STAR of stage and screen, Bill Paterson can rightly claim to have been there when the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company made its debut five decades ago.
However, unlike Brian Cox, his co-star in Waiting For Godot, which kicks off the company’s 50th season tonight, he wasn’t on stage. No, he was watching that inaugural production from the stalls.
Now 70, Paterson confesses to being surprised to find himself centre stage in the anniversary production, but even more so to find himself “working with somebody who was in that original production,” namely Cox.
“I came over from Glasgow to see it because at the time I was fantastically keen on theatre, although I had no intention of being an actor,” he recalls. “I was a quantity surveyor and I’d volunteer to do jobs in Edinburgh just so that I could get my fare paid.
“I’d do a wee bit of work on site and then see a play; a building society on Frederick Street got me back and forward for about a year and half to see various things, one of them was that production of The Servant of Twa Maisters.”
The excitement of a new company opening in the Capital was palpable remembers Paterson, who will shortly been seen as Private Frazer in the movie remake of Dad’s Army.
“I was haunting the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow in those days and at the time there was no equivalent in Edinburgh. Suddenly, there was this big, major, funded company based at the Lyceum.
“My memory of that first production is of opulence; the lushness of it. It looked like they had thrown money at it, which they probably had as it was the first and, of course, it is a beautiful theatre. The auditorium is just terrific to play.”
Paterson has since appeared in that auditorium many times, although admits he was more at home as part of the long gone Young Lyceum Company, run by the late Kenny Ireland. Best known these days for playing Donald Stewart in the ITV comedy Benidorm, Ireland also spent a decade at the helm of the Royal Lyceum.
“One of my very rare Shakespearean attempts was at the Lyceum,” Paterson confides candidly.
“I was in Two Gentleman of Verona. I hope nobody saw that. But I also did Loot and even panto.
“We did Cinderella in the 70s; it was a luscious Victorian panto, all done in rhyming couplets.
“Actually, I have probably appeared at the Lyceum more often than on any other Scottish stage.”
Indeed, Paterson’s first performance outside of his native Glasgow was there, in a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Arturo Ui at the 1968 International Festival .
“Leonard Rossister made his name in that, it allowed him to win every award going that year,” he recalls. “I was one of the extras.”
It was at the Lyceum Studio, also known as the Little Lyceum, that Paterson felt most at home. The theatre, which opened in 1975, sat on the land now occupied by the Traverse, and was demolished in 1989.
“I loved the Young Lyceum Company because it was more free and easy,” he says. “I don’t have a big classical repertoire, unlike Brian who has played King Lear and Titus Andronicus and all the rest, so what I liked was that we had the freedom to adapt things.
“Kenny and I adapted a version of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a very famous film at the time starring Jane Fonda, and then we did a crazy piece called Cry Wolf, which, when I think about it now, was a proto-punk musical about the North Berwick witches pitched somewhere between The Rocky Horror Show and The Sex Pistols.”
It is Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic, however, that has brought Paterson back to the main stage.
On a bare country road, by a single tree, two down-and-out friends, Vladimir (Cox) and Estragon (Paterson), meet at dusk to await the arrival of the mysterious Mr Godot. As they wait, they pass the time laughing at who they are, arguing over what little they have and speculating on the meaning of life.
So was it a play he had on his tick list? “I don’t have any plays on my tick list,” he confesses, “but it was certainly on Brian’s.
“Brian always wanted to do it. I don’t think he realised what that meant. You have these ideas, but you’ve seen it once, maybe 20 years ago, then the reality hits when you pick up the script and it’s 93 pages of closely-typed text and you’re speaking almost every second line,” he laughs.
Consequently, the rehearsal process has been intense, starting before the actors even stepped into a rehearsal room.
“Brian and I had a holiday week in France and we just worked on the lines... lines, lines, lines. I’d actually been working on the lines with a dictaphone before meeting up and Brian had been learning his with a young actor in America, who stood in for me.
“When we first read together, he said ‘Oh my god. It’s a new Godot’. He was still hearing this other, younger, American voice... and then he gets me. So he had to make a huge jump, whereas I had learned mine by recording his lines with my little dictaphone thing.
He laughs, “I’m usually much better at the part I’m not playing.”
Which can be useful, as the pair found out during the opening preview of the show last week.
“It certainly came in handy, as indeed did his ability to play me,” reveals Paterson. “I thought we’d be in bits before it, but we weren’t. We were nervous. You can’t not be nervous.
“The problem that night was that we had a very good first half, technically. I don’t mean it was a work of art, we don’t know that. It’s up to others to tell us that. But technically we got through all the complicated stuff beautifully. But I think I took my eye off the ball at the interval, I thought, ‘Och, it’s fine...’
“Then we went back on and something went wrong within five minutes. We had to busk around for what seemed like a year but was only about 40 seconds. We got back into it, but that was a result of being rather casual, so you have to have nerves.”
There will be nerves aplenty for sure at the official opening tonight, so what words of comfort might the 20-year-old Paterson, who watched that first Lyceum production from the darkness of the auditorium all those years ago, say to him as he waits in the wings on such a historic occasion.
“What would he say?” laughs the actor. “He’d say, ‘Just think, if you’d stayed a quantity surveyor you could have been retired ten years ago.”
Waiting For Godot, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, until 10 October, 7.30pm (matinees 2pm), £13-£29.50, 0131-248 4848