AS Elaine C Smith returns to the small screen in new BBC sitcom Two Doors Down, she reflects on the highs and lows of her career so far. She tells Janet Christie how being funny can be lonely, and that she keeps her feet on the ground thanks to politics and activism. Portrait by Robert Perry
Easy Street, Easy Street, that’s where we’re gonna be...” I’ve just asked Elaine C Smith for her favourite song from Annie, in which she’s currently starring, and her answer is to belt it out, in one of the function suites of Glasgow’s Corinthian Club where we are meeting. She stops singing and says, “Easy Street,” in case I didn’t get it.
Elaine C Smith is a performer. She can sing, act, do drama, comedy, dance, and I’m not talking about on the stage or the telly. That’s just in conversation. Smith laughs a lot, even when she’s being serious. Politics, feminism, acting, motherhood, the comic asides break in and laughter breaks out. Her words turn into a wheeze and her chest heaves as she struggles for breath, then her eyes scrunch up with a devilment that pushes her lashes up to her eyebrows and the laugh erupts from her mouth, big, ha, ha, ha-s, that throw her head back and shake her shiny conker brown hair. It’s infectious.
Possibly best known as Mary Doll, the Govan housewife and give-as-good-as-she-got partner to string vest philosopher rebel, Rab C Nesbitt, she’s done various acting and comedy roles from City Lights and Naked Video to dramas like Two Thousand Acres of Sky and 55 Degrees North. She’s done stand up, such as Elaine, that crossed over onto TV, and more recently an STV series Burdz Eye View, which followed her stand up show around Scotland’s holiday resorts, Stonehaven to St Andrews, North Berwick to Portpatrick. Theatre roles include The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Shirley Valentine, and playing Susan Boyle in I Dreamed A Dream. She was also in the film Women Talking Dirty, alongside Helena Bonham Carter.
Today she’s “completely knackered” after Annie’s Glasgow run and looking forward to eight weeks off, at home in Glasgow with husband Bob Morton who runs a production company, before donning the domineering Miss Hannigan’s curly wig again for the Aberdeen and Edinburgh dates.
“I haven’t stopped since last June,” she says. “I literally, Have. Not. Stopped! I was doing Peter Pan in Aberdeen – this is the seventh year – I love panto, but it’s knackering. Anyway, they asked me to do the Scottish leg of Annie so I went to see it in Birmingham with Craig Revel Horwood playing Miss Hannigan. I thought all that choreography was for him, that they’d take it out for me. Well, they didn’t! I can dance but I’m not a dancer, and this is the hardest choreography I’ve ever done in my life. One of them I have to do a...” She swishes past me in a blur of jersey layers as she belts off the banquette and onto the polished floor behind us.
“Yes siree, yes siree” she sings, “jump back, forward, back, back, back, one and two... Once I got the tap drag I was fine… And I’m singing Easy Street at the same time,” she says before gliding back to the table.
She’s got it off pat now but the tough routine and home crowd in Glasgow literally made her sick with nerves for the first time ever.
“The rest of them had been doing it for months, they’re happy, got a poker school going on in the next dressing room, but I was throwing up before we went on. It was Glasgow, the best production of Annie I’ve ever seen and I was terrified of letting them down. But now once I’ve got that routine over, I don’t feel so bad.”
But we’re not here to talk about Easy Street, there’s another location in the frame today: Latimer Crescent, the fictional setting for Two Doors Down, BBC Scotland’s sitcom for BBC 2, first aired as a Hogmanay special starring Alex Norton, Arabella Weir, Doon Mackichan, Jonathan Watson and Sharon Rooney.
Now a six-parter with an expanded cast, including Smith, Jamie Quinn (Bluestone 42) and Harki Bhambra (Dr Who) it’s Abigail’s Party with laughs, a comedy of manners that follows the ups and downs of a group of suburban neighbours in “somewhere like Bishopbriggs”. Smith plays Christine, an overbearing, demanding character who tells it like it is.
“She’s one of those women that say, ‘you know me, I don’t like to say anything,’ then gives you her opinion. She has the ability to say things that people have no come back for. And men are feart of her. Alex Norton’s character is having a wee rest from drinking and she says, ‘oh well, I suppose if it’s making you fat and making you spit when you talk, quite right.’
