How Holby’s Michael Thomson owes Edinburgh teacher

Michael Thomson. Pic:  Ian Georgeson
Michael Thomson. Pic: Ian Georgeson
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JONNY Maconie had a colourful time at Holby City.

The clinical nurse manager was a bit of a lad, enjoying an on/off relationship with registrar Jac Naylor, becoming a father, getting engaged to nurse Bonnie Wallis and spending time in prison - all crammed into three hectic years.

Leaving Jonny behind was a massive decision says Edinburgh-born actor Michael Thomson, who brought the character to life.

“It was a huge decision but it had been a long time coming,” insists the 36-year-old.

“I enjoyed every minute of it but decided I couldn’t do another year. I really needed other challenges.

“So it was strange because, although in some ways it was a huge decision, in others, it was the easiest decision in the world. It was time to do something different.

“The security a role like that brings is massively seductive, and for some people that’s all they want to do. That’s fine, but for me the whole thing about being an actor is exploring as many different characters as possible.”

It is certainly a very different role that brings Thomson to The Lyceum this week, as he makes his Scottish stage debut in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, adapted and directed by Laurie Sansom.

Based on Spark’s 1970 ‘metaphysical shocker,’ the thriller charts the story of Lise, a spinster working in an accountancy firm.

In its first adaptation for stage, Lise’s journey to an unnamed European city and the ever curious people she encounters, merge with the urgency of a police incident room on the hunt for a killer.

Thomson plays Richard, in a cast that also includes Bendiorm’s Madge, Sheila Reid.

“Without giving away too much, Richard is a slightly disturbed character who has been in and out of institutions.... he’s not altogether well,” says Thomson.

“It’s a great part to play, quite dark. That’s what attracted me to him; he couldn’t be more different from Jonny in Holby, and that’s what I wanted, someone as far from him as possible.”

One of Spark’s most disturbing books, The Driver’s Seat tells the story of one woman’s mission to leave her mark on a world that is becoming increasingly alien to her, and asks whether we are ever in control of our lives.

The author, whose best known work is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, described The Driver’s Seat as a ‘whydunnit’. An apt description, believes Thomson.

“The book actually ended up winning prizes but initially there was a lot of criticism of it,” he says. “She was accused of sketching characters very loosely but actually, what she did was genius.

“She doesn’t give you a great deal of insight into what her characters think and feel, she just tells you what they do. You as the reader are forced to ask why they are doing it. You have to build the characters in your mind.

“The play does that too, it asks more questions than it gives answers. I have never been involved in telling a story in the way that we are telling this one.”

The production brings Thomson home. The son of teachers, he grew up in Portobello, Livingston, then Morningside and Leith.

“We lived all over Edinburgh really,” he smiles, admitting he doesn’t get home often enough.

“It was very difficult because of work, but now I’m off Holby it’s easier to visit more regularly, although still not as much as I’d like, to be honest.”

It was here, while a pupil at James Gillespie’s that Thomson was “put on the right path” by a drama teacher who spotted his acting ability. Her name? Janie McGill.

“She was the one who said, ‘You can actually go and train if you want to do this’,” he recalls.

“She was incredibly important. She used the famous phrase to my parents, ‘He might work,’ which was just brilliant.

“Quite accurately under-whelming, she was saying that there was a small chance I might make it as a professional because it was such an unlikely thing to do.

“But she was absolutely fantastic. She ran a really exciting drama department, put on big productions, invested a lot of time in me and gave me a lot of confidence.

“She was a really great woman. I would love to know where she is now, just to say thanks for the encouragement.”

That inspirational teacher opened Thomson’s eyes to the possibilities that lay ahead.

“I always had a sense of wanting to be other people and would play with that idea... pretending” he reflects. “I guess I kind of knew I wanted to be an actor from when I did primary school shows because I actually stopped learning maths in primary.

“My teacher said, ‘I can’t teach him because he doesn’t want to know.’

“I’d say, ‘Nah, I’m going to be an actor, I’ll be absolutely fine.’

“Probably a bit of a mistake but I had a pretty strong sense that that was what I was going to do and was very lucky to have parents who were keen for me to do whatever made me happy.”

Studying first at the National Youth Theatre in London and then winning a place at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Thomson worked on stage before landing role of Maconie in Holby.

“Holby was incredible in that it gave me three years of intensive training on camera and it was lovely to earn some money and all that kind of stuff, but in terms of my career, I’m just a jobbing actor. That’s when I’m happiest.”

The Driver’s Seat, Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, until 27 June, 7.30pm (matinees 2pm), £10-£25, 0131-248 4848