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