More than a match for Rebus

JENNIFER BLACK has never met Ian Rankin. She did, however, once get the opportunity to introduce herself to the Rebus author - but on her own admission, she bottled it.

"I saw him at an event at The Scotsman building," the actress explains. "My friend said: 'Go and tell him you're in Rebus'. But I couldn't face seeing even a glimmer of disappointment in his face."

It's hard to imagine Ian Rankin being disappointed that the woman variously described as "Scotland's finest actress", "Scotland's most versatile actress" and sometimes, just simply as, "Scotland's busiest actress" is playing Chief Superintendent Gill Templar in the new TV adaptations of Rankin's books.

But then it's also hard to see why someone who's been critically acclaimed for performances in roles as diverse as Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire, Lady Macbeth and Jocasta in Liz Lockhead's Thebans should be worried about taking on the part of Rebus' boss and one-time love interest in the ITV dramas.

However, even with such an impeccable acting CV, Black says there are certain pressures playing a role like Templar.

"There are so many Rebus fans who must have a clear idea in their own heads about what the character looks like and sounds like," she explains. "It is quite challenging and daunting," she frowns, then brightening: "But it's quite exciting if someone says that's exactly how I imagine Templar."

Black is, of course, ideal to play an Edinburgh copper. Not only is she one of Scotland's most respected actresses, she is also a "converted Weegie" - she was born and spent her early years in Glasgow, moving to Bridge of Weir when she was 13 - having lived in the Capital for the last seven years.

Not that she gets to see the city much in Rebus. "I never get out of the office," she laughs. "I am forever trawling the corridors of the police station."

Unlike her co-star, Ken Stott, however, she has never actually played a police officer before. She thinks. "Have I?" she wonders for a minute, glancing up to the ceiling. "No, no, I'm sure I haven't," she says in a voice that doesn't sound altogether certain.

Either way, she did her research for the role by spending a morning with DCI Willie Manson, from Lothian and Borders CID.

"The only disappointment was that he took me to the morgue but the professor had to go to a meeting and we couldn't get in."

That was a disappointment? "Oh, yes," she says. "I am really fascinated by forensics. He did say: 'Are you going to be all right with bodies.' I said: 'We'll soon find out, but I'm willing to give it a go, but we never did find out.'"

She's not joking about the forensic science bit - she even signed up for an Edinburgh University short course in the subject but never took up her place, as an acting job got in the way. "But maybe I will still get around to it," she says brightly and takes another sip of her coffee.

We are sitting in a cafe on Broughton Street, near Black's flat which she bought with actress Siobhan Redmond. The now London-based actress uses it as a Scottish base, while Black lives there full-time.

She's currently single "through my own choice" although she is on good terms with her ex-husband. "We are close friends," she says. "Anything that happens in my life, he's one of the first people I tell and it's the same for him."

Children, she says, "weren't meant to be".

"I am a great believer in what will be, will be. I think that's when things - in the world generally - start to fall apart when people enforce plans too strongly."

Of course, planning ahead isn't easy for anyone in Black's profession, where stints of "resting" are generally interspersed with a frantic few months of rehearsals and performances.

In fact, it's a daunting profession all round but Black is hard-pressed to say why she took the plunge, particularly as there was no family tradition of acting.

"Oh, you would think I would know this by now," she says, her mouth twitching in concentration, before, eventually, adding: "I love being in a company where everyone is working together towards the same goal.

"I love rehearsal, I love the analysis of the script. Maybe that's what appeals about forensic science," she laughs.

Luckily for the acting world, when it came to leaving school, she choose drama college (RSAMD) in Glasgow, rather than a medical course, then ended up in rep in Crewe.

"Crewe was a great experience - two-weekly rep - learning a new play every two weeks."

From there she went to London, but returned to Scotland after four years.

"I just missed Scotland, I suppose. I think London is a very, very hard place for an actor. Up here I had a much better quality of life. And it takes you ages to get anywhere in London.

