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Sylvester McCoy - Plume


Sylvester McCoy is perched beside the Tron Theatre bar at the end of 
the day's rehearsals for J.C. Marshall's new play, Plume, in which he 
plays a man grieving for his son killed in a terrorist attack twenty 
years before. As McCoy sips on a gin, fellow cast member Finn Den 
Hertog is expounding on something which appears small from the outside, 
but once inside is infinitely more expansive.

“Now, where have I heard that before?” deadpans McCoy before picking up 
his gin and his walking stick en route to the theatre's boardroom, 
which for some reason has had it's full-length table  removed. The 
effect, while no TARDIS, makes its space too seem far larger than it 
actually is. McCoy's wry little in-joke may refer to how a certain 
generation of science-fiction geeks know him best for his 1980s stint 
as Dr Who, but as his role in Plume proves, there's been a working life 
since playing the iconic Timelord, and there was certainly one before  
it.

While he's just spent the best part of two years in New Zealand filming 
Peter Jackson's latest big-screen Tolkien adaptation, The Hobbit, 
McCoy's earliest screen appearance was on deaf children's educational 
show, Vision On, before graduating to Jigsaw and TISWAS. In the midst 
of all this, the artist formerly known as Percy James Patrick 
Kent-Smith was putting ferrets down his trousers alongside the likes of 
Bob Hoskins in anarchic 1970s fringe theatre troupe, The Ken Campbell 
Roadshow.

“Some people are maybe a bit surprised when they see me in something 
like this play,” he says. “In (TV sit-com) Still Game I played a rather 
sad character, who comes out after forty years of locking himself away 
in his tenement, sees the new Glasgow and decides he doesn't like it so 
goes back in and locks the door again. Then in Rab C Nesbitt I played 
Rab's lunatic brother who escapes from the asylum, and again that was 
quite a tragic character. Most of the other work I've done isn't like 
that. Not in England, anyway, where they don't seem to see me like 
that, but in Scotland it's different. I didn't get cast up here at all 
for a long time, and then I played a character on TV called Angus, and 
that's when people up here realised I was a Scot.”

At Edinburgh International Festival, McCoy actually played Scotland in 
John McGrath's late period spectacle, A Satire of the Four Estates. 
Also at EIF, he appeared in Jo Clifford's version of Calderon's Life is 
A Dream, and in The Hypochondriack at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. 
More recently, McCoy appeared in post Still Game's cornershop-set BBC 
Radio 4 Sanjeev Kohli vehicle, Fags, Mags and Bags. Plume is something 
else again.

“It's a beautifully written play,” McCoy says, “about loss and sadness, 
and the change in a human being because of that loss. The man I play is 
a retired teacher, who's widowed, and  his son being blown up in a 
plane affects and changes him from being a lovable, nice, kind caring 
human being into an angry person.”

Told in a series of flashbacks depicting the man's relationship wityh 
his son, while the act of terrorism that so dramatically changes 
McCoy's character clearly derives from the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, it 
remains very much in the background.

“Lockerbie is there,” says McCoy, “but it's not principal to the story. 
It's not a political play in that way, but there's the final straw that 
releases all this anger in him. One of the reasons for me wanting to do 
it was that I've got sons, and when I was reading it, I thought, well, 
how would I feel if that happened to me. I was touched.”

Audiences may well have presumed McCoy to be touched in another way 
during his early days, when he flitted between risking life and limb in 
Roadshow outings such as the self-explanatory An Evening With Sylveste 
McCoy The Human Bomb while becoming a kids TV regular.

“TV was very insular in those days, “ McCoy remembers, “and they didn't 
know much about theatre. But I was very lucky, because we'd become a 
bit of a cult by then, and Clive Doig, who did Vision On and created 
Jigsaw, had heard about this crazy guy exploding bombs in the Royal 
Court, and came to see me.”

Fortunately for McCoy, Vision On was a mime artist down, and he got the 
the gig. His double act with the late David Rappaport on the Janet 
Ellis-fronted Jigsaw as The O-Men tapped into the same sense of ad hoc 
anarchy that fuelled his work with Campbell, and it's easy in 
retrospect to see the influences of Buster Keaton, Max Wall, Stan 
Laurel and Alec Guinness, all of whom McCoy describes as his “gods.” 
Having a foot in such seemingly different camps also goes some way to 
explaining the peculiar post-1960s relationship between children's TV 
and the equally childlike first wave of British alternative theatre 
that was quietly subverting young minds while mum and dad were looking 
the other way.

“I loved that schizophrenic existence,” he says.

If things had worked out differently, McCoy could have been expounding 
another god after growing up an orphan, a factor he considers a crucial 
influence on how things turned out.

“Children who are brought up by their parents get their love by right, 
whereas if you're an orphan, you feel like you've got to earn it, so 
you try and be noticed more.”

McCoy trained as a priest, “for a dare, and I loved every minute of it. 
I decided I wanted to be a Dominican monk, and really got into it. 
Method acting at it's best. But I was a year too young, so was sent to 
a mixed school, and instead of wearing a skirt, I started chasing it.”

McCoy got a job in the City, where found himself drawn to swinging 
London's burgeoning scene based around the counter-culture's unofficial 
HQ, The Roundhouse.

“They needed a hippy who could count,” McCoy says, “so I ended up 
working in the box office.”

McCoy was recommended to Campbell by actor Brian Murphy, who he'd 
improvise little scenes with around the box office. McCoy would run 
into Murphy again at the Theatre Royal Stratford a few years later, 
when legendary director Joan Littlewood hired him for a production of 
Brendan Behan's The Hostage after picking him up busking outside the 
theatre.

“I didn't know there were rules,” McCoy says now. “I only knew our 
rules, which was to grab that audience and shake them up. I was coming 
 from a whole new energy and madness that was going on in fringe 
theatre, and at the time it freaked the others out. One of them even 
wrote to Equity to complain about me.”

He and Leonard Fenton later made up, and ended up playing Beckett 
together.

McCoy's turn as The Fool in King Lear captured both sides of the comic 
pathos he's so adept at. It's fitting too that Lear was played by Sir 
Ian McKellan, who played Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. This connection 
led to an invitation from Jackson on the New Zealand leg of the tour. 
Having narrowly missed out on Lord of the Rings, McCoy was succesful 
second time round, and after Plume returns to New Zealand to resume 
filming.

Beyond The Hobbit, McCoy expresses a desire to play Malvolio.

“He's funny,” McCoy says, “but he's only funny because people laugh at 
him and not with him. He's kind of tragic and tortured, and they're the 
parts I seem to do best.”

Plume, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 1-17
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, February 28th 2012

ends

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