‘I still have that voice in my head say­ing, ‘You’re sh*te, who do you think you are?’

Gal­lus and gabby she may be, but Elaine C Smith is no stranger to heart­break or self-doubt. As she trav­els around Barra for her new show, she talks to Paul English about com­edy, pol­i­tics, be­reave­ment ... and Ni­et­zsche

Sunday Herald Life - - COVER STORY INTERVIEW - Burdz Eye View be­gins on STV this Fri­day at 8pm

FLY­ING over the west coast of Scot­land, an ac­tor, a jour­nal­ist and a man on his way to a fu­neral are singing Catholic hymns in a tiny aero­plane. The man on his way to a fu­neral had recog­nised the ac­tor, and started speak­ing to her as the tiny plane banked north-west over Ar­gyll.

He’d told her how he’d en­joyed her per­for­mance in the Su­san Boyle biopic, the stage show I Dreamed A Dream, and the pair en­gaged in friendly chat.

As the tiny plane passed Mull, the man on his way to a fu­neral told the ac­tor that he is Su­san Boyle’s neigh­bour, from Black­burn, West Loth­ian. He and the ac­tor both knew Su­san very well.

They shared mem­o­ries of her, and their hopes for her, too. As the con­ver­sa­tion grew more vig­or­ous, it snagged on an anec­dote from the ac­tor about singing a hymn dur­ing the stage show, which nei­ther could re­mem­ber, no mat­ter how much they och y’knowed or clicked their fin­gers or held their hands to their brows.

The ac­tor and the man on his way to a fu­neral hoped the jour­nal­ist would re­mem­ber, hav­ing ear­lier pointed out his old Catholic high school when they’d flown over Port Glas­gow.

Now, as the tiny plane passes to the west of Tiree, the three are striv­ing to re­mem­ber by singing the first lines from the Catholic hym­nal’s great­est hits. I watch the sun­rise? Nope. I the Lord of sea and sky? Not that either.

You shall cross the bar­ren desert but you shall not die of thirst? Naw! O Lord my God, when I in awe­some won­der? How Great Thou Art? Aye! That was it. The jour­nal­ist, the man on his way to a fu­neral and the ac­tor are laugh­ing, re­lieved, as the tiny plane ap­proaches the is­land of Barra in the Outer He­brides, where it’s due to land on the only beach run­way in the world used by sched­uled com­mer­cial flights.

It’s where the man is due to be at­tend­ing a fu­neral and the ac­tor is due to be per­form­ing a stand-up show to be recorded for tele­vi­sion, which the jour­nal­ist is due to be cov­er­ing for the pa­per. It’s also where a hoolie is blow­ing in off the At­lantic, which, the cap­tain says, means that the ac­tor, the jour­nal­ist and the man go­ing to a fu­neral, will in­stead be head­ing back to Glas­gow along with ev­ery­one else on the tiny plane, to try again to­mor­row.

Disem­bark­ing from the abortive flight to Barra at Glas­gow Air­port, Elaine C Smith is try­ing her best to smile for selfie re­quests in be­tween field­ing pan­icked phone calls from her pro­duc­tion team – who are al­ready in the He­brides – and con­ver­sa­tions with the Lo­gan Air

ground staff. Talk of a spec­u­la­tive flight to Ben­bec­ula and a rushed taxi and ferry jour­ney to Barra are briefly con­sid­ered then dis­missed.

The man on his way to a fu­neral, due to take place the fol­low­ing day, would also be tak­ing his chances with the next morn­ing’s flight, which, mer­ci­fully, suc­cess­fully con­veys its cargo be­tween Glas­gow and the beach at Traigh Mhor bay on sched­ule.

A flock of hol­i­day­mak­ers keen to see the unique aero­nau­ti­cal spec­ta­cle have gath­ered to greet the land­ing.

“When I saw the crowd, I was think­ing, ‘This is a big­ger story than I thought here’ for two sec­onds. Then I re­alised it was the plane they were here to see,” says Smith, laugh­ing on terra firma, hav­ing met hus­band and man­ager Bob, who has come to the is­land by boat, and her pro­duc­tion team from So­lus Pro­duc­tions led by di­rec­tor Tony Kear­ney, the for­mer River City ac­tor, for a cuppa in the is­land’s dinky air­port which also dou­bles as a cof­fee shop.

She’s on Barra to film the sec­ond se­ries of her STV pro­gramme Burdz Eye View, part trav­el­ogue, part onewoman show, in which she takes on the per­sona of a Gles­gaburd learn­ing things about her home coun­try that she didn’t know she didn’t know, a road trip that’s more hand­bags and wedge heels than back­packs and Con­verse.

As­ton­ish­ingly, this se­ries marks the first time she’s been on any is­lands other than the cen­tral belt Clyde tri­umvi­rate of Ar­ran, Bute and Cum­brae.