"Here I can phone someone up and say I'll meet you in town in 15 minutes."

Ironically, when she first returned, she found it hard to get theatre work - because of her television work.

"It's different now but there used to be snobbery about television work. I would go to an audition and they'd ask what I'd done, and then say: 'Oh, I don't watch television.' Nowadays theatre loves to get names from the telly."

Luckily a role - as Stella, wife of local accountant Gordon Urquhart, in whose inn the young oil executives stay - in cult movie Local Hero meant she could bypass the "And who are you again?" stage.

Since then, she's been living up to that "busiest actress in Scotland" label with a CV which has included forays into directing, with a production of Zola's novel Therese Raquin, and playing roles in what reads like a list of every major theatre production of the last decade in Scotland, from Cassandra in Iain Heggie's An Experienced Woman Gives Advice, to Wendy in Des Dillion's Six Black Candles and most recently as Helen in a touring production of A Taste of Honey.

One sign of her profession is her refusal to say how old she is.

"If people know your age, they pigeon-hole you," she says. "At auditions, if people ask me my age, I say how old do you think I look? If you think I look too old for the part, that's your call. But if you don't, what does it matter how old I am?"

But she has no theatre snobbery about television work, and in fact welcomes the different challenges."You can be subtle in a TV performance that you can't on stage when you are trying to reach the back of the auditorium," she explains.

"The ideal year would be to combine theatre and television - and thrown a bit of directing in." She's almost achieving that now - following hard on the heels of Rebus TV screening, she opens at the Lyceum in Liz Lochhead's adaptation of Moliere's Tartuffe, in which she plays Elmire, wife of Orgon who takes in the conman Tartuffe.

Then there are four more Rebus episodes set for filming in the spring.

After that . . . well, it's back to whatever will be, will be. As she says: "I have never really had a game plan. I have just things which interest me. And not done things which don't interest me."

Sidekick part let Claire learn her TV craft from the best

AS DS Siobhan Clarke, actress Claire Price has found herself in the well-worn role of chief detective's sidekick - albeit one with a little more glamour than most.

"She is very keen to impress Rebus from the start," the Derby-born actress says. "She is a bit like Lewis to Rebus' Morse - Siobhan does the leg work while Rebus does the imaginative police work. But she has a side to her that is like Rebus and that's why he takes to her. She is more than just a pen-pusher.

"Siobhan is very ambitious. She has a good relationship with Chief Superintendent Gill Templar, who herself used to be Rebus' DS and is now his superior. I think Templar sees herself in Siobhan.

"And Siobhan isn't afraid to wear makeup and be feminine in spite of the issues it raises when dealing with difficult men she has to question. Some policewomen would cut their hair and dress down to do the job, but not Siobhan. She's not afraid to look attractive on duty."

And Claire loved working with Ken Stott.

"I have huge respect for him, he's one of our best. He is a very powerful actor and he taught me a lot. Ken doesn't stint on feelings, he gives an enormous performance but somehow manages to get it just the right size for the camera.

"Matthew Evans, the director, told me to keep watching Ken so it looked like Siobhan was trying to learn from him. In reality I was both watching Rebus as Siobhan and Ken as Claire because I was really finding my feet.

"Although I've done telly before, never a part so full on and crucial to the show. It was certainly a steep learning curve."

Claire is set to return in the four new Rebus films which begin shooting in the spring - but before that happens she must pass her driving test.

"The producer, told me I have to pass - or else. As Rebus' sergeant I'm supposed to drive him about but because I haven't passed my test I couldn't be insured.

"I failed my test the first time I took it and haven't really felt confident enough to go for it again. I know I must so now it is my main project for the next few months to get some intensive lessons and get behind the wheel for real when we start filming again."

• Tartuffe is playing at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre from January 13 to February 11. For tickets, priced 2 to 21, call the box office on 0131-248 4848. The second Ken Stott Rebus drama, Fleshmarket Close, is due to be aired soon on ITV.