For 20 years the residents of the fictional Glasgow suburb of Shieldinch have been keeping us entertained in the BBC soap River City and its anniversary this week a must-see stand-alone episode packed with familiar faces from the soap’s past and present.
Described as a sliding doors moment, dramatic and funny, with light and shade, the 20th anniversary edition of River City won’t disappoint, says Jenny Hulse, who plays Amber Murdoch, when we meet in Edinburgh.
“Viewers can expect a wild ride, where nothing is as it is normally in Shieldinch. Characters come back from the past, and those that are in it at the moment are very different,” says the Edinburgh actor who has been part of the Murdoch crime clan since 2016.
A show that runs for 20 years has seen a lot of characters, many of them new to Hulse, who herself is the second incarnation of Amber. Filming the special episode saw her meet Chris Brazier, who played her on-screen step brother Ewen Murdoch, for the first time, as he was last seen falling off scaffolding after an argument with her father Lenny.
“People who I watched in the show before I ever knew I’d have a possibility of being in it came back, so that was very surreal. They were all so generous, relishing it and the atmosphere felt like a holiday. It was fun.”
Specially written by Johnny McKnight, the anniversary episode takes viewers into a surreal multiverse after Bob (Stephen Purdon) and Angus (Scott Fletcher) drink a 20-year-old bottle of vintage wine and wake up in an alternative Shieldinch.
“Characters who have left Shieldinch or died are back and everyone is acting as if that is normal. No-one is as you would expect them to be and it’s a fun, eccentric, absolute standalone episode that’s really special.”
Along with the rest of the characters, Amber is not the woman we’re used to seeing, explains Hulse.
“It’s the Amber that didn’t go to jail. If her dad Lenny wasn’t a gangster, and if she wasn’t in that life, what would she be like?” says Hulse.
“Normally specials are dramatic and heavy, but this is creative and light. River City has a lot of comedy talent in the cast so to use that and show much-loved characters in a different light was clever and just fun.”
Shieldinch is never short of drama and in her time in the soap Amber has served time for shooting her father’s gangster rival, lost a child to cancer, shot her father in the back on Christmas Day, seen her mother come back from the dead, kicked heroin and embarked on a relationship with a policewoman.
“She’s someone who is unpredictable and has armour,” says Hulse. “She’s one of those people who could be a cold, hard bitch when you first meet her, but in 20 minutes she’s had a drink and she’s absolutely fallen apart. She’s also very charming and able to switch that on, able to move between worlds. She’s a complete juxtaposition.
“After being ashamed and trying to get away from what her dad does now she’s embracing it, accepting that that’s just what she does.”
Of the many things that Amber has done, are there any of which Hulse considers herself capable?
“Oh my god. I like to think that in a situation where I’m threatened I’d be able to defend myself. There was a scene where she beats up a drug dealer who threatens her daughter, so it’s all completely justified. I’d like to think - not that I’m a thug,” she laughs - “but I think that was an empowering thing to see a woman do.”
Beyond River City, Hulse has numerous theatre credits and on screen appeared in David McKenzie’s Outlaw King and ITV’s In Plain Sight, the TV miniseries based on the true story of the quest to bring to justice killer Peter Manuel, as well as in Morag Fullerton’s Doris, Dolly and the Dressing Room Divas and in Walter’s War, Voices and Taggart.
Born in London to two musicians, Hulse moved to Edinburgh at seven when her violinist mother Ruth Crouch took a job with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. If the River City special episode is a sliding doors moment for the soap, the move to Scotland was Hulse’s.
“Moving up to Scotland was quite a culture shock and I didn’t know who I was, so I just sort of slid in. I’ve always been interested and aware of the way people are, the different ways they behave in different circumstances,” she says.
“I often think what would I have been like if I’d grown up in London. My dad stayed there so I go down a lot. I would have had a different accent for a start. When we moved quite quickly at school I became Scottish. I mean Jesus I grew up in Morningside, it’s hardly the depths of needing to sound really Scottish,” she laughs, “but it was just by osmosis. I can do an English accent though. When I was at drama school I never said why because I just wanted everyone to think I was really good at accents.” She laughs.
“Also I’m at the age now, 35, that my mum was when she moved up here, and to be that age with two young kids, god, you know, leaving us with babysitters and friends while she worked, total respect.”
