It is so rare that I laugh – actually laugh out loud – at a programme that I cannot remember the last time. I smile plenty – sometimes wryly, sometimes balefully, sometimes properly – sigh in appreciative recognition of a beautifully crafted joke often, and mentally prostrate myself before a cast member or members’ flawless comic timing often enough that it remains a precious joy. But I belly-laughed throughout Frankie Boyle’s Tour of Scotland on BBC Two, and emerged much refreshed at the end of this half hour of him “reconnecting with Scotland, its people and its historical figures … [infinitesimally longer than necessary pause] and the many and varied ways in which English people killed them”.
Your mileage may vary of course. But as one of Boyle’s compatriots has it, for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. I personally can take about as much of Boyle’s low-energy monotone undercut by unexpected swerves, and low-energy exterior belying a sly, witty mind working a mile a minute, as you care to throw at me. If you can’t, there will be plenty of standard travelogues along in the very near future, I’m sure.
Boyle takes in Inveraray, Ben Craighan, Oban, Mull and Glencoe (“Like me it has a rugged natural beauty and we’ve both caused several ramblers to go missing”), the site of the 1692 massacre of the MacDonalds (“an example of what could happen if you tried to pacify the Highlands before heroin”). Glencoe was also home more recently to the late Jimmy Savile, Boyle’s riff on whom we will not disturb your weekend with here. In Balmoral, he ponders whether the Royal family come to Scotland to use working-class lifespans to teach their children about mortality, “like you or I would buy them a hamster.” After a moment of genuine appreciation for the view (“the light’s different every time”), he reflects on the ferry from Oban to Mull: “Imagine living over there … It’s a good fantasy. But then you realise there’s no shops and you’ll be dead in a week.” The flat tone suggests he is not exaggerating, simply resigning himself to the human capacity for folly.
Having comedians take you round a city or country or continent is a way of adding value and life to a staid and well-worn format. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (sometimes within the same series – see Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man, which varied with his companions, though Ayoade himself was always worth the price of admission at least). When you’re doing Scotland, of course, the shadow of Billy Connolly stalks you – as Boyle acknowledges – but Boyle is easily as good at extemporising and modulating himself to bring out the best in interviewees, and he has a decently written script in between. There may also be some viewers who find him a less effortful and exhausting companion than Connolly during his motorbiking years.
Next week’s episode touches on language (“Here, ‘fucking’ is just a warning that a noun is on its way”), Sir Walter Scott, poverty, prison, crime and crime fiction. Boyle is a good guide, sufficiently engaged and detached at the same time. If, as he says, there comes a time in every comedian’s career when he turns to travelogues, we can be glad he has arrived at his.