Daniela Nardini looks bemused. “Does it even happen anymore?” she wonders. “To be honest, I’ve no idea.” She’s talking about a grand Scottish tradition but the actress, because she no longer stays up until breakfast-time on New Year’s Day, lacks anecdotal evidence to support the claim we’re still undisputed world champs at first-footing.
Hogmanay may be a Scottish concept. The spontaneous, exploding house-party might have been a staple of the stand-up comedy routine from Billy Connolly (who joked about “Big Wullie said it’d be OK” guaranteeing access-all-areas) through to Kevin Bridges (the absent-parents bacchanal known as the “empty”). And at global travel fairs now we surely market ourselves as the place to ring out the old and bring in the new. But can you really still just turn up unannounced?
This is the question we’re asking each other in Glasgow today and it prompts from Nardini a reverie for all her lost Hogmanays. “There’s a moment when you’re young and you become aware that something exciting, something different from Christmas, is going to happen but unfortunately you’re still too wee,” she says. “Then comes the year you’re allowed to stay up until the bells. My brothers and I got to play Murder in the Dark and watch our parents get tipsy on prosecco – what a thrill! By 14 I was allowed half a glass myself. By 16 I was allowed to go out on the streets with my mates, a great moment in a Scottish teenager’s life. By 17 I was already perfecting the blush and butter-wouldn’t-melt smile to accompany the little lie about the time I’d gotten home.” Her record for finally calling it a night/year was 6am and this won’t be beaten anytime soon.
We seem more insular now, and a bit less trusting. We haven’t got the money, time or stamina for such wild hedonism. And if you’re Nardini’s age and status – she’s 45, married and a mum to six-year-old Claudia – you’ll probably conclude that Hogmanay is best left to the young and increasingly the tourists. But if you’re stopping in you might enjoy a comedy-drama from BBC Scotland about an excruciating house-party. In Two Doors Down, others endure a ghastly night so you don’t have to. And there’s a towering performance – to say nothing of towering hair – from our girl as the first-footer from hell.
Alex Norton and Arabella Weir play the hosts as a middle-class extended family musters to welcome a squaddie hero back from Afghanistan. The party doesn’t quite go to plan. The steak-pie dinner, long promised, never appears, which leaves too much time for picking at the nibbles and old sores within the clan dynamic. The neighbours, played by Doon Mackichan and Jonathan Watson, are appalling boasters. And then there’s Nardini’s character – “slutty, boozy Auntie Caroline,” is how she describes her.
We’ve met at Beeb Scotland HQ in Glasgow where Nardini lives, before her stint on the school run. She’s dressed all in black, her hair framing her strong, handsome features again after being piled high in a beehive for Two Doors Down. Playing Caroline, she says, was a joy, a hoot, a dream and you might call this a black bun comedy. “I think everyone in Scotland over the age of 25 will have witnessed something of the bad behaviour exhibited here and a few might even have an auntie like this one. I hesitate to say I do. Playing the part, I did think of a Hogmanay back in Largs where we were all first-footing and an aunt who shall remain nameless fell into every hedge because she was so drunk. But the similarity ends there. I mean, Arabella and Doon said to me: ‘She’s a drunken sex-pest, that one.’ And they’re right.
“Caroline is a total embarrassment to her sister, played by Arabella, and is probably quite despised by Alex’s character. She’s been staying with them all week but hasn’t lifted a finger to help. At the party the food never appears – that’s quite Scottish, isn’t it? Caroline gets more and more drunk and more and more outrageous. I was amused by the fact no one in Two Doors Down is really looking forward to the night; they’re doing it out of duty. I think that’s the attitude a lot of Scots have towards Hogmanay now – those my age anyhow. But Caroline is up for it; too much so.
“She makes out she’s sacrificing a glamorous life in London to be at the party. I asked the writer, Simon Carlyle, what he thought she did for a job – advertising, perhaps? He said: ‘No, more likely she works in a train station.’ With Caroline there’s a lot of front, and a lot of bravado masking unhappiness and loneliness. She’s mutton, basically, and dresses like a woman 20 years younger and pursues inappropriate men. The guy she fancies at the party is married, has his wife with him and she’s pregnant – but that doesn’t stop Caroline. It’s not every day an actress gets to behave quite so atrociously. I mean, there was that character I played years ago who had her moments but she was possibly more complex.”
“That character I played years ago.” Nardini in her apparent coyness is of course referring to Anna Forbes from This Life. There were a lot of trainee lawyers in that flat and they got through a lot of booze, drugs and sex – but Anna in her mock-ocelot coat and micro-mini, sparking up a Marlboro for breakfast after another night she’d rate as unforgettable if only she could remember any of it, was the one we really loved. Nardini – 28 when the show became a mid-1990s cult hit – loved her too and would point out that over the course of two series the character managed a modest three shags, that she only really loved one man and was therefore more conventional than any of the screaming tabloid headlines would have you believe. But it was no use: Anna was anointed the patron saint of ladettes, the epitome of women behaving badly, ie like men.
The role was both a blessing and a curse for the daughter of ice-cream tycoons. It made her famous and got her typecast. Just about every part offered her was a woman who was “sexually forward, sad, a bit f****d up” – Anna clones. She tried to choose the best of them – tough but brittle career girls, often in uniform - but got frustrated and bored by TV’s inability to see past or forget her stupendous breakout role.
