The River City star on anger, angst and Agatha Christie

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - Moon Dogs (15) is out on Septem­ber 1

TAM Dean Burn con­jures up a very close ap­prox­i­ma­tion of evil when re­quired in TV roles such as the gang­ster McCabe in BBC Scot­land’s River City or rapist Billy Pet­ti­grew in the Sky drama For­ti­tude. And he’s not afraid to re­veal a de­light­ful bor­der­line mad­ness ei­ther, as ev­i­denced on stage last year by his Mad Hat­ter in Alice in Won­der­land at the Lyceum in Ed­in­burgh.

Yet away from per­for­mance the man is a big­ger sweetie than a packet of fruit pastilles. What’s in­trigu­ing about the Lei­th­born ac­tor is how he so read­ily ac­cesses this en­tirely con­vinc­ing dark­ness. How can some­one, as he did, play out a rape scene in For­ti­tude yet hours later find him­self telling chil­dren about the Gruf­falo?

And if ac­tors have to call upon cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences to trans­mit the worst of feel­ings, I won­der what sort of trauma has he en­dured, what form of soul-cor­rod­ing cesspit has he had to crawl out of to give him his start­ing po­si­tion in the likes of Trainspot­ting, where he voiced the au­dio­book?

“I had a re­ally happy life grow­ing up Cler­mis­ton, this coun­cil es­tate above Ed­in­burgh Zoo,” he re­calls over cof­fee in a Glas­gow ho­tel. “It was like be­ing in the coun­try. We had woods and fields all around and we could climb the fence into the zoo at night. There was such a strong sense of com­mu­nity my par­ents didn’t want to leave that house.”

Burn’s fa­ther was a joiner whose sons Tam, Rus­sell and Philip went on to rep­re­sent a coun­cil house suc­cess story. “My ma used to love Art Sut­ter on Ra­dio Scot­land and she would call him up on air. One day she got through and Art said, ‘Jean, you have three sons, what do they do?’ She didn’t want to say, ‘One’s an ac­tor, one’s a pro­fes­sional foot­baller and the other is a mu­si­cian.’ She fig­ured no­body would be­lieve her. So what she said was, ‘They’re all do­ing their own thing, Art.’” Burn laughs. “He was prob­a­bly think­ing we were drug ad­dicts or in prison.”

But where was the angst, Tam? The most de­mand­ing part of early life seems to have been which books to pick at the school prize­giv­ing. Was Cler­mis­ton that close to Wal­ton’s Moun­tain?

“Not quite,” he says. “Grow­ing up there was great but at 18 I was des­per­ate

to get away from home, given us three boys were in the one bed­room. But my ma and da wouldn’t move out of the area. It was driv­ing me de­mented un­til an ac­tor pal of­fered me a room in a flat.”

When the el­dest Burn an­nounced he was for the off it caused great con­ster­na­tion. “It was a night­mare,” he says with a rue­ful shake of the head. “I was the first per­son in my ex­tended fam­ily to move out of the house with­out be­ing mar­ried. My ma was black af­fronted.”

Burn wasn’t the cliche child ac­tor, des­per­ate to per­form. “I did the gang shows when in the Cubs, though. And my ma loved get­ting me dressed up to go guis­ing. I re­mem­ber go­ing round the doors wear­ing a Girl Guide uni­form with bloomers on. And she had me in a kilt when I was young, singing A Scot­tish Sol­dier.

“But I only be­came in­ter­ested in act­ing at Craig­mount High. We had a great the­atre space and drama teach­ers in Joyce Heller and Ken Morley [who would go on to be­come a Corona­tion Street favourite, as Reg Holdsworth].”

Yet Burn’s good grades mit­i­gated against de­vel­op­ing his love for act­ing. “Be­cause I was set to do O-grades and Highers I couldn’t do drama any more. That was it.”

It didn’t mat­ter too much. The teenager planned to be­come a jour­nal­ist, yet fell at the first hur­dle. “The clos­est I got was the short list for a trainee­ship at the Scots­man,” he re­calls and adds. “It’s as well I didn’t get in. I would have be­come an al­co­holic. That was the world at the time.”

