Denis Lawson has fought hard to avoid being tagged 3 ‘Scottish’ actor, and moved to London years ago. Returning recently to his native Glasgow to star as a respectable villain in The Justice Game for the BBC, he noticed a few changes. Back home, he discussed the role and the city with Stephanie Billen.
‘My own feeling was that he is quite capable ofbeing a complete shit — romantically, and professionally especially.‘ Actor Denis Lawson is talking with some relish about his new role as Dominic MacLeod Rossi in John Brown‘s four-part BBC thriller. TheJustiee Game. It's not so much the shittiness that pleases him, but the fact that Rossi is a different sort ofshit than usual. ‘I was attracted to the current aspect of the series‘. explains Lawson between sips ofcappuccino at one of North London‘s fancier cafes. ‘The character isn‘t what people would imagine a Glaswegian to be like. You know. the fact that he is successful and smart and widely travelled. . . Hopefuly it‘s changed now but certainly when I lived in Glasgow when I trained as an actor there — I left in the early Seventies — the stereotype view of a Glaswegian was somebody who fell out of a pub drunk at ten o‘clock and was fairly aggresssivc with it.‘
Rossi is a criminal lawyer with much the same sort ofimpatient determination as his namesake in the TV newspaper series. Lou Grant. He is intriguineg both a part of the ‘new Glasgow‘. a ruthless careerist with a wine-bar social life. and an outsider. the son ofan Italian cafe’ owner and Hebridean school-teacher with an outspokenness that is uniquely his own. ‘One ofthe interesting things about the character is that he doesn‘t fit in. I think one of the things he feels uneasy about is that he lives this rather upper-class lifestyle but his roots are. not working class really, but in the streets.‘
Geographically at least Rossi is placed by the camera in such Glasgow haunts as the Rogano, The Buttery. a boat on the Clyde called The Carrick — ‘we turned that into a restaurant‘ — and. as the Beeb warmed to its yuppie theme. a warehouse near the Clyde. ‘It was derelict and I was amazed what they did to it. They turned the top ﬂoor into a warehouse appartment like a New York loft, completely open plan and with stairs up to the roof garden on the top. It looked wonderful.‘ For Rossi, who graduated from Glasgow University but won a scholarship to Harvard
5 The List 24 March—6 April 1989
and learned his trade with a Wall Street legal practice. this was thought to be just the sort of habitat he would choose as his home. Ironically it is also a symptom of the sort ofcity development which The Justice Game portrays as sinister; the immediate villains maybe the usual TV thugs. thick-set and thick. but the satanic perpetrators are the men in suits who discuss the future of Glasgow from a Robomp-stylc boardroom in the heart ofthe Big Apple.
Fiction. but chilling fiction and fascinating to someone like Lawson to whom the city‘s renaissance is still something of a novelty. ‘I think people always liked the town. It has always been a very buzzy town. a very muscular city with a lot going for it. but over the last ten years— I haven‘t spent any time there properly — it has changed out of all recognition . . . Most ofit is very beautiful to look at now.‘ It will take a lot to erase some ofthe actor‘s earliest memories. Born in Glasgow. he left at the age of three for Crieff in Perthshire, but recalls his home vividly. ‘Govan as I remember it doesn‘t exist any more. It has been flattened and rebuilt. but it was equivalent to the Gorbals at that time. I can remember being out in the back court where we used to play behind the tenement block and that was like a mud-patch with brick walls and the midden at the bottom — the midden was a small brick but full of rubbish bins — and that was it. There was a hole in the wall and gangs of boys used to run through this hole. I can remember them trying to put spiders down the back of my sister‘s blouse. I remember having a tricycle out there. And a ball — I remember quite a lot really.‘
He describes his background as working-class Glasgow. ‘My grandfather was a loader in the steelworks. My other grandfather was a brilliant Hoover salesman — during the depression trying to sell Hoovers was extremely difficult. And my father came from a family where they literally had no shoes. On my mother‘s side of the family there were six ofthem brought up in the Depression — again, very tough indeed. They had to steal food to eat. Everybody was in the same boat in
Glasgow at that time. My parents really dragged themselves up from their roots. My mother couldn‘t stand where she was living in Glasgow and my maternal grandmother had a little place in Crieff so we moved there and that really changed our lives. Gradually my father built up his own business as a jeweller. By early middle age they‘d achieved quiet a reasonable lifestyle for themselves.‘
As his grandparents still lived in Glasgow. Lawson retained the connection and inspired by his head teacher. returned to train there as an actor. ‘l‘m very much a city person and I learned to love cities through Glasgow when I was small.‘ But he is disturbed by the continuing poverty. ‘I noticed it very much when I was doing research for the series. I went to the Sheriff courts which are right on the Clyde, a very opulent new building with marble inside. and the people who inhabit the interiors are these small groups ofvastly underprivileged people. They are the ones who get into trouble. though not always. It did strike me that they must find it very overwhelming. . . It is very similarto London because a lot of dockland people have been forced out. The people who live there are the people who can afford to live there and that‘s the end of the story.‘
Lawson himself moved down to London at the end of his first year as
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an actor. ‘I didn‘t want to be specifically thought of as a Scottish actor. It is really only in the last few years that I‘ve felt that the people in the business don‘t think of me in that way. There was a time when I wouldn‘t play Scots at all. I‘ve played a lot of Englishmen. Americans, Welshmen. I find people assume I can do whatever. They don‘t even ask if I can do an Irish accent. They just throw it at me. Actually I find it a great reliefto be able to go back to my own voice as I did with The
J ustice Game.‘
There are indications that he would like to be as ruthless as Rossi in real life. ‘It is a very difficult business and you have to beware of not being used by people. I don‘t mean that in an exploitative way. so much as artistically. You have to be careful that you get what you want out of each job, and not what somebody else expects you to give. Sol always try to be unexpected.‘ So far he has deliberately avoided any form of typecasting. His decision to make two series of The Justice Game is most unusual. and with plans to brush up on his tap-dancing. the fit
41 year-old says: ‘I love the idea of doing a musical after that . . . The year before last I did a new American comedy in the West End called Lend Mea Tenor where I had to sing grand opera. I did that for three months. Then I set up a production ofAshes at the Bush