And now? After a long and sometimes unhappy spell living in London, Nardini has set up home in Glasgow with her husband, civil servant-turned-chef Ivan Stein. She has a lovely personal life and a less hectic professional one, because of her location and Claudia. “Acting-wise, I’ve made sacrifices but they were the right ones, done willingly,” she says. So is Anna still wafting about like the last of the character’s fag smoke, colouring the parts Nardini gets offered? “Well, I’d like to say that I’ve laid her to rest. For a while I think the opinion of me among casting directors was: ‘Too old for totty, too young to be a mum.’ Just recently, though, I’ve been getting mum parts and I’ve even played a minister. But in offering me Auntie Caroline, Simon admitted he was a huge This Life fan and that maybe she and Anna shared a diva-ish quality. So she’s still around, it seems.”
Serves her right for playing the role so well, you could say, but Anna also got in the way of her relationships, either scaring men away or obsessing them to the extent Nardini wondered if her dates were living out some kind of strange fantasy. I’ve interviewed Nardini half a dozen times and on almost every occasion she’s had a funny story to tell concerning her love life, about being asked out by her plumber (and how shocked her actress friends were that she accepted), the policeman who’d come to spy on a neighbouring property and the nutter who freaked her out by reciting huge chunks of This Life dialogue. Inevitably some were disappointed she wasn’t really like Anna, “this sex thingy”.
The last time we met – in 2006 after signing up with Jack Davenport, Andrew Lincoln and the rest for the This Life reunion, a dismal affair she admits now to doing for the money – Nardini had just started seeing Stein and one of the latter’s friends was tremendously impressed. She revealed: “This pal was like: ‘My God, you’re going out with Anna from This Life! Is she just as amazing in bed?’” But crucially Stein was tremendously unimpressed with her fame. He respected her job but wasn’t in the least bit starstruck.
“This will sound unlikely but I don’t think we ever discussed Anna or This Life in those early days. Maybe that was significant. What made him different from the other men? Well, my husband is a very steady, balanced and modest guy who isn’t awed by what I do. Recently the cast of Two Doors Down had a night out at his restaurant. A group of actors together can be daunting because we’re all show-offs, basically, and when he came over to our table in his chef’s whites this crowd were all braying away. He just laughed and shook his head as if to say: ‘Weirdos!’”
The eaterie is The Gannet in Glasgow’s West End, opened by Stein and his business partner earlier this year and doing very well. “So well that I hardly ever see him,” Nardini laughs. “It’s really full on and they’re baking all their own bread. We have a Tempur mattress at home and I only know Ivan’s been in the bed by the slight indentation where his body was. He’s back out the door just as Claudia and I get up. This isn’t ideal but hopefully the success of the restaurant will mean they’ll be able to take on more staff because Claudia is missing her dad. With an actress-mum and a chef-father she’s probably got the worst combination of parents.
“Annoyingly, too, I’ve lost my personal chef. Ivan did all the cooking before because he’s so much better at it than me but I’ve had to get back in the kitchen. I don’t like being shown what to do. He used to always get on at me for not heating the pan enough or sauteing the onions the right way but now he’s given me a few tips which I’m grudgingly putting into practice.”
When she was pregnant with Claudia, Nardini said: “I hope I love motherhood.” Does she? “Oh yes, but it’s a lot harder than acting, let me tell you. The hardest periods are the school holidays because it’s not enough any more just to throw your kids into the garden to fight with each other, which is the way it was for me and my brothers.” Re-adjusting to home life after an acting gig takes her some time. “From a lovely intense experience with grown-ups I have to return to Kidworld and all these conversations about bad behaviour at school. Kids are obsessed with naughtiness. ‘You’ll never guess what happened, Mummy!’ The drama of it all ...
“The other day Claudia announced: “When I grow up I think I should be an actress like you, Mummy, and not a chef like Daddy.’ When I asked why she said: ‘Because you don’t really work, do you?’ It’s early days, of course, but she’s got this poise about her which suggests to me she’ll be a success at whatever she does. Would I want it to be acting? Probably not. This can be a frustrating profession with lots of disappointments. You can work yourself all the way up but you won’t stay there.” Shouldn’t you at least try? After all, hasn’t she always said about This Life: better to have been in it than not? “Yes, you’re right, and if Claudia wants to do it I’d encourage her. But I’ve got this terrible fear that if she’s good I’ll be consumed with jealousy.”
Now Nardini must go, back to her usual position at the school-gates where despite that epoch-defining performance in the micro-mini, none of the other parents has ever told her how fantastic she was as Anna. Surely that must be down to shyness on their part. “Well,” she says, “it was an awful long time ago.” But now she’s laughing because the hemline she sported for This Life is really not far off Auntie Caroline’s.
“I wouldn’t say there are too many similarities between these girls. I mean, it’s Auntie Caroline who thinks she’s sexy. It was interesting talking to Arabella and Doon about the parts women get offered in their forties. Comedy is full of very bright people, but it’s a male-dominated world. They said that for them drunken sex pests came round quite a lot. You have to be careful you don’t end up playing these unhappy, unhinged women too often.
“But at the same time they can be the most interesting characters and great fun, too. I also think it’s quite rare to see a 45-year-old woman being impersonated by a 45-year-old woman, rather than one of 35 which tends to be the norm, so that’s got to be a good thing. And, do you know, I think people might quite like to see me behaving so dreadfully again.”
• Two Doors Down is on BBC1 on Hogmanay at 9pm.