Colin McCredie on playing Captain Hook: 'He's evil, but trying to be funny'

As he prepares to take the role of JM Barrie’s famous pirate in Peter Pan and Wendy at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Colin McCredie talks to Mark Fisher about his unusual approach to playing villains

It is not a question most of us ever have to worry about it, but for an actor it could make all the difference: on which hand should Captain Hook wear his hook?

For Colin McCredie, playing JM Barrie's pirate in Peter Pan and Wendy at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, it is a pressing dilemma as he steels himself for two days of fight training. The day after we talk, he and his fellow actors in Ben Occhipinti's nine-strong Pitlochry ensemble are brushing up their skills in sword fighting. For most of the show, McCredie is earthbound (flying lessons were last week) but he needs to make sure he has his best hand forward when it comes to combat.

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"If the hook was in the right hand, you'd be trying to sword fight with your left hand, which would be virtually impossible," he says. "Other than when I was at drama school, I've not done any sword fighting, so the next couple of days will be a learning curve."

Colin McCredie in rehearsals for Peter Pan and Wendy PIC: Fraser Band
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Of late, McCredie has been specialising in his own brand of baddie. In 2019 he played Ebenezer Scrooge in Occhipinti's production of A Christmas Carol in Pitlochry. As Covid restrictions eased, he moved outdoors to play Mr Toad in the same company's The Wind In The Willows. Rather than evil, these characters were misguided and a little bit cuddly. He was a younger-than-expected Scrooge with an almost jolly demeanour and, behind the exuberance, he was a Toad who was willing to renounce his ways. Like errant children, they were characters who might return to the straight and narrow.

He is taking the same approach to his Captain Hook. "Whether it's Scrooge or Toad, I don't go for the generic evil psycho," he says. "I find more fun in the character. I think Hook is like Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – evil but trying to be funny. Hook kills people, but it's slapstick. It's in Neverland, so is it real or is it kids playing?"

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Even he seems surprised to say he took a similar approach earlier this year when he was asked to play Ian Brady. On Channel 4's three-part Moors Murders: The Witness, he read a set of unpublished letters by the Glasgow-born serial killer. Bright and cheery in person, he was not the obvious casting for such a role, but that was exactly the point.

"I was like, 'Are you sure you want me to be Ian Brady?'" he laughs. "But the people who made the documentary said Ian Brady didn't think he was horrible; he was full of his own self-worth and didn't regard himself as the devil. He thought he was a clever, educated, cerebral kind of guy. They didn't want the voice to be scary."

That these parts have come his way is accident more than design, although the Perth-born actor is delighted to have built a relationship with Pitlochry Festival Theatre which, under artistic director Elizabeth Newman, has been strengthening its connections with the rest of Scotland. Certainly, it has become one of the busiest companies; in the past couple of months its productions of Shirley Valentine, Sister Radio (with Stellar Quines), Enough of Him (with the National Theatre of Scotland) and Little Women (with Watford Palace) have all been on the road.

"I grew up in Perth so Pitlochry was always a place I came for days out, but it was never on my horizon that you would ever work there," he says. "It never felt it was a thing that a lot of Scottish actors did. Elizabeth really has tried to shift back to having more Scottish-based actors in the show. It's fantastic what she's done."

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This version of the story of the boy who wouldn't grow up is by Janys Chambers, whose adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North And South was a highlight of the theatre's 2019 season. It is set in a timeless space that is neither the early 20th-century Kensington of the original nor the world of today. Rather, it exists, like Neverland itself, in a place of play and imagination. "The nursery is one enormous duvet you play in and play under," says McCredie.

This is not the first time the actor has starred in Barrie's classic. As a member of Perth Youth Theatre at the age of 13, he appeared as Michael alongside Rikki Fulton, Maureen Carr and Forbes Masson. He had also worked in the box office and backstage and had hoped his relationship with the theatre would continue when he went professional. But a change of artistic directors meant his history with the company counted for nothing. He auditioned and was distraught not to get the job.

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Six months later, he landed the part of DC Fraser in Taggart and, for the next 15 years, was part of the biggest TV franchise in Scotland. How does he feel about having had such a high-profile start to his career? "I always knew 15 years was a really good run and that probably after that, you would be typecast from being in the best-known show that came out of Scotland," says McCredie, soon to be seen in Andrew O'Hagan's Mayflies on BBC Scotland with Martin Compston, Tony Curran and Ashley Jensen. "I did a wee bit of theatre during that time, but in 20 years of being an actor, I'd done eight plays and other people had done 80. I still feel everyone else knows more than me."

Peter Pan and Wendy is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from 18 November until 23 December, www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com