Spleen, what is it good for?
There is, you may not have noticed, an honourable tradition of splenetic Scottish comedy. There is Jerry Sadowitz, an emetic misfit whose skill in saying the unsayable can cause discomfort in audiences when they start to suspect that he might actually mean it. And he might.
Sadowitz had a go at television, but the experiment was not a success. He is too dangerous. (The danger being that he will Go Too Far, even though GTF is actually one definition of being a comedian).
And then there is Craig Ferguson, who used to perform as Bing Hitler in an act which managed to annoy Jerry Sadowitz quite a lot. Ferguson, unlike Sadowitz, knew where to stop, and became a successful late-night TV host in the United States. He went just far enough, which was quite extreme by the standards of American TV.
Bing and Jerry’s lovechild, Frankie Boyle, squats between the two. He has been known to GTF. The hallmark of his work is a strain of loquacious frustration which is entirely in tune with the internet age, if we accept that the World Wide Web is an ear trumpet for the numbskull voices of conspiracy and despair, and that as a proclaimer of pub verbiage Boyle is skilful enough at the Nadsat of mad-as-hell b******s to trade both as a Guardian columnist and a talkshow ringmaster, despite having a library of only two facial expressions: the Angry Scone and the Quizzical Volcano.
Traditionally, television flattens comedians. They can bake or they can erupt, but they must respect the strictures of Reithian broadcasting: scones are quizzical, volcanoes explode. When Boyle spreads molten lava on his showstoppers, his work appears on the iPlayer, so the adults don’t notice.
But what’s this? Our furious hero has donned a bunnet and a tweed jacket and is off to “reconnect” with Scotland. He has a cagoule, and he’s not afraid to wear it.
He is, as he admits, inhabiting another comedy straightjacket: the bondage gilet of the travelogue, in which the comedian affects interest in passing landscapes and characters while answering questions from an off-camera interlocutor and being generally Just Funny Enough. Billy Connolly is the don of this kind of thing, because he has the easy chatter and just can’t help being genial. For the misanthropic Boyle, stepping into those big banana boots invites all sorts of discomfort.
How does he do? Pretty, pretty well. He meets a hermit who runs an Airbnb. It is a caravan up a tree. The hermit doesn’t say much, predictably, but his rental accommodation does get a good review: “a low-level Scottish Dignitas.” In Findhorn, Boyle enjoys a bowl of hippy soup. On the road from Oban through Glencoe, he embarks on a riff about Jimmy Savile being a teleporting demonic paedophile, before stopping for a factual chat about land reform.
The gear changes are abrupt on these mountain roads, the scenery scenic. “Gradually,” says Boyle, “you realise Scotland is beautiful because it rains.”
Frankie Boyle’s Tour Of Scotland is on BBC Two, 10pm tonight