In Conversation with … Elaine C Smith
The Stand’s New Town Theatre, v7
12:00 (23 August only)
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)
How do you describe a national treasure? From the moment Elaine C Smith walked on to the stage of the New Town Theatre, she was wrapped in a blanket of love and held her audience in the palm of her hand. As an adopted Scot, I am hesitant about trying to describe someone who is so obviously adored by a wide section of the Scottish public: I was fascinated to learn more about this famous actress and comedian and how she came to be so highly regarded by so many people.
Elaine was in conversation with comedian and scriptwriter Philip Differ, whom she has known for many years, but who told us in his introduction that he would pretend he hardly knew her. We got to hear the answers to questions like ‘how did it all begin?’, but also eavesdropped on the backchat of two old friends who shared a common history and experience in the world of entertainment, with Names being dropped here, there and everywhere, though always lovingly, without a smidge of “ooh darling” pretentiousness.
What struck me most of all was Elaine’s pleased surprise at her emergence from an ordinary working-class family, who always ended family gatherings with a singsong [giving Elaine an early insight into the status of billing, and arousing in her a desire to be top of the family bill]. The prevalent “no’ good enuff” gene would normally smother any aspirations to a life in the arts: it wasn’t till, while babysitting one evening, she saw on STV a performance of that groundbreaking Scottish play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil with people “doing straight drama in my own accent”.
She applied to study to teach drama and taught in a school for three years and then her world changed – she met John McGrath and became part of 7:84. It sounds as though much of her good fortune came simply from being in the right place at the right time – Naked Voice, Naked Video, Rab C Nesbitt’s Mary Doll, but it’s her talent that enabled her to prosper. She talked about the gradual emergence of female voices and female characters in a world dominated by ‘the table of men’ – talented scriptwriters who brilliantly told their stories but were all men, meaning that the female voice was never heard, or even thought about [and that even when she was aware of misogyny and sexism she was too feart of the ‘men at the table’ to voice a complaint].
But things have changed, and she has a voice, which is heard. Her proudest moment came when the breast cancer awareness campaign she was involved in resulted in a 50% increase in the number of older women going for screening: but there are so many other things of which to be proud, and she makes sure she goes into schools to let young girls and women know that there are possibilities open to them. Her latest joy is that she can now call herself “Granny Smith”, and spend time with her granddaughter Stella.
Elaine spoke of the importance of theatre that speaks to an audience of itself – this is how it is, and it is OF WORTH. She is quick to acknowledge the factors that made her success, not least that “table of menand the courage of the writers to insist to Alan Yentob of BBC2 that the actors currently playing Rab C Nesbitt and Mary Doll in
the Naked Video sketches should not be replaced by Scottish actors “well kennt in London”.
She’s had a fascinating and wide-ranging career – and still there are people who are surprised that she can act in straight plays – which she, like many comedians, says is far easier than doing comedy… many other fascinating comments, including pointing out that male comedians, even the Big Yin, talk to men, and that there is a need for women’s voices to be heard.
She made us howl with laughter demonstrating the voices she was asked to do [at 24 hours’ notice]: she was the only woman on Naked Radio and had to do them all. The challenge of doing a monologue as Zola Budd, the South African athlete who ran barefoot was howlingly funny: her first few words were okay and then she went on a whistle-stop tour of the UK’s accents… There were so many other golden moments, including conversations on stage with fellow-actors during lengthy applause in Calendar Girls, and how she prepared them for a Glasgow audience after the genteel reception from the good folks in Chichester!
Elaine C Smith is a brilliant actress, a warm-hearted woman, and a feisty Scot who is not loath so speak out in support of causes in which she passionately believes. The end of the session brought long, loud and loving applause from an audience who didn’t want to see their darling leave them – Elaine C Smith, National Treasure, we love you!