind of various debates and arguments and disputes that are going on. The way that almost any football fan would do. You know the basic position of almost all the key clubs and whatever.

And so with that in mind, you’re carrying a lot of knowledge with you and then what happens is on Friday, the producer of the show, a guy called Stevie Miller, he selects a couple of guests that would be appropriate for that week. That sometimes shapes some of the things you might think and what you might do.

Then on the Saturday morning, we have an editorial meeting at nine thirty and we drill down the big talking points of the week.

The way that we work on the show and the way we analyse success – we know that we’ve got a hell of lot of listeners who are not hardcore football fans, so we depart away from the traditional kind of football call-in show and one of the things that’s proved to be really, really popular over the years, is stories about Scottish public life and experience.

How do you translate the radio show to a show on stage? Is it a greatest hits type format or do you look to you approach things differently from the radio?

Neither Tam nor I are stand up comedians. Not only is that an art form, there’s plenty of them around. That’s not what we bring to a comedy festival. What we’re doing is trying to kind of give the audience insights and kind of glimpses into a successful show that has comedy within its mix.

So, you talk there about the greatest hits, the typical things that you get asked if it’s a simple Q and A, are things like “your most notorious guest”, “the person you’ve hated interviewing”, “tell us something we don’t know about Off the Ball”. It’s things like.

And we’ve had lawyers letters, we’ve been reprimanded by the BBC. You tell people things like that because they think they’re getting a kind of behind the scenes insight and usually when you’re reprimanded by the BBC, it’s for something hilarious.

Also, people are interesting in the relationship between Tam and myself. That’s to some extent both genuine in the sense that we honestly occupy the personality sets that we’ve got, but most people acknowledge that also there’s a contrivance there. We’re creating as it were, a double act. And that double act just, by it’s nature, exaggerates our characteristics, or our flaws, or our obsessions, or sometimes even our conceits.

So, for example, although I’m from, originally born and raised in a fairly deprived community in Scotland, a working class background. That doesn’t really suit the double act, so Tam occupies that position and then there’s what I grew into, being a media character enjoying an imagined, pretentious middle-class lifestyle. It suits the double act if I’m portrayed as that, and he’s portrayed as the working-class guy.

Do you end up falling into those roles when you’re just out in the pub sometimes?

I think when we’re out together, we might for example go for a meal or something like that, we’re usually talking about what we think about something that’s coming up, or our relationship with the various producers or the bosses of the BBC. In which case, we tend to be speaking honestly to each other about what we really think.

Of course – here’s the thing – if you look at Tam’s portfolio, he writes comedy about football, presents Off The Ball, but he’s also a restaurant and food critic. And that means that he spends much more time than I do in posh restaurants, so to some extent you can tell there that the double act is a bit contrived.

Does the fact you are performing live on stage give you more freedom than you have on radio?

Oh, unquestionably so. Because you’re live, and you’re in a theatre, and you’re not constrained by broadcasting legislation. You’re not constrained by the BBC’s requirements for what’s acceptable to say on air during the day on a Saturday as people are coming to and from football games. So we’ve got considerably more freedom. The BBC has a long list of words that you can’t say on air…

You studied the history of theatre at university – is it nice to be on stage in a theatre then? Did you have an interest in that side of performing?

Curiously enough, when I first went to study theatre studies, I didn’t perform, and that was a requirement of the course because it had a practical strand to it. But quite early on in the course, I think towards the end of my first year or middle of my second year, I became fascinated by the history of theatre.

And of course the history of theatre bears an awful lot of connexions to the wider strains of history. The history of states, the history of nations, the history of wars and things like that. And I became really interested in that, whether it was kind of Greek theatre and the rise of discussion of democracy or whether it was experimental theatre in Germany in the 20s, and oppositional theatre to fascism and whatever. So, I’m pretty interested in theatre as a social history as much as theatre as a performance.

So, whilst it’s kind of good to be in a live environment, my interests in theatre are probably more to do with theatre as history rather theatre as performance.

Your book Detroit 67 was about soul music in America, do you make a link between music and social history?

Yeah, the books, Detroit 67 and the new one that’s coming out, Memphis 68, they are very much social histories, they’re as much about history as they are about soul music.

And one of the big things, you can see as a strand in my life – that kind of interest in history. You know, when I was at the NME, I was the one that used to advocate the coverage of black music, the coverage of soul, get the coverage of hip-hop, get the coverage of the house scene, rave scene, whatever. But always with me there was that other thing, that it was a route to history. If it wasn’t about the civil rights, or about the rave scene, it was about public legislation about banning the weed, or whatever. I was always looking for something that was context rather than just the music is great.

Scottish football at the moment, all kinds of calamities have befallen some clubs, great things are happening in other places. Where does that leave you in terms of getting a laugh?

By the description there, you’re meaning St. Johntone compared to Dundee [laughs]. You know what, those things are very much in the eye of the beholder. Football fans are tribal. And because they’re tribal, they often don’t like being laughed at, and often they can’t see themselves as the victim of a gag because the gags are always about the rivals.

Now, actually, if you look at that, I’m a big, big St. Johnstone fan, and have been all my life, right? Now, from the point of view of supporting that club, the joke is that I’ve supported them through thin and thin. They’re having a great period just now, but that’s no always how it’s been, and so you become inured to another kind of debate, which is that you see through the delusions and the entitlements of the bigger clubs.

