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GROWING up in Liverpool as a football-mad kid, my idol was the Reds' no. 9, the Scottish player Ian St John, immortalised on a church billboard amended by some local wit, “Jesus saves! St John scores on the rebound!”
Like comedian Phil Differ, whose hero was the equally diminutive and equally combative and skilful Leeds United player Billy Bremner, I wanted to be a clone of my idol. But, like Differ, I pretty soon realised that was never going to happen. There's always someone tougher and more skilful out there to take you to the cleaners.
That shattered dream is a common one for many and how to cope with the reality of simply not being good enough smacking you in the face is the theme of Differ's one-man show Billy Bremner and Me.
Autobiographical it may be, but this is no exercise in existential gloom. Differ is one of Scotland's top comedy writers, who started off writing gags and scripts for Naked Radio and Naked Video and went on to develop the classic Only An Excuse? show featuring Jonathan Watson.
The idea for Billy Bremner and Me came to him about a year ago when he attended the prize giving at his old secondary school, St Modan’s High in Stirling. In the school's foyer there’s a photograph from 1973 of its most famous former pupil Billy Bremner being held aloft and surrounded by a crowd of school kids, among them Differ.
“Seeing this photo brought it all back to me, my hopes and dreams and all the events that conspired to scupper them. It provided the spark and the impetus to start writing,” he recalls. “As a failed footballer, I’d always wanted to explore what went wrong with my vision, try to work out why my dream died and, I suppose, who I could blame for this happening,” Differ says.
When he looked at that old photo he was struck by the fact that a player of Bremner's status, ability and value to his club was being held aloft by a bunch of mad, excited teenagers. “Can’t see many players today going for that,” he says. “It might mean them having to remove their headphones and/or come off their mobile phones.”
The actual meeting itself was a bit of a non-event. “I was in awe of Billy, I just stared at him, couldn’t believe it was actually him, the real Billy Bremner only a few feet away. In the show though, I apply a bit of dramatic licence and the scene plays a wee bit differently, giving me the opportunity to express my feelings and say what I wanted to say all those years ago but just wasn’t able to.”
Previous to the dream of being a footballer, Differ had only one other ambition, to be a cowboy, “not exactly something to fall back on.” When it dawned that football wasn’t a serious option, he was lost. “I didn’t have another career in mind. All my pals seemed to know what they were going to do — lawyer, accountant, doctor, dentist — but I hadn’t a clue.”
It was a frustrating time “making sure you had the right hair style, that you were wearing the right fashionable clothes, that you were carrying the right LP and reading the right books while all the time managing raging hormones and acne. I’ve always said that the main thing I learned at secondary school was how to survive secondary school.
“The only thing I enjoyed was writing essays, poems, short stories, but I just thought of that as a hobby. I didn’t think I could carve a career out of it.”
That changed when he sent a script into BBC Scotland's the Naked Radio show which, unlike a lot of comedy shows, welcomed unsolicited submissions. “I started bombarding them with gags and eventually had some broadcast. Hearing an audience laugh at something you had written convinced me this was the direction I wanted to take,” he says.
Performing came about because, successful though his scriptwriting was, Differ felt he needed a new challenge. “I’d always considered myself a ‘funny guy,’ so stand-up seemed the route to take. I asked my pal, comedian Fred MacAulay, for advice and, before I knew it, he booked me a five-minute slot on his show at the Edinburgh Stand.
“You wouldn’t believe how long five minutes on stage can feel. It’s one thing being a laugh with your pals, totally different being onstage with a room full of strangers. But I survived, got laughs and, most of all, I had enjoyed it. I knew as soon as I came off stage that this was something I wanted to pursue.”
There is of course a difference between the freedom of stand-up — “audience reaction dictates your tactics, it’s looser, you go with the flow” — and a scripted piece. “With Billy Bremner and Me there’s a story to tell, so I really have to stick to the narrative or things could get messy. Or should that be Messi?”
His hope is that anyone who has ever played football will spot at least a “wee bit of themselves” in this show. “It’s not just about football. It’s about hope and dreams, reality and readjustment and these are things we all have to deal with.”
Billy Bremner and Me runs at The Stand’s New Town Theatre, August 1-13, box office: outstandingtickets.com
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