Only An Excuse had 'a good kick of the ball'

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image copyrightComedy Unit
image captionJonathan Watson as Frank McAvennie, one of the shows most enduring football characters

Only An Excuse stars Jonathan Watson and creator Phil Differ say the show "had a good kick of the ball" but now is the right time for the final whistle.

The comedy sketch show, which has become a Scottish Hogmanay tradition, is coming to an end after 27 years on TV.

Differ, who also previously worked on New Year's Eve institution Scotch and Wry, says it is a "big responsibility" to be trusted with such a landmark comedy show.

He says: "People are sitting down at Hogmanay and saying give us a laugh." It becomes a "full-time obsession" trying to make sure it works year after year.

The history of Only An Excuse goes back much further than its 1993 debut on TV. It started on BBC Radio Scotland during the 1986 Mexico World Cup.

The idea came from a serious documentary series about football called Only a Game, which was narrated by author William McIlvanney.

image copyrightComedy Unit
image captionFormer Manchester United star Denis Law was one of Watson's favourite characters

Differ, who was working with Watson on a radio comedy called Naked Radio at the time, proposed doing a parody of the documentary series mocking Scottish football's characters.

Along with comedy actor Tony Roper, they came up with three hours' worth of material and football fans lapped it up.

Differ says the "stars aligned" as the excitement of Scotland playing in a World Cup combined with a new-found interest in mixing football with comedy.

It was a formula that would be later followed on radio by Off the Ball and on TV by Baddiel and Skinner's Fantasy Football League.

image copyrightComedy Unit
image captionWatson as Sky Sports presenter Jim White

Despite the success of the radio show, it took seven years for TV to pick up the idea, inspired by a stage version that Watson and Differ had been touring.

Initially, the programme was purely about football, with characters such as Denis Law and Frank McAvennie providing endless material.

Differ says it was only in the later years that they extended it to personalities from politics and showbusiness.

Whereas McAvennie had a reputation off the field as well as on, Differ says he began to feel that some of the new footballers were "robots and automatons" who trained hard and behaved themselves.

"We were getting older as well," he says. "When we started doing it we were the same age as a lot of the characters.

"We were picking up on guys like Macca and looking at the other side of football, which was the funny side."

image copyrightComedy Unit
image captionWalter Smith has been featured on the programme and agreed to appear in person on the last show

When Differ and Watson announced this would be the last episode they say the BBC decided to make it a "celebration".

It will be an extended, hour-long edition that combines new material with archive sketches and interviews with people who have featured over the years.

Watson, who also stars in BBC Scotland's Two Doors Down, says: "When they were asked to contribute to the interviews - Graeme Souness, Walter Smith, Kenny Dalglish - they all said 'yes' right away. They were delighted to.

"One of the reasons is that they know we love the game and share that warmth for the game."

Both Differ and Watson says they were surprised that the show became a Hogmanay tradition.

"I don't think anyone would have seen how it grew and grew," Watson says.

"We didn't think for a second it would last that long. We didn't see that coming."

Differ says he will continue to write comedy but his big achievement will always be Only An Excuse.

"That's the one I'm most proud of," he says.

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