There’s something going on in the background. When he picks up the phone, I can still make out Alex Norton’s Glasgow accent, undiluted from years of living in London and instantly recognisable, but there’s an unexpected ruckus on the other end of the line.
“Sorry about the noise, that’s me throwing up in a close [in Glasgow crime drama A Sense of Freedom]. I’m recording these video clips for the show”. To find out how this particular moment on film fits into the acting life of Alex Norton, you’ll need to go along to There’s Been a Life, his show at the Glasgow Comedy Festival.
His journey from the streets of the Gorbals to star in Hollywood movies has rarely been smooth, but in a career spanning six decades he has enjoyed success at home and abroad.
He has worked with Billy Connolly, Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, Johnny Depp and Clint Eastwood; appeared in iconic Scottish movies like Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and Braveheart and made an everlasting mark on television as DCI Matt Burke in Taggart.
Glasgowist started by asking about the Citizens Theatre, where Alex performs on Monday, and which was important to his early development as an actor.
“I started to go there when I was about 14 I think, and I used to get in to sit in the Gods. I was at the junior course in their drama college, probably about 1964. They were acting classes on a sort of part-time basis, Wednesdays and Saturday.”
“I got the bug for acting and I used to go – there was this wonderful woman called Molly there, she took the tickets and you came into the Gods in the Citizens and she was called Molly the Queen of the Gods and she used to let me in for nothing, she was great. I’d sit at the Citizens and watch all these plays. I got a real taste for the theatre, and then I went back years later and I played Dame in the pantos there.”
We begin to talk about the point when he believed that acting could be a career for a wee guy from Glasgow. “Aye, I think I was looking for a way out really, I didn’t want to become a plumber like my dad, he wanted me to have an apprenticeship and all that stuff and I had a feeling that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I left school when I was 15 and just carried on with the business. I should say … sorry can you just hold on one second?”
There is a click from a keyboard. Another clip has been captured for the show. “It’s been a very steep learning curve, how to do all this bloody technology”. The point of the exercise is to add a visually interesting part of the show which grew out of Alex’s autobiography. He had attended festivals to introduce the book and had found he enjoyed it. It gave him a chance to get back on a stage in front of an audience and he got a buzz out of revisiting a lot of the parts of his own story.
His new show is more of a performance and includes details from behind the scenes on some of his most famous filming excursions with the likes of Harrison Ford, together with frank and honest revelations from his early life.
So, how did he select what has made it from the book to the stage? “Things that are entertaining, I think back to the book festivals that I did, and I thought what were the best that really went down with the audience? It’s not all comedy there’s a lot of funny stories, I wouldn’t define it that way, it’s something that I think will entertain the audience.
“There are some parts of my life that haven’t been all that wonderful, terrible rows with my dad and things, and I won’t be dwelling on those things, but I’m not going to gloss over them. It’s my life.
Alex has been a lead or supporting actor in films or television shows for a generation. It all started really by a leap of faith – moving to London when he was 18 to try his luck and getting a part in a movie called The Virgin Soldiers. “I had mates down there and I stayed with them, and just stayed on, I thought “well, I’ve got to try and make a go of this”.
“There wasn’t a lot happening in Scotland at the time – 1968 – and certainly not in Glasgow. So I became an economic migrant really, to London to try and get somewhere. I came back up again to Scotland after a while and then got into the 7:84 company, that was me back in Scotland, and finally in 1978 I went back down to London again, because I got an agent. A new London agent, and he said, there was not much he could do for me if I was living in Scotland. Again I went back to London and I’ve been there ever since. I’m up and down to Scotland a lot”.
7:84 was a theatre company started up by John McGrath and Alex was invited to be a founder member. It was a way to get involved with challenging dramatic productions. “There were the Reps, like Dundee Rep and Perth Rep, and all the other repertory theatres, but I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I knew immediately that 7:84 was the type of theatre company that I wanted to be part of. It was something new, something fresh, it had not been done before.”
“That was just one of the best periods of my life working in that time in the mid 70s in Scotland.”
