AT LAST month’s Glasgow Film Festival, the biggest queue for tickets – down the street from the Glasgow Film Theatre and back up again, with a few hundred turned away disappointed – was to see an episode from a TV show which most of the audience had already seen on a smaller screen, and an unspecified cast member.
But Game Of Thrones’ popularity goes even further than the usual cult audience: the series has become a mainstream phenomenon. It marries the big-budget, high-quality attention to detail and gritty realism that America’s HBO channel has become known for with the fascinations of an invented world, loosely based on Britain in the time of the Wars of the Roses, but with added magic.
Trailers for the upcoming third season (shown here on Sky Atlantic) have been avidly scrutinised: one had 16 million views in a week. The number of subscribers to HBO, which had previous hits with Sex And The City, The Sopranos and The Wire, has increased and George RR Martin, the source books’ author, has been signed up for a prequel series and perhaps other shows.
Since Lord Of The Rings, the fantasy blockbuster has been big at the cinema, but previous TV shows set in magical worlds have tended to be lighter, family-friendly fare. A funny viral video doing the rounds recently showed the difference by re-editing the Game Of Thrones credits in the style of 1990s knockabout Saturday morning fare Hercules: grinning heroes, comical sidekicks, a bit of swordplay or thrown punches, but everything ending happily.
That is really not Game Of Thrones’ style: from the frequent deaths (Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, the biggest name when the show began, meets a grisly end in series one; they even broke the cardinal Hollywood rule that The Dog Always Survives) to the annoyingly gratuitous female nudity thrown in whenever an exposition scene might otherwise drag. But leave aside the dragons, smoke monster and warlocks, and the story’s probably a more realistic take on the Middle Ages than some: the show gets across the arbitrary dangers of war, the gulf between the wealthy and the poor, the constrained role of women and the general grubbiness of everything.
It’s a complex, dark tale, based on a sprawling, ongoing book series, which on screen conveys an ambitious scope, switching from the icy landscapes of the far north of its land, Westeros, to the warmer climes of the south and east. With a large cast of characters – though Peter Dinklage, who won Emmy and Golden Globe awards as the clever and vulnerable Tyrion, has perhaps proved to be the main breakout star – and separate storylines filmed in different countries, there’s a mammoth production behind the show, with a reported budget of $6 million (£4m) per episode.
The cast representative at the Film Festival, to the delight of fans, turned out to be Rory McCann, who plays the scarred and bitter killer known as The Hound. He’s just one of the many Scots involved – others include Richard Madden, James Cosmo, Iain Glen and, in wardrobe and props, McCann’s own sister and brother-in-law. It’s partly a remnant of some series one filming here and subsequently in Northern Ireland, partly the story’s rough concordance with the British mainland where “beyond the Wall” represents the untamed Highlands.
McCann – a slightly shy, intense man often cast for his imposing two-metre (6ft 6in) height, whose previous roles include Scott’s Porage Oats adverts and The Book Group – entertains the audience with anecdotes and a contest to win his battered copy of one of the novels. But afterwards, he’s clearly still trying to get his head around making public appearances – it’s only his second fan event – and the popularity of the show itself.
“I feel I’m not very articulate sometimes,” he says, “but some of the answers are starting to come quicker. I am not that comfortable but kind of feel that I have to do it, not for a fee but it’s very humbling to be asked. Especially when I think of all the times of trying to get a bit part in Taggart and not getting it.
“I’m part of an amazing show and would quite happily have been a spear carrier at the back – which I thought in a way I was at the beginning, until I started to read on. I’ve played many a bouncer or a spear carrier. At least I’ve got a character name and don’t die on page 20.”
In fact, the episode just shown on the GFT’s screen is the first one he’s watched all the way through. “I don’t have Sky,” he says flatly. “The people I hang around with don’t have Sky either.” And no, he couldn’t just get the DVDs, as it transpires that McCann’s life – when he’s not filming – is almost as spartan as his character’s. He lives alone “on a boat” most of the time, which he sails around Scotland, stopping off in remote places like Knoydart. And his approach to playing The Hound – a character of few words – is as serious as a method actor’s.
“It’s all about this job. I know it’s coming up every year and I’ll not take another job before I’m shooting, because there’s a right good chance I’m gonna have a stomach upset or something. Anything that could affect this is out, I want to be on form. So much so that at least two months before filming, I literally phone up all my friends and say, ‘Don’t phone me at all till the leaves fall off the trees.’”
“I have no contact at all with anyone. I’m on my boat, training, rehearsing, I spend all my energy on the job that’s coming up and I found that’s the way that works for me. The more energy you have on set the better you’ll be, it’s all about being alive in that moment and listening. So most of the time I’m just curled up trying not to talk and conserving that energy. Or hanging off a mast on my boat in a stormy sea trying to shorten my sail and thinking, ‘Maybe this is irresponsible…’”
All this, in an age when many actors are tweeting their upcoming screen appearances or being seen at a string of red carpet events, makes McCann something of a throwback. He frequently references the time a few years back when, fed up with the only acting offers coming in, he took off for Iceland and spent a year working as a carpenter. “I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have a wife and I don’t have kids, so I’m quite happy bumbling along. I try not to do any crap. The last thing I was asked was to play Samson in a Biblical film – well, I’m not getting down to my pants and doing religion,” he shudders. “I’d rather go and chop trees.”
Yet, as part of a successful TV show that everyone wants a piece of, that’s probably not going to happen. For all McCann’s ambivalence about the showbiz life, he’s agreed to meet with “people who maybe want to employ me” in Los Angeles. “It’s not my place at all, but I think it’s the right thing to do. It would be wrong to say no,” he says, uncertainly. “I don’t know if I’d want to move there and I can’t be working down in London, it kills me – it’s the noise.”
McCann and the rest have already finished filming the ten episodes of series three, which is set to ratchet the excitement up even higher as the plot thickens. “You’re gonna love it,” he teases. And, going by the show’s success so far, he’s probably right.
• Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download. Season 3 is on Sky Atlantic from 1 April.