“It’s not be­cause I didn’t want to,” she says. “It’s more that they never really held that thing for me. I sup­pose I’ve been like a lot of cen­tral bel­ters, you know, ‘Yeah, lovely, but I’ll just go to Greece’. And be­cause I tour so much I prob­a­bly thought I’d seen a lot of Scot­land.

“But when I ar­rived on Lewis it looked like Mykonos. I got off the plane and thought, ‘My God.’ What we’re shown all the time when you see Stornoway on TV, is that really de­press­ing main street. It can look un­ap­peal­ing, a wilder­ness, some place away up there. I was ig­no­rant to the re­al­ity.”

Smith joked about the crowd at the air­port be­ing here to see the plane, not her, and it’s typ­i­cal of her self­dep­re­cat­ing shtick.

The is­land knows she is here al­right, it even knows she was un­able to land the day be­fore. When the plane or the boat doesn’t get in, the news is car­ried across

the land here on the At­lantic wind. Es­pe­cially when one of the pas­sen­gers, that Elaine C Smith off the telly, is sup­posed to be per­form­ing in the Castle­bay Com­mu­nity Hall the next night. (The posters ad­ver­tis­ing the gig in shops and pubs had got the date wrong. The lo­cal so­lu­tion to the typo? “Don’t worry, we’ll just phone round.”)

ON our jaunt around the is­land, we visit the wreck­age of a Sec­ond World War plane crash, and groups of women singing Gaelic waulkin songs. While both couthy and in­for­ma­tive, Smith says the se­ries serves a wider pur­pose.

“I was down in Largs with my grand­daugh­ter Stella and I met a woman in a wheel­chair, who told me that she didn’t get out much any more and that the show was like a wee bus run round the coun­try for her.

“I thought, ‘If that’s all I do with this, give peo­ple trapped in their houses that feel­ing, then it’s worth it.’”

On Barra, though, the gig was im­bued with greater sig­nif­i­cance, well be­yond the nor­mal trans­ac­tion be­tween a comic turn and their au­di­ence.

Four weeks ear­lier, 14-year-old is­land school­girl and lo­cal mu­si­cian Eilidh Ma­cleod was killed in the Manch­ester Arena bomb at­tacks, which left her friend Laura McIn­tyre se­ri­ously in­jured.

A pe­riod of mourn­ing and in­tense me­dia fo­cus have passed by the time Smith lands with a cheque for £3,000 from the whip-rounds on the door of Burdz Eye View gigs in Stornoway, Mull, In­ver­ness, Fort Wil­liam and Skye.

The cheque is pre­sented to Eilidh’s pipe band dur­ing the in­ter­val, marked by the first pub­lic per­for­mance of the teenager’s band since the tragedy.

“We had to make sure that this wasn’t go­ing to of­fend the fam­ily,” she says, be­fore the per­for­mance, a tiny af­fair in front of 100 lo­cals weeks af­ter she hosted the Lis­bon Li­ons’ 50th An­niver­sary party in front of 12,000 at the SSE Hy­dro.

“If the fam­ily felt it was in­ap­pro­pri­ate, then I would have hap­pily post­poned this and come later.”

The show is pitch-per­fect, and the col­lec­tive cathar­sis is pal­pa­ble. In what she refers to as Cae­sar’s Palace, Barra, Smith de­liv­ers a slick rou­tine which takes in gags about ev­ery­thing from Ni­cola Stur­geon in trouser suits to mul­ti­ple or­gasms and Rab C Nes­bitt, the clas­sic Scot­tish com­edy on which she made her name over two decades as Mary Doll Nes­bitt, long-suf­fer­ing wife of Gre­gor Fisher’s tit­u­lar Go­van ne’er-do-well.

There’s a par­tic­u­larly smart skit in which she or­gan­ises a sin­ga­long be­tween two sides of the hall, re­call­ing old clas­sics from the 1960s, be­fore us­ing them to skewer misog­yny.

Cliff Richard’s Liv­ing Doll is among them. “Take a look at her hair, it’s real / If you don’t be­lieve what I say, just feel / I’m gonna lock her up in a trunk so no big hunk / Can steal her away from me.”

“WAIT!” she screams, in­cred­u­lous, stop­ping the au­di­ence in its tracks. “Lock her up in a trunk? Whit!? My aun­ties would say, ‘Och hen, it means he loves me. Mind that time he put me in the coal cel­lar for a week?’”

“Time to get ready for love?” she howls dur­ing Jack Jones’s Wives Should Al­ways Be Lovers. “Get tae f***.”

By the end there are au­di­ence mem­bers danc­ing on chairs.

I col­lar some on the way out. “We needed laugh­ter,” says is­lan­der Christina MacInnes. “The is­land needed it.”

“You could feel the dif­fer­ence,” says Don­ald Man­ford, Eilidh’s great un­cle and the lo­cal coun­cil­lor. “I know ev­ery­body here and I know how hard it is for them to laugh just now. It gave me plea­sure to hear peo­ple who I know are hurt­ing be­ing able to laugh. There are no words to de­scribe the value of that.”