In­stead he formed a punk band, the Dirty Reds, and for­got about jour­nal­ism be­cause he couldn’t take the re­jec­tion, he says, so it seems strange he signed up to be an ac­tor. “Yes, but as an ac­tor you get cho­sen, which gives you val­i­da­tion.”

Burn’s thoughts turned to pro­fes­sional act­ing when he saw an ad­vert for ac­tors in the pa­per. He wanted to be the Scot­tish James Dean. “I didn’t have the hair­style, though,” he says, smooth­ing his shiny head.

Re­gard­less, Burn took him­self off to drama col­lege then worked as an as­sis­tant stage man­ager at Perth Rep, the per­fect ve­hi­cle for a bud­ding ac­tor. Or so you would think.

“I know, it sounds odd,” he says, with a wry smile, “but to be hon­est, I nearly walked away from act­ing af­ter a few months. We were do­ing a se­ries of Agatha Christie plays and I com­plained, ‘Ah can­nae take this any mair.’

“But the bloke who hired me said, ‘If you leave you won’t work in Scot­tish the­atre again. Your Eq­uity card will be ripped up and you’ll be in Joan Knight’s [the boss] lit­tle black book.’ So I thought I’d stick it out. But it wasn’t me at the time. I was a punk.” Burn was 30 – he’s now 59 – be­fore he ac­cepted his role in life as an ac­tor. Un­til then the world of drama had seemed too mid­dle class. But then he re­alised act­ing didn’t have to be about solv­ing mys­ter­ies in large pe­riod houses and went on to per­form work that helped feed his need for a sense of com­mu­nity. He en­joyed stints with the likes of TAG The­atre Com­pany, based at the Cit­i­zens The­atre in Glas­gow, and per­formed every­thing from Steven Berkoff plays to schools pro­duc­tions. Now he felt at home. Yet, where was the angst com­ing from which emerged in his per­for­mances? “There cer­tainly was an anger,” he ad­mits. “I did have a tem­per, which for­tu­nately I could let loose on stage.” Part of the anger was di­rected at politi­cians. In 1990, Burn stood for Glas­gow Cen­tral on the Com­mu­nist Party of Great Bri­tain ticket. (He man­aged to achieve triple fig­ures.) “It’s hard to say where the pol­i­tics came from,” he says,. “I guess I al­ways had a sense of in­jus­tice.” As a boy he loved read­ing the Jen­nings se­ries of nov­els, the tiny toff’s school ad­ven­tures by An­thony Buck­eridge. “It may sound strange but Buck­eridge’s obit re­vealed he was a so­cial­ist, so per­haps his think­ing came across in his writ­ing. It’s the only thing I can guess.

“Later on I had a very ro­man­tic idea of the Soviet Union. I had once been in the prison Trot­sky had been banged up in. I knew there was so much wrong with the Soviet Union but I wasn’t go­ing to throw my lot in with those who were so anti-Soviet.”

Th­ese days Burn is a Labour man, in­vig­o­rated by party leader Jeremy Cor­byn. His out­look on act­ing has evolved too. “There is a big part of me that’s a real loner,” he ad­mits, “yet I love to be part of a team, do­ing good work.”

In re­cent years he toured Scot­land on a bi­cy­cle, read­ing all 195 of Ju­lia Don­ald­son’s Gruf­falo sto­ries to chil­dren. “I don’t like the world of ac­tors blether­ing. I like the idea of de­vel­op­ing the craft, find­ing things that mat­ter, in the wider po­lit­i­cal sense such as the Chil­dren’s Wood in North Kelvin Meadow,” he says, re­fer­ring to the Glas­gow com­mu­nity site which was un­der threat from a hous­ing de­vel­op­ment.

The no­tion of putting some­thing back via com­mu­nity work clearly soothes his spirit. Yet, every now and then, Burn gets the chance to ap­pear on stage or on film and let loose with the mad­ness, to re­veal the dark, quirky char­ac­ter, as in the case of new film Moon Dogs. The story fol­lows teenage step-broth­ers Michael (Jack Parry-Jones) and Thor (Christy O’Don­nell) as they jour­ney from Shet­land to Glas­gow for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Aspir­ing Ir­ish singer Caitlin (Tara Lee) be­guiles both boys and pas­sions come to a head at a mu­sic fes­ti­val. “It’s a lovely wee film and I’ve got a nice part as a sleazy folk pro­moter who’s also in charge of a fish fac­tory.”

