I’ve always liked Ken Stott. He’s a fine actor, obviously, but we also have a couple of things in common. We share the same dentist, or at least shared, back in boyhood in Edinburgh, when surgeries were grim places, waiting-rooms contained not a single dog-eared copy of the Beano, and memories of the brown rubber mask jammed over your mouth just before the knockout gas took effect could still evoke a shudder half a century later. We were struggling to remember his name until I mentioned the mask. “That was it – Mr Brown,” said Stott, holding his jaw in mock pain. “And he just loved pulling teeth.”
The other thing we have in common is that we’ve both pretended to follow the rival capital football team from the one we support – me for a book and Stott to play Ian Rankin’s detective John Rebus on TV. Rankin wrote the character as a Hibs fan and Stott, a follower of Hearts, has just had to lump it and wear the scarf. Writer’s prerogative and all that.
But this hasn’t stopped Stott wondering about Rebus’ politics. Indeed he’s done more than wonder, firing off a letter to Nicola Sturgeon insisting that the grumpy gumshoe is an indyreffer and not the No voter the author claims.
This has been boiled up into a row. A “public war of words”, according to the report I read, with Stott apparently “incensed” by Rankin making the crabbit cop wear a metaphorical Unionist bunnet when almost everything about him points in the other direction.
What a hoot. I don’t think anyone is incensed and am sure all the participants will be having a laugh about this, especially Stott, who some have felt the need to inform that Rebus isn’t actually a real person, that writers make stuff up, and that characters belong to them and not actors.
You’re a luvvie!
Er, I think he will know all of this. And I reckon the nub of the issue here is in the report’s headline which labels Stott a “luvvie”. You see, actors aren’t supposed to have views about anything beyond the film/play/telly programme they’re promoting. They’re not supposed to engage with the world. If they try and do this they’re ridiculed.
That was just a performance! You read something right-on in the The Guardian and you memorised it! You’re a bleeding-heart, look-at-me-I’m-wonderful, feel-the-warmth-of-my-sincerity, jump-on-any-cause, over-emoting git! You’re a luvvie!
Am I about to say something in defence of Actors With Opinions? I think I might be. Goodness knows I’ve met plenty without. In a previous life I interviewed actors all the time. They’d talk about “the work” and nothing else. They’d talk about their characters as if they were real people. They’d analyse their characters’ motivations like they were Sigmund bloody Freud. Then, exhausted and appalled and desperate to end this charade, I’d ask the plaintive final question that I knew to be hopeless: “So, what do you do when you’re not acting?” Always the reply would be: “Oh, I love going to the theatre and the cinema.” In other words, you watch other actors act. In other words, you’re just as insecure and neurotic as the rest, and just as much of an empty vessel as well.
So when actors attempt to fill the vessel with notions, ideas, a bit of themselves, something which angers/inspires them, anything apart from the bland piffle which forms the basis of most celebrity interviews, what do we do? We make fun of them.
The actor knows he’s his own worst enemy. Martin Freeman, star of The Office, Sherlock and currently A Confession, is extremely nervous about members of his profession getting political. “It’s deeply annoying to have someone like me, who doesn’t know everything, bang on,” he says. “Actors can be pompous and we can overestimate our importance.”
And Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd and right now Defending the Guilty says: “Actors who aren’t that informed going on about their politics make me cringe. It’s very easy to call yourself a feminist and often men that might say it the loudest are the first to stick their hand on someone who’s not their girlfriend’s knee.”
Reagan dismissed genuine heroism
So what’s worse: an actor who talks about politics but is a groper ... or a prime minister, women on either side of him at lunch, who’s dubbed “the double thigh-squeezer”. Almost certainly the latter, but the actor who puts himself out there politically should be allowed to make the odd mistake and drop the occasional clanger. Yes, what they say can make them seem self-important and sanctimonious but surely that’s down to delivery; they’re more accomplished at getting up and speaking than you or me (certainly you).
I’ve laughed at actors plenty. My favourite story about political actors concerns Ronald Reagan when he was trying to win a second term as US President and Democrat rival John Glenn, the former astronaut, received a boost in the polls from the film The Right Stuff about the true life adventures of the Mercury Seven rocketmen. Reagan dismissed Glenn as “just a celluloid hero” until it was pointed out to him that the latter had carried out all the daring portrayed in the movie. Reagan on the other hand had not actually shot a bad guy, quelled a ‘Red Indian’ uprising, saved the day. These had just been his movies, and B-movies at that.
We have not as yet in this country handed the keys to power and control of the big red button to an actor. Good for us, you might say ordinarily, but right now you could well wonder if a melodramatic thespian would do any worse. I’m not sure that Ken Stott would fancy the gig and, in any event, he’s a Jambo.