SMITH knows the value well, hav­ing coped with de­pres­sion since the death of her mother in 2005, which left her on the verge of jack­ing it all in. “I re­alised that part of the psy­che of be­ing a per­former was to make my mum’s life bet­ter,” she

says. “She suf­fered from de­pres­sion too, and was a bit dis­ap­pointed in life. She had a ro­man­tic no­tion, she wanted to marry Cary Grant and mar­ried Jimmy Smith. Dad was an al­co­holic, it wasn’t the eas­i­est of times for her.

“When she died, I thought I would never laugh again, that I would be be­tray­ing her if I did.”

The metaphors of light and dark­ness re­cur of­ten dur­ing our time on Barra, both in ref­er­ence to the mood on the is­land, and also the pos­i­tive im­pact travel has on her state of mind.

“I think it helps you walk in the light again,” she says, sit­ting out­side the In­dian restau­rant in Castle­bay, eat­ing scallop pakora and quot­ing Ger­man philoso­phers on a long sum­mer’s night, a mil­lion miles from Mary Doll.

“I still have that voice in my head say­ing, ‘You’re sh*te, who do you think you are?’ But I treat it like a tod­dler now, and I’m bet­ter at that af­ter years of ther­apy. And a Bud­dhist friend told me that I make oth­ers laugh to make my­self laugh, and that’s so true. When peo­ple laugh my soul lifts.

“Ni­et­zsche says it’s cre­ativ­ity that keeps us from the abyss. Trav­el­ling and meet­ing other peo­ple make you re­alise that even in this hope­less time of Trump and ev­ery­thing else, peo­ple are just get­ting on with it. And you see that when you travel to places like this. It lifts you.”

Next month, Smith will re­turn to Glas­gow’s King’s The­atre pan­tomime af­ter an ab­sence of 13 years, to play fairy god­mother Bella Hous­ton in Sleep­ing Beauty, then re­turn as hap­less Chris­tine in a new se­ries (and Christ­mas spe­cial) of BBC Scot­land’s sti­fled-in-sub­ur­bia com­edy en­sem­ble Two Doors Down.

Yet Scot­land’s panto-queen was a self­con­fessed the­atre snob when she was younger. “I was think­ing, ‘I want to be a proper ac­tor’ and I had to learn a huge re­spect for it,” she says. “I re­mem­ber sit­ting with my mother af­ter she’d just been di­ag­nosed with can­cer and the last thing I wanted to do was be sit­ting at the pan­tomime.

“Then Ger­ard Kelly made me laugh and I re­alised I hadn’t thought about can­cer or death for half an hour. Ev­ery­one in that the­atre has a trou­ble of some sort and it’s our job to lighten peo­ple’s lives.”

Act­ing aside, her pro­file has, since the early 1990s, been teth­ered to pol­i­tics. A founder mem­ber of the Scot­tish Artists for In­de­pen­dence move­ment 27 years ago, she’s now con­venor of the Scot­tish In­de­pen­dence Con­ven­tion and re­mains an un­stint­ing sup­porter of the cause.

“Some­one said to me when I got off the plane, ‘I hope you’re here to talk about the SNP. A lot of peo­ple make the as­sump­tion that I’m a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber. I’m not. I know cer­tain peo­ple have been put off me be­cause of my pol­i­tics, but I think a lot of peo­ple can di­vorce the two. And plenty don’t give a toss. The only party we can get in­de­pen­dence through is the SNP, but the only party I ever joined was the Labour Party. The SNP can’t be ar­ro­gant and think they can do it with­out a move­ment, be­cause it’s the move­ment that will de­liver it.”

Smith will be 60 next year. In the past, she has used the sta­tis­tics about low life ex­pectancy in the east end of Glas­gow to frame po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ment about in­equal­ity and poverty.

Although orig­i­nally from La­nark­shire, she’s lived in Glas­gow’s east end for years. When I ask whether she ex­pects to live to see an in­de­pen­dent Scot­land, I half ex­pect a de­fi­ant re­buke for my cheek.

Maybe it’s the sea air, maybe it’s the pace of the is­land, or maybe it’s the scallop pakora. Elaine C Smith won’t be vexed.

“Whether I do or not, I cer­tainly hope my grand­daugh­ter does,” she says, look­ing out over Castle­bay. “None of us even know if we’re get­ting an­other year. Liv­ing the day in the now is the big­gest quest for me. I’ve more of a bal­ance, a con­tent­ment with the chances I’ve had.

“Here we are, sit­ting in this beau­ti­ful bay on a beau­ti­ful evening, eat­ing and drink­ing and talk­ing in a wee is­land in the mid­dle of the At­lantic.

“How lucky is that? How lucky are we?”

Elaine C Smith with Gre­gor Fisher as the iconic Mary Doll in Rab C Nes­bitt

Pho­to­graph: Jamie Simp­son

Elaine C Smith, Johnny Mac and Juliet Cad­zow in panto at the King’s The­atre

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.