Ahead of Scotland’s decision in September to either leave or remain part of the UK, there is one film sitting in the BBC’s archives that, had it been broadcast on the eve of the referendum, would surely have guaranteed the end of the union.
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was the 7:84 theatre company’s unique take on the historical exploitation of the Highlands that stretched from the clearances through to the early 1970s North Sea oil boom.
The destructive disregard by English absentee landlords of their native tenants, and the influence of cash and US culture when the oilmen arrived centuries later, were weaved into a production that took the form of a traditional ceilidh.
Three young actors stood out in the production. One was a young Alex Norton. His comical descriptions of his move from jobbing teen actor in early Scottish television productions, and his brief moment of bit-part camaraderie alongside a young David Bowie in the 1969 film “The Virgin Soldiers”, highlights the harsh reality for actors that says: first eat, pay the bills, and then we’ll talk sedition.
Norton is these days best known for his role as Glasgow detective Matt Burke in the TV drama Taggart. Norton is a natural raconteur – and in the times I’ve been in his company, laughter and self-deprecation are constant companions.
The big-time or even the small-time break offers actors hope. And Norton has a lovely knack of being able to be both a star-struck insider and the head-shaking Glasgow realist as he encounters the often less-than-glamorous side of working alongside mega-stars like Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson in Braveheart.
The Hollywood or US TV movie stuff, involving Jon Voight, or Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest seems to matter less to Norton than the friendships that stretch back to his days on the road with the 7:84 – and There’s Been a Life! could just as easily have been titled “There’s Was This Play”.
For would-be actors who want it all, now, this book is a crafted lesson in perseverance. The postscript is typical of a hard-school graduate. Norton was greeted in Glasgow by an irate local who shouted at him “Talk about an easy life! Fuck off back tae London.” As he says, “Resisting the temptation to plant my boot up your backside – can I thank you. Because I might never have got round to writing this autobiography.”
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