Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson: ‘People say double acts are like marriage without the sex’

The actors recreate their Victor & Barry comedy duo – and recall their unique creative spark

Alan Cumming (on the right) and Forbes Masson in 1987 and 2021. Later photograph: Simon Webb/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Hair and makeup: Sandra Smith. Archive photograph: David Williams/The List
Alan Cumming (on the right) and Forbes Masson in 1987 and 2021. Later photograph: Simon Webb/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Hair and makeup: Sandra Smith. Archive photograph: David Williams/The List

Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson met at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1982. Together, they created Victor & Barry, a double act who became legends of the Scottish comedy scene. They went on to present several TV shows, and starred in the BBC sitcom The High Life, as two narcissistic air stewards. Appearing in series such as Catastrophe and EastEnders, Masson has since become a celebrated writer and performer for theatre and musicals, and is an associate artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, Cumming’s career skyrocketed in the late 90s, with his Tony award-winning performance in the musical Cabaret on Broadway, before he starred in Spice World, Eyes Wide Shut and GoldenEye, and on stage in Macbeth and Bent. Cumming’s new memoir, Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life, is published by Canongate.

Alan Cumming

This shoot was a big deal for us. It was for the cover of the List, Scotland’s version of Time Out, and was taken in 1987, right before things exploded for Victor & Barry. It was all very casual – but the photographer was really careful about the lighting. They wanted shadows on our faces, as the headline was A Little Light Relief. I liked that.

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Forbes and I met in drama school. He was quirky, talented and good on the piano. He was also a little older because he’d gone to college to study accounting before he switched to drama, and as a result seemed like more of a man of the world. The creative spark between us was immediate. Satire was big in both of our lives and we liked singing – but also thought it was ridiculous.

At college, I was in a mode of lampooning West End Glasgow people – the city was reinventing itself and becoming gentrified – so we decided to develop these artsy characters that did just that. We performed Victor & Barry for an end-of-year cabaret at college and something magical happened on stage. People really responded to it.

The act was about authenticity and Scottishness. We were brought up being told, subliminally and literally, that our accent was potentially a problem. We’d have to lose it to succeed. If you’re from the south of England, Scottishness is slightly seen as less than, so much so that when Victor & Barry first went to London, we made a documentary about their parochialism: how would they travel?

We were outsiders for other reasons too. The late 80s was known for overt, ranting political comedy – Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, “fuck Thatcher” sort of stuff. I don’t think you can be a performer in Scotland and not be political, but we were genteel – wearing cravats and singing songs called Duck’s Piss instead of Bucks Fizz. London people didn’t get the parody or the surrealism.

Forbes and I became national treasures pretty quickly. I was scared by it. Our songs were made up when we were stoned and drunk, and all of a sudden we were being taken seriously. We could have done the act full-time, but I was the one who stopped it. I decided to say no to a Victor & Barry opportunity and do a play in Bristol instead. It was the first time I’d chosen something else over us. We didn’t fall out about it, but it was difficult. If one person doesn’t do it then neither can the other.

By the mid-90s we got the chance to work together again and transmogrify those characters for The High Life. We were up against a lot of wankers at the BBC who didn’t understand us, but Forbes and I remained very strong. There were things in the script that were so naughty and risque, but as we were using Scottish rude words nobody noticed. Still, it was not a happy process writing it. You get hired for being kooky and weird, and then they try to make you generic. We wrote one episode about finding the exact recipe for the perfect Scottish tablet and a 60s Batman spoof, but the head of comedy told us it was a “second series type of script”. We changed nothing, put “second draft” on the front and sent it back to them. They went: “Oh yeah, you really addressed everything! Thank you!” They hadn’t even read it.

The series ended up being a huge hit. The BBC were all over us like a rash to do it again, but by that point in the mid-90s I had started doing films. As a result, Forbes and I had a little spell where we didn’t see each other, not until the early 2000s.

Double acts are a tricky thing. People say it’s like marriage without the sex, and inevitably it is very intense. We went through an incredible experience together – something we made up connected with our homeland. The two of us on a piano being daft. And clever. I look back at it all with such fondness, and I found, in him, a dear, dear friend.

Forbes Masson

The first time I saw Alan I thought, God that guy is really interesting. There’s something special about him. We quickly realised we had an almost telepathic way of writing and performing together. The ideas were always equal and improvised, but he was the first person I ever knew with a Filofax, and was much more in control of getting us gigs.

In 1984 we took the act to Edinburgh – we’d stand on the Royal Mile in our dressing gowns handing out flyers. One night our venue was empty apart from a cat, but we performed anyway. That year, Andrew Marr was working at the Scotsman and gave us a terrible review, so we decided to write a song about him, a parody of Dean Friedman’s Lucky Stars – with the lyrics: “We can thank you Andrew Marr, you’re not as smart as you like to think you are.” That was the kind of chutzpah of Victor & Barry. Even if you got a bad review, you made something out of it.

The pressure of fame never affected mine and Alan’s relationship, even after The High Life. We’d always been very supportive and would see each other’s shows. But we had to go our separate ways. When it’s a double act, there’s only so much you can do in the long run. You could re-emerge as sitcom characters, but then what? Do you become Ant and Dec? There was nowhere for us to go. The end of Victor & Barry allowed us to do other things which we’d never have done as a unit.

There was also a point in my life which was tricky because I lost both of my parents within a short time. I went into quite a dark place for a couple of years. That was around the time when Alan had gone to the US. We lost touch. He was always going to go to Hollywood, he had that aura from the beginning. But he’s never changed. Alan has stayed true to himself and I’m immensely proud of the work he has done.

At the moment we are writing a book about Victor & Barry, and I’m realising the beauty of our friendship is that things are just the same. That symbiosis. About a decade ago I was over in New York doing some shows. I hadn’t seen him for about eight years, and me and the kids went to visit him in his big place in the Catskill mountains. He got his record player out and put on a Victor & Barry single. We were looking out at the sky, full of stars, listening to this music we made. I was thinking, this is crazy. Who would have thought that Alan and I would be standing here today? It’s amazing.

Contributor

Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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