BRIAN Cox, son of Dundee, has got brilliant recall of the first time he represented the city on screen. “I was 20, a young actor with the Lyceum in Edinburgh, when I got asked to go back up the road to narrate a wee film about the opening of the Tay road bridge,” he says.
“I was speaking Dundonian, giving everyone the benefit of my expertise in the dialect: zalow the stairs… gupty yer ganny’s for yer tea. That’s ‘below’ and ‘go up to’ for the uninitiated. Only the bloody prompter stuck, causing me to repeat these strange words on live television. Not my finest hour.”
I say brilliant recall because I was there that day in 1966 – my father was the BBC Scotland producer – and I can’t remember his blooper. It’s possible I was more interested in the yards of cabling – this was my first location shoot, aged nine – although I’d like to think that Cox’s voice held my attention, just as it’s doing today. He tells good stories and, crucially, he’s wearing a cravat.
Cox would have many fine hours later – King Lear and Titus Andronicus on the stage; the original Hannibal Lecktor leading to a slew of Hollywood bad guys – but if there was a feeling the new bridge might enable Dundee to show a bit more of itself to the world, most particularly its sense of humour, then that didn’t happen. Until now. For here comes Bob Servant Independent, a bunneted chancer with much to say for himself, just like the man playing him.
“What’s projected as Scottish humour is usually Glasgow humour. There are the greats – Billy Connolly and Rikki Fulton – but Glasgow humour is typified by Rab C Nesbitt: oppression, the lower end of the social scale, battling the dreich.” So what’s Dundee humour? “It’s optimistic rather than pessimistic and it’s about light and fantasy. Dundee is one of the sunniest places in Britain. You can be out the house at eight in the morning and not come back till 11 at night, you can go to the Ferry [Broughty Ferry], Baxter Park and the Swanny Ponds, and a lot of the time you’ll just be sitting there in your fantasy. The humour is also about survival, being indomitable, and that’s certainly Bob.”
Servant was first “played” by Dundee author Neil Forsyth, who created the character to answer the begging emails from spammers that you and I fire straight to the bin. The results became a cult book then a radio comedy, voiced by Cox. Now, to bring Servant to the screen, for a six-part series about deluded political ambition, the actor has leaned on his late brother. “Small world,” he smiles. “A friend of Neil’s had been saying the real Bob was Charlie Cox, the Monifieth newsagent, before I got involved. It might have been a wee shop but Charlie was his own kind of tycoon, diversifying into rowies [rolls] for the factories. Like Bob, who talks of running away, getting a job in a hotel as a handyman and having a torrid affair with the manager’s wife, Charlie had the fantasy thing and with him it was the Wild West. When the VAT man was coming he’d say: ‘The Injuns are circling the wagon train.’ ”
Cox, now 66, has stopped off in Glasgow for this chat, en route from his home in Brooklyn to Bucharest where he’ll play J Edgar Hoover in a French-American co-production. That’s a typical sojourn for this always-in-demand actor. Recently he was in Mexico, feeling a bit underwhelmed. “I said to my agent: ‘This isn’t a very good film, you know. Let’s ask for three times more and see what happens.’ ” Cox got it, and the flick subsidised a poorly paid but artistically rewarding stint on the London stage which came next. “I’m an actor; I work,” he asserts. “As my old pal Fulton Mackay used to say: ‘Follow your mercenary calling and draw your wages.’ ”
Increasingly, the road and the miles are returning Cox to Tayside. “I left Britain in the mid-1990s when TV was going down the cundy – another good Dundee word – because I wanted a film career. But as I get older I find myself being drawn back to my roots and I’m loving it.” His campaign hustings for the rectorship of Dundee University had to be various movie locations in Canada. Via Skype he won, and he’s just been re-elected unopposed for a second term. He’s also absorbed by the independence campaign. “I want it for Scotland, not because I’m SNP, rather a democratic socialist. It’s about no longer being seen as second-class citizens and the sense of freedom we can trace all the way back to William Wallace.”
Dundee is also feeding into his work. He used parts of his family story for a Beeb documentary on addictions and there’s another upcoming called From The Workhouse where he reflects on the sad life of his maternal great-grandfather in Glasgow. “After the deaths of his wife and five of his eight children from pneumonia, he was admitted to the poorhouse, as it was called in Scotland, on about 20 separate occasions. He died in Gartcosh Asylum.” The move across to Dundee soon followed, but things were hardly any easier for Cox and his siblings and their childhood sounds positively Dickensian. When his mother gave birth to him, her womb almost came out with the baby, and following a rushed hysterectomy, she nearly died. His father, a greengrocer, died of cancer when he was eight.
“Everyone was worried about me, being the baby, but it was Charlie who was more traumatised and that’s why he joined the army. My three sisters were all starting their own families; meanwhile, my mum – mad Molly – was undergoing electric shock treatment. I became very self-reliant, maybe too much so, and probably that’s been the theme of my life. Recently I found a message I’d scribbled to my sister Irene on a Catholic funeral card: ‘I’m not going to be running any more errands for you – you don’t look after me probably.’ I meant properly.” Eldest sister Betty then took over the job.
“Betty’s 83 and, in the finest Dundee tradition, indomitable.” She came to a preview of Bob Servant Independent, and although for its star this was the kind of gig that might necessitate another well-bargained visit to Mexico, the show has sunshine and humour aplenty. Her verdict? “‘Well now yes no oh aye… good.’ High Scottish praise!”
Twitter: @aidansmith07 • Bob Servant Independent starts on BBC4 on Wednesday at 10pm