IT'S AN odd experience, listening to Kenny Ireland pronounce about the state of Scottish theatre when half an hour before I was watching him, in skimpy trunks and straw hat on the Costa Blanca, advertising himself to the rest of his holiday hotel as a raving swinger.
After he quit as artistic director of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, Ireland went back to acting. "What I've done throughout my career is confound expectations," he says on a return visit to the city he left in 2003. Unless you know something about the man that I don't, he does that and then some with Benidorm.
The first thing to say about this new six-part ITV comedy is that it's funny. "ITV" and "comedy" has been a contradiction in terms for some years now, but the stuff the network has been trailing for 2007 - in both comedy and drama - suggests a newly discovered edge, a bit of daring. Maybe ITV is the new Channel 4, while the latter dies a thousand "reality" deaths.
Benidorm is Brits Abroad, a familiar scenario enlivened by excellent writing and the sort of comedy talent not normally found on the third channel: Johnny Vegas as a pub-quiz champ, one of The League Of Gentlemen who believes in prosecuting the "all-inclusive" rule with extreme prejudice, Nathan Barley in a stale marriage, Angela, the mousy one from Abigail's Party, Rita from Rita, Sue And Bob Too - and Ireland as Donald Stewart, a sharing kind of guy. "You won't find a more broadminded couple here," he brags.
Broad in the other sense, Ireland expressed the hope on his Lyceum departure after a 10-year stint that someone would give him a job as a "funny fat heavy". So where did he "find" Donald?
"Morningside," he says. "I reckoned that, played wrongly, he would turn out incredibly sleazy. So I made him this blazer-wearing Morningside gent, though you don't see him in his blazer very often."
Surely some of his Lyceum season ticket holders were Morningsiders? Did he ever meet Donald in the theatre bar? "Sadly not. And I didn't bump into him in Benidorm during filming. He actually started out ultra-Morningside. I had to tone him down as no one else was finding him quite as funny as me."
We've met up in the Traverse, round the corner from Ireland's old stamping ground. "I stood in Lothian Road today and looked at the Lyceum and realised that I don't miss running a building. Well, I don't miss the politics. I do miss the power."
Ireland, 61, was a big presence in Theatreland. He banged the drum for a national theatre for Scotland and sometimes wondered if anyone was listening. But even if others didn't agree with him, people took Ireland seriously - a safe policy. Never shy, he stayed on an extra month at the Lyceum - "just so's I could call myself its longest-serving artistic director ever".
There is no way, however, that he could have maintained a double life as Donald Stewart in those days - his credibility as a campaigner for the arts would have suffered. "I didn't act while I ran the Lyceum," he says. "I hate artistic directors who say: 'Right, next week it's Hamlet - who are the rest of you going to play?'
"Actually, I've just remembered, I was in a production of To Kill A Mockingbird, but I insisted on being auditioned."
One son of Paisley to another, Tom Conti warned the young Ireland that acting was "really difficult". "He lied," Ireland says. But rather than resent Conti for that, he decided the odd bit of rejection was a good thing. It sorts out the slackers from the stayers.
As an actor, he says he's best known as a gay icon. "Twenty-odd years ago I played Derek the handyman in Acorn Antiques. To this day, nice camp waiters quote my dialogue at me, and are slightly disappointed that I don't remember any of the lines."
After the Lyceum, he found his feet again with a Casualty here, a Heartbeat there. "Then I was Widow Twankey in a Republican panto in West Belfast. The Emperor of China was this bloke who used to share a cell with [IRA hunger strike casualty] Bobby Sands."
Benidorm promised Ireland the biggest and best role of his acting comeback, but when he auditioned he thought he'd blown his chances with his first utterance.
"I sat down in front of the production team and said, 'I suppose we don't mention Eldorado.' The director had never heard of it; he was too young. The producer was still explaining it to him 15 minutes later and I thought, 'Have I just talked myself out of a job?'"
For the uninitiated, Eldorado was a short-lived and unloved BBC soap about Brits in Spain. They were ex-pats, and included among their number another Scot best advised not to strip down to his Speedos (Campbell Morrison). Ireland, though, had no such reservations. Not with Johnny Vegas in the cast. "I must admit that when we arrived in Benidorm on the first day of filming I was apprehensive," he says. "It was wall-to-wall fish and chips and there didn't seem to be anything to do but drink. We had six weeks ahead of us.
"There were three phases to the shoot and the second one was when it dawned on us that all the real holidaymakers were having a fantastic time. I'd just had a fortnight on Paxos with the wife [Meg Poole, who is also Ireland's agent] and everyone was pretty glum because they'd spent a fortune getting there. In Benidorm they were all smiling.
"By the third phase I did start to get a bit jaded so I took off into the hills. My abiding memory? Oh, that was a favourite restaurant at sunset. Unfortunately, it's a karaoke bar at gone three in the morning and Vegas is stripped to the waist and belting out 'Wild Thing' before body-surfing into a hen party from Liverpool."
He reckons Benidorm, the show, succeeds because it doesn't patronise aficionados of Benidorm, the resort. There's talk of a second series and, if Donald Stewart isn't arrested or doesn't expire while pushing his "broad-mindedness" too far, then Ireland would be up for it.
In the meantime, he's busy with his next project - directing the winning musical in the Highland Quest, the competition part-funded by Sir Cameron Mackintosh. The Sundowe, written by brothers John, James and Gerry Keilty, will have its world premiere in Inverness this autumn. Ireland says: "It's about ghosts, vampires and the end of the world - it could be bigger than The Rocky Horror Show."
Think big. That's always been Ireland's philosophy, none more so when he campaigned for a national theatre. When it eventually hoved into view, he applied for the job of artistic director but lost out to Vicky Feathersone. The rest is history, rave reviews - and Black Watch.
Regrets? He says not. He was "jaded" when he went for the interview and, in hindsight, took the wrong tack. "I decided the only way I could do the job was if they wanted me. I went in there and basically said, 'Well, I might come if you ask me nicely.' You never get those jobs.
"I wish the National Theatre well. So far I've only managed to see Black Watch but that was bloody fantastic. I would be doing the job [of artistic director] differently, but probably I wouldn't be doing it as well."
• Benidorm starts on ITV1 on Thursday, 10pm