Laird in the city

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ALASTAIR Mackenzie and I are sitting in a café which is just a sun-dried tomato's throw away from the heart of Islington in north London. But the Scottish actor is pining for a different capital city.

"I've just spent three months in Edinburgh, and it felt like coming home," sighs the 36-year-old, who lives - for work reasons as much as anything else - in London. "Edinburgh is such a civilised place. I'm so happy whenever I'm there. It's such a manageable city compared to London. Everything is just a walk away."

Hitting his rhetorical stride now, he carries on that, "nothing gives me greater pleasure than sitting on The Mound and looking out at Edinburgh and the hills beyond. That sense of grandeur always makes me feel very humble. In London, by contrast, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It's just an endless concrete jungle, and I'm resigned there to the fact that I'm an urban animal.

"In Edinburgh, you can see the countryside beyond the city - and that never fails to lift me," continues Mackenzie, a thoughtful, self-deprecating man far removed from the ostentatious, "look-at-me" histrionics characteristic of so many in his profession.

"Edinburgh has wonderful mountains, great restaurants and Harvey Nicks - what more could you want from a city? The quality of life is so high. Every time I go there, I say to myself, 'right, I'm moving to Edinburgh tomorrow'. But, unfortunately, I know that I'd be on a plane to London for work every other day."

All the same, the actor, best known as the smouldering laird Archie in BBC1's hit Sunday-night feel-good drama, Monarch of the Glen, got a very good fix of Edinburgh when he filmed his most recent drama there. Based on a short story by Ian Rankin, Reichenbach Falls, which goes out on BBC4 tonight, is a compelling detective drama that plays with different levels of reality.

Mackenzie, who is married to the Scottish actress Susan Vidler (Trainspotting, Macbeth on the Estate) and is the proud father of Martha and Freddie, takes not one, but two gripping roles in Reichenbach Falls. He plays both Jack Harvey, an arrogant and highly successful detective novelist, and his brutish alter ego, a scarily violent and outlandishly hirsute criminal known as The Monkey. Night and day, both these characters haunt the drama's central character, a deeply troubled and dipsomaniac detective, DI Jim Buchan (played by Alec Newman).

Reichenbach Falls is a disturbing and discombobulating piece, which draws on the rich literary heritage of the Scottish capital. Director John McKay has brought out the inherent duality of the city. Early on in the piece, Buchan surveys Edinburgh from the Olympian perspective of Calton Hill, swigs from a bottle in a paper bag, and gives it his best Philip Marlowe-esque hard-boiled voiceover: "There was the city the tourists came to look at, the Athens of the North, the world's first city of literature, the Festival, the Castle, the history - and then there was all the shite. Robert Louis Stevenson had it bang on. Any way you looked at it, this city had a split personality: core and periphery, rich and poor, day and night, Jekyll and Hyde."

Later, Jack Harvey - yes, the initial letters of his names are significant - is interviewed at St Bernard's Well (the title and setting of his latest novel) by Kirsty Wark for Newsnight Review. The writer asserts that "Jekyll and Hyde is the quintessential Scottish myth. It tells you everything you need to know about the Scottish psyche."

"The Scottish male psyche," Wark interjects.

"You've obviously not seen my wife at the Jenner's sale," Harvey replies, quick as a flash.

Sipping a cappuccino, Mackenzie reflects that it is this dual nature which makes Edinburgh such a fascinating place. There is much more to the city than meets the eye. "I re-read Stevenson's book when I was making Reichenbach Falls, and it's absolutely fascinating. It underlines that Edinburgh is a city of paradoxes. It's shortbread tins and the Greyfriars Bobby, and also Trainspotting and drug gangs.

"The lightness, the obvious gentility of the architecture and the sense of structure and order of the New Town is juxtaposed with the darkness, the chaos and the threatening narrow streets of the Old Town. That contrast is palpable, and Stevenson was very much aware of it. I recently went to visit Mary's King Close, which is a narrow old street built under the Royal Mile. It's very dark and provocative, sinister and scary. It's the sort of place where in your head all sorts of bad stuff happens. If you've got that underneath the heart of your city, it might get into your soul."

That ambiguity is reflected in Mackenzie's character in Reichenbach Falls. "Jack Harvey appears to be one thing and the Monkey appears to be another, but the two merge together in one person," muses the actor, who was born in Trinafour, Perth and Kinross. "That duality lies within everyone; we all have a light and a dark side. Jekyll and Hyde is a very potent myth because it's such a brilliant, universal summary of human nature."

