He­roes, heroin and the ghost from Alex Nor­ton’s past

Sunday Herald - - 19.03.17 INTERVIEW - BY PAUL ENGLISH There’s Been A Life: An Evening with Alex Nor­ton, Mon­day, Cit­i­zens Theatre, Glas­gow

ALEX Nor­ton is used to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing chills in Glas­gow. They blew through the 1950s sin­gle end in the Gor­bals he was born into, and they were the har­bin­ger of “mur­dur” in every episode of Tag­gart. But when he steps back into the Gor­bals and on to the stage at the Cit­i­zens Theatre to­mor­row he’ll feel a chill un­like any he’s felt be­fore.

Nor­ton, 67, is com­ing home this week, back to this no­to­ri­ous patch of hard­ship and mythol­ogy, a few square miles of Glas­gow whose rep­u­ta­tion is known the world over.

To­day it re­sem­bles the Gor­bals of the 1950s only in name. But when the lights go up on his one-man show as part of the Glas­gow Com­edy Fes­ti­val, Nor­ton will ex­pe­ri­ence a con­nec­tion with a past he knew noth­ing about all his ca­reer.

“The only show­biz con­nec­tion in my en­tire fam­ily his­tory was an old un­cle of mine, Billy, who used to play the Cit­i­zens when it was called the Princess Theatre,” he re­calls. “I only met him once in my life, he was a comic’s feed and he used to play the pan­tomimes there.”

This link to the Citz of long ago was re­vealed in a phone call from a rel­a­tive in Aus­tralia who shone a light on a con­nec­tion the ac­tor knew noth­ing about, neatly teth­er­ing the lo­ca­tion of the lat­est chap­ter in his ca­reer to the same spot – decades apart.

“This isn’t show­biz boll***s, it’s true,“said the ac­tor, wav­ing away the idea of an anec­dote shaped to suit pur­pose.

“When Giles Haver­gal [the then cre­ative di­rec­tor] asked me to be the dame at the Citz panto years ago, I’d never felt more at home be­fore or since. I re­ally felt like I be­longed there.

“So when my Aus­tralian un­cle told me about Billy, I felt this real shiver up my spine. I’m not a su­per­sti­tious kind of per­son, but if any­body’s go­ing to be there when I’m back on the stage at the Citz then it’s go­ing to be my Un­cle Billy.”

Nor­ton is tak­ing a break from trawl­ing through an ar­chive of video clips and pho­to­graphs, the vis­ual aids to the anec­dotes he’ll share with his au­di­ences at the Citz.

Yarns about Clint East­wood, Mel Gib­son and per­haps even Johnny Depp are to be ex­pected, de­liv­ered in a warm style at odds with his tough telly de­tec­tive per­sona.

But this be­ing a gig for the Glas­gow Com­edy Fes­ti­val, does he feel pres­sure to be, well, comedic?

“Yes and no,” he said. “When they asked me, I ex­plained I don’t do a stand-up rou­tine, but there are funny sto­ries in there. I’ll just have to wait and see. I think it’ll go down okay, but I don’t want peo­ple com­ing think­ing I’m go­ing to be telling them jokes. Ev­ery­thing has been cho­sen to il­lus­trate my life and ca­reer.”

So. Life: born in the Gor­bals to John and Sarah in 1950, moved to Pol­lok­shaws (“we went up in the world, I had my own bed­room”) and a pupil at Shaw­lands Acad­emy in the south­side of the city. The­atri­cal ap­ti­tude shown at a young age, cue parental ram­mies be­tween plumber father who wanted his son to get a trade and not do some­thing “jessie”, and mother who saw a chance for him to get away. She took on ex­tra clean­ing shifts to get him into ju­nior drama classes and ac­com­pa­nied her 14-year-old son to Lon­don on his first act­ing job on Dr Finlay’s Case­book.

She died a year later, and it would be decades be­fore father ac­cepted his son was right to shun a trade and fol­low his vo­ca­tion.

