Currently appearing in the Lyceum’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ron Donachie has had a long and varied career on stage and screen. I caught up with him in November 2007 (before this blog existed) while he was appearing in Living Quarters to discuss his work.
Jonathan Melville: Can you start by telling me how you first got into acting?
Ron Donachie: I went to university and studied English – I sort of wanted to be a journalist although I was half-supposed to be a lawyer – but I didn’t fancy either of those as much as I thought I would.
Myself and a couple of friends decided while we were there that we wanted to be actors. I’d done academic drama as a side subject, but no practical stuff, no acting of consequence, maybe a bit at school. We had no connections or experience.
People say it’s a closed world, but I think it’s as closed as any other profession like journalism or law and if you don’t have any connections then there’s not any way in.
After I finished university I was intending to go to London to do a years postgraduate degree in drama. I needed to save money so I went to work on a building site in Dundee. By chance my then girlfriend was working at the Edinburgh Festival and she met some people from the 7:84 Theatre Company who were looking for a big Scottish guy who could sing.
I auditioned and got my Equity card through them. After that I moved to London on a Sunday, got a job on the Tuesday and stayed there for ten years. Luckily my first job was very well reviewed and I got a good agent. The world was maybe a bit easier then, you didn’t need as much formal training as you need now.
One of your first major TV appearances was in the Monocled Mutineer.
I was very lucky with Mutineer. I think it was mainly down to the director, Jim O’Brien, who liked me. I wasn’t really the type of person you’d expect in that role, it could have been someone a bit older, with a bit more of an established track record that got it.
It was quite controversial at the time.
It’s hard to believe now, but Casualty was a real bête noire for the Government of the time, they were jumping up and down that it was this Bolshevik refuge that was always criticising health policy.
Mutineer was brought to task by the Government of the time for its depiction of military discipline. It was harsh stuff.
Around the same time you landed the part of roadie Dennis in the classic BBC drama Tutti Frutti, which has never been repeated.
I can’t think of any other series that’s got a double Oscar winner [Emma Thompson], two guys that have won about a dozen BAFTA’s between them [Thompson and Robbie Coltrane] and won about six BAFTA’s itself and has never been shown again.
For years they’ve suggested it was one of the actors blocking it, but why would we do that? We’d be cutting our own throats.
Watching Tutti Frutti again recently I was struck that, although billed as the lead, Robbie Coltrane’s character was almost overshadowed by the character of Vincent, played by Maurice Roeves.
In fairness, there are some terrific performances in there – there’s Robbie, Emma’s fabulous, Richard [Wilson] and Katy Murphy, all landmark performances – but, and without being unkind, I think that Maurice is the one that’s furthest away from what you’d expect Maurice to do.
He’s a very well established actor and, like most of us, he follows a fairly well-established path. But Vincent is a fantastic performance, with a huge emotional range. By the time he’s singing Love Hurts in the chair and bandaged head to foot, it’s remarkable.
Vincent really carries the line of the drama if you like – Robbie and Emma’s love story and Eddie and Janice are great fun – but Vincent underscores the comedy. And that’s the greatness of John Byrne’s writing.
Another memorable performance arose in BBC Scotland series Hamish Macbeth with your role of Zoot.
Ah Zoot! West Coast Story was the first one I did, and it’s the one you can’t get on DVD because they didn’t get the rights to the music. That just came out of the blue and it was a couple of days work up in Plockton. It was just brilliant fun, because Zoot is such a great character.
I like to think that because I made a bit more of it than was written they wrote a whole episode for the next series. Zoot became the local bisexual love god and there’s not many of those that come up in your career! Walking on water in Plockton!
That second episode was written by Danny Boyle, who had a slight edge to his writing.
I play a lot of policemen, a lot of soldiers and prison warders, and that’s the way TV works. So when you get something like that you think “fantastic”. Over the years I’ve done a lot of Danny’s stuff, and whenever I see one of his scripts coming through I think “we’ll be alright here”.
The Sunday night slot that Hamish had is very conventional, very saccharine, and you can understand why: people just want to put their feet up and watch some nice scenery before they go back to work on Monday. Hamish did all that for them, with a great love story, a terrific leading man, all these mad characters and underneath it all there was a genuine air of uncertainty going on which gave it a terrific edge.
You worked again with Robert Carlyle in 1998’s Looking After Jo-Jo.
That was a big thing at the time, though I feel it was under-realised.
When the Frank Deasy scripts first came through they were just fantastic, as good scripts as you’ve ever read. Without pointing any fingers, I don’t think the final product did the scripts justice. It shied away from the social implications of the piece that he was writing about and became too entangled about the machinations of life in the underworld and it was about much, much more than that.
The birth of Scottish drug culture…
Exactly, and it went through all sort of hoops before it went into production. For whatever reason the final product didn’t do Deasy’s script justice.
You were also in Doctor Who, in the second season episode Tooth and Claw.
That was a big interview job, it’s such a big deal just now. After the soaps it’s the number one drama on TV. Russell T Davies has done an astonishing job to reanimate the series. That first season with Chris Eccleston and Billie Piper was just wonderful, great, great chemistry. I wondered how they’d top that, but then David Tennant drops in!
That wasn’t a straightforward offer as they can pick and choose who they want because everyone wants to be in it. I can honestly say that in over 30 years I’ve had more fan mail from one episode of Doctor Who than everything else put together.
There’s such enthusiasm for the series in Cardiff at BBC Wales, the drama department is jumping.
How does that compare to working in Scotland today?
Well there’s no work for any of us up here. If you’re not in River City or a regular cast member in Taggart, there’s very little else left.
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the current version of Rebus which has been great, but that’s three or four shows a year and I don’t do all of those. For the rest of the Scottish acting community you’re basically waiting for your bi-annual shot at appearing in Taggart. The film industry is on its knees, but not just in Scotland, so it’s a very poor time indeed.
So the theatre is the place to be then?
Well I don’t know. Living Quarters is only the third play I’ve done in 17 years and it’s a terrific piece of work. I’d never met director John Dove before and he’s a great guy, very bright with a terrific cultural hinterland beyond the theatre. He also has a fantastic theatrical track record and the play itself is great. I’ve been delighted to do it and it’s been a hugely positive experience.
And what’s next for you?
I have two films coming up. Made of Honour is a romantic comedy starring Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy) and is filmed in the Highlands. I spent a fortnight filming in Skye and it never rained! Patrick was a very down-to-Earth guy, I hope it does well for him.
Stone of Destiny is very low budget and is based on the true story of Ian Hamilton and some student friends who steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster in 1951 or 52 and it’s not long finished filming.
Then I’m back in February for Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Thanks to Ron Donachie for his time.
You can still catch Ron in Six Characters… at the Lyceum until 8 March – read the itsonitsgone.com review.