I doubt I will ever be entirely certain, but it is possible that I may once have attracted the amorous attentions of the writer of a Golden Globe-winning, Gold-selling, chart-topping single. There is the distinct possibility that it was all completely innocent, of course, and that is the version of the story I hold to be true. The following is told without prejudice.
I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, a degree which allowed me to arrange work placements in my final year. Many of my peers elected to gain experience with companies in Scotland, most notably Scottish Opera and the Theatre Royal. In my very finite wisdom – in hindsight, making contacts in this country would have been sensible in the long run – I decided that I would set my sights further afield than the venue which was literally across the street, and began applying for internships in America. Somewhere between a dozen and twenty emails later, one organisation replied offering me a place. Lasting nine weeks over the summer, it would count as two of my five allocations, contributing to my learning while also providing me with my first trip outside Europe.
As I would be studying throughout the summer of 2005, the payoff was time off during the preceding term – time spent hoovering up every available shift in the pub where I was ordinarily employed at weekends only. I saved hard, since the gig provided accomodation and nothing else, and booked my flights. A couple of months later, I was in the USA. I quickly befriended the Assistant Technical Director, bonding on the first day while talking about music.
“I like metal, but I like it messed-up,” he said. “Like Mindless Self Indulgence.”
“You should check out Combichrist,” I said, referring to an act I had discovered and seen a month previously. I saw them for a second time in New York City, about a month after this conversation, and Graham was at the gig with me. He was the only one wearing trainers (sneakers) and I was the only one wearing a kilt. MSI and Combi later toured together, and eventually remixed singles for each other too. On the way out of the venue I stole an event poster off the wall, which I still have. In December 2013 I saw Combichrist play live for the twenty-eighth time.
I found Americans to be friendly, happy to engage with the “crazy Scotsman” in their midst. The girls loved my accent, and there was at one time a photograph showing me at an opening night party, surrounded by four or five women. They were seen to be hanging on my every word, and what was never clear from the picture is that the word they were hanging on was “squirrel.”
“Say it again!” they cried, delighted as I truncated the “u” and rolled the Rs. Being a wind-up merchant of some years standing, it did not take long before I aped their pronunciation. “Say ‘squirrel’!”
I worked on a number of shows as a stage carpenter, learning a lot about life and professionalism (as well as my trade) in the daytime, and out-drinking most of the crew and other interns in the evening. I have a lot of fond memories of that time, and maintain a handful of friendships with those I met. It was a place outside NYC where new plays could air to audiences without the pressure of critical scrutiny, a safe workshop environment where – while I was there – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright could test his latest script, starring someone who would later become a Muppets villain.
At some point, in all of this, I was introduced to the lovely Amanda McBroom. She was working on lyrics for a new musical adaptation of a film, having once penned a song – famously sung by Bette Midler – called The Rose.
We spoke a few times, on various occasions at company parties or in the production office, and she told me that she had visited Glasgow and eaten in Ashton Lane’s famous restaurant The Ubiquitous Chip. She was usually accompanied by her friend and stage manager, a pleasant Englishwoman who had served her time in the West End. Back then, I had vague notions of pursuing a career in that hallowed district – soon abandoned when I realised that I do not even like visiting London, and would find living there to be unbearable.
When the 7/7 bombings happened, I called home to check my wee cousin was okay – thankfully she was. The stage manager, having far more contacts in the vicinity than I, made frantic phonecall after frantic phonecall, visibly upset as she did so. I remember the callous – almost ridiculous – uttering of our production manager, a man with the unenviable knack of making you feel uncomfortable by merely speaking to you. He would look at you slightly longer than necessary, as if waiting or searching for a response, for some continuation of the conversation or expected answer which was not apparent. As this poor woman desperately tried to reach her friends and relations, his attempt at sympathy extended to a misguided “Now you know how we felt on 9/11.”
After a series of fun adventures I returned home, receiving an email shortly afterwards from the stage manager. Amanda was working on a new project based on Shakespeare’s female characters, and I was asked if I would record myself reading the Lady Macbeth lyrics. This would serve as a basis for her to practise and recite it in a broadly-authentic accent, taking into consideration that Macbeth was not Glaswegian and that US ears would need to comprehend the language.
