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Last Updated: Monday, 30 April 2007, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Fops and fools pay writer's bills
Catriona Shearer
BBC Scotland

holyrood chamber

Writing a parliamentary sketch is like doing a play review where you have to assess "wonderful characters" - some of whom you want to cheer, others you want to boo and hiss at.

That's the assessment of The Scotsman's sketch writer Robert McNeil who has told BBC Scotland's news website the secrets of his trade.

For a number of years he has been the newspaper's eyes and ears in the Scottish Parliament chamber.

Mr McNeil explains that a parliamentary sketch is essentially a lampoon.

He said: "I think it does try to convey the reality of what is going on and readers used to say that it gave them a better picture of what was going on then the sound bites transmitted in the news.

"It also tries to bring out the personality of the people in the parliament.

"As a sketch writer you would look for the bits that were amusing or maybe insightful now and again, but basically you would sit there and take everybody out of context."

Rab McNeil
The electorate might complain that they [MSPs] are fops and fools, but there is nothing wrong with being a fop and a fool, it's helped me make a living, quite frankly
Robert McNeil
The Scotsman's sketch writer

Mr McNeil said observation is the key - examining the mannerism, witticisms, hairdos, ties, beards and so on.

He believes these are the things which help to make the politician "alive".

Mr McNeil added: "Politics has a bad name for being awfully boring, which broadly speaking is correct, but 10% is quite interesting."

He said he has always been interest in politics, but he admits that the personalities are far more interesting than the politics.

"The politicians try to keep in with the sketch writer, I was very wary of that and try to avoid it.

Elastic bands

"I can remember one poor lass who would come up to me saying 'I loved your sketch in the paper', but then one day I had a go at her, for a particularly dim contribution, and she never spoke to me again.

"In a way that is how I liked it. But you don't want people going off in a huff or feeling hateful and very few of them do," said Mr McNeil.

Robert McNeil
Robert McNeil: "I think MSPs liked being lampooned"

He added: "One said to me that if there was anything worse than being in the sketch then it was not being in the sketch.

"A lot of sketch writing is commenting on people's appearance, often the MSP fed me the lines, I didn't have to do much. I took the lines and put them together (totally out of context)

"They were like big children at school. I remember Jamie Stone, the Lib Dem, complained to the presiding officer that someone was throwing something in the chamber.

"It turned out to be something like an elastic band flying back and forth between one Tory MSP and one Lib Dem MSP. It shows they are human.

"The electorate might complain that they are fops and fools, but there is nothing wrong with being a fop and a fool, it's helped me make a living, quite frankly."

Robert McNeil explains his work

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