“She’s also never away from the doctors, has a neck collar, a stick, and her bladder’s away again. She’s looks hellish, makes Mary Doll look a beauty queen with lime green tops with a leopard or something, a grey cardy, velour-y trackie bottoms and lots of dry shampoo – a bit Rose West – apart from when she goes to a funeral when it’s a veil, diamanté earrings and red lipstick.”
“She’s been one of the most liberating characters for me to play, comedically,” says Smith, “because she’s not a feed. Mary Nesbitt was a great character to play, but invariably her comedy came out of the situations that Rab created; it was his story. So to play Christine who has no man… She’s just brilliant.”
“There was one day we had a scene in the back garden and it was Arabella, Doon and Sharon, all of us being funny, with a female director of photography and a female producer. I thought, am I in a parallel universe here?”
Ah, but were you being funny about the men who weren’t there?
“No, it passed the thingmy test.”
Yes, the thingmy test, [aka the Bechdel test where there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man], but never mind that now, we both know what we mean. Conversation with Smith leads to a lot of this inexactitude, rattling along at such a pace that names get lost in the mix. There’s a lot of ‘you know who I mean, yes her, that was in that thing with him, big hair, great voice, love her’ type of chat, which leads us neatly to Whitsherface, the Glasgow women’s comedy collective that Smith encouraged her daughter Hannah, also an actor, to join.
“Women actors get a lot of ‘ah, you’re that whits her face ootae that thing’ so they’ve called it that. It’s got about 22 women in it, Karen Dunbar, Maureen Carr, Kate Donnelly, lots of funny women, and it’s brilliant.”
While Smith is delighted Hannah has followed her into acting, she has cautioned that her own successful career is not the norm.
“I told her I’m one of the really lucky ones. I said ‘you’re going to have to write the parts you want because they’re not there. And it’s not because men are bad, they just want to tell their stories’. It’s getting better with writers like Sally Wainwright and Kay Mellor – I loved being in The Syndicate – but I would love to see more women coming out of Scotland.”
Playing Mary Nesbitt for years was something Smith always loved but it did have its downside in that it limited the opportunity to play other parts.
“You become an actor because you want to do lots of things and it was like a gold-lined straitjacket. For a long time I wouldn’t be considered for drama. It took London commissioning to be more adventurous and cast me in Two Thousand Acres of Sky, 55 degrees North, The Syndicate. Here, there was a complete snobbery about it. Also, if you do panto, you’re not proper theatre.”
As well as the elitist perceptions of the theatre world, the 57-year old actor also found herself contending with what she saw as a backlash against her success, fuelled by sexism.
“Earning money as a woman, that was a big thing. I was supposed to be earning ten grand a week at the time of Nesbitt, I wasn’t, and I realised there was a real turn against me. Nobody asked what Rikki Fulton was earning, or Gerard Kelly. But a woman earning that amount of money. Is she worth it? Has she earned it? Who does she think she is? They didn’t ask those questions of a man.”
It was another high-flying woman that counselled Smith on how to deal with the sometimes isolating effects of success. “My friend Helena Kennedy, House of Lords, barrister, three kids, all that, she said to me women who end up being successful gravitate together because they all realise how lonely it is.
“People say, oh she’s changed. They haven’t, it’s the people around them that change, their attitude. You have to have grace and not react.”
Smith has come in for plenty of criticism thanks to her shoot from the lip personality and willingness to speak out on politics and feminism. A member of both the YES Scotland Board for the two years running up to the referendum, and the Board of Common Weal (a left wing think tank looking at issues and direction for Scotland across all sectors post indyref) Smith is also a member of Women for Independence and has been on the Scottish government’s Broadcasting Commission.
Her politics didn’t come from her parents, and political discussions weren’t a big thing at home in the mining village of Newarthill, Motherwell. Theatre wasn’t big either, apart from a trip to the King’s in Glasgow with the Guides to see the Alexander Brothers, but she went on to study drama at RSAMD in 1975 and that’s when she had her political awakening.
“It was the time of the Callaghan Labour government cuts, and we occupied the college. I was on all the marches and then went to do a postgrad in Edinburgh at Moray House and got involved in the EIS, Women’s Fightback and feminist politics.”
It was while she was teaching drama at Firhill High School in Edinburgh that she took her class to see Annie, with Sheila Hancock playing Miss Hannigan.
“I loved it, but never in a million years did I think I’d be playing her. Never thought I’d find myself on stage wearing that wig,” she says.