Ca­reer: prom­i­nent mem­ber of John McGrath’s ground­break­ing po­lit­i­cal theatre group 7:84, film roles in Scot­tish clas­sics Gre­gory’s Girl, Lo­cal Hero and Brave­heart, a part in Pi­rates Of The Caribbean with Johnny Depp. Oh, and al­most killing Clint East­wood.

Film­ing White Hunter Black Heart in Zim­babwe, Nor­ton was driv­ing a Land Rover with East­wood in the pas­sen­ger seat, cam­eras rolling, di­a­logue ex­changed.

“I’d never driven one of these bloody things be­fore, and we went straight into a take, no re­hearsal. I re­alised I couldn’t see over the spare wheel in the bon­net, it was too late to ask for a cush­ion, so I just had to go.

“We were driv­ing along. I could see there was some­thing on the track, but couldn’t make out what it was, and by the time we got to it was too late. It was a drainage ditch and the f***ing Land Rover went right down it and up the other side.

“Clint was al­most out the car, all I could see where the soles of his boots and he was hang­ing on by the tips of Alex Nor­ton, who di­rected The Steamie at the Cit­i­zens, is com­ing home in his one-man show as part of the Glas­gow Com­edy Fes­ti­val his fin­gers. He wasn’t best pleased to put it mildly.”

He de­liv­ers these well-worn tales with the laid-back ease of the sea­soned per­former. But get him talk­ing about tak­ing heroin in the 1980s, and we’re into mind-how-you go territory.

The thing he’s keen­est to point out is that he did it to re­search the part of a rock’n’roller who took the drug.

“It was stupid, and I ac­knowl­edge that, but at the time it was a big part of my phi­los­o­phy that you’d want to feel that you knew the char­ac­ter,” he re­calls.

“Part of me was think­ing, ‘don’t be an a**e’, the other part of me thought I owed it to my­self to take it to get it right.

“I didn’t take it more than half a dozen times. But I could see how folk would get ad­dicted. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘This is a bit won­der­ful’ and that’s why. It was like some­one slip­ping a soft arm over your shoul­der and telling you ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be okay.”

Ob­vi­ously, DCI Matt Burke would have taken a dim view of such be­hav­iour. Tag­gart, the world’s long­est-run­ning cop se­ries was shelved, or axed, by STV in 2010.

“I think it’s a bloody shame,” he says firmly. “Whether I’m in it or not. It was a great iconic se­ries and it’s sad that it’s gone with­out a trace. I don’t even know the rea­sons. None of us even got a phone call or a let­ter say­ing as much as ‘thanks’.”

While this Gor­bals boy has done well for him­self – there’s a sec­ond fam­ily home in France – he mea­sures his riches in other ways, as any­one in the au­di­ence will doubt­less find.

There might even be a re­ward for one of them, if they can spot a cer­tain pop icon in one of Nor­ton’s clips from the film Vir­gin Sol­diers in 1969.

“There’s a tiny wee bit where I’m in the fore­ground, and Davy Jones is some­where in there. I might give a prize to any­one in the au­di­ence who can spot him.” Davy Jones? From The Mon­kees? No. The other one. “Davy Jones hadn’t in­vented ‘David Bowie’ by that point. We were film­ing in a field in Saf­fron Walden pre­tend­ing it was the Malaysian jun­gle, film­ing at night.

“There was a food tent set up and Davy and I got on well, chat­ting about play­ing gui­tar. I’ve al­ways taken my gui­tar with me when I’m film­ing, and he asked me if I knew any Jac­ques Brel, picked up my gui­tar and started play­ing In The Port of Am­s­ter­dam.

“It was just un­be­liev­able. Every­body in that tent went quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. I still have the gui­tar, an old Levin six string.”

It’s surely due a berth as an ex­hibit at the Peo­ple’s Palace when the time comes for him to call it a day?

“I do think about what I’ll do if the phones stop ring­ing,” he said. “I can’t com­plain. It has been an ex­traor­di­nary life – and I got to live the one I wanted.”

Tak­ing heroin to get in­side a part was just stupid. Part of me said ‘don’t be an a**e’, while the rest of me thought I should take it to get the part right

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