There are clubs who, historically, have always said that “Scotland’s holding them back,” “if only the English came here,” blah blah blah. And yet, at the same time, they go and buy up every decent player in Scotland to denude the competition.

So there’s plenty of things that you can poke fun at there. And often, I think, Off The Ball’s been very good at that. It’s a wee bit like the fool mocking the king. There’s an element of that. You’re able to kinda look at their fallacies and we know we’re rangers, but it’s a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes. That people talk and say, “well, wait a minute, they don’t have a manager, they don’t have the money they say they have, their board’s in disarray,” you know, you’re invited to laugh at that, because the presumption of that club is to do with them having been entitled to be great.

What type of interactions do you have with your audience when you are on air for Off the Ball?

About two or three years ago, we made the decision to stop taking calls, so people talk about a football phone-in, but Off The Ball’s never been a football phone-in, even in it’s earliest days. We took calls, but the calls were there to kind of step it up and spice up the show, whereas Clyde’s Superscoreboard is dependent on phone calls, and it almost invites it to be Celtic clan followed by the Rangers fans.

That’s kind of always their hidden format. We periodically make a call out if we can get to somebody, like the chief executive of Aberdeen texted us a few weeks ago about an issue in Aberdeen and he said “look, I’m happy to come on and defend it.” And we called him back, but that was calling him almost as a guest on the phone, rather than as a phone-in.

And one of the reasons for that is that Twitter and email and text message provided fan feedback anyway. So you didn’t have to go through this slightly cringey thing of, “oh, is there a kid in the background? You’re getting feedback, mate, can you turn your transistor off?” Or, “Your mobile seems to be … Are you under a bridge or something?” And all of these crackling voices. And often, sad to say this, often in pursuit of people who were considerably less coherent than you would want. Whereas often the people that are texting in to us have got jokes, gags, one-liners, questions, little bits of trivia that kind of lighten up the show.

Tell us about your Glasgow experience Stuart, have you always kind of stayed within the same part of the city?

Yes, I’ve always been Dennistoun. I’ve lived in the East End in Dennistoun since I first arrived in Glasgow, when I first moved here. Which is going on 28, nearly 30 years ago now. Just to give you a perspective … My oldest neighbour, my next-door neighbour, Annie MacNamara passed away yesterday, and that’s a big moment for me because I’m now the longest-surviving person on the street.

I live in a small terrace off Alexandra Park, and it’s just one of those things where a neighbour, who’s always been next door to you passes away, you realise that the rest of the street’s changed profoundly. I mean, almost everybody else on the street is in someway connected to either the media or journalism, or something like that. And here’s this woman next door who was classic old-Glasgow who’s passed away, she was in her 80s, and so I’m going to her funeral later this week. But it felt for me, a kind of almost passing of a moment.

What about those changes in the area over the last thirty years then, do you still recognise the area?

Yes, it’s still a place that I recognise, but Dennistoun has changed profoundly in the period of time I’ve been there. Let me just give you one simple example. Annie, who died last night, was the first Catholic to live on the street. Now, obviously, since then the vast majority of people, Lord only knows what religion they are or whether they have a religion.

The house that I live in used to be the Church of Scotland manse, and the area, the square that we live in, was the square that was for the managers of the old Robert Dennistoun estate, the tobacco baron. So, the area was staunchly Protestant and Church of Scotland. Now that’s virtually died away. It’s much more multicultural, there’s no great emphasis on religion whatsoever, and certainly it’s the case that there’s a number of people on the street that probably have origins in Ireland rather than Scotland.

So, it’s changed in terms of that obsession with religion and sectarianism, and it’s changed in terms of its multicultural profile as well. It’s also a much younger area of Glasgow than the vast majority.

They have hipsters now we hear.

There’s an awful lot of people who have moved into Dennistoun because it’s a great place to come for a starter house, or a starter flat if you can’t afford the West End or Finnieston. So there’s a young bohemian element to it.

And that’s all fine. I can live with that. I’m not exactly against someone having a pointed beard and a Harris tweed suit. It’s not gonna change my life.

Media is obviously a very important industry for the city. Maybe it doesn’t get as much recognition for the fact that it’s really engaged in all kinds of different aspects of Glasgow life.

I completely agree with you that it is fundamentally important, but I’ve been part of the generation of people that have campaigned vigorously for more Scottish media. Of all forms, actually. You know, even media I disagree with.

So, I’m not talking about things that kind of are atuned to my views. I’m meaning across the board. You know, newspapers, magazines, radio shows, TV shows, channels, all of those things. Managerial jobs in the media, new media, digital media, social media. I want to see Scotland grow in all of those areas, and have a much more vibrant industry. I include Glasgowist in that, it’s the sort of thing that you’re currently doing, that gives people the prospect of having a start-up business. It gives them experience, and they have to learn more about how to generate revenue in a highly competitive web market. Al of these things are good for Scotland.

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Stuart Cosgrove & Tam Cowan Off The Bawl

King’s Theatre
Friday 17 March 7.30pm

£18.50/£16.50

Tam Cowan and Stuart Cosgrove are the dynamic duo from BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Off the Ball’, the self-proclaimed “most petty and ill-informed football show on radio.”

They will be live at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival offering a blend of chat with a special guest host, covering football, scandal and self-revelation.

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