Sunday, 15 January 2012

Why do you never see Andy Murray smile?

I came to Scotland 20 years ago, having gradually moved northwards since leaving Dorset for London at the age of 18. Now married to a Scotsman, I’ve learnt there are two things not to discuss with him or his fellow countrymen over the dinner table: the film Braveheart and Scottish independence. And if I’m unwise enough to break this rule, I have to preface everything I say with ‘I know I’m English but . . .’

Those of you who live in the UK will probably be aware now of the stushie (row) brewing between the Westminster government and the SNP over the Scottish independence referendum. I’m not going to discuss the politics of it, although if you follow me on Twitter you may have detected a slight antipathy towards Alex Salmond, the SNP’s combative leader.

A First Minister
However, I admit to grudging admiration for a man who’s made himself the third best known Scotsman alive today, after Sean Connery and Andy Murray. The unsettling thing about Salmond is that he’s so smiley, albeit in a self-satisfied way. He comes over as almost cuddly. When I compare him with those giant pandas now gorging themselves on bamboo in Edinburgh Zoo, I’m not simply being cruel about his chins.

A giant panda
Salmond’s visible cheerfulness flies in the face of how the Scots tend to be seen – unfairly in my opinion – as a race exemplified by grumpy ex-PM Gordon Brown. Why is this? Well, let’s examine a couple of TV programmes from the past and how they depicted Scotsmen. (If you’re too young to have heard of them, please don’t tell me – it would be too depressing.)

The comedy Dad’s Army, which ran 1968-1977 was my first exposure to the concept of the dour* Scot. In it, John Laurie played Frazer, the curmudgeonly undertaker (what else?) who frequently declared ‘We’re all doomed’, lengthening the ‘oo’ sound as only a Scotsman can get away with. The argument that the characters in Dad’s Army were all stereotypes only strengthens my point.

Last weekend we watched an episode of The Sweeney which first aired in 1978. This particular episode was called ‘Hard Men’ in which, according to IMDb, ‘Dour* Scots sergeant Davy Freeth arrives from Glasgow’ on the trail of some Scottish villains. Regan and Carter let rip with the sensitivity they usually reserve for women, calling Freeth ‘Jock’ and making jokes about porridge, fried food and Rangers supporters. Their visitor threatens, ’The next bastard that calls me Jock gets his head knocked off!’ and head-butts a door down.

It's very funny in the hands of such consummate actors (Freeth was played by James Cosmo, whom you’d recognise even if you don’t know the name). My husband took no offence and laughed as much as me. The final scene sees Regan and Carter in their car, relieved to have put Freeth on the northbound train. ‘Thank Christ they’re going independent,’ Regan says. Yes, it’s been going on that long.

Now I’ve alerted you to it, you can play ‘spot the dour* Scotsman’ yourself. As an antidote, I’d like to mention the Radio 4 programme Reasons to Be Cheerful which yesterday featured cheery Scots writer Jackie Kay introducing the rather less cheery Scot Muriel Gray to the things that make life worthwhile. Proof, if it were needed, that the default setting north of the Border isn’t always ‘dour’ (which, by now, you should be able to pronounce like a true Scotsman).

* pronounced, north of the Border, closer to ‘sewer’ rather than ‘power’

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