Actor Alex Norton: From the Gorbals to Hollywood

Alex Norton (second from left) with the cast of Taggart. Picture: Contributed
Alex Norton (second from left) with the cast of Taggart. Picture: Contributed
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GOING from the Gorbals to Hollywood, Taggart star Alex Norton’s life has been a rollercoaster. Now he’s written his autobiography and says he’s reached nirvana – even if he almost killed Clint Eastwood along the way. He speaks to Janet Christie

‘Paradin’ aboot in make-up like a bloody oddity? A f***in’ jessie!” bellows Alex Norton, formerly Taggart’s DCI Burke. He is absolutely raging. His eyes blaze, his fingers stab and spittle flies as a stream of oaths explode from his mouth.

He is giving it full pelt for the photographer, who wants the actor to work his scary “Taggart/boy from the Gorbals” side. As well as elements of Matt Burke, Norton is channelling his father, a plumber in a “greasy biler suit and frayed bunnet” and how he reacted to the suggestion that Alex go to drama college. The violence crackles and booms, filling the room with a mesmerising energy that fixes your eyes on Norton and the whereabouts of his fists, while your mind calculates the number of steps to the door.

Then just as quickly as it erupted, the volcano of anger is over. “Are you happy with that?” he asks the photographer mildly, eyes softening along with the accent as he slips into a chair. Never mind a murder, there’s been a photoshoot, and the Scottish actor who played hard-man cop has given it 100 per cent.

“Ach, this bloody cold,” he says, sniffing, and suddenly he has an air of vulnerability, a man you could imagine pressing a Lemsip on without invoking a verbal rottweilering.

“My dad was from a generation that fought a war, a generation of Glasgow men like John Wayne, who had to do what they had to do. He’d lost his hearing loading shells into a howitzer and knew the best possible life for me was to be a tradesman rather than a labourer. He wanted me to have a trade so I’d never be out of work. My mother knew I had something going for me but my dad just never saw it. And I understand that he didn’t.

“He came round. Eventually. At his funeral his old pals said he was proud of me. I thought, Christ, was he? I wish he’d told me. He wasn’t an ogre. He was my hero, out in all weathers, doing a shitty job.”

Norton works his way through a burger and chips as we chat about his autobiography, the tale of a plumber’s son from the Gorbals who desperately wanted more from life than an apprenticeship. He describes with honesty and humour how he went from a single end and a church drama group to starring alongside the likes of Clint Eastwood, Dudley Moore, Orlando Bloom and John Hurt in Hollywood blockbusters. Along the way he’s been a stalwart of Scotland’s theatre scene, being a founder member of 7:84 theatre company and directing Tony Roper’s The Steamie. He also directed Glasgow King’s Theatre pantomimes for five years, during which time he turned down James McAvoy for a part.

“I was introduced to him not so long ago and he said, ‘We’ve met before, when I auditioned for the King’s panto’. I knew what was coming. I’d turned him down. I said, ‘I’m really sorry I have buggered up your career’.”

Then he breathed a new lease of life into the nation’s favourite TV ’tec. Does he have anything in common with DCI Matt Burke? “When you talk about acting you always sound like a tosser, but I have always looked inside myself when I’ve been trying to create a character. So doing Burke, I thought what would I be like if instead of being an actor I had been a working-class cop and worked my way up through the ranks. You don’t get into that position without being a professional bastard. You would have to be well hard. I didn’t want to come in with the ‘beneath this crusty exterior there’s a heart of gold thing’, no, beneath this crusty exterior there’s a heart of solid stone. If I was dealing with the kind of stuff Burke has to deal with on a daily basis, with the scum of humanity, what would I be like? I think I’d be Burke.”

Are we ever likely to see Taggart, which was axed in 2011 after 27 series, back on our screens? “Well, none of us has ever had a call saying it’s over. It was great doing it but I don’t waste a lot of time thinking about these things any more. I’m very happy by and large with the way my life is now. In January I’ll be a pensioner. 65. I’ve got a bus pass and a senior rail pass. I love it.”

Why does he think Taggart was so popular? “It was well made. The characters were good. It’s old-fashioned sleuthing and doesn’t waste time on all that soapy stuff. And they put Glasgow at the centre of the picture. And it looked great.”

Norton decided to write the book, There’s Been A Life!, with its Taggart reference title, the morning after his appearance on This Is Your Life in 2003, at the suggestion of his friend Jeremy Beadle.

“Sally, my wife, was very helpful. Very constructive. Although she did say to me, when I was trying to think of a title, ‘Why don’t you call it reasonably famous actresses I have shagged?’”

Looking back over your life to put it in a book is a salutary experience and Norton hasn’t pulled any punches. He’s funny, talented, but was also a bit of a bastard sometimes, wasn’t he?

“Yes, that’s right. Everybody is. And you have to tell the truth. I wanted it to be honest, truthful and entertaining. Otherwise what’s the point? My life has been a rollercoaster and the down and dark bits have been scary indeed, but the peaks have been amazing.

