BROND’S COUNTRY MATTERS
John Hannah stars in Brand. Channel Four‘s political thriller set in Scotland. Nigel Billen
talked to the rismg young star and to author Frederic Lindsay about the General Election timeliness of its Nationalist message ‘That James Dean Stuff is a lot of shite‘. says John Hannah of a comparison that is beginning to be made in a popular press who have the scent of a star in the making. Nevertheless. his television debut on Wednesday alongside the looming presence ofStratford Johns in Channel Four‘s new three—part political thriller Brand is winning this rebellious star many new fans.
‘I don‘t go along with any of this star business. It‘s an invention by the media to keep the real news out of the papers.’ Hannah told me between breaks in rehearsals for his latest stage role in the part created by Russell Hunter in the original production of The Garbals Stary (now revived by 7:84 Scotland and currently playing at the Citizens‘ Theatre as part of Mayfest).
‘When I was young any idols I had were in football. Turning to acting was a very abstract decision and I certainly hadn‘t any actors in mind who I thought I wanted to be like. Actors like Dean were good but it is daft to make comparisons. The whole profession has moved on and there are actors doing things now
that these film stars couldn‘t have begun to handle.‘
In Brand. based on Frederic Lindsay‘s best selling novel. Hannah plays a student who gets mixed up in a strange and violent world of topical political conspiracy complete with agents. double agents and sleepers set against a partly real and partly nightmare Glasgow.
Underlying it all is a powerful Scottish Nationalism which Hannah. who takes his politics very seriously. only half agrees with. ‘()fcourse Scotland does have a different culture but ifyou‘re striving fora socialist society you are never really going to be successful until the countries around you are also socialist. What you have got to do is not try to unite the country against the oppressors but unite the opressed against the oppressors. and there are oppressed all over Britain.‘
At 24 John Hannah also has a pretty clear idea ofwhat acting means to him — possibly because although he has only recently graduated from The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama he has already amassed a great deal of professional experience. Acting School didn‘t start well though. At the end of his first year his tutor took the athletic young man aside and
suggested that he really would be better suited to being a PE teacher.
‘I thought I was good. I really thought I was doing quite well. throwing myselfinto things. then she told me I wasn‘t an actor. Perhaps it was fair comment: I probably was rubbish then.‘ Hannah says. the memory ofthe experience obviously still a little upsetting. After thinking about it over the summer he decided to treat the advice as ‘a good kick up the pants‘ and give second year a go; ‘I was damned sure I wasn‘t goingto allow myself to be a failure at this and go back to being an electrician.’
Hannah‘s background is solidly working-class Glasgow where ‘everyone worked on the construction sites.‘ For four years Hannah learned the trade of an electrician but his growing frustration at the monotony ofthe job left him on the point of emigrating to California. Then the worker he was attached to as a ‘boy‘ apprentice who had already managed to calm Hannah‘s ‘impossible‘ young character suggested he should be an actor — ‘I had nothing to lose‘. To his surprise he was accepted by the Academy.
It was in his second year at college when he was allowed to play
‘goldfish or cats sleeping under tables‘. that his talent became obvious: ‘When you work on real plays you have a specific purpose in the play and you have to be creative within that purpose - that‘s what the actor‘s role is‘. The discipline of parts. combined with his rebellious streak. led him to sneak offto an audition in Newcastle where he landed the lead in Michael Wilcox‘s play Rents.
