What does Robert Carlyle think he’s playing at? After winning acclaim for hard-hitting, controversial roles in Cracker and Trainspotting, what was the attraction of going back to playing an easy-going Highland plod in a show that at first glance appears to be a bizarre cross between Local Hero and The Bill.
Carlyle candidly accepts that his title role in the BBC’s Hamish Macbeth isn’t the meatiest part he’s been offered, but he strenuously denies that the show is merely a tartan copy of the ‘rural cop saves the day and wallows in nostalgia’ formula of the astoundingly popular Heartbeat: “Heartbeat is a very successful show, but it’s not something I’d want to be involved in.”
“Obviously there are restrictions on a prime-time slot, but some of our episodes are very dark and deep. They’re as punishing as anything I’ve done as an actor and I think we’ve come up with something that’s as good as you’re going tee get on a Sunday night.” Ten million viewers, he adds, have also raised his profile far more than any of his more exalted roles, and he is delighted that it has brought in floods of offers for new parts in a diverse range of productions. Doubtless the money comes in handy too. Nor can it be particularly unpleasant to play a man who has every single woman in town between the ages of 16 and 40 throwing themselves at him.
The softly spoken Carlyle’s newfound status as a sex symbol is one he intends to remain unaccustomed to: “I just can’t see myself that way,” he laughs. “I mean look at me, I’m five foot nothing. Guys like Mel Gibson – they’re sex symbols, no’ me. Maybe I’ve got some kind of cute Glaswegian thing going on but I cannae see it myself.”
Carlyle’s star may be rising faster than practically any other Scots actor’s but he seems genuinely uncomfortable with most aspects of celebrity, and confesses to being “absolutely stunned” by the enthusiastic reaction to Trainspotting.
Born and bred in Glasgow’s Maryhill and trained by the Royal Scottish Academy of Dramatic Art, Carlyle owns that the rising prominence of the Scottish arts has been a contributory factor in his success: “There is a real focus of attention moving towards Scotland and hopefully I can ride along on the back of that. The problem for Scottish actors in the past has been that there were far too many of them for the number of productions actually underway in the country at any one time. With a bit of luck, the recent upsurge in interest should go some way to solving that.”
Isn’t it surprising, then, that he turned down parts in both Braveheart and Rob Roy? Although quick to point out that both were fine films, Carlyle takes the view that he and his country are better served through other dramatic routes: “I’m interested in showing the current face of Scotland. While Braveheart kicks into the nationalist part of our psyche, Trainspotting does the opposite. I suppose the simple answer is that I’m more interested in today than yesterday, and I think we can achieve more by confronting the issues facing us now, not 600 years ago.”
As an actor, he admits to being more interested in the characters he plays than the subjects tackled, and that his part in Hamish Macbeth affords him a pleasant divergence from more psychologically taxing roles. Yet Carlyle is obviously keen to maintain a political edge to his work. He speaks passionately of his role as a homeless man sleeping rough in London for Safe, one of his earliest films, and is outraged by what it taught him: “I slept out for eight days in preparation. I experienced that kind of life first hand and frankly, I think a society that allows that is a f***ing disgrace.”
Some might question, however, what impact an airy-fairy, arty production could actually have on the socio-political climate. Carlyle takes the point, but hopes that if he can do anything at all, it is to inform people of some aspects of society’s problems that they might otherwise have been unaware of. Drawing on his recent experiences filming amidst devastating poverty with director Ken Loach in Nicaragua, he cites the example of the USA’s involvement in that country as an area he hopes to do some good in: “If it does anything, perhaps the film will make people aware of the terrible crimes America is committing in Nicaragua. I’m a lucky man to be able to use my political voice.”
Given the current entertainment craze for ‘gritty’ drama, embodied by everything from Prime Suspect to Pulp Fiction, Carlyle should have plenty more opportunities to extend his realist and political bents Far from being delighted by the situation, however, he is appalled by what he considers to be a drop in standards as television’s top boys jump on the bandwagon: “Take that Silent Witness,” he says. “Totally formulaic, pure garbage. It’s a disgrace that sub-standard, so-called ‘gritty drama’ like that is being pumped out.” After all, he adds, an anaesthetised, formulaic depiction of real life is what we already get by the bucket-load from Hollywood.
But then entertainment is a fickle industry, prone to hailing one genre after another as the be-all-and-end-all, only to have completely forgotten about it and moved onto pastures new within 12 months (witness 60s experimental theatre and Hugh Grant). Carlyle is very aware of this, but points out that when they opened, Trainspotting took more at the box office than Sense and Sensibility while showing at only half the number of cinemas. It is, he hopes, evidence that harsh realism is gaining a grip on a British film industry previously devoted to churning out “dreary period dramas”.
Just in case this isn’t so, he’s moving off now to explore new avenues, starting with a comedy set in Sheffield. Though it does, he adds with a smile, involve ‘gritty’ steel workers and their ‘gritty’ redundancies. Joking aside, Carlyle maintains a deep commitment to turning the film industry in Britain away from the gentle nostalgia he perceives it to be rooted in, and which he condemns as catering for “a conservative, middle-class audience with very little relevance to real people today.”
He knows his view is controversial; not everyone prefers reality to escapism. But he remains steadfast in his view that it is an artform of far greater worth: “Trainspotting enlightened an audience who didn’t know that there are people out there who choose not to choose life. If drama has any value at all, then it must be to explain to people that there are miseries out there that they don’t and should know about.”