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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Monday, 7 September 2009

YOU'VE BEEN FRAMED: Peter Capaldi spins off into the world of Scottish portraiture

This interview with Peter Capaldi appeared in The Herald Arts, Books & Cinema section on Saturday Sep 5. ‘A Portrait of Scotland’, is being shown on BBC4 as I add this posting. Peter is an engaging guide and I'd forgotten how much he loves his raiment... check him out examining original 18th century garb at Mount Stuart on the island of Bute.

It can’t be denied that actor turned director turned presenter, Peter Capaldi comes with a fair bit of baggage in the facial department. As he arrives in BBC Scotland’s top floor café in Pacific Quay to discuss his forthcoming BBC4 arts documentary, A Portrait of Scotland, this truth is backed up by the way in which heads swivel in his direction as one.
As he walks into the roofless patio area, there is a moment when you can see everyone looking at his instantly recognisable somewhat gaunt features, complete with aquiline nose, furrowed brow and slightly wary eyes which dart around nervously, and wondering: ‘Will he do a Malcolm on us?’ They are thinking, of course, of that gruesomely compelling master of fictional political spin and hugely entertaining invective, Malcolm Tucker, whom Capaldi plays to such devastating effect in BBC3 sitcom, The Thick of It, and more recently in the big screen version, In The Loop.
It’s an interesting exercise from the outset in how we look to a person’s face to analyse their character, which in one of the central pillars behind Capaldi’s journey the heart of Scottish portraiture.
With a firm shake of the hand and an almost apologetic smile, Capaldi sits down with his back to his public. You can see this reaction follows him around as he goes about his business, which today, is promoting his first major presenting role. When it’s clear he’s not going to conform to Malcolm-style type and start berating me for existing, the interest dies away and he starts to relax. A bit.
A Portrait of Scotland is a feature length exercise in engaging the viewing public in the artists and paintings that have ‘reflected the changing face of Scotland since the Reformation.’
In it, Capaldi delves into the history of portraiture in Scotland over the last 500 years, and in so doing takes himself off on a fascinating journey which leaves the Glasgow School of Art graduate engagingly enlightened.
From Scotland’s ‘Van Dyck’ George Jameson, a celebrated court painter in the first half of the 17th century, through to Enlightenment figures, Alan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn, on to the somewhat romanticised portrayal of Scottish life by the likes of David Wilkie, Sir Edwin Landseer and beyond, before looking at contemporary artists such as John Byrne, Peter Howson and Calum Colvin, the documentary covers a huge amount of ground.
The film comes alive when Capaldi comes face-to-face with living artists, such as Howson, Colvin, Byrne and Alison Watt. In once scene, Watt gives him a passionately articulate personal appraisal of Sir Henry Raeburn’s early nineteenth century portrait of Major William Clunes during a visit to The National Gallery of Scotland.
It’s noteworthy that none of the academics Capaldi talks to in the film get a hug at the end of the interview, unlike Peter Howson, an old acquaintance from his Glasgow School of Art days.
Likewise, he has a hugely entertaining chat (‘so much of which ended up not being in the film,’ he laments) with artist and writer John Byrne, whom he confesses his something of a ‘personal hero’.
“It’s true that I probably preferred talking to the artists,” he smiles, finally beginning to loosen up himself after a fairly tense start to the proceedings. “Although I’m really interested in history, the academics are I interviewed have a very subjective view of the subject matter. I like talking to the artists. That is my thing.
“I really did not know a great deal about the subject before we started filming,” Capaldi admits. “In my first year at Glasgow School of Art, we did history of art, but I just wanted to be in the pub so didn’t take a great deal of interest. I did not want to be looking look at old slides in a darkened room.
“Being able to be among the paintings was great. We all know what it’s like to see paintings in crowded galleries when you don’t get a chance to view them properly, but seeing these paintings up close was a real joy.”
As revealed in the film, Capaldi’s sensitive approach to his subject is far removed from the edgy characters he has been conjuring up on film and television in the last few years – characters such as Tucker and Mike Evans, Sid’s ranting dad in the Channel 4 teen drama Skins and the doomed King Charles 1 in The Devil’s Whore, a role which ended with his head on the execution block.
Capaldi also reveals a talent for drawing and the opening scene of the film shows him sketching fellow passengers on Glasgow’s Subway. Throughout the film, he sketches the figures in the paintings he views. “For me, sketching the portraits is a way of getting closer to the subject,” he says, adding that it is a discipline to which he has returned in later life after an extended absence.
“I always wanted to act,” he says. “And you lose touch with certain things when you’re busy focusing elsewhere. Until fairly recently, I had stopped drawing apart from doodling but I could still do it. John Byrne talks in the film about how he draws every day and I can see that you have to do that for it to really work. I was working in the theatre at the time and I sit on tube and draw people on the way there and back. Then I started going to life classes at St Martins College in London, which is hard but great fun.
Art is clearly in Capaldi’s blood (‘My grandmother through I had the DNA of Michelangelo’, he quips) and his passion for it is obvious in the film. The Springburn-born son of an Italian café owner, he graduated in illustration from Glasgow School of Art in 1981 although he admits that the arrival of punk rock and the lure of the social life outside the famous art Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed art college was a major distraction.
Revisiting the building, as he does in the film, was says the 51-year-old, a ‘bittersweet’ experience.
“I was rather loud but secretly nervous youth and I feared they would not take me seriously at art school. I found myself not doing the knuckling down. I did fine art in first year and was lacking in the self-discipline required so I did illustration in the end, which suited me because it was more structured and I could draw. It still meant you could play in rock bands.”
Art was always in the background in the Capaldi family, albeit on an amateur basis. “I’m named after my uncle, who was an ice cream man, but a very good artist. My dad too was very gifted too, but family legend was that my uncle was the real artist.
“My mum and dad wanted me to go to art school and be a teacher. I wanted to be an actor but I failed the audition for drama school and Pat Boyle, my art teacher, at St Ninian’s in Kirkintilloch, helped me to prepare a portfolio for Glasgow School of Art. Amazingly, I got in and it was a golden time to be there.”
Capaldi has been based in London since the early 1980s, following his breakthrough role in Bill Forsyth’s much-loved Local Hero. Today, he lives in Crouch End in north London with his wife, the actress turned ITV drama executive Elaine Collins and their teenage daughter, but returns often to Scotland to see his mother and other members of the family.
With the benefit of a bit of distance from the land in which he grew up, Capaldi is keen to point out that he not offering up an over-glorification of Scottish art with this documentary, while adding the codicil that aside from the interviews, the script has been written for him, not by him.
“It focuses on key points,” he explains. “We’re not saying, ‘It’s Scottish so it must be fantastic.’ It’s bringing a disciplined response to the truth by not measuring the subject in a ridiculous manner. Scotland is still a nation on edge of Europe although it punches above its weight.
“It goes without saying that some artists are simply hugely gifted people. They are not like me. They are special people and I want everyone to get that and be part of it and not to feel art is not for them. By same token, you have to revere the gravity of the talent.
“It takes a certain set of magical fingers and eyes to produce the work of a great artist.”

1 comment:

  1. I've just watched A Portrait of Scotland. It's erudite without distancing the viewer, and has left me with a deeper understanding of the gentle art of portraiture.

    I did wonder whether Peter Capaldi thought about Malcolm Tucker's ambition to present an up-to-date version of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, but with more ****.


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