Sunday, 20 March 2011

Blythe Duff

Blythe Duff likes being in control. As indeed does the character played
by the veteran Taggart actor in Just Checking, the new one-woman play
Duff stars in at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre over the next two weeks. Which
is why, despite being about to grace prime time TV screens for yet
another stint after twenty years as Detective Sergeant Jackie Reid on
the day we speak, Duff has founded her own company to explore other
ventures on stage and screen she might not otherwise be cast in.

In Just Checking, for instance, Duff plays Izzy Grant, a go-getting
career woman on the fast track to success, with a dream job and a
dreamy boyfriend, but whose aversion to cats, the number nine and
diseases finds her ordered little world gradually falling apart.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder isn’t the obvious subject for a one-woman
comedy, but Duff’s collaboration with director Liz Carruthers, writer
Karen McLachlan and composer and member of The Blue Nile PJ Moore for
Duff’s newly constituted Datum Point Productions is all about a far
more creative form of self-determination.

“It’s about us having to be the driving force for it,” Duff explains,
“and we can’t sit back and wait for somebody else to tell me that this
is how it’s going to work. I’ve got to be the one who goes, this is
what I need, and this is how I need it to work. Which has been really
interesting for me to be part of the process from the beginning in that
way.”

The piece was initially developed from an idea by McLachlan over a
five-week period with all partiers providing input. As the script
developed, the construction of the show became more physically
inclined, so that McLachlan became the show’s movement director as well
as writer. The core of Just Checking remained the same, however; to
look at OCD in a serious way yet remain light enough to appeal. The
fact that it coincidentally arrives at the Tron during OCD Awareness
Week should help both causes.

“We initially thought there’d be plenty of scope for comedy and for
being quite madcap,” according to Duff, “but strangely the way the
piece has developed, because it deals with people who have rituals, and
whose rituals have to be done before they can move on, it’s turned into
quite a tragic story, really. Hopefully we’ve found a balance. We don’t
want to depress people, but neither do we want to make a joke of the
disease. We have to treat it with the respect it deserves, so the more
we find the humour, the more we find the sadness.”

Sadness is something that Duff has seen little of in a professional
career that may be dominated by Taggart, but which has more recently
seen her in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Andrew
O’Hagan’s novel, Be Near Me, alongside Ian McDiarmid. Also with the
NTS, Duff will shortly be embarking on a stateside trip with the
boxing-based co-production with Frantic Assembly first seen on the
Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Beautiful Burnout.

It is Taggart, however, that has been Duff’s bread and butter, to the
extent that she is now the longest serving member of the cast. Not that
you’d realise it from any of the phenomenally successful Glasgow cop
show’s archives, which continues to cast Duff as the perennial sidekick
to whichever sour-faced west-coaster is in charge.

While such second-string billing is something Duff is clearly aware of,
neither does she resent the work. This, alongside a shrewd awareness
that in the increasingly cut-throat world of TV drama that even Taggart
is going to have to end sometime, are the prime motivation behind Datum
Point and Just Checking.

“On my first day on Taggart someone said to me they’d heard it was the
last one,” Duff says. “That was twenty-one years ago, so I’ve always
been aware of it. Then it was about whether Mark (McManus) would be
well enough, and what would happen if he died. Then when he did die, it
was about what would happen next. Then in 2009 I did Be Near Me, and
fully expected to be filming Taggart after that. That changed, with STV
sitting there with ten already in the can, so my working year changed.

“At that point I had to be honest with myself, and I saw it as an
opportunity to find out what I wanted to do. I started to go to
workshops to find out what sort of performer I was, and to try and
shake off any preconceived ideas people might have about me. People
have maybe forgotten I do theatre, and I have become the woman off the
telly. When people have asked me do I think I’ve ever been typecast,
I‘ve always said that if I ever thought there was a problem with that
I’d go away and reinvent myself. I’m a very, very good supporting
actor, but now I need to be the female lead.”

Born and raised in East Kilbride, Duff discovered drama at school,
which led to performing in amateur dramatics in one-act play festivals.
This is where Duff maintains she learned her basic stagecraft. She
applied for drama school three years on the trot, during which time she
became part of a Youth Opportunities Programme supported community
theatre group. RSAMD continued to encourage her to get more experience,
until Duff decided she had enough, and was given her first professional
job at Scottish Youth Theatre’s young playwriting festival in 1983.

Duff worked at the Traverse, Cumbernauld and with Wildcat, as well as
spending a year acting with Scottish Opera on A Street Scene in a
co-production with English National Opera in 1989. A twist of fate saw
Jackie Reid’s first appearance on Taggart a year later indulging her
extra-curricular activities as a member of the Edinburgh Festival
Chorus, who were played by many of her colleagues from A Street Scene
in the Scottish Opera chorus. More recently, Duff toured New Zealand
with parent-based comedy, Mum’s The Word, and appeared in David
Harrower’s play, Good With People, at Oran Mor.

Music remains important to Duff. In 2010 she even went into a studio to
record the Dusty Springfield hit, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With
Myself. As with Just Checking and Datum Point, this wasn’t a bid for
stardom, but was more about stretching her abilities. Just Checking is
actually Datum Point’s second project. The first was a short film made
in 2010, Sarajevo. Written by Rob Fraser and filmed quickly in
Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow, as with Just Checking, it was
something Duff simply wanted to do.

“Whatever happens with all these things,” Duff maintains, “they’re all
about finding out what I can do and letting other people know that. I
realise that, doing Taggart, I’m in an incredibly privileged position,
and I have to take advantage of that and explore other things. But
Taggart changed my life. I’ve been allowed to practice my craft more
than a lot of people, and to be able to afford to tour something on two
bob and a balloon.”

Interestingly, throughout her career onstage and in TV, Duff has worked
exclusively with new writing. Beyond Just Checking, though, she
expresses a desire to do “something tried and tested,” the classics by
any other name.

“I need to flex those muscles,” Duff says, no longer the woman on the
telly. “I need to challenge myself and find something to do that’s
really hard.”

Just Checking, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 2-5 and February 8-12,
7.45pm
www.tron.co.uk
www.datumpoint.org

The Herald, February 1st 2011

ends

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