Interview: Sylvester McCoy, actor

Whisking off from Middle Earth to rematerialise in Merchant City is typical of Sylvester McCoy’s mercurial career, which has taken in the Tardis, Tiswas, opera … and virtuoso spoons . By Mark Fisher

When The Hobbit hits the big screen in December, it will be the most eagerly anticipated film of 2012. By that time, Tolkien fans will have waited nine years for an extra helping of Middle Earth mayhem from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. With an all-star cast and a reported budget of $150 million (about £94m) each, the two Hobbit movies – this year’s An Unexpected Journey and its sequel, There and Back Again – are very big business indeed.

Not big enough, however, to stand in the way of the Tron Theatre. When the 230-seat Glasgow venue squared up to Jackson recently, the director knew he’d met his match. The Tron wanted Sylvester McCoy to play the lead role in Plume, a new play by JC Marshall. That McCoy was supposed to be in New Zealand playing Radagast the Brown was not going to get in the theatre’s way.

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“I asked Peter Jackson if he could move my filming dates so I could come to Glasgow and do this,” says McCoy with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “My agent said, ‘I don’t think they’ll do that.’ But having worked with him – and he’s such a lovely, smashing guy – I had a feeling they might just do it. I loved this play so much when I read it, I thought, ‘Yes, I’ll move mountains.’ And I did.”

That the same man can so comfortably switch from blockbuster movie to fringe theatre says a lot about McCoy’s personality. His CV is full of high-profile roles, such as his stint as the Doctor in Doctor Who from 1987-89 and his performance as the Fool opposite Ian McKellen in an RSC production of King Lear. But the CV has so much more besides.

As well as his contributions to children’s TV shows such as Vision On and Tiswas, and to adult sitcoms such as Rab C Nesbitt and Still Game, the Dunoon-born actor has done everything from light opera in The Mikado to anarchic comedy with the Ken Campbell Roadshow. He’s been in a double act with Bob Hoskins and once worked with Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theatre Workshop. And given the slightest opportunity, this multifaceted entertainer will play the spoons for you.

“A producer at the BBC once looked at my CV and said, ‘You know, you’ve done everything in this business except ballet.’ From street theatre to circus to grand opera, from drop-your-trousers farces to Beckett, from musicals to dramas, Shakespeare, radio… I’ve played the spoons with the London Concert Orchestra at the Barbican Hall… I exploded a bomb on my chest and set light to my head in the Arctic Circle…”

Typecasting has never been his problem, something he puts down to his willingness to have a go. “I have the philosophy of yes,” he says. “If anybody asks me to do a job, I say, ‘Yes.’ I’ve said yes to everything.”

So to find him in the Tron Theatre, looking dapper in a pale waistcoat, is no more or less likely than finding him on the set of a major motion picture. At 68, he has the same spirit of adventure as he had when he left his job with an insurance company at the age of 24 and stumbled into the theatre. Above all, he is not pretentious or grand. “As far as I’m concerned, an audience is an audience,” he says. “Whether it’s an audience in Hull or the National Theatre, that’s who you play to. It’s not money – it’s good to get some, but that’s not why I do it. You do it because you have to, to tell a story.”

By the time McCoy joined Doctor Who, he was an established actor in his forties, with a dozen years on children’s TV behind him, and was old enough not to let fame go to his head. Even today, however, he appreciates the perks of Time Lord fandom – a good convention does wonders for his ego. “I quite enjoy fame, especially when you go to conventions in America where they treat you like a god with stretch limos and the whole fame thing, but then when you come back to Britain, you end up changing in a toilet in a theatre off West End and that’s really good, because that is what it’s about.”

Even on the starry set of The Hobbit, where he’s been working with Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Martin Freeman, Billy Connolly and Cate Blanchett, he is able to find kindred spirits. “As far as I’m concerned, Cate Blanchett is a goddess, but she’s really down to earth. She’s got all those Oscars, she’s made all those amazing films and she could spend her whole life doing that, but what does she also do? She gives birth to three boys and creates her own theatre in Sydney. Those are the people I admire immensely.”

In Plume, one of the shortlisted entries in the Tron’s Open Stage playwriting competition, McCoy plays a father trying to come to terms with the death of a son in a Lockerbie-style terrorist attack. As a father of two sons in their thirties, McCoy was struck by the playwright’s vision of a man dealing with terrible grief.

“I love my sons dearly and the thought of losing them would just destroy me. The play touched me and I felt I wanted to express that feeling of what it must be like. I can bring a fond fatherly thing to it.”

Our conversation wanders widely, from silent movie clowns to the Troubles in Belfast, from the benefits of a Catholic education to the prospect of circumnavigating the globe by land. Eventually, I leave McCoy to take his fellow cast members for a meal. The fun, I suspect, is just about to start.

Later in the evening, actor Finn den Hertog sends a message on Twitter: “In an Italian restaurant in the east end of Glasgow with a Time Lord/Tolkienian wizard playing the spoons on me.”

Plume is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tomorrow until 17 March; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in cinemas from 14 December.

Sylvester McCoy’s many faces

Stuntman: In the comedy act The Ken Campbell Roadshow, McCoy’s character put ferrets down his trousers and set his head on fire.

Rab C Nesbitt’s brother: In a 1996 episode called Father.

King Lear’s Fool: In the 2007 RSC production in which Ian McKellen played Lear – the two actors will be reunited in The Hobbit.

A priest: Almost. McCoy trained to be one before turning to comedy.