Theatre being an industry that often thrives on favours, especially when you are a student of the craft, I thought nothing of it. I altered the perfect English of the writing to reflect the Scottish vernacular, changing the “didn’ts” to “didnaes” and so forth. As I recall, I read it aloud into a microphone and converted the digital recording into a file small enough to email across, including with it my version of the lyrics. I was careful to only reflect the local dialect, turning things like the “ofs” to “aes”, because however much of an ego you may think I have, it does not extend to redrafting the work of someone who only missed out on an Oscar nomination because her song predated the film that made it famous.
It was during this endeavour that the question was asked of me: “Why are you doing this?”
“I was asked to.”
“Aye, but – have you not got a lassie friend that could read it. Would that not make more sense, for her to learn from another female instead of a deep-voiced guy?”
I had given it no thought. Perhaps naively, I believed I was simply fulfilling a request that had been made of me, from someone who had been warm and friendly when I met her in a foreign land. The implication that she “maybe had a wee thing” for me had passed me by until that point. I genuinely do not know. Granted, I am tall, dark-haired, was then aged twenty-three, and had spent the summer wearing a kilt instead of shorts. However, I am not big-headed enough to presume that I did anything other than make an acquaintance.
Furthermore, dealing solely in facts, it remains the only time that a multi-award-winning songwriter – responsible for a world-famous hit – has asked me for any kind of collaborative input. I was happy to oblige.
I have been involved with the theatre for most of my life, at some level or other, and have worked backstage professionally or semi-professionally since I was legally old enough to do so. The difference between being amateur and being professional can be defined by attitude. To remove doubt, I have been fortunate to be able to sustain myself doing a job that I love.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”
Years ago, when I had not long started out, I found myself working in the major local venue with most of the amateur dramatic companies in the area. In fact, I was there so often that they eventually put me on their books as casual staff. When the building closed for refurbishment, I sought employment from most of the theatres in Glasgow. I had no joy, but took the time to submit an application to the (then) Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – and was accepted. Thus, I even did my degree in the subject that I loved.
Prior to starting my course, I purchased dozens of published plays to enhance my knowledge beyond the musicals with which I was more familiar. I had not had the chance to see or work on many dramatic works, although my Higher Drama had given me a longstanding love of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The drama department at my school was initiated, by coincidence, the same year that I began my secondary schooling. Due to the curriculum and qualifications I chose, I was one of the first few people to study the subject for all six of my years there – the obligatory first two years, then two years for my Standard Grade, an SVQ module (I think – it was a long time ago now), and my Higher.
What I quickly discovered, once I began my degree, was that no real knowledge of or passion for theatre was required. It was a course that was virtually impossible to fail, provided you turned up every day and did the bare minimum of work required. Whatever the dubious merits of the course, and they were often dubious, I spent the summer prior to my studies by immersing myself in the written works of Miller, Pinter, Orton, Ionesco, Stoppard, and others. It didn’t relate to my eventual coursework in any way, but it gave me pleasure and saw me build up a small library that I still refer to on occasion.
The theatre that I know, and grew to love, is not just populated with intelligent people, it also introduced me to some of the funniest people I have ever known, and some of the sickest and dirtiest conversations and jokes I have yet been party to. Just in case you thought this particular blog entry was going to be high-brow…
After the run of one show, when I was aged seventeen or eighteen, I was in the venue early on a Sunday morning to continue the “get-out” of the scenery and props. I was then the youngest person on the crew, working with several guys who had been doing this for at least as many years as I had lived. The cameraderie was second to none, and that crew in particular took me under their wing and showed me a lot. They taught me the ropes (the origin of that very expression) and taught me to drink.
We began the day with the customary raid of the deserted dressing rooms, seeking out the remnants of the final-performance tins of sweets that the cast always brought in. One of our number emerged onto the stage a short time later, unpeeling a banana.
“Where did you get that??” Someone asked.
“Dancers’ dressing room,” was the matter-of-fact reply.
“You don’t know where that’s been!”
“Yes I do,” he said, responding to the implied innuendo. He deliberately sniffed along the entire length of the banana, then looked up.
“And I know which one it was too.”
Filthy. Fucking funny. Fond memories.
I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which sounds far more prestigious than it ought to. It was a valuable experience as much for what it taught me about institutions and politics as for what I learned about the practical aspects of staging productions.
