In a dear diary/dearie me moment, Scotland Tonight presenter Rona Dougall met the pair at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow to talk comedy beginnings, cult BBC sitcom The High Life, and the chances of a Victor and Barry comeback.
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Victor and Barry’s Edinburgh fringe debut. To mark the occasion there will be a new book about Kelvinside – “a meander down Memory Close” says Masson – and a musical version of The High Life, written by Cumming and Masson for the National Theatre of Scotland.
Cumming went on to live the high life for real, establishing a career in the US on stage (Cabaret), in film (GoldenEye) and on television (The Good Wife). Masson worked as an actor and with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The two met when they were students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Victor and Barry made their debut at a cabaret night to entertain fellow students.
It was the mid-1980s, Glasgow was being born again as a capital of culture. Victor and Barry made their way on to television – STV as it happened – and viewers loved them.
“They took us to their hearts,” says Masson.
“They did,” recalls Cumming. “It’s so fascinating – of all the things I’ve done over the last 75,000 years, it’s always Victor & Barry or The High Life that people connect with when I come back here, and actually all over the world. It’s so interesting that something from so long ago – something that is so totally organic to who we are and where we came from – is what people love you most for. Something that really came from your heart.”
Asked if they would ever bring back the characters, Masson doesn’t think so.
“I think we’re still on the fence about it,” adds Cummings. “Obviously people have been asking us for years, but now it seems more likely as we’re bringing them back in some form. But actually, I think part of their ‘thing’ is their youth. It’s the fact that they’re pretending to be older people – that’s part of the humour of it, these young people being all world-weary. Now it would be two world-weary old farts.”
“Exactly,” says Masson. That’s my concern. We’d have to be filled with Botox.”
Victor and Barry were reinvented as two air stewards in The High Life. But the move to the BBC was not a happy one.
Masson recalls: “It was quite fraught. All of us in that show – Patrick [Ryecart], Siobhan [Redmond], Alan and I – were going through various traumas in our lives. We were all a bit mad and it was a bit pressurised.’
Cumming adds: “The writing process was long. Victor and Barry was coming to an end and The High Life was starting underneath it. It’s that funny thing where people hire you because you’re weird and quirky, then as soon as they get you, they want to iron you out and make you generic and we railed against that. We had such a laugh when we were actually shooting it, but we were all a bit bonkers.
Masson takes up the tale. “There was one scene where the passengers were going to be slightly older. There was going to be some turbulence and [their characters] Steve and Sebastian had to go down the aisle and ask people to remove their false teeth. They would put them in the fridge, then when the time came for them to distribute the false teeth back to the passengers, the teeth had frozen, so we had to put them in the microwave to thaw them out. Then they were hot, so we were handing them out going, ‘Hot teeth, sir? Hot teeth, madam?’ “So we wrote this, then we went in for a meeting about the script. The person who had been assigned to us as a script editor had, at one point earlier, given me a booklet entitled: ‘How to write a sitcom’. This person then said, ‘that wouldn’t happen on a plane’. I was like, ‘it’s not a documentary!’
Come the 1990s the two had parted ways with the BBC and each other. “There were lots of other things going on at the time. Life moves on and sometimes you have to let things go in order for other things to happen,” Masson explains.
“We’d spent a lot of time together and went through a lot together. When we killed Victor & Barry off, it was a very symbolic [moment]. It was at the London Palladium – Victor & Barry would have died to have died at the London Palladium, and so they did,” says Cumming.
“We never fell out. I think we just needed a break from each other.”
“We just needed a bit of time,” agrees Masson.
Scotland Tonight: What Ever Happened to Victor & Barry? airs on STV and STV Player at 8:30pm on Thursday 7 September