“I regret the fights and tribulations I had with my dad, but you can’t change things. That’s what happened and there’s always a part of me that would tell a shrink, if I ever did that, about wanting to save my mother, protect her from him, but I couldn’t. She was always a delicate flower my ma. Never in the best of health, wistful, a dreamer.”

Norton’s mother died from renal failure, a result of the side effects of self-dosing too many Askits, the pick-me-up ingredient phenacetin having destroyed her kidneys. Like thousands of women in the west of Scotland, she had a habit of taking too many, to help her fight the miseries, not just of colds and headaches. Hundreds of people died in Scotland, because the powders were made here under licence, and eventually phenacetin was taken out in 1966.

“They knew it was harmful long before they did that,” says Norton. “If this was America there would be a civil action. But she died when I was 15 and we just got on with it. My dad had to get on with it too, pay the rent and put food on the table and that’s why he’s my hero. I should have stayed to look after my wee brother, done my duty, but if I had, my dreams would have been shattered.”

Norton forged ahead chasing his dream in London, but was dogged by depression and a lack of confidence. Like his mother he went on to have his own struggle with drugs, in his case with heroin. Of his experiences he has said: “The drug is so evil and pernicious. You start to take it and it seems like a bit of fun. You feel great and all your anxieties disappear. But then you realise you want more. I went too far. And before I knew it I was sitting outside a drug dealer’s flat at midnight, waiting to buy smack.”

Norton realised he had to deal with the depression that was at the root of his problems. “I thought maybe this is something that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life so I’m going to find a natural way of handling it. I did guided meditation and hypnotherapy sessions, something called The Journey by Brandon Bays, and re-birthing. Re-birthing was an extraordinary experience. Without a doubt, I reached nirvana, whatever they call it. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the great one-ness, the great universal thing we are all part of, the whole shebang, the whole enchilada, is what I had read about in books on Buddhism. That we are all one and part of everything, everything is part of us and the universe is loving. I felt a complete and utter love that fills you and you lose your sense of ego. You become part of the great river of consciousness and … you can sound a terrible tit with this stuff.

“But it left me with a belief that the universe is a loving place and you can call it god, call it whatever you like, but it’s a pure love. That’s where we come from and that’s where we go back to. Oh, and I was saved by the love of a good woman too.

Women, or as Norton puts it “a fondness for the lassies”, have been a prime motivating factor in his choice of career. The lassies were a passion of his from the moment a wee girl stood on the back court washhouse sink to show him what was under her skirt in return for a shot on his three-wheeler bike.

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Norton wasn’t sure what he would discover, but recognised an opportunity not to be missed and he continued to sow his wild oats until he finally married Sally Kinghorn, a Scottish actress he met making a children’s TV show. The pair both voiced parts in Brave, Sally being a prolific voice-over actress. Before that there were fellow students and actresses, including the dangerously unhinged but beautiful Mimi in LA, TV presenter and singer Isla St Clair, Aurora, Alison, Wendy, Irene, the list goes on.

“I just wanted to be Jack the Lad. Then I realised the sense of being with Sally and we have been together ever since. The idea of domesticity didn’t hit me till about 40 when we started having kids. I thought, I’ve had a good run for the money. My wild oats were well sown. I was ready to be a father. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Now he says, with three boys of his own, Jock, Rory and Jamie, aged from 24 to 17, he’s turned into his father. “I say, you know boys, it’s all very well being a rock musician but you should have something to fall back on. God almighty! I didn’t have something to fall back on. I wanted to be a tightrope f***ing walker!”

At this stage in his life, looking back for the purposes of writing a book, are there things he regrets? “Yes, the fights with my dad, not saving my mum. Having that feeling of ‘I’ll show you’ to my dad is not necessarily a healthy thing, but it’s definitely a spur. My kids had a much softer upbringing than I ever had. We hugged them and loved them and all that stuff.”

He also wishes he’d fought back against the bullies who made his secondary school life so miserable that he considered suicide. However, as a young man Norton learned to stand up for himself, telling no less than alpha male Clint Eastwood where he could shove his Fistful of Dollars on the set of White Hunter, Black Heart. On location in Zimbabwe, Norton was driving a Landrover with Eastwood in the front seat next to him when the film star told him to drive straight on, keeping parallel with the camera.

“So I did, but there was a branch across the road. I went round it and he said, ‘Cut, I told you to go straight on’. I said, ‘Aye, I know, but there was a thing’… and he said, ‘You’ve got to go straight on’. So we started again and I saw something in the path again, but I thought if I go round it he’ll bowf at me again, so I drove us into a ditch.”

The result was Eastwood sprawled half-way out of the car, boots level with Norton’s head, scrabbling frantically at the door pillars to stop himself being thrown out and yelling: “What the f*** did you do that for? You coulda killed me – can’t you do anything as simple as drive a goddamn car?”

“I thought, well, I’m on the next plane home anyway, so I said, ‘What do you want me to f***ing do? You told me to go straight on!’ I could see he was taken aback. He probably wasn’t used to it.” After one of Clint’s narrowed-eyed squints, filming was resumed.

