Adapt, improvise and overcome. If the slogan was good enough for the US Marine Corps, it was equally good enough for Scotland’s artistic community during lockdown.
With live venues from theatres and comedy clubs to grand concert halls and dingy music bars shuttered many actors, comedians, poets and musicians have been forced to take a job outside of their profession.
However, for comedian Jamie MacDonald adapting and improvising has not been as much of a problem as finding the time.
The stand-up filmed an advert with David Beckham for the football idol’s new aftershave just before lockdown began, and he is ending the latest lockdown with a new Radio 4 series, a BBC2 travelogue show and a BBC Scotland sitcom.
“This last year for everyone in the arts has been a nightmare, so I felt really happy but also a bit guilty that I had a ray of sunshine to look forward to,” said Jamie, as he talked about new Radio 4 comedy, Life On The Blink, which begins this week. “We were told in July it was being commissioned, which couldn’t have come at a better time because every comedian was floating dead in the water by then, so it was nice to start working towards something again.”
Life On The Blink is about him coming to terms with being diagnosed with a progressive degenerative eye disease while still in his teens. Ultimately, it was losing his sight that led to him becoming a comedian – and it’s also what brought him to David Beckham’s attention as he was cast in the former Manchester United footballer’s Bold Instinct aftershave advertising campaign.
“I’m still not quite sure how it happened,” said Jamie. “My agent told me he’d put me forward for it and that they wanted to talk to me. Suddenly, I’m down in this mansion in Highgate having my hair cut and getting dressed up.
“He was a nice guy and we had a good chat. The idea behind the advert was to feature people who had made bold decisions in their careers, and mine was going from banking to comedy without being able to see.”
That journey is also the premise for the four-part radio show which 40-year-old Jamie made with fellow Scottish comic Julia Sutherland’s Dabster Productions.
“I’ve always had eyesight material in my shows, because a degenerative eye condition is an obvious topic for comedy,” he smiled. “But this is the first time I’ve looked at it as a whole, from my mid-teens to being 40.
“It starts with me as a schoolboy denying my eyes and hiding them, which I could do because they weren’t that bad. Then we go to my mid-20s when I really should have been using a white stick but I wasn’t, and then on to when I did start to use the stick, at which point I felt I lost my identity.
“I was working in a bank in London, having been hired as part of their diversity programme, and I was going to a comedy club in my spare time, seeing all these weird and wonderful performers. I decided society had deemed me weird so I might as well try to be wonderful, and through comedy I reclaimed my identity and ownership of my blindness. It gave me the confidence to not just be this disabled guy struggling.
“I sort of stumbled on stage that first time in the early 2000s as a blind guy, and I nearly fell off it five minutes later as a funny blind guy. I really did feel I’d taken back control of my life and was no longer just a blind banker who didn’t have a clue about what he was doing.”
Since turning professional six years ago, his star has continued to rise and he now has a number of television opportunities coming up. After a successful pilot last year, BBC Scotland sitcom The Scotts, written by Burnistoun’s Iain Connell and Robert Florence, has been granted a full series.
“Anyone who has played a blind character up until now has been a sighted actor playing a wounded soldier on the verge of suicide but I’m Uncle Ronnie, a blind bigot, and I just love how they have written the character. I’m a huge fan of Burnistoun, so I was pretty chuffed at being involved. I’ll be filming that in Glasgow at the end of May.
“I also have a travelogue coming out in July on BBC2 that we filmed a few weeks ago. I know this guy who has problems with his sight and there is an operation he’s weighing up getting that could see him lose his sight, so we went round Britain meeting other successful blind people in the arts. It was really good fun and hopefully it will lead to more, but I’m also looking forward to getting back on stage as well.”
Life On The Blink was recorded at The Stand in Edinburgh, which holds about 150 people.
“We had seven people in, socially distanced and mic’d up, as well as a Zoom virtual audience piped in. I played to the live audience more – I’ve played to less than seven, that’s not a bad crowd! The way they’ve edited it together sounds really good – it sounds like a proper gig.”
Life On The Blink, BBC Radio 4, Wednesday, 11pm
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