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