As Robert Carlyle hangs up his holster on the Hamish Macbeth series, Allan Laing talks to the dark star about his decision to end while still ahead one of TV’s more popular comedy dramas.
The great thing about Hamish was its capacity to surprise and that is extremely difficult to sustain… If we had gone past three series then that’s when we would have started getting the wee digs from the critics.
There is always tragedy Wee Jock cut down in his prime in the first series IT was, they said, a collective decision. Everyone instinctively knew that it had gone about as far as it could. It made sense to quit while they were still ahead. Always leave ’em wanting more, they declared.
You wish. The truth is that if Bobby Carlyle had expressed even the remotest interest in taking Hamish Macbeth into extra time then the production team would have leapt at the chance. But the Scots actor knew that extra time would have turned into injury time – and the top-rated series would have suffered.
So enjoy it, for this is the last we will see of Hamish. Eight more episodes and then it’s all over. End of story. Plockton, the one-street Highland village that played host to the most incorrect PC in the business, can return to normal. No more film crews. No more busloads of Macbeth-fan tourists. No more heroes pounding the Lochdubh beat.
But the series, surreal and subversive drama cunningly disguised as a cosy wee show for all the family, will go out, not with a whimper, but a bang. There is always a tragedy close to home for Hamish – Wee Jock, cut down in his prime in the first series; the lovely Alex in the second – and the morbid tradition continues right up to the bitter end.
In writer Danny Boyle’s final script, a two-part story involving the theft of a certain Stone of Destiny, TV John has one of his premonitions of the impending demise of someone very close. And that is a sure sign that the Grim Reaper is making one of his occasional visits to Lochdubh.
So who dies? Well, surely not the dog. Not again. And, more to the point, not Hamish (the series might be over but the door is left open for a possible return, albeit in the very distant future). TV John himself, perhaps? To be honest, your guess is as good as mine for the producers are keeping schtoom about the identity of the victim.
Carlyle himself seems genuinely sad that the series has come to an end. “I’ll miss it,” he says. “For the very selfish reason that I won’t get four months in the Highlands every year. Everyone concerned is quite content to finish up now. I think that, because the stories were often so extreme, that there are only so many tales you can tell before you start dropping your standards.
“I always thought that three series would be enough. It doesn’t matter what the piece of drama is, you are fortunate if you can take it past three seasons. The great thing about Hamish was its capacity to surprise and that is extremely difficult to sustain. We would have reached a stage where there were no surprises any longer. If we’d gone past three series then that’s when we’d have started getting the wee digs from the critics.”
Carlyle admits that, had he wanted to carry on, then the series would undoubtedly have continued. Despite what the producers say, the decision to wind it up was his and his alone.
“Sure, they would have gone on with it. But I didn’t want to because I knew that, if I did, I would start to hate it; that I’d begin to resent the character. As it is, it has been a pleasure right up to the very last day. “And we’ve left it open. We could come back to it. It’s the old expression – never say never – and perhaps in a few years time we could return, maybe in a slightly different form,” he explains.
By chance, the shooting schedule meant that Carlyle’s last few scenes were with Ralph Riach, who plays TV John. It was an entirely appropriate way to finish because the two actors have formed a wonderfully close emotional bond over the years.
“TV John was Hamish’s surrogate father and, in a way, Ralph almost became that for me. We had known each other before we started the series and, during the filming, we struck up this really fantastic friendship. So, in that respect, I was sad that I would not get a chance to continue working with him. There was just this tremendous feeling of moving on,” he says.
So, now that it is all over, what does Robert Carlyle really think of Hamish Macbeth? “Well, for me there always has to be something within the character that I can identify with. Hamish is prob-ably easier in that respect than most, but he is actually every bit as complicated as, say Begbie, in Trainspotting.
“From my own personal tastes, I think it worked best when it was at its darkest – in those episodes where Hamish maybe goes off to some remote island and meets these strange, strange people. It’s no secret to the production team that sometimes I thought they softened it too much when they could have gone much further with the black comedy.”