Brand ironically followed a move to London and his first spell of unemployment; ‘I preferred to do nothing rather than rubbish.‘ Typically the first meeting with Brand's young director Michael (.‘aton-Jones didn‘t go well. ‘We had this huge argument. I sat there thinking who the hell does he think he is‘.’ We just didn‘t get on.‘ Hannah was on the point of blowing his big break but his determination paid off. ‘I insisted he let me read from the script. As it turned out he asked me to read the lot — twice.‘
At the end ofthe mammoth session the relationship had clicked. ‘and that‘s so important in film work which isn‘t like the stage with three weeks‘ rehearsal time‘. The filming of Brand back in Glasgow was a happy experience and Hannah has an instinctive ease with the camera. ‘It goes back to my childhood. I never went to the theatre not even a panto. Stage was completely alien but film and television has always been second nature.‘ But he still managed to learn a lot about acting from seasoned professionals like Stratford Johns. ‘I‘d watch him and think how the hell did he do that and get away with it? A real education.‘
‘It sounds awfully selfish but I didn‘t leave the building sites to entertain people like a busker on the streets.‘ says Hannah. who claims he acts for ‘himself.‘ But if Hannah isn‘t seeking star status. he is hoping the success of Brond could do something for his native city and. like the BBC‘s Tutti Frutti. open up new ‘avenues of filmmaking in Glasgow‘.
The screen reputation that Glasgow is beginning to acquire was one that Brand author Frederic Lindsay was keen the adaptation should draw on. ‘Something like Taggart does a very useful job in keeping the image ofGlasgow as a city in front of television viewers— the great advantage of a city beginning to get a breakthrough level ofexposure is that it begins to to get a viewer identity and once that begins to happen people can use it in different ways— it becomes a setting you can quote from.‘
‘I wanted in Brand‘. says Lindsay. ‘a kind of hard-edged sunlit and luminous shadows realism. though it wouldn‘t be the realism of tomorrow‘s newspapers. Brand is a collage of things made into a political parable which is why it couldn‘t be the realism of the headlines.‘
With the announcement of the election the political element in Brand takes on a new significance. Lindsay and I joked about the possibility of the television authorities pulling the programme from the schedules at the last moment fearing that it was too
sensntive at this particular time. Though this is unlikely to happen — the average IBA mandarin will probably find Brand harder to ‘work out‘ than the average viewer who isn‘t going to find it easy — Lindsay was actually surprised and pleased at the clarity of the Scottish Nationalist message that emerges from the film adaptation.
The attitudes are complex. with Lindsay‘s despair at the inability of Scots to realise how they are allowing naiver and sentimentality to disguise their suffering almost equal to his championing of nationalism. In Brand the feelings are personified in the role Hannah plays. ‘He‘s a young man. a student who begins as simply naive and. slowly. through a series ofdisabling experiences. becomes wiser‘. and it‘s a process that Lindsay believes justifies the sexual metaphor that runs through the piece and at one point leads to the exposure of a semi-naked Stratford Johns to the masochistic pleasure of an electric cattle prod - an event witnessed by the student. ‘It‘s all the notion of the corruption of innocents.‘
How much empathy the rest of Britain is going to feel fora story with a message about the corruption ofScottish innocents by forces of exploitation at home and abroad. doesn‘t worry Lindsay. who found it particularly satisfying ‘to have a chance to do Brand for National television when I always had it in mind that it was a specifically Scottish subject.‘ In fact with the recent revelations about the plots by the intelligence services agains the Wilson Govemment. Brond‘s character has a very topical significance explained by Lindsay‘s own background idea ofwho Brond is.
‘I saw him as from some mid 19th-century European family in flight from some middle European persecution. Brond is the great grandson being brought up thoroughly as an Englishman — going to some public school imbuing ironically notions ofservice and Empire. Perhaps he kicked over the traces in Paris for a while — after Cambridge — and when he returns is recruited by British Intelligence. Whilst in an earlier era the great game was being played by a great imperial power. 'Ihen the kind of moral compromises spies make which could be glossed over with world issues at stake have become. because of the reduced scale. corrupt or at best ambivalent.‘
Brand will make interesting viewing over the next few weeks as Britain puzzles out who exactly Brond is and what he stands for and at the same time puzzles over who to vote for in the elecion. Brand is a world of double dealing and political intrigue and if Lindsay is right ("This country is I think in a sort of Watergate frame of mind with a muted cynisism about institutions‘) perhaps itself a necessary gloss for voters.
Brand cantinues an Wednesdays.
( ‘4. 10pm. The G arbals Stary is at Mayfest until 23 May then an taur raand Scat/and. See M ayfest Diary and Theatre page.