Interview: Bill Paterson sets sights on Waiting For Godot tour

Brian Cox and Bill Paterson in Waiting for Godot
Brian Cox and Bill Paterson in Waiting for Godot
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OUTLANDER star Bill Paterson will receive a lifetime achievement award at this weekend’s Scottish Baftas, but Brian Ferguson finds that the venerable Scottish actor is only focused on the future – in particular, the opportunity to reunite with Brian Cox on a Waiting For Godot tour

HE has been treading the boards for nearly half a century, but there is no sign of Bill Paterson slowing down at the age of 70.

In the last couple of years alone he has travelled all over Scotland to film American time-travel fantasy series Outlander, appeared in a new big-screen version of Dad’s Army, played Winston Churchill’s doctor and starred alongside Dame Judi Dench and Catherine Tate in a live TV broadcast of a play set and performed on the night of the general election.

But the main focus for Paterson at the moment is trying to get a tour of Waiting For Godot off the the ground after the “absolute joy” of working with Brian Cox on the Beckett classic recently.

Incredibly, the production - which was mounted to launch the 50th anniversary season of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh - was the first time the two veteran stage and screen stars had worked together. But if the pair get their way, it will not be the last.

Speaking to The Scotsman ahead of receiving a lifetime achievement award at this weekend’s Bafta Scotland awards in Glasgow, Paterson said Waiting For Godot had given him one of the best experiences of his career, which was launched when he appeared alongside Leonard Rossiter in a Brecht play at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in 1967.

Brian [Cox] is a very charismatic kind of man. He is a great sort of alpha male figure, but he is also very gentle

Bill Paterson

He said: “The characters in ‘Godot’ are very close. They are intertwined in every way.

“Brian is a very charismatic kind of man. He is a great sort of alpha male figure, but he is also very gentle. He is a great man to work with. We both shared everything from beginning to end, it was an absolute joy.

“We had only really passed in the night before, but had never done anything on stage. Until you rehearse for weeks and play every night for weeks that is when you really work with people.

“We had a wonderful time doing ‘Godot.’ It will have another life and we are already talking about the possibilities. There are options available to us.

“Brian is in America at the moment, but he is coming back next week so we will hopefully get together and have a proper chat about what to do. We both want to do Godot again, so we will find a way of doing it.”

The Comfort and Joy and Crow Road star admitted he and Cox - who turns 70 himself next year - had found working on Waiting For Godot exhausting, but said it was one of his most enjoyable roles since appearing in the original production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil in 1973.

He added: “Actors don’t feel like slowing down. You just keep going if you have your health, touch wood.

“Godot really took it out of Brian and I. It would have taken it out of us if we were 25. But the writing was so good that it kind of bouyed us up every night.

I just loved doing Godot. I don’t think I’ve had as good an experience on stage as Godot since way back.

“The Cheviot is obviously very central to my life. Both politically and theatrically, it had a huge influence on me and had a big impact on my standing as an actor. All of us benefited from the excitement of being in the Cheviot.”

Paterson took time out of rehearsals for Waiting For Godot to attend the opening night of a revival of John McGrath’s ground-breaking play at Dundee Rep.

Although he insisted the show was still hugely relevant to modern-day Scotland, he admitted he was uncomfortable at how it had been adopted by many Scottish nationalists since its initial staging.

He said: “It (the Dundee rep production) was very different from the way we did it and also it was obviously very different to sit and watch it and not be in it. But it was a great success.

“It’s very much still relevant today. I always wanted to do a documentary about what the Cheviot got right and got wrong, and what it didn’t touch.

“It got right the fact that land ownership is still a major issue - 40 years later it is still unresolved.

“What we didn’t anticipate was that the oil business would become so much part of the east coast of Scotland. The west coast has been much less affected by the oil business. One thing we didn’t touch on at all was fish farming. It was only literally just starting at the time.

“They did try to update the show a bit. We were very strongly anti-Nationalist in the tone of the Cheviot. It used cultural nationalism, it was steeped in it, but it was certainly not an SNP tract.

“Now when you read comments about it you would think we had written it from that point of view. It probably did feel like a bit like that in Dundee.

“If you saw our show in a Highland hall it was like a laser beam, whereas the show in Dundee was a kind of big, broad shiny light.”

Paterson, who played the lawyer Ned Gowans in the first series of Outlander, said he had been amazed at the scale of both the production, which is based in a converted warehouse beside the M80 motorway in Cumbernauld, but also its global fanbase.

He said: “Outlander has achieved exactly what the makers of the show wanted, which was not to disappoint the worldwide readership of the Outlander books. They seem to adore it, they are mad about.

“You would be amazed at how much of Highland Scotland can be filmed within 15 miles of the McDonald’s in Cumbernauld, it is quite remarkable. It has made fantastic use of the landscape and it is a great base for the studio.

“The budget was something like £4 million an episode, which is colossal, although they certainly weren’t giving it all to me!

“Everybody has been talking about a Scottish film studio, but quite honestly there is one there now in Cumbernauld. The producers have been showing other people around it when I’ve been there. I don’t know really why other people are not using it.

“The space is colossal. I am surprised we are still wondering about building a studio when there is virtually one sitting there waiting.”