All Handys on deck aboard the Vital Spark

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JIMMY CHISHOLM steams onto the stage of the Festival Theatre tonight as one of Scotland’s best-loved comedy characters, in John Bett’s Para Handy – A Voyage Round the Stories of Neil Munro.

The titular master mariner and his crew, whose adventures were first serialised in a newspaper in 1905, have entertained generations of Scots on page, screen and stage ever since.

For Chisholm, however, taking the helm of Scotland’s most famous Clyde Puffer, The Vital Spark, is a labour of love and the culmination of a long-held dream. “We’ve been trying to put this show on for three years. It’s had several manifestations. Initially, it was going to be a one man show. Just me as Para Handy telling stories to people in a pub who are bored and not very interested.... but they turn out to be musicians and, as the stories unfold, they and I would sing,” he explains.

“As it has gone through different adaptations, the one that has finally been accepted is the big manifestation of the piece, which has an 11-strong company.”

This major new stage version of the classic comedy finds Chisholm’s Peter ‘Para Handy’ Macfarlane reunited with his crew - mate Dougie, engineer Macphail and cabin-boy Sunny Jim - as they travel from a West Coast breakers’ yard through the canals to the sea lochs of the Highlands and Islands.

It’s a trip down memory lane for the 54-year-old, who recalls, “I remember the stories from my childhood, but I remember not understanding them and seeing my mother and father rolling about laughing watching them on the telly, and just enjoying that.

“My parents are both gone now so it is a very warm, nostalgic memory for me.”

While Para Handy first weighed anchor more than 100 years ago he’s seldom been too far away from popular culture north of the border. Despite writing the original tales under the pen name Hugh Foulis - a pseudonym to distinguish from his more serious work - it’s for Para Handy that writer Neil Munro is today best remembered.

Looker On, the first volume of stories was published the same year as the characters debuted in newsprint and was followed by The Vital Spark a year later and In Highland Harbours in 1911. Hurricane Jack of the Vital Spark, came along some 12 years later.

Bett’s new adaptation is just the latest in a long line of reimaginings. Over the decades, four TV adaptations have brought the salty skipper into people’s homes. In 1959, Duncan McRae played the role in the original black and white series. Roddy McMillan took on the captain’s mantle for another black and white run in 1965 and reprised the role in colour in 1973. The most recent series, in 1994, saw Gregor Fisher in the role.

Now it’s Chisholm’s turn. The actor, whose credits include High Road, Braveheart and Mrs Brown says, “It feels absolutely brilliant. They are all heroes of mine so it’s nice to stick my Para Handy up there with theirs.”

So what gives the tales their longevity? Chisholm doesn’t hesitate to offer his thoughts on the matter, surprisingly comparing the stories to the anarchic 1980s BBC sitcom, The Young Ones.

“Intrinsically, it is like a very, very early Young Ones. Stick four people in a claustrophobic situation and they will behave like children. So from that point of view, that is universal. The crew are always playing tricks on Para Handy and he then uses that to develop an even bigger trick to play on them. The crew also try to sabotage his romance - he has a widowed baker woman who he goes to visit every New Year’s Day.

“But it’s also the Scottishness of the thing that makes it special. It’s from a bygone era that we don’t have any more. We didn’t have the road and rail network that we now have in those days and these puffers were absolutely essential to outlying communities. So if you like, there’s a bit of social history there.

“Munro drew the characters quite well because they all tended to be mariners who were slightly older now. Some of the them had big ideas because they’d sailed the China Seas and all these sorts of places and now found themselves going up the Crinan Canal.”

The production also includes archive footage of the old puffers at work and more than one song.

“Variety is a good word to describe the show that John Bett has written. There is a lot of music in it, which I don’t think people are expecting. The archive footage illustrates what the songs are about and they help move the narrative along. It really is a very surprising evening.”

Para Handy, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, tonight–Saturday, 7.30pm (Saturday matinee 2.30pm), £16.50-£27.50, 0131-529 6000