I, Tommy, written by Ian Pattison and a fixture at the Gilded Balloon Teviot during the Edinburgh Fringe, is based on a political and media saga that shows no sign of ending. Here’s the story so far:
One. Tommy Sheridan, Scotland’s highest-profile man-of-the-people socialist firebrand, whose opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax once resulted in him spending six months at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Saughton Prison, gets elected to the newly-created Scottish Parliament in 1999. Hurrah!
Two. Tommy actually gives a good account of himself during the first term of the parliament. The well-to-do blethering classes of Middle Scotland (who would sooner cut their own throats than live in the Independent Socialist Republic of Scotland that Tommy espouses) come to see him as a good, if slightly misguided chap, with barrow-loads of integrity. Even Scotland’s golf-playing tax-exile-in-chief Sir Sean Connery sings his praises. Hurrah, hurrah!
Three. Tommy’s hard work is rewarded in 2003 when he is re-elected, and five fellow members of the Scottish Socialist Party are newly elected, to the Scottish Parliament. By now, even the Sunday Post, a D.C. Thomson newspaper whose politics had formerly been somewhere to the right of Vlad the Impaler’s, is printing breathless Hello-style profiles of Tommy at home with his attractive, flame-haired, ex-air hostess wife Gail. Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!
Four. Working on the assumption that if something or someone seems to be too good be to be true, it generally isn’t, the News of the World, a newspaper emanating from the evil empire of Rupert Murdoch, starts digging up muck on Tommy. It claims that Tommy, who is a teetotaller and has always presented himself as being whiter than white (though his habit of spending hours on a sunbed have actually made him oranger than orange) has had an extra-marital affair. Later, lurid details emerge about him attending a swingers’ club in Manchester. The Scottish public, who’d always assumed that a swingers’ club was where you went when you wanted to listen to some golden oldies by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior, receives a sudden education in what the term actually means. Boo!
Five. In 2006, Tommy sues the News of the World for libel, wins the case and receives £200,000 in damages. In some quarters, Tommy is now revered as a saintly knight who managed to slay the fearsome dragon known as Rupert. Hurrah!
Six. However, by now, Tommy has also fallen out with the Scottish Socialist Party – most of his ex-comrades believed and even gave evidence supporting the News of the World’s allegations. The split has fatal political consequences for all of them, because Tommy and the SSP’s remaining Members of the Scottish Parliament lose their seats at the 2007 election. Meanwhile, the News of the World prepares to appeal the previous year’s court decision… Boo!
Seven. Tommy ends up in court again, accused of telling lies when he accused the News of the World of telling lies about him. To fund his defence, he appears on Celebrity Big Brother alongside such political, cultural and intellectual heavyweights as La Toya Jackson, Coolio and Verne Troyer, who played Mini–Me in the Austin Powers movies. He is found guilty of perjury and at the beginning of 2011 is sentenced to three years in Barlinnie Prison. The line on Tommy Sheridan, propounded by an unholy alliance between the Murdoch press and the Scottish Socialist Party and now officially sanctioned by the Scottish courts, is that he’s a duplicitous shag-happy liar. Boo, boo!
Eight. It’s 2012 and good behaviour in prison wins Tommy an early release. He vows to clear his name and, with the News of the World closed down (‘put down’ sounds a more appropriate phrase) and Murdoch’s News International company reeling after the phone-hacking scandal, people are prepared to take his protests of innocence a little more seriously than they were a year earlier. And according to a BBC news report this week, Bob Bird, former editor of the News of the World’s Scottish edition, has been ‘charged in connection with the defamation action of former MSP Tommy Sheridan’. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-19409581) Hurrah… possibly.
Apart from the events of the last few days, Ian Pattison’s play covers all of the above in a comical – or an even more comical – manner and portrays Sheridan the way that the Scottish courts / News of the World / Scottish Socialist Party say he is, i.e. a shag-happy liar. Note, however, that the story is not yet over and we may possibly have to revise our image of Tommy. Again.
Played by Des McLean, Sheridan as he’s depicted in I, Tommy is a great comic creation – a preening, posing numbskull driven by a gargantuan ego (“All rivers flow into the Sea of Tommy,” he says of his socialist followers and forebearers) and an equally large libido. Pattison writes his dialogue in a patois combining the vernacular of the Glasgow housing schemes with the rhetoric of deadly-earnest socialism (which Sheridan carries over into his private life, addressing Gail as “Sister wife…”) and McLean is spot-on in his delivery of the resultant Tommy-speak, investing it with the fiery yet somehow monotonous tones of a politician who takes himself way too seriously. And his left arm seems to spend the play permanently locked in an up-in-the-air clenched fist / Black Power salute.
Unsurprisingly, the real Tommy Sheridan is no fan of the play and claims that Pattison has distorted his story. The writer, he says, “read two books about me… dishonest, nasty and politically motivated books.” (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/tommy-sheridan-says-fringe-play-1271318) But he should really be worried about Des McLean’s version of him gaining a wider audience, for example, by turning up on television, because it could destroy his political career (or what’s left of it). Just as the Spitting Image puppet representing 1980s Liberal Party-leader Sir David Steel as a useless pipsqueak midget did serious and lasting damage to Steel’s image among voters, and just as Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live convinced a lot of people that Palin was a backwoods thicko (though arguably Palin did a good enough job of convincing people herself), folk could easily confuse McLean’s Sheridan and the real Sheridan, to the latter’s detriment.
The humour in the play isn’t especially subtle, with Pattison missing no opportunity to milk a joke out of the material, high-brow or low, satirical or plain coarse. It’s roughly on par with the level of humour in Spitting Image (which was funny without being particularly clever) or, indeed, in Pattison’s most famous work, the long-running Scottish TV series Rab C. Nesbitt. What’s important, though, is that the jokes keep coming and most of them are on target, so that the play is funny.
Rab C. Nesbitt was, in its day, one of the best things on Scottish television (and its titular character is surely the greatest comic figure produced by Scottish TV in the last quarter-century), but it gradually wore out its welcome, with Pattison relying more and more on the audience’s affection for the characters and exploiting an ever-thickening vein of sentimentality. Here, however, Pattison has fresh meat to get his teeth into and his comic mojo has been reinvigorated. Satisfyingly, there’s no sentimentality and the characters are treated mercilessly, including Gail – shown here as an ambitious, scheming but none-too-bright harpy – and Tommy’s eccentric Shirley Bassey-loving mother Alice, who comes across in the play as a demented old bat. Indeed, such is Pattison’s determination to leave no aspect of the Sheridans unmocked that I’m sure he will be criticised for being both class-ist and religiously prejudiced – he makes fun of Sheridan’s humble Glasgow origins and cracks more than one joke about Gail and Alice’s devout Catholicism.
But whether you believe Tommy Sheridan is a sinner or a (sinned-against) saint, he is at the end of the day a politician — and considering who they are, what they do and how much power they can potentially wield, politicians have to be the property of satirists. Thus, I’m afraid, as in love and war, all’s fair in political satire.