Are you interested in antiquarian books?
Not especially. I like all sorts of books, old and new. I opened an antiquarian book fair a few years ago. I was invited because I was known to booksellers as a frequent browser and occasional buyer. At the time, I was on the look out for the works of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. I’m always buying books of some kind or another. I collect only in that I hang on to things that I really like. My ideal is to read three books a week. One hundred and fifty books a year. When you consider that the normal adult life span is, say, fifty-five years, that’s less than eight thousand books. It’s nothing. Just go into the library and see how many books there are.
From looking at your bookshelves you seem to have a great interest in social history.
Part of my upbringing was that I should have a knowledge of the history of the working class. I was born in 1925, the year before the General Strike. My family were strong socialists. Before the First World War, my grandparents sent my father and his brother to the Socialist Sunday School in the Gorbals, a Sunday School run by the great old Tom Anderson and others, which did not refer to God at all, but to man.
When I was a boy I lived with my grandparents, but I visited my parents every weekend. They lived in an appalling apartment in the Gorbals. My mother worked in an ice cream shop and my father was a coal man. Even when I was quite young, I would read the newspapers and political pamphlets that were in the house.
I remember the first political meeting I was ever taken to. We made the journey there on a coal cart with about thirty other people from West Maryston, now part of Easterhouse. We all sang songs and told jokes on the way, and then we listened to speeches. Jennie Lee, later wife of Aneurin Bevan, and Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists, were speaking on the same platform. It was tremendously exciting. The ideas were way above my head, but I was moved by the theatricality and emotion of the occasion, the sheer excitement that was generated in the people all around me, the arguments that went on on the way home, and the joy when Mosley was eventually turned down by the electorate.
What did you like reading when you were a boy?
My primary school had a ‘library’, which was the contents of a cupboard. When at the age of ten I read Jack London’s White Fang, the Story of a Dog, it broke on me that reading was one of the greatest gifts we have. Four years ago I found a first edition of White Fang. Sometimes it’s nice to have a first edition. I reread it, and it still struck me as brilliantly written.
Most of the school library was Scottish history of the ‘Robert the Bruce sitting in a cave watching a spider’ variety. The sort of history that tells you nothing about the basics of life, how life was actually lived. I was always mystified as to how Bruce survived while he stayed in this cave. What did he eat? Who brought food to him? Did he kill things? And how about all those people who died fighting for Kings, what did they do for the rest of the time? I realised that the kind of history I was looking for was about the real lives of ordinary people.
How did you get into acting?
My family lost its home through bombing in March 1941 and I was evacuated at the age of fifteen to stay with an uncle just outside Lennoxton. That was the end of school. I picked up a job labouring for the Forestry Commission for a few months, and when our house was put back in order in September of that year I was taken on as an apprentice carpenter in John Brown’s Shipyard on Clydebank, where I worked for the rest of the war.
One Sunday evening I went to a Communist Party Rally in support of the Soviet Union and the opening of a Second Front. The Empire Cinema in Clydebank was packed. Between the speeches there was entertainment. A baritone from Paisley sang Kipling’s Boots, Boots, Boots, and a group of young people presented a sketch called A Masque of Russia, a twenty minute version of the history of Russia, full of dancing and wonderful songs of the Soviet airmen. The entire audience was singing its lungs out.
I recognised some people on the stage as fellow workers in Brown’s shipyard. Afterwards I spoke to one of them whom I knew as an apprentice electrician and he said ‘C’mon, we’ll go for a cup of tea and I’ll tell you about it.’
We took a tram to Dalmuir to an old shop which had been converted into the headquarters of the YCL, where you could buy a cup of tea and a biscuit. People were sitting about talking, some were sitting in corners singing – and all the people who had been in the show were there. It was completely foreign to me, a bit like being backstage when I think of it now. I liked the atmosphere. They were nice folk. I was immediately asked by big Archie Duncan, a welder in the shipyard, ‘Have you got a big voice?’ Then, ‘Would you like to come through to the back room?’ I was asked to read a part from the show I had just seen, the part of the fascist. I read in my own totally unprimed style – shouting like hell in the back room of this wee shop. And he said ‘Oh that’s fine. You keep that script then. Could you learn the words and we’ll rehearse it next Saturday because we’re doing it next Saturday night at the Partick Borough Halls and the bloke who plays the fascist has been called up.’
I was in Show Business. I spent the rest of the week not working at all, just hiding from the gaffer and learning my words. On the Saturday night I appeared in a black shirt with the Nazi armband and was heavily booed for everything I said. I was now a member of the acting group of the YCL whether I liked it or not. And I loved it.
