She may be best known for ITV’s Taggart, but as she prepares to return to the London stage in Be Near Me, actress Blythe Duff tells Caroline Bishop that theatre remains her first love.
It has been 20 years since Blythe Duff was last in a stage production in London. It was 1989 – “oh God I can’t even believe I put the word 80 in front of it, that makes it seems so long ago” – when Duff appeared at the London Coliseum in Street Scene. It was her first job in London and turned out to be something of a crossroads in the career of the actress from East Kilbride.
“I remember it being a really important time in my life because literally the next year I then got Taggart,” she reflects. “I suppose at that point if Taggart had not come along I might have decided that I had to move to London…In some ways it probably would have changed the course of my life if I hadn’t got Taggart at that time.”
As it was, Duff was offered the part of DC Jackie Reid in the Scottish television drama that is now Britain’s longest running detective series and has celebrated its 100th episode after 25 years. Duff has stayed with the Glasgow-based show since joining it in 1990, seeing more fake cadavers than anyone should rightly see in a lifetime.
Over the years, she has sandwiched theatre roles in between filming – at Scotland’s Traverse, Citizens and Tron theatres – but the 46-year-old has not, until now, had the chance to return to the London stage. She does so in Be Near Me, an adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel for the National Theatre of Scotland, the company which last year brought its award-winning Black Watch to the Barbican under the same director, John Tiffany. Be Near Me is co-produced with London’s Donmar Warehouse, which stages the production from 22 January following its Kilmarnock premiere.
“I will be decamping most of my house to come down here!” laughs Duff, as she does frequently throughout our chat. It is an easy, genial conversation; Duff, to understate the fact, is talkative. From the moment she picks up the phone to the point, some 40 minutes later, when she is whisked back to rehearsals, Duff talks animatedly and very, very quickly, sometimes so much so that she seems to barely take a breath. But then, she has a lot to talk about, given her obvious enthusiasm for the project she is embarking on.
Be Near Me has been adapted for the stage by Ian McDiarmid, who also plays the central role of Father David Anderton, an Oxford-educated, English-bred priest posted to the parish of Dalgarnock, a small Ayrshire town. Out of place in his new surroundings and faced with hostility from his working-class parishioners, Father David’s downfall is set in motion when his friendship with a pair of teenagers results in him being accused of sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy.
“I think Scotland has a lot to offer but on occasions we don’t always get it right”
Duff’s character, Mrs Poole, is the priest’s feisty housekeeper who, somewhat disillusioned by the community she lives in, finds herself drawn into the cultured world of her well-read employer, and to the man himself. “I suppose when the piece opens you get the feeling that she has found her home, in particular her job, but also it’s more than a job, she’s actually thinking this is a wee heaven for her,” explains Duff, choosing her words carefully before joking, “It’s like trying to speak about a Taggart plot without giving away the storyline! As the play progresses,” she goes on, “we find out that she is actually expecting quite a lot from Father David for a lot of different reasons. She invests a lot of her heart and her soul in that character and in that house and that then turns a bit sour for her.”
It is a portrait of small-town Scotland that is not rose-tinted, something which Duff, a Scot born and bred, feels is particularly valuable. “I think Scotland has a lot to offer but on occasions we don’t always get it right. I think we’re slightly insular and I think slightly we feel… we’ve got a chip on our shoulder and I think that’s what the play also discovers… I think it lays it on the line and it lets us have a peak of what other people think about Scotland and I think that’s very good for us.”
It is for this reason that Duff feels the issues explored in Be Near Me – which surround religion, class, acceptance and fear – may resonate differently depending on where in the UK the piece is seen. As we speak prior to its Kilmarnock debut, Duff has not yet experienced audience reaction to the piece, but speculates that Scottish theatregoers may focus on the religious aspect of the play, while English audiences may see it as a piece about the English/Scottish divide. She has already been “watching like a hawk” the few visitors to rehearsals, trying to gauge a reaction that she feels the actors themselves may not anticipate. “In this environment, a theatrical environment, we are very accepting of everything in the world and that’s fantastic, and I kind of realise that when we go out into the wider community people do have much stronger feelings about things,” she says. “And so I am really looking forward to seeing the balance of the piece and seeing what it is that people are really annoyed about or really happy about or emotional about. I think it’s a very emotional piece.”
