Writing is the sort of job you’d recommend only to someone you secretly hate. You’re always the second person to come up with the idea of a schoolboy wizard. Your funniest jokes have already been told better by scores of strangers on Twitter. Anything you type after 10pm will by morning have mysteriously re-arranged itself into drivel. And, no matter how long you sit by the phone, the BBC never rings to say, “Your sitcom idea is genius and we’re sending over a helicopter full of money.”
Sooner or later you’re forced to heave your dignity into a skip and crank out whatever nonsense pays enough to stop the bailiffs taking away the furniture. Desperation clouds your judgment, you start making crazy decisions, and before you know it you’ve signed up for the project from Hell. If you’re really unlucky, that could mean working on Johann Lamont’s scriptwriting team.
The Herald awarded Johann the title of “Debater Of The Year” in 2013, prompting many to visit their GPs to complain about hallucinations. Perhaps a last-minute rule change disqualified any contestants whose surnames began with S, or they introduced a new “folding arms and scowling” discipline. But now the challenge is on. To sweep her to a similar victory in 2014, Johann needs a constant supply of easy-to-read words laced with negativity and sarcasm, written by people who are dying a little inside.
First Minister’s Questions is Johann’s weekly opportunity to draw attention to Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence by repeatedly asking him about independence. That makes Wednesday a key night, when her scriptwriters gather for a stressful brainstorming session in a heavily guarded bunker buried deep within Salisbury Crags.
Needless to say, the guards are on the inside, and wives, husbands and significant others know better than to ask when they’ll see their loved ones again. The writers connect themselves intravenously to the giant coffee urn in the centre of the room and pray the supervisors don’t start clamping down on toilet breaks. The pile of discarded drafts grows more mountainous with the passing of the hours, as does the fear of being smothered by its collapse. Word-smithing doesn’t get tougher than this!
This week, as they always do, Better Together’s PR minions provided the team with a generous selection of possible topics for Johann to raise. Currency and the EU continued to dominate the scaremongering charts, thanks to the BBC’s tireless misrepresentation. Elsewhere, we had camera-shy Gordon Brown’s alarming news that after a Yes vote our pensions were doooomed, which seemed rather like an arsonist criticising your fire extinguishers. And little Danny Alexander expressed a quaint idea that Scotland would, on technically impossible grounds, become a pariah state where Fabergé eggs were cheaper than mortgages.
Oh, and I don’t know if you heard, but there was a late intervention in the debate by a popular singer whose career peaked roughly 40 years ago. It must have been an interesting moment in the bunker when the exhausted scribblers, thinking they’d completed the whole diatribe and could finally go home, discovered they now had to spend Thursday morning shoe-horning in Bowie references. At Holyrood, the public gallery spectators were agog with anticipation. Would Johann tell us independence was “a god-awful small affair”? Would Alex Salmond, previously a star man, be put under pressure, hitting an all-time low?
As High Noon arrived, it transpired that the First Minister’s advisers had supplied him with his own Bowie joke, about Eve Muirhead and her curling rink being “heroes, just for one day”. Not only did he manage to deliver it first, but it got a hearty laugh, whereas Johann’s “turn and face the strain” received an isolated titter somehow worse than silence. Unperturbed, Johann started reeling off a list of the Westminster and Brussels elite whom the First Minister, a mere colonial, had “insulted” by disagreeing robustly with them. Was Bowie, she asked, also to be dismissed as “preposterous, bluffing and bullying”?
Well, let’s see, the guy performed as a spaceman dressed in a leotard with a lightning bolt painted on his face, so that’s certainly pretty preposterous. Otherwise, Johann’s opening gambit joins the ever-growing list of “Dumb-Ass Questions Alex Salmond Didn’t Dignify With A Response”. If Alex had brought a 1970s copy of the New Musical Express with him, it might have been different. Instead, he had a copy of, of all things, the Daily Mail, one of whose articles he gleefully cited as evidence that Westminster’s hardball approach was backfiring.
Johann switched into school-teacher mode, rattily harrumphing about Alex’s “extraordinary lack of self-awareness”. If we had a separate currency, she asked, what about the “Alex Tax” (ooh, most original, high-fives in the scriptwriters’ bunker), with annual transaction costs to Scottish businesses equivalent to £75 per head of population? Eight times higher than in good old Blighty, you reckless separatists!
I suspect that, even if we do end up with Plan B, it won’t involve a Scottish Pound, which means we may not have to put up with this George/Alex/JoLa Tax gubbins much longer. For now, Alex simply pointed out for the 639,735th time that the proposed currency union would mean businesses paying nothing whatsoever. Then, the cheeky wee scamp, he again waved around the Daily Mail, “Labour’s house journal”, expressing concerns at how Labour were damaging themselves, even though damaging them was clearly his job.
Oh, my! In the bunker, horrified glances were exchanged. Whether Johann was reliving past torments at the hands of smartarse schoolkids, or simply hadn’t bothered to attend her anger management sessions during the recess, there was no disputing she was losing her rag. “Associating with the Tories… 3p Corporation Tax cut…. two-thirds of the people want a Plan B…. WHAT DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?”
Alex didn’t give the obvious answer, which was “nothing”, since he’d once again accomplished his mission. For completeness, he put the boot in once more with ironic support for a “calm and considered debate”, then paraded the Fiscal Commission’s credentials and quoted EU sources who’d diplomatically explained why Mr Barroso was talking pish. “The First Minister only listens to people who agree with him,” hissed Johann, picking up all the scare stories with a huge shovel and lobbing them towards him.
But the game was up for her. Alex, having snaffled the first word, now had the last, producing an academic study that indicated Scotland couldn’t default on a debt we legally didn’t owe, and adding that not paying it would be worth £25,000 per head. Well, that should certainly help Danny Alexander with his astronomical mortgage payments.
That’s why scriptwriting for Johann Lamont is such a hopeless job. No matter what linguistic stunts you pull, no matter how much you polish your witticisms, there’s always the nagging fear that your efforts will be stymied as she veers off into a “wee things” moment, or goes nuclear under provocation. Of course, BBC Scotland will ensure that any embarrassing footage ends up on the cutting room floor, but you can sense her Labour colleagues getting queasy. It’s great having people behind you, but if one of them is going to be Ian Davidson I’d suggest checking for bayonets.
Next Tuesday Johann’s debating Nicola Sturgeon head-to-head on STV. Her advisers need to come up with something ground-breakingly special by then, otherwise it could be carnage. Or, as Bowie would put it, wham bam thank you ma’am.