But things were to change shortly after when John McGrath offered the young teacher a job with 7:84 Theatre Company and work with them and Wildcat led to the Comedy Unit, Naked Radio, Naked Video and Rab C Nesbitt.
Her involvement in politics never abated and Smith continues to live and breathe them, even to the extent of applying a political interpretation to Miss Hannigan in Annie. She plays the orphanage manager as a victim of circumstances, the result of a hard knocks life herself, rather than just plain bad.
“It’s set during the Great Depression and there were Hooverville shanty towns, 15 million unemployed and people couldn’t afford to look after their kids so they put them in orphanages,” she says. “I play Miss Hannigan as misunderstood. I believe she was an abandoned kid herself. And there’s a line where she says ‘I hate that Annie so much you’d think I was her mother’, which makes me wonder. She’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow, then gets caught up. And you think, well, she didnae really mean it, she got caught up in something stupid.”
Smith may take a political view of life and was happy to stand up and be counted during indyref, but she is not aligned to any party.
“I left the Labour Party during the miners’ strike because of their lack of backing of the miners and I’ve never joined a party again. I’m a fellow traveller, I believe in independence, but I have no interest in joining a party. I like my independence, on all levels.
“It’s not that I agree with everything the SNP are doing, but they are the option that will stand up with Scotland’s voice and articulate it. I’m glad that the hegemony of that Labour sense of entitlement to rule in Scotland has gone, and if the SNP ever get like that, then they’ll go too.”
As chair of the Scottish Independence Convention, Smith doesn’t see another referendum coming along anytime too soon and feels strongly that when it does, it will be the female vote that could make a difference.
“It’s only a guess, but you’re not going to go before 2021, and I totally agree that the SNP should not have it in their manifesto now. I don’t want them to go again until they can win it. I never wanted to win by 51 per cent. To be perfectly truthful, even though I was on the board of Yes Scotland, I never thought we’d win because we weren’t getting the women’s vote. Women had more to lose and were not convinced. If women of that generation, mine or older, have no notion about independence for themselves, how can they imagine independence for their country? Many are dependent on other people, on the state, have dependents, are in a caring facility. You had upper class and middle class women who weren’t convinced, working class women struggling on low wages, and women who were not represented on social media. We weren’t getting to all of them. It’s the women’s vote that could change it.”
As well as being a political animal there’s always a feminist slant on her politics and she’s determined to keep on fighting both in the acting and wider world.
“In theatre there’s still a long way to go. I look around the panto circuit and it’s all men, apart from Janette Krankie, who’s a genius, but she’s playing a boy. Where are all the funny women? They’re out there, but they’re still not names.
“And I think the backlash against women is terrifying in some of the Islamic countries and violence against women wherever. Across the world there is still a massive amount of sexual violence, and it’s used as a weapon of war as well, so no, I don’t think we can sit back and go, oh, it’s done, in any way.
“All that, it’s post-feminist now, no it’s not, we’ve not got to feminist yet. Sometimes I go ‘is that what we fought for? For my daughters to be obsessed with Kim Kardashian?’” She laughs. “Maybe we did, because women are now allowed to be what they want to be and control their lives.”
With her time off Smith plans to spend it being Granny Smith since her daughter Katie gave birth to baby Stella last year and she’s also got several charity and political events lined up. She is patron of around 15 organisations and charities, such as the Moira Fund, set up in memory of Moira Jones who was murdered in Queens Park, Glasgow, in 2008, to help those traumatically bereaved by the murder or manslaughter of a loved one. She also champions Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance and Family Mediation. In terms of fundraisers she’s doing one for Jeane Freeman who is standing for the SNP in North Ayrshire in the forthcoming election, and the North Ayrshire Council Civic Awards, at the invitation of the provost, Joan Sturgeon, Nicola’s mother.
“If I can do a fundraiser, be wheeled out for the photo, donate tickets for something I’m in, then that’s great. I do the more left-field ones. The fluffy ones have people queuing up, because that’s how you get MBEs, but a bauble’s not something I’ll ever take or am interested in.
“I do it because it’s the right thing to do and also I get validation, a feeling of humility. My business is so full of ego and self-examination and this lets you go, ‘oh, just get a grip of yourself’. It sounds trite but you see what matters when you see people’s lives, and I think ‘here’s me worrying about whether they will like me in Two Doors Down, or Annie.’ It brings me back to earth.”