“I was too young to remember having two parents at home, or parents working nine to five, so other people’s lives were fascinating - what they had for their tea, what they did when they got home, how were their houses decorated? So I absolutely love sets that are really detailed and look lived in, like Scarlett’s house, my favourite on River City. There are so many family photographs, Mary Magdalenes and pictures of the Pope, and in the kitchen there’s real stuff in the cupboards. I love all the detail.”
After attending the Lyceum Youth Theatre Hulse went on to train at the then RSAMD, in Glasgow.
“I was so lucky with musician parents who supported me, and being around a lot of creative people. Yes I’ve been out of work, done bar work, waitressing, temping, in between acting jobs, and being a jobbing actor is tough, but in terms of deciding to do it, it was quite straightforward for me.”
Living in Edinburgh means Hulse catches people unawares when they recognise her from the soap.
“I get ‘Amber!’ shouted across the street, but a lot of people just say ‘you look like Amber Murdoch off River City’ and I’m like, ‘it’s me’,” she laughs. “In Edinburgh people say ‘what are you doing here?’ The cast live all over but people presume everyone lives in Glasgow.”
What do most people say when they meet her?
“It’s mainly, ‘What’s Lenny like?’ Is he scary?”
So what’s Lenny like? Is he scary?
“Frank Gallagher who plays Lenny is hilarious and one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. We’ve got a shorthand now and it’s a very father daughter relationship.
“The other thing about River City is most of the actors are Scottish and trained at the Conservatoire so you know the same people. And because most have done theatre and have a huge breadth of experience, it makes for a much richer cast.”
After several years playing the same character, where does Amber start and Jenny stop?
“It’s more about what Amber has given me?” says Hulse. “The role came when I had just turned 30. I’d done a lot of theatre but not much telly, and didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d been playing girlfriend roles, then Amber came along, with her confidence. She’s not a people pleaser, which I feel like I inherently am, or was. She has status and lets things breathe in silence, and she’s taught me a lot of how to be.”
“I’d never been given the opportunity to play a part like that. She came into the show very hard, then there was softnesses and light and shade and all the complexity of playing a person. She wears high heels all the time, which I never wear, and there really is something about walking about in high heels. Add red lips, leather jacket, and you’re in it.”
Filmed around six weeks in advance, River City has given Hulse a security that many actors would envy.
“It’s never a given, but this job has completely changed my life in terms of I’d never expected to be able to buy a property and deciding to have a baby was 100% because I was in the show and had a steady job. It’s given me so much; it’s given me a whole life. And being able to do other things in the breaks if they come up, it’s great. I’m SO lucky.”
A summer break in 2016 saw her making In Plain Sight with Martin Compston and Dougie Henshall, playing a real life character Mary McLaughlan.
“She was assaulted by Manuel and stood up against him in court where he represented himself and got away with it. He then went on to murder 13 people,” she says.
“As a woman after being sexually assaulted, to stand up in court is a brave thing to do. Hopefully it is changing but it was a stark wake up that we’re still in this place of women not being believed.”
Another break in River City saw her making the film Outlaw King in 2018, when she played the wife of one of Robert the Bruce’s right hand men, and filming took her to Skye.
“I had a small part, and it was delightful. The job came up on a day I was moving house and I had two hours' notice to be in Glasgow to audition so I was very close to ‘no, I’ve got a lot on today’. But I jumped in the car, blundered in, sang a random folk song and got it.”
The fact that she’s a mezzo soprano no doubt helped in her performance of Rabbie Burns’ Ay Waukin O, learnt from her former flatmate, the singer Siobhan Miller.
“Then I was on Skye for a week with movie stars, having an absolute blast. On River City it’s done on the backlot or studio so to be on Talisker Beach in Skye… Also David Mackenzie the director is very free and it felt like doing a site-specific play. I’d love to do more of that kind of thing.”
In the meantime, she’s buzzing for the airing of the River City anniversary episode and is sure it will be a hit with fans.
“There are so many iconic characters in the show and people have grown up with it. Its longevity is its secret weapon. There are many laughs and tears, and all generations can watch together. It’s a family show that depicts all walks of life which is why everyone loves it. I met Nicola Sturgeon at a film premier and was about to shake hands when she said ‘oh, I know who you are’. It was wild. She’s a big fan of River City, so you know, it has fans everywhere. They’re going to love it.”
With thanks to Everyman Edinburgh, St James Quarter, Edinburgh.
River City’s special 20th anniversary episode debuts on Monday 26 September on BBC iPlayer followed by BBC Scotland at 10pm.