Of course, Alex’s most regular opportunity to work in Scotland came with a lead role in a long running television show telling a Glasgow story.
“Taggart was the jewel in the crown. I did one of the earlier episodes, not as Detective, I was actually the suspect, it was one of the ones with Mark McManus called, Knife Edge. In fact, I’m about to put a clip of that into the show.”
“I was a butcher – you think is murdering women, and putting them into the black puddings and mincing them up. Grisly stuff! That was a great- I loved being in Taggart it was so popular, and it was the first time that I really ever got recognised in the street. People would come up and say, “Oh God, you’re that butcher! You’re that mad butcher in Taggart”. That stuck with me for years.”
When Alex was asked to take over Taggart in the role of DCI Matt Burke, he didn’t have to think for too long. “I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was the right job for me at the right time of my life.”
“It was wonderful, I had eight fantastic years of it, although when I joined it, the backstage rumour was that we’d be lucky if we got another couple of years out of it. The viewing figures had gone down, luckily they went back up again.”
Alex is looking forward to performing in front of a home crowd and will be tailoring the show accordingly.
“It’s back to my roots really, when I go back to the Citizens theatre. Although I’m going other places, Dundee,and things like that. To be back where it all started, that’s pretty much where I started life was in the Gorbals. Going back there to put on a show is like going back to your home turf and you can only hope for the best. I hope the evening doesn’t look like I’m giving myself a pat on the back. I don't want it to be that, I just want it to be an entertaining evening.”
“A lot of it is stories that I’ve told to other actors over the years. Actors tend to do that to each other, tell each other stories about working. I read quite a lot of theatrical autobiographies, because it’s something I quite like reading and most of them I find awful bland, they’re all about people who are full of themselves, and everything was wonderful and everyone was their pal. Then I read a few in particular, one by a Scottish actor called John Fraser. I hadn’t heard of him before I read his book, but he was a bit of a movie star in his day, a handsome young guy, he was in big films like, El Cid with Charlton Heston, things like that.”
“His book was an inspiration, because he told the truth, he told it like it was, I thought this is really written by an actor, about what it’s like to be an actor. The things that go wrong, the hopes, the dreams, the ambitions, the thwarted hopes dreams and ambitions as well. That was the template for me, I thought, if I’m going to do this I’m going to write it and use that as my standard. I want to tell it like it really is.
Alex and his wife Sally have three sons; Jamie, Rory and Jock. He visits Glasgow with them often “I’ve been taking my boys up to Glasgow since they were tiny, I always take them round the Mackintosh stuff. I take them to the art galleries. They grew up loving Glasgow and every time I suggest they come up they jump at the chance. I’m very proud of the city and I love showing people round it.”
He often visits Pollokshaws for what he calls ‘bittersweet nostalgia’. “The family moved from The Gorbals to a room and kitchen in Pollokshaws. I loved growing up there, it was great, and then in the early 1960s, they started to flatten it all. Part of the comprehensive re-development scheme. They just demolished this lovely wee burgh that people were proud to be part of, and put up these high rise flats that they eventually pulled down. There’s that bittersweet thing when I go through it of knowing what it looked like before and seeing it now.”
Beyond the stage shows he has planned, Alex is very happy with life at the moment, working on other projects, including playing characters in video games, which he is enthusiastic about.
When he has a break, he escapes to a place he has in France. Interestingly, a dubbed version of Taggart used to screen on French television. “It wasn’t just dubbed into French, it was with a Marseilles accent. That was supposed to make it sound a bit more downmarket than Paris. A bit more gritty.”
“I didn’t know about it until a guy down there, that I used as a builder, who became a friend of mine. He said, “Oh I saw you, I saw you on the telly last night.” It turned out it was Taggart. It’s called Brigade Criminelle there.”
“I asked him what I sounded like on the show and he said “ridiculous” so there you go.”
Alex says “there’s been a murder” in a French accent, laughing at the thought and returns to sorting through some more clips to include in his show, “There’s Been a Life”. One of Scottish entertainment’s great raconteurs, you can find tickets here.