Obituary: Iain McColl, actor

Iain McColl
Iain McColl
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Born: 27 January, 1954, in Stirling. Died: 4 July 2013, in Glasgow, aged 59.

Iain McColl left school with no qualifications, worked on the rigs offshore and started off in showbusiness as a roadie and a stripper, before going on to become one of the most familiar faces in Scottish television comedy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s he played Big Tam in the Glasgow sitcom City Lights, with Gerard Kelly and Andy Gray. And he was Rab’s none-too-bright drinking buddy Dodie in around 40 episodes of the BBC’s hugely successful comedy Rab C Nesbitt, with Gregor Fisher as the Govan anti-hero, in the 1990s.

On screen McColl could bring new depth and passion to the whole concept of glaikit. His heartfelt rendition of A Wee Cock Sparra, for Scottish Television’s Hogmanay special in 1990, invited and stood comparison with the great Duncan Macrae.

McColl was also a gifted mimic and his impression of Tommy Cooper was legendary. And he shared something of Cooper’s slightly different take on reality.

But it was not all funny ha-ha. He played a condemned man, awaiting the hangman’s noose, in Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York in 2002, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Lewis and various other Scottish actors.

And his brushes with the law were not confined to the screen. McColl struggled with drink and drug problems and had convictions for drink-driving and assault. He spent several months in jail in 2005 for repeated drink-driving.

While many screen stars seem to shrink in the flesh, McColl was the opposite – a larger-than-life character who left an indelible impression wherever he went.

His City Lights co-star Andy Gray described him as “slightly bonkers”, recalling how McColl once went to an audition, wearing a fez, and did his usual perfect impression of the late Tommy Cooper – despite the fact that the role had absolutely nothing to do with Tommy Cooper.

There was a time, while he was making Rab C Nesbitt, that he had no home and was living in his car – although it was a Rolls-Royce, a story that reflects both a certain degree of success and of disorganisation in his life.

His parents met while working on the Glasgow trams. Iain Patrick McColl was born in Stirling in 1954, but grew up largely in the Kinning Park district – pretty much home territory for Rab and Dodie.

His parents were keen theatre goers and took McColl to the theatre regularly as a boy. However, he had little thought of a career on stage or screen when he left school and he worked as a roustabout on rigs in the North Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Subsequently McColl worked as a roadie and he made his stage debut, more or less by accident, when a stripper failed to turn up for an engagement and he offered to take his place.

“I borrowed a suit and an umbrella and went down a bomb as Mr Executive,” he later recalled.

Encouraged by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds to think about acting as a career, McColl auditioned for and got into the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and proved to be an outstanding student.

He saw his future in comedy and perfected a number of impressions, employing a fez for Tommy Cooper and pulling a black stocking over his face to add a touch of authenticity to his Ray Charles.

He was lucky that the BBC’s Comedy Unit in Glasgow was just beginning to make its mark under producer Colin Gilbert, and McColl became part of the regular troupe.

He featured on City Lights, in which Gerard Kelly was a teller at the fictional Strathclyde Savings Bank and McColl was one of his friends. And he was a regular on the sketch show Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee, with Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions.

City Lights was one of the Comedy Unit’s big early hits. There were six series and a couple of theatre productions. McColl reprised his character on stage at the King’s Theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh and on tour. Rab C Nesbitt was an even bigger hit, with its colourful cast of characters acquiring a cult following throughout the UK.

The success of City Lights and Rab C Nesbitt provided McColl with regular employment throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, but he also took on a number of other projects, both on screen and in the theatre.

He was back at the King’s in Glasgow in the 1990-91 pantomime Babes in the Wood, with Gerard Kelly, Rikki Fulton and Una McLean. He appeared in several Borderline Theatre Company productions and in 1997-98 he was reunited with Rab C Nesbitt co-star Brian Pettifer in London’s West End, in John Byrne’s adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

On television McColl also had recurring roles on the Comedy Unit’s Atletico Partick and on the fondly remembered Hamish Macbeth, in which Robert Carlyle played the eponymous laid-back Scottish Highland policeman and McColl was “Neil the Bus”.

He also had one-off roles on various other television series, including The Tales of Para Handy, The Crow Road, The Book Group, Taggart and Still Game. In 2008 he revealed he had been diagnosed with cancer, but it looked as if treatment had been successful. Rab C Nesbitt was revived that same year, and McColl returned to the role of Dodie in several episodes in 2011.

He was also linked a few years ago with plans for a film about the Scottish boxing champion Benny Lynch. McColl was to have played Lynch’s trainer, but the film fell through.

McColl was divorced and is survived by three children Rhianan, Ciaran and Maurice.