The Scotsman Sessions #255: Bill Paterson

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, the actor Bill Paterson reflects on the life and work of his friend Ivor Cutler, the inimitable absurdist poet, performer and raconteur, who died in 2006

In a crowded field, Bill Paterson is one of the truly great Scottish actors of the last 50 years, a writer and performer whose career began in the Citizens’ Youth Theatre at the turn of the 1970s, and who today ranks as one of the most familiar and acclaimed faces – and voices – in British film and television. Born in Glasgow in 1946, Paterson was destined at first for a career as a quantity surveyor, before he rebelled and enrolled at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama; and soon after he graduated, while he was working at the Citizens’, he became closely involved with the brilliant generation of theatre-makers – including Billy Connolly, Alex Norton, John Bett, Kenny Ireland, John Byrne and John McGrath – who would soon go on to create the Great Northern Welly Boot Show of 1972, and to found the legendary radical touring company 7:84 Scotland.

Paterson shot to national fame in Scotland in 1973, when he created the unforgettable role of Glasgow wide-boy property developer McChuckemup, in 7:84’s unforgettable opening show, The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil. Then in 1977, he starred in John Byrne’s first play Writer’s Cramp as the improbable hero, Paisley poet Francis Seneca McDade; and after the play transferred to London, quickly developed a successful stage and screen career there, playing the Good Soldier Schewyk in a memorable 1982 production at the National Theatre, and winning roles in films ranging from Bill Forsyth’s Comfort And Joy to The Killing Fields and Truly Madly Deeply. He has appeared in countless television series and radio plays, and published a book of stories based on his Glasgow childhood, Tales From The Back Green; and in 2015, he made a triumphant return to the Scottish stage when he appeared with Brian Cox in the Lyceum Theatre Company’s superb 50th anniversary production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

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In this Scotsman Session, he reflects on the life and work of another Scotsman whom he met soon after he moved to London; the inimitable absurdist poet, performer and raconteur Ivor Cutler, who died in 2006. Performing Ivor Cutler’s work on the internet is a difficult business, given the copyright issues that surround his estate; but here, in a very special Scotsman Session, Paterson remembers his own relationship with the sage of Tufnell Park, the literary exchanges between them, and the way in which memories of a Glasgow childhood shaped each of them, despite the miles that separated them from their native city.

Bill Paterson
Bill Paterson

Today, Paterson still lives in north London, not far from Cutler’s old home, with his wife, the theatre designer Hildegard Bechtler; and in his mid-70s, is much in demand as an actor, and as the voice of television and film commentaries. Few of them, though, reflect the kind of quirky, absurdist sensibility that Ivor Cutler expressed so unforgettably; and that runs like a fine line of subtext through Paterson’s career, linking the absurdist energy of early John Byrne to that superb 2015 performance as Beckett’s old tramp Estragon, and perhaps lending all of Paterson's performances, even in the most conventional of roles, that rare, precise, and brilliant sense of perspective that is one of the secrets of his success.

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