“I think it always worked best when it was dark. When it became lighter, that was when it began to lose its soul. If I’m honest, I think there were maybe one or two episodes which didn’t quite come up to the mark. But when Danny Boyle was writing and Nick Renton was directing, it was a drama which said a helluva lot more than a 7.15 on a Sunday night show had a right to,” he adds.
The first two episodes of the final series perfectly illustrate the quirky, almost schizophrenic nature of the programme that has been the key to its popularity. The opening show is sheer comedy – almost Carry On Copper in many ways – while the second is a far, far bleaker affair about family tensions and an unsolved murder on a remote island. Both episodes work exceptionally well, but it is the second one that clearly appeals more to the actor.
“I was not hugely comfortable with the comedy. It is not something which has come my way in the past. If I get to choose what I want to do I then go down a darker road and that makes the characterisation more interesting. But I have nothing but the utmost respect for actors who can make people laugh,” he says.
Carlyle confesses that, at the start, he never thought that Hamish Macbeth would be a success. Indeed, the refreshingly self-effacing actor remarks: “To be honest, any level of perceived success is always a constant surprise to me. It is impossible to draw up a format for success. If you could you’d be very rich indeed. You can try to ensure that you cover all the angles. In the end it has to come down to the correct director, writer, producer and cast. I try to make sure that all these things are in place before I commit myself. It is a double-edged sword, of course, because it makes me reluctant to take on work for people I don’t really know.”
Carlyle has a reputation for remaining loyal to friends – and them to him. He is one of the few actors who has been asked back by Ken Loach. It was the maverick director who brought him to attention with a role in Riff Raff in the early nineties, and they were working together last year on critically-acclaimed Carla’s Song, partly filmed in Glasgow.
He has also forged a long-term working relationship with Antonia Bird. His third film under her direction (a heist movie called Face, which co-stars Damon Albarn) is set for release shortly.
Carlyle could be forgiven for not being entirely sure where he is coming from. As well as playing a Cockney in Face, he has just completed another movie, The Full Monty, in which he stars as an ex-steel worker from Yorkshire. Later this year, he’s set to play a Northern Irish journalist in an adaptation of Colin Bateman’s novel, Divorcing Jack (“We start filming in Belfast in July . . . just in time for the start of the marching season,” he quips).
For the moment, however, Robert Carlyle is content to take stock for a few months. He is currently house-hunting in Glasgow. Not, on the face of it, earth-shattering, hold-the-front-page news, perhaps. At least, not until you think about it.
Here is one of Britain’s most talented actors – a man who gets more film scripts than you and I get Readers’ Digest circulars – and he is making a point of keeping his roots in the provincial city of his birth.
This is significant for several reasons. For a start, it shows he is an actor who can afford the luxury of living wherever he likes. “I don’t have to move to London. I’m happy here in Glasgow. But there is a wider issue here too. I know that, predominantly, the characters I will play will be working-class Glaswegians. And the more you get away from that then the more difficult it is to interpret.”
“Lots of actors leave it behind – and good luck to them. There is no incentive for me in doing that. Ewan MacGregor is off to Hollywood and that’s great for him. I wish him all the best. But that’s not for me,” he says.
“I was over at Sundance earlier this year and I was really surprised at the reaction from the film community over there. They knew who I was through Begbie in Trainspotting. But Americans are so difficult to get through to. I just can’t imagine leaving this environment in Glasgow. Heading off for LA, it’s not me. Sorry.
“Here, I’d say that 99% of people are great with me. Maybe it’s because it’s difficult for them to get a handle on me because I play such different characters. I don’t really get the old arm-tugging in the pub. Particularly in Glasgow, I think I have a certain amount of respect with people. I don’t think I’m seen as ‘a TV star’. I am seen as an actor.”
“It has been a very slow but sure journey for me. I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career in that I’ve been able to run in both the commercial television circuit and in what I suppose you call art-house movies. Right now, there is nothing that I desire; that I feel I must do. As long as I can continue to diversify that will keep me perfectly happy.” And that should keep the audience happy too.