He’s pushing 40, but Tam Dean Burn is still the most exciting young actor to come out of radical Scottish theatre in years. Eddie Gibb hears
the hardline according to Tam.
am Dean Burn is secretly delighted after being turned down for a part in television drama Hamish Macbeth. The reason: he looked too young. Since drama school Burn has been cast as older men. including one memorable role as Elaine C. Smith‘s father. Perhaps it was the prematurely balding napper. with the remaining hair razored to a rasping stubble, but there was always something about Burn that made him look older than his years. Now at 37. this lean and gangling man is starting to look good for his age. He’s also ﬁnally being recognised as one of Scottish theatre’s most compelling actors.
‘The vast majority of the people I’ve met slnce I moved back have been through the clubs. They have an energy and a contldence that had been knocked out of working class youth.’
‘He is really gifted physically. with a great energy and excitement,’ says Kenny Ireland. the Royal Lyceum's artistic director. "One of the great things about Tam is that he doesn’t play off against the security of things he knows he can do — he steps out on the tightrope.’
Earlier this year Ireland cast Burn in his first lead at the Lyceum as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. It’s a bleak play that offers the audience few clues to the meaning, if indeed there is one. which makes engaging performances from the two tramps absolutely essential. Burn’s comic ability and his hang-dog air of vulnerability were perfectly suited to Beckett’s tragic clown. He has that rare ability to get laughs without slackening off the dramatic tension. It‘s easy to imagine Burn as a slapstick star in a jerky. black and white comedy. ‘But he’s a more important actor than just his humour.‘ adds Ireland. ‘He could play Hamlet.’
In fact Burn did play the Dane during a five- year stint on London’s fringe theatre circuit. One of the high points was working with Steven Berkoff, whose intense performance style — and possibly hairstyle — was an early inﬂuence on Burn. (Young Tam’s earliest inﬂuence was his enthusiastic drama teacher Ken Morley who taught at Craigmount High
12mm: 8-21 Sept 1995
School in the early 70s. before finding rather
more fame as supermarket supremo Holdsworth in Coronation Street.)
But it was politics. not the theatre. which propelled the Edinburgh-born actor towards the Big Smoke. ‘Moving to London was like a decision already taken for me.‘ he remembers.
Having been politicised by the miners’ strike of
1984/85 he had made contact with the Communist Party of Great Britain. but was troubled by their ambivalence towards the Soviet Union. After joining the party. he was drawn to a tiny Leninist cell which took a ‘by any means necessary’ stance.
‘This was an organisation that was standing clearly in defence ofthe Soviet Union and really militant.‘ says Burn. "The whole approach towards the miners’ strike was the need to organise violence to take on the violence we were being confronted with.’ However. organisation and a rigorous theoretical approach were considered to be more important than randomly lobbing bricks. At Fortress Wapping. Burn was to be found selling newspapers and generally priming the propaganda pump. not rolling ball-bearings under the hooves of police horses. He regards the ballot box —— Burn stood as a CPGB candidate for Glasgow Central in the 1992 general election — as a far more effective form of communication than rabble-rousing.
Talk to anyone who knows Tam Dean Burn and they’ll mention his politics. but in conversation he uses none of the standard ‘workers united’ cliches that are the official language ofthe revolutionary left. Although still a party member. Burn admits that since returning to Edinburgh last year his energies have been directed away from organised political resistance. He’s started fighting for the right to party. ‘The problem with revolutionary politics is that it’s such a narrow social circle.‘ he says. ‘The vast majority of the people I‘ve met since I moved back have been through the clubs. They have an energy and a confidence that had been knocked out of working class youth.’
Burn, who is married with an eight-year-old son. has discovered a second adolescence in Edinburgh’s fertile club/culture crossover which mirrors his involvement in the early punk
scene. He was a singer with the Dirty Reds, a band he formed with wee brother Russell Burn which. minus Tam. mutated into those spikey popsters. the Fire Engines. But though he decided to devote his seemingly boundless energies to his drama course at Queen Margaret College, Burn was still a regular face at Edinburgh gigs.
His first production on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1980 was a verse play about the class struggle featuring Fire Engines songs performed live. ‘Pushy politics and punk too — this was exactly what I wanted the theatre to be like,’ says Burn. ‘When I left college this gave me some vision of what I wanted to do rather than just wondering how I fitted into the theatre world.’
A short spell at Pitlochry theatre as an assistant stage manager earned Burn an Equity