Comedy Update : The Secret Ingredient in Scotland’s Covid Fight

By James Hookway

EDINBURGH—As new Covid infections picked up pace this month, Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon stepped up to her podium at the country’s Parliament to announce another nationwide lockdown.

“I been asking people all year to stay in the hoose if ye can, wash yer hands, stay away from each other—remember the two Alsatians rule: stay two meters, two full Alsatians apart,” people heard. “We’re back to square one.”

They were those of comedian Janey Godley, whose voice-overs of Ms. Sturgeon’s daily Covid briefings are often seen by more people than the real thing broadcast on television, and are feted by researchers and health officials as one of the reasons Scotland so far has done better in containing the pandemic than other countries in the U.K.

Ms. Godley’s version has the normally prim Ms. Sturgeon dropping f-bombs and sighing at annoying questions from journalists. She usually signs off by discussing what she’d like for supper—“a wee quiche, perhaps”—before barking at her assistant, Frank, to get the door.

“If I see any o’ yous oot there, I’m gonnae take a run and put a toe up the crack ae yer arse, so quit it!” is a typical line.

Ms. Sturgeon, a lawyer by training, claims she would never ever talk like that, but is a fan. She thinks Ms. Godley’s skits on YouTube reinforce her government’s call for people to stay home, wear masks if they have to go out, and stop the virus circulating.

“They’re very rude in terms of the language they use,” she told Scottish radio. “But occasionally I watch them and I think, yeah, she must have an insight into what I was really thinking at that point.”

They appear to have had some effect.

Scotland, which revels in its image as a rebellious kind of place, has seen fewer of the problems authorities in England or the U.S. have had in enforcing mask-wearing in supermarkets and other public spaces. Opinion polls show strong support for Ms. Sturgeon’s moves to lock down Scotland fast and hard when Covid cases rise.

As a result, infection rates in Scotland have been roughly a third those of England.

“I honestly think Janey’s done more for public-health advice than I’ve done in 11 months,” Jason Leitch, the senior clinical adviser to the Scottish government, said on a panel last month.

Many people share the videos on social media or send links to people they know. “I think they’re wonderful,” says Margaret Graham, 47 years old. “I share them with my friends. They help you remember to bring a mask and keep your distance.”

So does Doug Crawford, 42. “We’re going through some difficult times so it’s good to share a laugh or two,” he says.

Ms. Godley, 60, honed her skills running a pub in the rough-and-tumble east end of Glasgow in the 1980s and ’90s. When the pandemic broke out and Ms. Sturgeon began making daily televised updates, she thought it would be fun to make them less boring and more relevant for the people she used to serve.

“I just imagined a wee woman called Jeanette at the bus stop and how she would translate the briefings to her friend, wee Agnes,” she says. That means leaning hard into Scottish phrases and idioms. “So it was ‘Did ye see that Nicola on the telly, we’ve no tae go oot, we’ve all tae stay in the hoose,’ like that.”

It also explains the frequent references to Alsatians, or German shepherd dogs.

“We’re told to stay two meters apart but not everyone knows what two meters is, they were born before the decimal time,” she says. “But everyone knows the size of an Alsatian, so I just use that.”

Not everyone appreciates Ms. Godley’s videos, least of all those who think they boost Ms. Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, which is angling for a referendum on leaving the U.K.

Politicians who favor Scotland staying in the U.K. say Ms. Godley doesn’t do enough to hold the Scottish government to account over the shortfalls in its response to the pandemic, including a spate of deaths in nursing homes during the early stages of the crisis.

Ms. Godley says she doesn’t spare the government when it messes up.

When a lawmaker from Ms. Sturgeon’s party took a train from London to Glasgow last fall despite knowing she had tested positive for Covid, Ms. Godley ripped into her. She also tore into Scotland’s former chief medical adviser after she was caught visiting a holiday home when there was a strict no-travel order; the official later resigned.

Mostly, though, Ms. Godley does her voice-overs for her own amusement, in one take on her iPhone and would be doing it anyway, with or without a pandemic.

“I wanted to create an alternate world for Nicola Sturgeon where she just wants to go out in the caravan with her pals but she has to deal with Covid first,” she says. “If it gets the message out, then that’s good.”


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