Shortly afterwards, Archie Duncan, who later became famous or infamous as Little John in the television series of Robin Hood introduced me to the Glasgow Unity Theatre. The actors in Unity believed in power to the people by telling them that they had power. Most people don’t believe yet that they have power. At first, I just did a bit of carpentry and scene building. Within three or four months I was spending at least six nights a week at Unity Theatre, reading plays, arguing, having a glass of beer, having great fun getting to know people like Roddy MacMillan, who was an apprentice for Rolls Royce. Finally I got a couple of wee parts, and then some bigger ones.
At the end of the war, ten of us gave up our jobs on a Friday night and then on a Monday morning became professional actors, and started Unity Theatre’s Professional Group. We had a lot of fun, a lot of success, we got to the West End and stayed there for six months with a play called The Gorbals Story. But Glasgow Unity Theatre had no real home, no theatre base – which of course will always be the death of any kind of idealist theatre. Unity broke up about 1949.
In 1951, I joined Perth Rep. and stayed with them for five years. That’s where I really learned my business. As well as forty two weeks of shows in Perth and Kirkcaldy, Perth Rep. did eight weeks touring a year. The tours took us to wee towns all over Scotland. From places like Duns, St Boswell’s in the Borders to Oban and Fort William in the Highlands. We went to the islands; Mull, Islay, Orkney and Shetland… no companies are touring these places now. The fact is that if the theatre doesn’t go to the people, the people are not going to come to the theatre. The Arts Council should subsidise small touring theatre groups. It gives far too large a share of the kitty to the bigger prestige companies. There is definitely space for more touring theatre in Scotland.
Tell me now about some of your one-man plays.
My first was Jack Rhonda’s Cocky, based on the life of Lord Cockburn. Wonderful stuff! We put it on for The Edinburgh International Festival in 1969 and it was a runaway success. In preparation for doing Cocky I read Lord Cockburn’s writings. Practically every word of the play was Cockburn’s. He was a great character.
Scott was another. Hardly anyone reads him now, and a lot of what he wrote was rubbish. Yet Scott can be so revealing about the nation. His Scottish characters are sometimes stunning. His diary is a great long tome, but it, in turn, is most revealing about Scott himself. He was quite a different man behind the public image of the great Sir Walter, romantic novelist.
Stevenson is also a tremendously powerful writer on occasions. Parts of his Edinburgh notebooks would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
You’ve had a very fruitful actor/playwright relationship with W. Gordon Smith for sixteen years now.
Yes. W. Gordon Smith came to the preview of Cocky and told me, ‘I’m going to write a one-man play for you as well.’ In 1971 he sent it to me, and I went out of my mind about it. It was called Jock. One critic described it as ‘not so much a solo play, more a one-man tattoo’. It was the history of Scotland from a slightly eccentric one person viewpoint from 1314 to 1972. In the blink of an eye it jumped from the battle of Bannockburn to the rattle of machine guns in Belfast. Audiences loved it. Like Cocky, it was a great hit. I was still doing it up till 1981. Since then Gordon Smith has written a new play for me almost every year, and I hope he continues to do so as long as I’m alive and kicking.
What has been the connection for you between theatre and books?
The connection between theatre and literature is vastly underrated. Almost every important play I’ve done has driven me into books. Before I did Jock, Gordon Smith introduced me to T.C. Smout’s History Of Scotland. A book nobody living in Scotland should be without. I would go so far as to say it should be compulsory reading for every child in school, it’s a first class education in itself, an introduction to literature, poetry and art. I read everything I could by and about John Knox, who was a sort of Ian Paisley of his time, for Gordon Smith’s Knox. Then, in terms of humanitarian views, Gorki has had quite an influence on me. As so often happens, I did one of his plays and went on to read some of his other work. He gives such an insight into the Russian Revolution, the greatest upset of the twentieth century.
A classic Greek play takes you back among the Greek writers. The Iliad is now one of my most favourite books, because it deals not only with the history of the siege of Troy, or the wars, it deals with real people. You don’t see them as Charlton Heston big-time heroes and heroines. You see them as domestic people, and through the author, understand the workings of their minds, their problems, their love life, their political life, their struggle for simple survival on the land.
The good play is a piece of literature itself. It’s wonderful just to sit down and read the best of Shakespeare for the sheer poetry of the language, the sheer descriptive quality. Shakespeare was possibly the greatest wordsmith of them all.
The theatre has led me to my appreciation of all the arts, and through the arts into an appreciation of what a wonderful creature is man.
Pictorial aspects of the theatre have always fascinated me, the simple colour and pageantry of it. That has taken me to painting. I’ve had to make up my mind what I like and don’t like. The works of Albrecht Durer and Modigliani are my greatest loves.
I can see why you‘d like the way Durer expresses layers and subtleties of personality in the quirk of a facial expression. That‘s your own trade. What about Modigliani?
No one could paint women like Modigliani! When I wake up in the morning I look at two Modigliani nudes. They’re only prints, but they are well worth looking at. Oh, the joy of being alive!
Copyright Jennie Renton 1986