The building is located next to the Thistle Hotel, and an access road runs down the side of one and along the side of the other. Our side door, the main access point for small load-ins and deliveries, and providing access to the ever-present rubbish skip, opened onto the corner of this road. Across the street was the corner of the hotel, and an exit situated on the north corner at the east side of the building. Our door faced west, onto it. Here it is in Google Maps:
There was a buzz about the place one day in 2006, due to a big talk being hosted in the hotel. I happened to be on the street at the front of the RSAMD, passing across the end of the lane that runs off to the right in this picture. I glanced down the side of the building, as it was not uncommon to see people there who I knew. Sure enough, one of the guys from the year below me was patiently sitting on the low wall outside our door. I walked down the lane and joined him.
A handful of professional photographers were standing behind the barrier, seen on the left of this picture, and there were a few other curious bystanders milling around. The rumour was strong, my friend informed me, that something interesting was about to happen.
With no more pressing engagements, I sat there for maybe five minutes, chatting to my friend and idly waiting to see if anything out of the ordinary occurred. I didn’t have to wait long.
The hotel door suddenly opened and out came three or four men in smart black suits, closely followed by Bill Clinton and more guys in black suits.
Clinton stopped at the top of the platform, addressing the crowd from his position behind the black railing. There were maybe thirty people, if that, in his vicinity. I forget all that he said, as he imparted a few words of greeting and referred to the key topics of the luncheon at which he had just presided. He ended by saying, and I remember this vividly, “Give the power back to the people.”
There were cheers, and he raised his fist in some gesture of salute, or as a way of saying goodbye, before being promptly whisked into one of two big, black secret-service vehicles with heavily tinted windows. They both drove off without much delay.
But that, such as it was, is the time that I was part of a very small crowd in close proximity to, and spoken to by, a recent former president of the United States of America.
The recent fare hike (another one) is making cycling look like a viable alternative: ten all-day tickets would pay for a wee second-hand two-wheeler, although they have pre-empted this loss in custom by making the buses and bicycles use the same lanes of the road – if you’re on a bike within the vicinity of one of First Glasgow’s buses you’re taking your life in your hands.
Despite this increase in fares, and with no significant improvements after the last hike – their fleet is still filthy on the outside, smelly and rubbish-strewn on the inside, with ill-mannered and impatient drivers who succeed in hitting every pothole available to them as they create others – they have instead invested money in providing wi-fi on one route, for no feasible reason, and also despatched one of their staff to hand out bunches of roses to unsuspecting passengers in the week prior to Valentine’s Day. Hardly fucking relevant.
I am reminded, too, of a piece I wrote for my stand-up set: “First Glasgow’s timetable is the greatest work of fiction in existence – no matter how many times you read it, you still have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
Today, I boarded the 118 service into Glasgow city centre. I fired in my £1.80, and (without a word from the driver) was issued a ticket marked £1.85 – I don’t know how they are making people aware of the change in price, but it’s certainly not through the effective and centuries-old method of verbal communication. The ticket destination was printed as Renfield Street/Hope Street – two one-way streets in the centre of the city that sit parallel to each other, with traffic flowing in opposite directions – and there was nothing untoward about it. The only slight discrepancy, and it is one I feel is worth noting here, arose in Renfrew Street, outside the RSAMD (as it will forever be known to me – none of this Arsey Ess [RCS] rename shite). Specifically, the driver pulled into the stop and switched the engine off.
“Is this the last stop?” I asked, his communication being as ineffective as before. He had parked without saying a word.
So, there you have it – First Glasgow sold me a non-transferable ticket for a journey that was longer than the one their bus actually made. I don’t mind walking (I prefer it infinitely to paying to be on their dreadful buses), but I was running to a tight schedule and so it was something of an inconvenience. Maybe the fact I had to walk past the next three or four stops is why the driver didn’t pursue me for the extra five pence, although, as I understand their five-stop fare has risen to £1.15, this seems like a disproportionate and inadequate discount on my ticket price.
Given the appalling level of service, it’s a real shame that First have the monopoly on travel in this area via First Glasgow and First Scotrail, and you can read a dedicated Twitter feed about the latter’s repeated incompetence here. For those of us sick of the steep cost of being shoogled on their filthmachines, it’s making cycling alongside the buses seem a risk worth taking.
In the third part of my quest to validate my inconsequential existence with further anecdotes relating to minor brushes with “celebrity,” with some name-dropping required in order to give the exercise any kind of point, we move to the subject of comedy. The name is Billy Connolly, that’s it dropped, let’s move on.
I studied at and graduated from the RSAMD, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as it then was. It has now undergone a magnificently pretentious name-change, to become the RCS (or Arsey Ess) – the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It sounds like they should be cultivating plants.
