As Mrs Mack, the no-nonsense, no-fun, wee busybody with the spectacularly dowdy wardrobe, Gwyneth Guthrie became an iconic figure in Scottish popular culture who fused elements of John Knox, Braveheart and Nicola Sturgeon.
However the redoubtable Mrs Mack predated our current First Minister in the Scottish popular consciousness by many years, having first appeared in the soap opera Take the High Road way back in 1983.
Mrs Mack provided a hitherto jobbing actress with a national profile – Guthrie went on to play the role for 20 years on a show that went out throughout the UK and counted the Queen and Queen Mother among its regular audience. When the Queen toured the STV studios in 2001 she specifically asked to meet her. Guthrie had to rush back to Glasgow from a holiday in York to fulfil the royal request. “When I met her she said excitedly: ‘Oh, Mrs Mack. Do you have a sweetie for me?’ And I gave her a peppermint,” Guthrie told the Glasgow Evening Times. “It was funny to think this old battleaxe was so adored by everyone, even royalty.”
However, Guthrie very nearly missed out on the part of the interfering widow, who works as the local minister’s housekeeper and knows what is best for everyone. Originally she presented her audition in the style of Janet, the gentle housekeeper in the popular 1960s series Dr Finlay’s Casebook.
The producers told her that they really wanted someone with a bit more edge. Guthrie left the audition, only to return and plead for a second chance, after a visit to the local charity shops.
“The hat I found was a real cracker,” she said. “And I bought a coat that I thought would also suit the character. It was a metamorphosis. I said to the producers I’d wear thick stockings and a tweed skirt, a home-knitted scarf and fingerless gloves called pawkies. Then I told them: ‘Mrs Mack has arrived!’ ”
The series had first gone on air three years earlier after ITV bosses decided they would like a soap opera set in rural Scotland and created the fictional estate and village of Glendarroch. Location filming was done at Luss and the scenic countryside around Loch Lomond.
Edith MacArthur played the “lady laird”. But Mrs Mack was in due course to become the show’s most popular and recognisable figure.
Guthrie was in her mid-forties when she first played the self-righteous Mrs Mack, but looked older, and she had had only limited success before Take the High Road, though she had been performing from an early age.
The daughter of a bank manager, Gwyneth Lilias Guthrie was born in Ayr in 1937. Her family were Welsh on her mother’s side and she was always known as Gwynnie. She attended Ayr Academy, Ayr Grammar School and was a boarder at St Bride’s Girls School in Helensburgh, where she was bullied and did little to impress with her academic work.
“I failed my 11-plus exam and my dad was just so disappointed. In fact, he called me ‘Fathead’,” she said. “It looked as though I was a hopeless case, such a contrast to my sister Anne, who went on to become a top doctor.”
However, Guthrie was a natural entertainer. At the age of 12 she joined the team on the BBC’s radio show Children’s Hour. She subsequently studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, worked with Perth Rep and appeared in several television plays in the late 1950s.
But Guthrie also suffered several knockbacks, including rejection by the Rank film company, where she was advised to lose weight. She gave up acting for several years, married John Borland, who had a photographic equipment business in Kilmarnock, and started a family.
After a considerable hiatus in her screen acting career, she played the dowdy Jean Rutherford in a television adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston in 1973, and this was followed by appearances in other series, including Sutherland’s Law and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
In 1982, the year before her debut in Take the High Road, she played the “sex-starved mother” of Rik Mayall’s popular character Kevin Turvey in the “mockumentary” Kevin Turvey: The Man Behind the Green Door.
She later described her character as “a bit of a slapper”, in her tight top and leopard-skin tights. She even had some intimate scenes with the then-unknown Robbie Coltrane that would certainly have attracted the disapproval of Mrs Mack.
It was as Mrs Mack, forever disapproving of the rest of humanity, that Guthrie earned her place in Scottish culture. Mrs Mack ranks up there with Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden and Dirty Den as one of those characters who transcended soap opera.
Take the High Road was not the first, nor the last, television show to discover that a key character had a hitherto unsuspected sibling, who invariably was the exact opposite in personality. Even Dad’s Army did it to Captain Mainwaring. And the role of Mrs Mack’s glamorous twin sister Florence gave Guthrie the chance to extend her repertoire and have a little fun.
After Mrs Mack raised Guthrie’s profile she found herself in demand for theatre as well. She played the Queen of Light – in flouncy sequinned pink – in the Ayr Gaiety panto Mother Goose in 1998 and a character, not unlike Mrs Mack, at an Ann Summers party in Girls Big Nite In at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow in 2006.
Reflecting on her career, she said: “My parents would have been so thrilled to know I’d met the Queen. Perhaps my dad wouldn’t have thought of me as Fathead any longer.”
Guthrie’s husband predeceased her. They are survived by three daughters, Karen, Debbie and Olwen.
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