"Times change, the struggle continues"
Jeff Sawtell (Morning Star) speaks to actor Sandy Morton about the impact of social theatre, the new wave of US McCarthyism and Bush's war drive. Sandy Morton describes his character Golly in the BBC1's Monarch of the Glen "as a man of principle". "He's not a forelock tugger. He's a truly thinking person, left-of-centre and very much his own man." Sandy could have been describing himself. Except, he's more than a little left-of-centre and proud of it. Recently, I met the 57-year-old actor for a chat in the west London home that he shares with his partner and her family. Sitting beneath a large poster of Che Guevara and in front of an open fire, Sandy touched on life, language, theatre and fears about the war. Described in BBC publicity as "ruggedly handsome", Sandy is certainly steely, with eyes that can command an audience. Minus his trademark wax jacket and wearing T-shirt and jeans, Sandy speaks slowly in a distinct gravelly dialect. Naturally, his role as the ghillie of Glenbogle is pertinent, since it's a far cry from his working class origins in the mean streets of Glasgow. He says that "the life of a loner working the glen is a lot different from an actor playing the part. But, it is all done as authentically as possible. "Living and working on site creates great production values. It is professional and without cynicism. And Scotland is so beautiful, so dramatic". He laughs, "Luckily. I love the rain, it adds to the drama. One second it is clear and panoramic, next the clouds open and everything is enveloped in mist." Born of working-class stock, Sandy toiled in all the usual jobs, including a toy factory, before deciding his future was on the stage. Not just any old stage, mind you. Like many brought up in the 1960s, he wanted to use his talents to campaign for a better world. Thus, after graduating from the Central School of Drama in London in the '70s, Sandy helped set up Borderline to produce the Billy Connelly plays. "It was a fantastic experience taking theatre to working-class communities as diverse as the Ayeshire mining villages and the communities of the Western Isles. "I learnt much. The plays were performed in local halls. One night it might be the bingo, the next night it would be our play. "I'll never forget a woman coming up and saying, 'I wish we could have this every week, it's better than bingo'. "They said: 'We didn't expect you to sound like us, we expected you to sound like actors'. It was a salutary lesson, one which I never forgot. "If theatre is to have any relevance, it has to speak the language of the people. It is the same doing Macbeth. After all, he was a Scot. "You'd think, listening to the Royal Shakespeare Company, that Elizabethan characters actually spoke in BBC English. "Elizabethan theatre was not the posh place we think of today. It would have been closer to music hall with circus acts and gambling going on. "When I first attended college, the tutor asked me if I wanted to lose my accent. I replied No. She beamed and said 'good — we can teach you to speak, but an accent is a living language, changing according to use'." Sandy thinks that much theatre maintains the process of mystification to distance it from ordinary people. He says that "we have to help demystify it. "The bottom line is, it has to be entertaining. Why else would people want to watch a play in a draughty hall?" His experience with 7.84's Slab Boys was the same. "I did it at the first May festival in Glasgow and then we took it to the Royal Court in London." The memories of those times continue to excite. Sandy had joined the Communist Party in 1973 in response to the disturbing events of September 11. "I was extremely upset by the CIA-inspired coup in Chile, the murder of Allende and the subsequent fascist dictatorship of General Pinochet. "I had admired communist tradition in Scotland for a long time, so I decided that it was about time I joined." He laughed as he remembered his mother's shocked response. "She was not impressed. She was a Protestant and thought it was worse than if I'd told her I'd converted to Catholicism." But Sandy was impressed, particularly by the constructive role played the communists during the Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in. "It was an incredible time. Who could not fail to be impressed. They weren't just striking. They were taking over the responsibility for the yards. "Workers were running things. It wasn't just the oratory of Jimmy Reid that inspired, but the workers' all-round leadership." Naturally, being an actor I asked whether he had thought of joining up with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave. He laughed out loud. "Join the Trotskyists, are you kidding? They haven't' got a clue, always invoking general strikes or suggesting that workers take up arms. "Fancy advising workers to take up arms. What arms? Where from? What planet are they from? They're like political Moonies. "Trotskyism was designed to distract workers from the real struggle. I mean, where do they get their money from? "They've always been small, yet manage to bring out a paper with as many pages as the Daily Mirror. Their explanations were never satisfactory. "What is more, they have no sense of humour, they can't laugh at themselves. Everyone has to have an ability to laugh at themselves." Nothing has changed his mind since. He's not too sure of Ken Loach's overly didactic approach to film-making either. "Loach has no respect for actors. The idea that the actor shouldn't know the script is ridiculous, it reduces them to being mere puppets of the director. "Of course Loach has made some good things. The last one I enjoyed was Riff-Raff. Apart from being very funny it was not toeing some sectarian line." It was Sandy's respect for his profession that prompted him to join with Robert Carlisle and others to form the Raindog Theatre Group in the '90s. "We were all bitching about bad directors, so decided to do it ourselves, with the director coming from within the ranks of the actors. "Thus, it was much more a collective effort, the director not being an overlord or ego appointed from outside." They took Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest up the west coast. Naturally, Scottish was the preferred language. "We also changed other things — basketball became football and the Native American was changed into a Gaelic speaker." "There was no money made, but we did have the satisfaction of reaching the people through the language of the community. "It was liberating, there was a spark and it kept the whole company on their toes. I learnt one simple lesson — people are people are people." Turning to his acting influences, Sandy mentions Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando. "Tracy was effortless. And Brando, in his early years, was powerful in a way that Robert de Niro and the like could never hope to be. "They see themselves as stars rather than jobbing actors. Creating an ego was not the intention of Stanislavsky's Method. "He contrived the system to educate mostly middle-class actors to experience the lives of their working-class characters. "Lee Strasburg claimed Brando as his creation. Brando made it clear, in his autobiography that he considered Stella Adler was his mentor." Significantly, it was the height of the Cold War. Adler was branded a communist fellow traveller and social theatre was considered an un-American activity. Ironically, not much has changed. During the current crisis a whole new generation of actors are feeling the ill-wind of right-wing with-hunt. "What's happening in the US is frightening, particularly since Blair has dragged Britain in as the supporting act." However, it is not all dispiriting. Sandy joined the two million people who marched for peace in London on February 15. "It was incredible, inspirational, so many people from so many different walks of life uniting together in a single purpose — to stop the war." Due to bad experiences of sectarianism in the early '80s, Sandy does not now belong to any political party. "In Scotland, the party seemed split between what they called Tankies and Euros. Everything became bitter and ultimately destructive. "I became disillusioned. It was not what I expected. so I decided to concentrate my energies to developing political ideas in the theatre." However, times change and the struggle for a better world continues, especially with the new imperialist drive to war. Sandy considers the situation to be "very dangerous. We all have to do our bit to raise people's awareness of the situation." Naturally, as a life-long reader of the Morning Star, he considers it has an essential and unique role in raising the necessary political consciousness. Sandy Morton's socialist policies have never wavered. He remains deeply committed to the class struggle — a true man of principle.
* * *Morning Star, Britain's daily socialist newspaper