THERE are comebacks and there’s what Alastair Mackenzie did on TV at about ten past nine last night. With his last big, long-running show ending all of eight years ago, it’s maybe no surprise that he was inspiring headlines like “The actor who vanished.”
But when the cult Scandi-drama Borgen returned to our screens, Mackenzie was the envy of many of his peers by being part of it. And for getting to snog Denmark’s Prime Minister? Well, he was the envy of men, full stop.
If there was a certain incongruity in seeing the leading man of such an old-fashioned show as Monarch Of The Glen pop up amid the subtitles, politics and sheer modernism of one of the many imports we now watch from across the North Sea, then consider this for an entrance: in his first scene, the Perthshire-born Mackenzie was discussing chemical waste and the particular finish on a tile being used in the construction of a new office building, while in his second he was gazing up at the stars with Birgitte Nyborg, post-coitally in hotel bathrobes.
“Well, that kind of sums up the whole experience,” he laughs. “One minute I was watching Borgen and wondering: ‘How come on Saturday night we’re fascinated by the workings of the Danish parliament all of a sudden?’ and the next I was in it. That doesn’t happen very often, that you almost wish yourself into a great show. And I have to say that first day on set I behaved more like a fan. I was like ‘Hi, Bent’ and ‘Look, there’s Katrine’. I was rather star-struck.”
It should be pointed out that not all of us are on first-name terms with the craggy Michael Foot-esque warhorse Bent and tough, unsmiling blonde newshound Katrine, who in the very first episode bonked a cabinet minister to death. Borgen is broadcast on BBC4 and the audience is small but, it would like to think, perfectly-formed: chattering class-types who used to frequent the local art-house before the kids came along, who read the opinion pages of newspapers and make their own sourdough bread and covet the cool, clean lines of the furnishings in uptown Copenhagen.
“I make my own sourdough!” says Mackenzie, 43 and still a handsome devil, who’s at home in London, where he lives with his actress-wife Susan Vidler and their children Martha, 13, and nine-year-old Freddie. “And I admit that on set I was obsessed with the interiors. I took so many photos of them on my camera-phone. I developed a fetish for Danish ironmongery. This was the last-ever series and at the end, as we were literally shooting our way out of the set, the cast were all very sad and making sure they left with souvenirs. I was devastated I didn’t get a doorknob.”
The main attraction of Borgen, though, is Nyborg, the hugely charismatic first woman PM of Denmark played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Thousands of words have been written about her stateswoman aura, her smile, her sex appeal – I’ve penned a few of them myself. Last year, an Edinburgh cinema screened the climax to the second series and the event became the hottest ticket in town when it emerged that Knudsen would be present. Real politicians at the Scottish Parliament requested an audience with her. My wife and her friends from the school-gates confessed afterwards to a crush on the glamorous actress in the red tartan trouser-suit. It was as if for that weekend we’d all become Danish.
“Do I fancy her?” asks Mackenzie. “Well, she’s an extremely appealing character. Is a powerful woman sexy? The obvious answer is yes. But I don’t find Birgitte’s power as appealing as her playfulness. The combination of the two is unexpected and extraordinary.” Interestingly, Mackenzie already knew Knudsen before they had to get romantically involved on screen. “We met a few years ago through my brother [David, the film director], so that helped.
Regarding bedroom scenes, actors just have to get on with them. In terms of what we do, a kiss is just like eating a mouthful of cheese. Did that come out right? I hope so. These scenes are an occupational hazard and some can definitely be more awkward than others.”
Most awkward for Mackenzie? This was Snuff-Movie, which marked his first post-Monarch appearance in 2005 and couldn’t have been more different. The low-budget exploitation flick featured crucifixions, beheadings, vampirism, torture, buckets of blood – and the most explicit simulated sex of his career. “First day on set, 9am, we’d just had breakfast and director announced he was going to get it out of the way early to calm everyone’s nerves. The script said of my character and that of the lead actress: ‘They make love on the couch’. Okay, I thought, and I asked the director for some instructions. ‘Go down on her,’ he said. The lady in question was his wife. ‘Er, you want me to go down on your wife?’ I said. ‘Ya, ya.’”
So where has Mackenzie been? Check his credits these past eight years and you’ll find a few more films, some of them pretty obscure, a bit of theatre and TV turns in the likes of Skins, Lewis and Poirot. Did he really vanish?
He sighs: “It’s frustrating when that sort of thing gets written because the connotations are all negative. I might have disappeared from eight o’clock on Sunday nights but you can’t always be in shows as high-profile as Monarch, and I for one wouldn’t want to be. I’ve tried to mix up the career, do different things, and at the same time make a living.
“Hopefully by the end the life’s work resembles an interesting patchwork quilt. Some of my films haven’t been distributed; that’s the movies for you. But I’m still making a living as an actor. In the past year I’ve worked in China, Bulgaria, Romania, South Africa, the States and Denmark. The map in my study has a lot of pins in it now.”