Mackenzie has wanted to be an actor ever since, as a pupil at Glenalmond, he bunked off a school trip and made a film with two like-minded friends, director Kevin Macdonald (whose latest movie, The Last King of Scotland, has just won an Oscar) and fellow actor Phil Kay (who went on to become a stand-up comedian).

He began his professional career as a lowly stage-hand at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, before being given his first part in "an avant-garde French short film. It was a strange story about a young man on a Kerouac-style journey across France. Not many people saw it," Mackenzie recollects, before adding with a wry grin: "I've made a lot of things that not many people have seen!"

His breakthrough came in 1999 when he was cast as Dr "Shug" Nevin, a disturbed psychiatrist in C4's Psychos. The following year he landed the role of the brooding young landowner, Archie MacDonald, in BBC1's Monarch of the Glen, and has not looked back since. The show earned the actor something of a reputation as a heart-throb. He has been subsequently described as everything from "Scotland's answer to Tom Cruise" to "a character out of Friends".

After five highly successful series, Mackenzie bowed out gracefully of Monarch of the Glen in 2003. He felt the time was right for a change. "When people like what you do and relate to you, that's fantastic," observes the actor.

"But there's always this fear that they don't want to see you do anything else. I'm afraid there are probably some who think of me as Archie and always will. I'm sure I'm an awful disappointment to them. Well, tell them I'm very sorry."

Aware that, as an actor, you can spend an awful lot of time just waiting for the phone to ring, Mackenzie is also developing parallel careers as a writer and producer. He has already penned one well-regarded screenplay (The Last Great Wilderness) and is working on several more.

"As an actor, when you've finished your work, you're saying 'goodbye, do with it what you will,'" Mackenzie comments. "You're handing control over to someone else. Like a constantly re-played video, your work loses something with each generation. What I like about writing is that you're in complete control. You can shape the universe as you see. You have absolute purity of vision."

In addition, Mackenzie was producer on both Red Road, Andrea Arnold's much-praised award-winning movie about the surveillance society, and Hallam Foe, an adaptation of the Peter Jinks novel about a young Edinburgh man (played by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott fame) trying to come to terms with his mother's death. Like The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe is directed by Mackenzie's older brother, David, who has also helmed the critically-acclaimed Young Adam and Asylum. Hallam Foe picked up two awards when it premiered earlier this month at the Berlin International Film Festival, and Mackenzie has high hopes for the film when it goes on general release later this year.

"David's an extraordinary director," beams the actor, clearly bursting with fraternal pride. "He's got such an idiosyncratic voice, which is exactly what we need when so many films are formulaic these days."

In the meantime, Mackenzie is simply dreaming of his next trip north of the border. "Edinburgh is the most inspiring place," he beams. "It's had a far-reaching impact. Look at the all the people who were inspired by it: Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander Fleming, Adam Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson.

"But what I love most about the city is the sense that there is a life beyond it. I know that in Edinburgh I can get in a car and within half an hour I can be walking with heather around my ankles. Whereas here in London, I could get in a car and within half an hour I would still be in Islington!"

• Reichenbach Falls is on BBC4 at 9pm tonight.


EDINBURGH is bathed in a cosy light, and a soft rain, in Hallam Foe. This new film, directed by David Mackenzie (Alastair Mackenzie's brother) premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this month and is due for release later in the year, and, were it not for the decidedly risqu subject matter, would be a wonderful advertisement for Edinburgh's scenic skyline and Victorian gothic rooftops.

The feature, backed by Scottish Screen, picked up two awards in Berlin, the independent jury prize and a Silver Bear award for best music. Franz Ferdinand composed songs specially for the film.

Hallam Foe was shot on location in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Borders, and is produced by Sigma Films, the producers of critically acclaimed feature Red Road. The film is adapted from the Peter Jinks novel, and tells the story of Hallam, a young Borders boy who becomes convinced his mother was murdered by his darkly alluring stepmother. Played by Jamie Bell, of Billy Elliot fame, above, Hallam takes up living in a treehouse in order to spy on people.

Hallam comes to Edinburgh looking for a cityscape in which to lose himself. Finding a job in the basement service rooms of a busy Edinburgh hotel, by night he lives in the rooftops, armed with his binoculars.

David Mackenzie uses the Balmoral Hotel as the film's landmark - and also films across it, at the roofs and windows of the Old Town. While Hallam runs from the police after one brush with the city's seedy side, Edinburgh is usually seen in a welcoming light for this rural refugee. Mackenzie filmed key interior sequences at the Caledonian Hotel, after the Balmoral told him it was too busy to host a camera crew. Then, in a clever use of the magic of the movies, he used exterior shots to suggest the action was in the Balmoral all along.

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