Alan Waldman :
TELEVISION | ‘The High Life’ is a zany Scottish airline comedy featuring a young Alan Cumming

Cumming co-wrote and co-starred in this clever sitcom full of bitchy quips, elements of surrealism, and some theatrical song-and-dance numbers.

the high life 2

By Alan Waldman | The Rag Blog | December 9, 2015

[In his Rag Blog column, Alan Waldman reviews some of his favorite films and TV series that readers may have missed, including TV dramas, mysteries, and comedies from Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Scotland. Most are available on DVD, Netflix and/or Netflix Instant Streaming, and some episodes are on YouTube.]

All seven episodes of Scottish airline comedy The High Life aired in the UK in Winter 1994-95, but it did not have a second season, because of co-star/co-screenwriter Alan Cumming’s burgeoning film career (Circle of Friends, GoldenEye, Emma, Romy, and Michele’s High School Reunion). Too obscure for Netflix, the complete daffy series is available on YouTube, including this episode.

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The High Life starred and was written by Cumming and Forbes Masson, who met at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and then united for several comedy duet projects before launching this gem. Viewers who know Cumming primarily as political operative Eli Gold on The Good Wife, speaking in a perfect American accent, will be surprised and delighted to discover his wild younger self and his natural Scottish brogue.

The series followed a cabin crew at the fictional airline, Air Scotia: camp, alcohol-loving, narcissistic and vindictive steward, Sebastian (Cumming); his sex-obsessed colleague Steve (Masson); their uptight, antagonistic chief stewardess, Shona (Siobhan Redmond), whom they described as “Hitler in tights”; and the eccentric pilot, Captain Hilary Duff (Patrick Ryecart), who frequently needs to be reminded who he is, where the cockpit is, and where he is flying to.

Despite its short run, The High Life is fondly remembered for Steve and Sebastian’s joint catchphrase: “Oh deary me!” — and for the brilliant opening sequence which featured the cast performing a peppy dance routine to the title song. The entire series (including the pilot) was released on VHS and DVD in 2002 and was re-released in 2009.

The High Life delighted viewers with its mix of Scottish sensibility and camp outrageousness. Series highlights included the hilarious title sequence, Shona presenting the Air Scotia’s in-flight video, the Eurovision Song Contest entry “Pif Paf Pof (I Want To Have It Off),” and a gorgeously camp Batman spoof.

In the Pilot episode, Shona lands the task of presenting the Air Scotia’s in-flight video, much to Sebastian’s annoyance. In Episode 2 the impending arrival of the staff inspector could make Steve and Sebastian’s dreams of getting out of short-haul flights and into exotic long ones come true. In the next episode, Air Scotia employees attend a weekend of intensive training, where Steve finds love with flight-attendant Heather. In the next episode, Sebastian returns from vacation to discover something has happened between Shona and Steve.

Next Sebastian decides to enter the “Song for Europe” contest as Scotland’s first entry, in the hope of finding fame and fortune and some girls for Steve. Meanwhile, the Air Scotia crew host a birthday for the precocious daughter of Shona’s favorite rock star. In the final episode, the crew becomes involved in a small-business espionage plot involving cookies and a spoof of the 1960s TV series Batman.

For the past 20 years, since The High Life, versatile Alan Cumming has been one of my favorite actors. His 114 film roles and TV programs include The Anniversary Party (which he co-wrote), Annie, Nicholas Nickleby, and Titus. Cumming introduces Masterpiece Mystery! for PBS and appears on The Good Wife, for which he has been nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and a Satellite Award.

On Broadway he won the Best Actor Tony Award for Cabaret and starred in a one-man adaptation of Macbeth.

Siobhan Redmond earned two BAFTA Best Actress nominations for Between the Lines, and her 55 other credits include Midsomer Murders and the comedy series Alfresco (with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton, and Emma Thompson).

Forbes Masson’s 20 acting credits including Monarch of the Glen, Fun at the Funeral Parlour, Eastenders, My Dead Dad, and Hamish Macbeth.

Among Patrick Ryecart’s 70 credits are The King’s Speech, Dalziel and Pascoe, Lovejoy, and Rumpole of the Bailey.

Although sometimes silly and childish, this rare series is well worth checking out.

Read more of Alan Waldman’s writing on The Rag Blog.

[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine.]

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