His globetrotting chimes with that of his Borgen character, Jeremy Welsh, an architect and international lover for a now-former PM who’s a bit bored of her own jokes on the lecture circuit and in need of some distraction beyond buying new stilettos in unusual shades of green. We first see Mackenzie and Knudsen together in Hong Kong. From Frankfurt via Skype, he tells her: “I’m coming to Helsinki.” This is followed by the text: “I’m in Copenhagen.”
In the third and final series, Nyborg makes a dramatic return to front-line politics, and for Welsh this looks like it will dent male pride just as it did to her husband Phillip earlier in the saga, when the latter was left frustrated on the sidelines.
Mackenzie loves that Borgen is a proper, grown-up, long-trousered drama about relationships. “The politics is always there but the show is terribly interested in men and women, marriages and kids, the work-life balance and whether one half of a couple – we’re mainly talking about the man – can supportively stand back while the other half flies.”
I first met Mackenzie at the start of the Noughties just as he was about to fly in Monarch. As Archie MacDonald, laird of the skint and slightly eccentric Highland estate of Glenbogle, he would go on to become TV’s Mr Kilted Sunday Night for a five-year term. Until then Vidler had been the better-known of the couple. Although her part in Trainspotting was small, she delivered by far the rudest line. And the Irvine Welsh drugs odyssey, at the outset, caused some problems for Mackenzie.
Prior to our meeting he’d been given a hard time by tabloid hacks who accused him of “jumping on the Trainspotting bandwagon”. He didn’t sound Scottish, they reckoned, and because he hadn’t lived north of the border for 11 years he couldn’t really call himself Scottish. A Navy officer’s son, Mackenzie was born in Trinafour, but grew up in England’s deep south, hence the polite accent which befuddled some. “Nobby Scots” was how he described himself, but he was dismayed at having his heritage questioned.
Mackenzie was also slightly uncomfortable with being dubbed “the new Tom Cruise” by Monarch’s excitable executive producer, Douglas Rae. And he was reluctant to name his old school until I forced it out of him. He laughs about these things today. “Douglas was a great hustler and salesman for that show,” he says. And of Glenalmond? “As a young actor starting out I was trying not to be judged, and a private schooling is one of the ways you are judged. People make assumptions; certain facts add colour. I was trying to remain colourless because in this profession you need to be a blank canvas.
“Also, I wasn’t very pleased with my schooling. In my day – hopefully this has changed – it was an overbearing militaristic academy which hardly encouraged your artistic side.” So Mackenzie and a few like-minded rebels bunked off manoeuvres and shot little films in the empty classrooms. From such unpromising beginnings, Andrew Macdonald became a producer, his brother Kevin a director and Phil Kay a comedian. Mackenzie chuckles again. “Maybe this was Glenalmond’s intention, in the manner of reverse psychology: suppress the arts and some will inevitably run screaming towards them.” The friendships have lasted, too, as Mackenzie and Andrew Macdonald, Trainspotting’s producer, were reminding each other the day before our chat.
The second time I interviewed Mackenzie, he’d just left Monarch and his fanbase of mature women were flocking to his Edinburgh Festival Fringe play and he was desperately trying to keep them away from Snuff-Movie, premiered at the same time. He told me that he and Vidler were trying to move back to Scotland so that their children wouldn’t suffer the same “identity crisis” as befell him.
“That didn’t quite happen, I’m afraid. I regret for myself not having the sense of definition I know I’d get from being in Scotland, the sense of clarity. And I regret that my kids don’t have it, even though I’m utterly responsible for that. If we shifted Martha to Scotland at the age she is now, she’d definitely have an identity crisis. And Freddie is starting to ask: ‘Dad, are we Scottish? If I became a top footballer, would I play for Scotland?’ My brother and sister, in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, have that clarity. They’re connected to the beautiful landscape and the heritage of our forefathers and I’m not.”
So far, neither of the children is showing an interest in following in their parents’ footsteps, although they’re definitely intrigued by all those pins in Mackenzie’s map. Both he and Vidler know full well that acting isn’t 100 per cent glamorous. “Most couples who work have a fairly structured existence. They know who’s doing the school run, the PTA and the weekly shop, but we don’t. I got two days’ notice I was going to South Africa and was there for six weeks. The bags have to be packed and by the door. We live in constant fear of getting a job. We want the jobs but family life is disrupted. Showbiz doesn’t care if your kids have got assembly on Friday morning and you want to be there.
“But I can’t complain too much. I get to visit fascinating places like Denmark and appear in fantastic shows like Borgen, a programme about politics which everyone thinks is boring but which is shown in 70 countries around the world. I fell for Danish culture right away. Denmark is both progressive and ancient. There’s enormous history but the country is also incredibly modern, showing the way in gender politics and environmental issues, and everyone cycles. On my first day in Copenhagen there was this gorgeous girl on a lovely bicycle, riding without hands because she could, and putting on her make-up. I just thought: ‘This is the place for me.’
“And acting is still the job for me. As you get older and hopefully better at it, you realise that the challenge of being an actor is the maintenance of your mental health.”
• Borgen continues on BBC4 on Saturday at 9pm