It’s not just anger that emerges in Burn’s per­for­mances. It’s raw emo­tion. The ac­tor once said, “I bruise a bit too eas­ily.” Does this sug­gest a dark­ness he has to work at con­tain­ing?

“Oh, yes,” he agrees. “I’ve never tum­bled into full­blown de­pres­sion but I am a needy f*****. I also have a high metabolism, so I need to work at re­main­ing calm. That’s why I set a lot of store by med­i­ta­tion, which I do every morn­ing, and I’m into tai chi.”

Burn speaks of great losses in his life, and although he says he has ac­cepted them his vivid de­scrip­tions sug­gest emo­tions could well up at any mo­ment. “My ma [who had can­cer] was in St Columba’s Hospice when she died. I sat and held her hand and talked to her and sang to her through­out the night and watched her breath­ing. I went for

I’ve been on an emo­tional roller­coaster … But I’m gen­tler now. I’m not so up and down, and not so des­per­ate

break­fast, came back, and then it was as if she had held off be­cause right then her breath­ing stopped. There was a joy in this type of re­lease. And thank­fully my dad [who had de­men­tia] was re­leased be­fore he lost all his dig­nity. We sang Neil Di­a­mond songs with him be­fore he died.”

He speaks of how the three Burn broth­ers are now two af­ter Philip, who played for Raith Rovers from 1988 to 1992, be­came “a pro­fes­sional al­co­holic”.

“He was a bril­liant lad, not a bad drunk, but he loved the ef­fect of drink. He had be­come so toxic he died in his sleep, aged 43. That fin­ished my mother off.”

Burn shares his losses with­out seek­ing sym­pa­thy. He’s sim­ply ex­plain­ing his life. And now he’s cer­tainly in a happy place. He and his part­ner Emma, a press man­ager, have a four-year-old daugh­ter, Mor­gan, whom Burn dotes on. (He has a 30-year-old son, Sandy, from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship.)

The ac­tor is work­ing on sev­eral projects, in­clud­ing a bio-play based on the life of Al­lan Pinker­ton, the Scot who founded the US de­tec­tive agency. “I love to write every day,” he says. “It keeps the mus­cle work­ing.”

What I sense of Tam Dean Burn is a man who has had to work to bat­tle demons. Yet I sus­pect the demons are the re­sult of overques­tion­ing, self-re­flec­tion, worry and doubt. “I’ve got a lot of en­ergy and a lot of frus­tra­tions so act­ing does of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to let it all out. I’m quite a shy per­son, re­ally.”

He has no need to be fa­mous, but he wants to be wanted. “I was up for a big movie re­cently and very nearly got it. And it’s hard for an ac­tor to take that re­jec­tion.

“I could plumb the depths which meant I’ve been an emo­tional roller­coaster, and this could be hard for any­one as­so­ci­ated with me. But I’m gen­tler now. I’m not so up and down and not so des­per­ate.”

Yet he can bring the big emo­tions to the sur­face when re­quired. “Some­times direc­tors have to pull me back,” he ad­mits. “I once went up for an ad with Ken Rus­sell for frozen food where I had to get up and sing Food, Glo­ri­ous Food. So I did this and he yelled out, ‘Bit OTT, dar­ling!’

“I had to laugh that Ken Rus­sell reck­oned I had gone too far.”

One of Tam Dean Burn’s drama teach­ers at school was Ken Morley, who went on to gain renown play­ing Reg Holdsworth in Corona­tion Street

Above: Burn as rapist Billy Pet­ti­grew in For­ti­tude. Be­low: as McCabe in River City

Burn says his lat­est cin­e­matic project, Moon Dogs (left), is ‘a lovely wee film’. The cast in­cludes Jack Parry-Jones, Tara Lee and Christy O’Don­nell (above)

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