In my third year, I trained almost exclusively in stage carpentry, and was entrusted by two friends to build them a loft bed. It was done in timber, mortised and tenoned and built to their specifications. Had it not been unceremoniously chopped up for firewood when – some years later – it wouldn’t fit in their third flat, it would have eventually outlasted their relationship. Although, given the longevity of wood, and the fact it was built to be sturdy, that’s only natural – look at the Tudor buildings that have survived centuries.
I built the bed in the Academy workshop, between my last allocation and the end of our final term, and it sat – admittedly inconveniently – there for a couple of weeks while I worked on it around some longstanding health issues. Just before it was finished, or right before it was dismantled for transportation, we graduated. As is usual these days, they conferred some honorary degrees in the same ceremony, and it so happened that the Big Yin was granted an Honorary Doctorate for his acting.
During the morning, he’d been given a tour of the building with his wife, and as they’d gone through the workshop he’d patted (or had to lay a hand on, as he squeezed past) my handiwork, and remarked “Nice bed.”
Once we had graduated in the afternoon ceremony – sixty or ninety of us – we left the hall. I managed to get close enough to congratulate Billy on his award. “Well done you,” he said, “You worked for yours. They just gave me this. Honestly, my wife’s raging – she studied for seven years to get her doctorate, and they just phone me up and give me them.”
He looked at me, as if expecting a reply, a continuation of our conversation, and I froze. Which annoys me to this day, because at the time I was living in a flat that looked directly onto the street on which he was born. I’d walked past him on an Edinburgh street once, the most famous Glaswegian of our time, only realising when I texted a friend saying that I’d seen someone who looked like him and she told me he was playing there that night. I am, or was, familiar with many of his routines and able to recite a good few of them. Yet, standing face to face, I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. After what was about half a second, but which felt like minutes, he was swept up in the surge of other graduates and families, eager to speak to our celebrated city son and get his autograph. I’d missed my chance – a flurry of signatures, and the high-heid-yins whisked him off, away to be pictured with the hoity-toity folk and away from us plebs.
The upshot of all this was, is, that Billy Connolly liked a bed I built, and then became the very first person to congratulate me on graduating.
Christ knows the degree is mostly worth fuck-all, but at least I got something out of it.
I studied at the RSAMD, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in the days before they changed their name. They are now the RCS, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a name firmly in keeping with the pretensions they exhibit, and which has variously earned them the nicknames The Conservatory or the Arsey Ess.
There has always been a tendency, working backstage in the theatre and related industries, for people to offer unpaid jobs in return for those empty promises of “experience” and “looks good on the CV” – neither of which pays bills. I think many of us do a couple of those jobs then decide we are worth more than that – skills, experience, and ability cost money. It looks good on your CV only if you want your CV to show that you do not particularly value yourself. The practice continues though, perhaps moreso now there’s a recession. Over on the Scottish theatre forum, there isn’t a week goes by without people looking for free labour, free hires, favours, and other underpaid or unpaid help. Unfortunately, with new students looking for steps up and newcomers looking for ways in, there are always willing volunteers.
This damages the industry as a whole, because – if there is someone willing to work for nothing – then it fills a gap that would otherwise result in paid work for somebody. It is bad enough being undercut, but when you are being undercut by someone happy to work for literally nothing it is extremely hard to compete. This has long been a bugbear of mine, and now – with the Government’s Workfare programme – the habit is spreading. Populating businesses with unpaid staff has a knock-on effect, depriving others of paid work. And if you can get a person who’ll work free, why would you take on someone that needs paid next time? Instead, you know you can find a new volunteer.
A few years ago, I got a mass email from my course leader, looking for people to work for the RSAMD and with a national company for “expenses and experience.” The list of recipients included students and alumni, some of whose names I recognised – since our course only took in thirty people a year – from five years above me. I wrote back, saying it was terrible that they of all people were perpetuating this practice, and degrading – none of us spent three years getting into thousands of pounds of debt to graduate with a vocational degree so that we could work for “experience.”
It later transpired that that co-production managed to go £100,000 (yes, a hundred thousand pounds) over budget. It was widely reported in the press at the time. I wrote to my course leader again, asking how demoralised you would be if you had agreed to work for those “expenses and experience” and then discovered they’d managed to overspend on everything else, except your wages, by £100k.
Her response was to write and say she had removed me from the mailing list. Point: missed.