Hollywood shaped his world as much as the Gorbals, with his mother Sarah regularly taking him to the fleapit picture house in Pollokshaws. Her pal from the Viking thread mill also worked on the ticket counter and young Alex got in underage. The TV she nagged her husband for, a huge extravagance in the mid 1950s and paid for by his father’s trade in knock-off non-ferrous metals, also gave Norton another window on the world. “It was a big wide world I wanted to see. I wanted to go under water, I wanted to go on safari. I wanted to live all those lives.”

Convinced her son had talent, when he landed a part in Dr Finlay’s Casebook through a church drama group, his mother took on more cleaning to pay for acting classes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama youth group.

He played rebellious teenagers, leaving school at 15 to get away from the bullies, and landing a job as an electrician’s assistant at the Pavilion Theatre. There he caught the last days of Scotland’s variety scene as the curtain came down on a glorious parade of guys bashing themselves on the head with tin trays while singing Mule Train, tap-dancing accordionists, yodelling cobblers, “Red Indian” fire-eaters and comedic giants such as Lex McLean and Chic Murray.

One of the many skilfully told anecdotes in the book concerns Norton’s last meeting with Murray in Glasgow’s Central Station in 1985, a month before the old stager died. When Norton arrived to book tickets Murray was creating a commotion at the desk, asking in a belligerent tone why there was no observation car on the 3.15 to Lesmahagow from which to view the Campsies. Then when Norton approached him Murray brought the station to a staring standstill by loudly refusing to accompany him to the gents toilets. Murray had spotted Norton on the way in.

Norton landed a part in his first big picture, 1969’s The Virgin Soldiers. Set in steamy Malaysia during British colonial rule, it was filmed in November in Essex. Norton whiled away the meal breaks with impromptu guitar sessions with his new pal Davy Jones, who introduced him to the songs of Jacques Brel. After a barnstorming rendition of The Port Of Amsterdam one day Norton wondered why Davy was wasting his time with acting. Next time he saw him, Davy had changed his surname to Bowie and it was up in lights above the Hammersmith Odeon.

More theatre followed and back in Scotland in 1973 Norton became a founder member of the Scottish wing of political theatre company 7:84 and toured with The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. “That was probably the most creative part of my life. In 7:84 it all came together. The music, the acting, creating the scenes, shaping the show. Also, I have always been aware of just how patronised the working class have been in TV, film and theatre. It’s all, ‘Blimey guvna, ’alf a dollar, you’re a real toff and no mistake’, RADA cockneys, you know? And the working class spoke like I’d never heard anybody speak in my life, because it was written by upper middle class people thinking it doesn’t really matter. I wanted to represent working-class culture and make it real.”

As well as theatre, Norton has had his share of appearances in blockbusters, from Braveheart, Patriot Games and Local Hero to Gregory’s Girl and Pirates Of The Caribbean. During the making of Blame It On The Bell Boy, Dudley Moore described Norton as “the funniest actor I’ve ever worked with” and the Scot cites one of his life’s perfect moments as having been spent with Moore.

“We were in Venice, in a room in a 17th century palazzo and Dudley was playing Bach, The Well Tempered Clavier, on a grand piano. Outside the window was the Grand Canal and I was sitting in one corner, thinking this is unreal. This would never have happened to me if I was a plumber. There’s nothing wrang with being a plumber. I don’t want to come across as denigrating other people’s lifestyles, but it just wisnae for me.”

Norton also appeared in Scandal with John Hurt, an actor whose work he much admired. Over lunch one day Norton told him how brilliant he was in The Elephant Man. Flattered, Hurt smiled and thanked him, then Norton proceeded to ask him if he would be doing any of the follow ups. Follow ups? asked Hurt, perplexed. You know, says Norton, Return Of The Elephant Man, Bride Of The Elephant Man, Abbot And Costello Meet The Ele…. From then on Hurt blanked him. “Jesus Christ! I wish I hadnae said it. Could we just rewind and then we’d be pals again? Ach, f*** it,” he laughs anew at the memory. In the book he exhorts Hurt to take the advice of Anthony Hopkins: “Don’t take it so seriously. It’s only acting.”

Recent parts include roles in Scottish-based dramas including Waterloo Road and Shetland, plus revisiting his home city in I Belong To Glasgow this year. He also plays the role of Hendo, Brian Cox’s nemesis in BBC Scotland’s Bob Servant, and teams up again with Servant co-star Daniela Nardini in Two Doors Down, a Hogmanay party pilot that is now being made into a series.

“Brian Cox and I are two old Scottish theatrical farts when we get together. We say things like [adopts affected genteel Scots luvvie accent], ‘Darling, how ghastly for you’ and bang on and on about things. It was huge fun to do.”

The year after his mother died, 15-year-old Alex Norton wrote in his diary. “I want to lead the life I would lead if I had my life to live over again.”

Has he done that? “Oh yeah. And there are lots of things I would still like to do. Christ, it’s not over yet.” n

There’s Been A Life! by Alex Norton is published by Black and White Publishing at £15.99

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