Obituary: William Collins (Billy McColl), actor and gardener

Billy McColl: Actor described by playwright John Byrne as the best of his generation
Billy McColl: Actor described by playwright John Byrne as the best of his generation
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Born: 15 November, 1951, in Hamilton. Died: 1 January, 2014, in London, aged 62

William Collins was a former apprentice car mechanic described by playwright John Byrne as the best actor of his generation.

He was known by his stage name Billy McColl, and his television credits include Hamish MacBeth, The Bill and Taggart, while on the big screen he appeared in the films Soft Top Hard Shoulder and Strictly Sinatra, written by his friend Peter Capaldi.

But it was in one of his early theatre performances that he made such an impact not only on Byrne, who had just finished The Slab Boys, but on audiences.

Byrne had never heard of him when he was suggested for the lead role of anti-hero Phil McCann by actor David Hayman, whom he had approached to direct The Slab Boys at the Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. According to Hayman, the young man was “quite special”, a testimonial Byrne dismissed – until he met him.

“I took the swagger with which he strolled into the backstage dressing room for a part of his actor’s auditioning gear,” he recalled. “The flashing eyes I put down to a couple of drops of glycerine hastily applied prior to his arriving but as soon as he opened his mouth and spoke the first of Phil McCann’s lines from the script I knew that we had hit gold dust.

“As soon as he had gone I threw my arms around David Hayman and almost crushed the life out of him. From that second it was a case of building the rest of the cast around Billy.”

The talented group included Robbie Coltrane but, according to Byrne, McColl was the absolute lynch pin whose superb performance and authenticity won every heart in the house wherever he appeared, be it in the Traverse run or in The Slab Boys Trilogy at the Edinburgh Festival and later at London’s Royal Court. His skills were also highly rated by others in the business: his portrayal of Phil McCann at the Royal Court earned him a prestigious Olivier Award nomination for Most Promising Newcomer of the Year in Theatre.

He went on to work on stage, screen and television over the next 30 years, latterly combining acting with a successful gardening business.

Born in Hamilton, he was the son of meter reader William Collins and his wife Rosina, a shop worker who also ran a bed and breakfast business. They moved to Fife when young Billy was about eight years old and he was educated at Leven’s Parkhill Primary and Kirkland High School in Methil, before embarking on an apprenticeship at Harris’ Garage in Leven and doing his City & Guilds certificate at Kirkcaldy College.

While training as a mechanic he joined an acting group and ultimately decided to go to drama school, preparing for his audition with the help of a record from the local library. He borrowed a vinyl recording of Macbeth and learned a speech from it, emulating Shakespearean actor Anthony Quayle. When the time came, however, he found his own voice, duly passed the audition at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews and was awarded a funding scholarship by Fife County Council.

He trained at Mountview Theatre School in London from 1973 to 1976 and, since there was already a William Collins in Equity, decided on the stage name Billy McColl, a reflection of his admiration for the singer, actor and playwright Ewan MacColl.

Within a couple of years of leaving drama school he was playing the role of Phil McCann, one of Byrne’s Paisley carpet factory “slab boys”, in the original production at the Traverse. When the playwright followed it with Cuttin’ A Rug and Still Life, he took on the mantle of McCann again, a role he always loved.

In the 1980s he played prisoner Jimmy Boyle in the former criminal-turned-sculptor’s play The Nutcracker Suite, based around Barlinnie’s Special Unit, and appeared in Shoot for the Sun, the BBC drama set around Edinburgh’s heroin problem. He was then seen in the 1991 BBC production of Dundee-based Jute City and three years later had a part in the film Soft Top Hard Shoulder, written by and starring Peter Capaldi, whose performance won a Scottish Bafta for best actor.

The 1990s also saw Collins take to the stage with a one-man show about Robert Burns, Creative Fire, backed by music from Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and folk star Finbar Furey. And it was a decade when his TV work included The Bill, Taggart, Looking After JoJo, Psychos and Hamish MacBeth.

Like many in his trade, he had periods of unemployment but always approached his job conscientiously and with method, often writing out his lines in longhand to help make them his own.

He was a dedicated member of Equity and often spoke out passionately about the benefits of the theatre to society, not only in an economic sense but in the way it could stimulate debate and its ability to review history through the retelling of events.

At the start of the Millennium he set up his new venture, Billy Collins Gardening, designing and creating outdoor spaces for clients. He’d been an expert gardener long before be made a living from it and one of the projects of which he was most proud was an oriental garden.

Meanwhile, he continued to take acting jobs, appearing on television in Rab C Nesbitt, Dangerfield VI, Glasgow Kiss, Taggart and Vera, on film in Strictly Sinatra and on stage in Shining Souls at The Tron in Glasgow.

He was part of a British Council-sponsored tour of India with MacBeth and his final appearance was at London’s Arcola Theatre last year when he played an ex-pat in the production Gibraltar, an examination of the aftermath of the SAS shooting of three IRA activists there in 1988.

Although he had made London his home, he often returned to Scotland, enjoying long walks on the beaches of Fife where, in his best friend’s garden, stands the evidence of his foray into sculpting – a large piece of stone carved from a chunk of demolished Glasgow tenement by members of the cast of the Nutcracker Suite.

He is survived by his daughter Maud, family and friends.

His funeral will take place at Golders Green Crematorium, in London at noon on Saturday, 18 January.