The emotion of the play has certainly had an effect on Duff. One particular scene, between Father David and his mother, has had her in floods of tears during rehearsals. That won’t be a surprise to her Taggart colleagues, who are well aware the actress is an emotional soul. “Oh it’s ridiculous!” she laughs. “The boys at work are just like that, uh uh, what you crying about today? I have always been like that; when I was a wee girl I would always cry, my mum and I always had a really good greeting,” she adds, using the Scottish vernacular for crying. “But it’s always genuine. I would hate for them to think ‘oh she’s such an actress, she’s crying all the time!’ It’s always a real cathartic thing and I feel so much better after it. I wonder if I will be able to get through a performance without actually watching that scene and not finding it really emotional.”
“I think out of all the art forms actors are the laziest souls”
Given the strength of feeling that theatre provokes in her, it is surprising that Duff has not dedicated more of her career to it. She says she loves creating theatre; she enjoys watching her fellow actors work and is an eager participant in rehearsals, as director Tiffany, with whom she has worked before, is well aware. “I cannot keep my tongue in my cheek, I am so forthright,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been saying to John [Tiffany], ‘John, I’ve been thinking this’ and he’s like, oh… it’s as if I’m giving him notes, it’s shocking!”
In fact, Duff considers herself a stage actress first and foremost. “I always thought of myself as a theatre actress who managed to do some television. And of course over the years, that seems to have changed and I’m now a telly actress who occasionally gets the chance to go back into the theatre. But I know why I go to the theatre, I know why I gravitate back to it. I just love the process, I love the rehearsal process, I love everything about it.”
Nevertheless, the past two decades have seen her tied to a television series that currently takes up over six months of her year. In fact, she says she nearly missed out on being a part of Be Near Me, fearing the filming schedule of Taggart would overlap with the beginning of rehearsals. When Tiffany first called her in to workshop the piece, “I thought, I don’t really want to get too excited about this because I’m not going to be able to do this and it’s going to be very, very depressing when I go along to this production,” she says.
Why then does she continue in a television show that impedes upon her first love? “Taggart’s wonderful, it’s been an amazing job and I still really enjoy doing it,” she begins, citing the creative input she gets on the show. Partly, she explains, she has been swept along in the success of a programme which she never thought would last this long. “I suppose I always thought, oh Taggart will end and then I’ll go back to the theatre, and then of course the next year… oh alright, we’re doing another year. When Mark McManus [who played Taggart until his death in 1994] died I never thought for one minute that it would continue. Oh gosh, it has! So it’s been the most extraordinary machine that has rolled on and rolled on.” Every time a series ends, she says, she doesn’t think it will be re-commissioned, until it is.
“It’s a big part of the Scottish industry, Taggart, and I don’t take that lightly and I don’t underestimate it”
But there are more considered reasons, too. “I would never be brave enough to leave it,” she says, adding later that she is in awe of actors who can leave a successful show after one or two series. “Because I’m realistic enough, I know how difficult it is out there. Look at the joy of this; it’s a fantastic situation that I’ve managed to have, six months to go off and do a fantastic theatre job and then oh my goodness I can still do [Taggart]. Because there is a slight responsibility as well that I feel… it’s a big part of the Scottish industry, Taggart, and I don’t take that lightly and I don’t underestimate it and I think it’s been an important part of my life and I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And it has provided me with a fantastic standard of living.”
Perhaps it displays just as much bravery that Duff remains content with what she has rather than searching for an even greener grass. And there are many advantages: a television salary has enabled holidays that a theatre wage wouldn’t stretch to, while filming down the road from her home in Glasgow allows her to balance work with family life; husband Tom is – ironically enough – an ex-detective who left the force to establish a property business from home, and the couple have two teenage daughters. “It’s a strange thing because in a sense I feel as if I’ve always had to justify why I am still doing it,” she adds mildly. “And I think I don’t really have to justify that to anybody because I can stay at home, I’ve been with my family, I’ve been able to go home every single night. I don’t know any other actor that has been afforded that luxury.”
Duff does admit to one disadvantage of remaining a part of Taggart: a certain laziness that comes with security. “For the last three or four years every time I’ve been off I’ve kind of fandanced about and been out on fancy holidays!” she laughs. “I’ve been to some fantastic places but of course it’s been to the detriment of… actually having to be creative and having to think about doing a wee bit of hard work. I think out of all the art forms actors are the laziest souls.”
Not only does she feel that Be Near Me is the right job to push herself creatively again, but she gets a return to the London stage into the bargain. “I will be surprised how easy I fit in with that world,” she anticipates, “because I remember that from the last time, thinking oh my God, I actually really, really enjoy it here.” When she opens at the Donmar Warehouse next week, Duff will get the chance to place a few footsteps on the other path that led from the crossroads she encountered two decades ago.