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INTERVIEW: Two Doors Down and panto star Elaine C Smith on taking on the mother of all roles

© Andrew CawleyElaine C Smith
Elaine C Smith

Elaine C Smith has performed in sell-out theatres and to millions of television viewers in her four-decade career. But no job has ever been as stressful as the real-life role she took on for the first time this year.

The Two Doors Down and Rab C Nesbitt star was mother of the bride as her eldest daughter, Katie, married long-term partner, Sean.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Did you enjoy the wedding?’ and I said no, it was a wonderful day but having never been mother of the bride before, I found it really stressful,” Elaine said.

“It’s not about you, it’s their day, and you care so much that everything will go well for them.

“Stupid wee things that hadn’t been done would annoy me. My daughter and son-in-law had a ball, as did the guests thankfully.

“I now have a complete admiration for mothers of the bride across the world.

“The wedding was at Dunkeld House Hotel in Perthshire. We have a house up there and it’s a part of the world we love. My daughter always said when she married she would have it there and it was a beautiful setting.”

© Andrew Cawley
Elaine C Smith

Elaine’s other daughter, Hannah, was a bridesmaid. She’s currently following in her mum’s footsteps as an actress. There was another personal first for Elaine this year when her grandchild, Stella, started school.

“They’ve moved into the area where they grew up, so it was weird 20 years later going back to the same school in Mount Vernon that my daughters attended.

“I found myself sitting in the school hall saying, ‘Oh God’. You think that bit’s over, but there’s something lovely about it as well. Some of my daughter’s friends have also had children and they’re now in the same class, so there’s a nice continuity about that.”

It’s not all been personal milestones for Elaine in 2019. Work has been as busy as ever for the in-demand entertainer.

The fourth series of network hit Two Doors Down aired at the start of the year, and she followed that up with a number of stage roles. She worked with the National Theatre of Scotland for the first time on Red Dust Road, which was the adaptation of Scots Makar Jackie Kay’s memoirs, starred in crime author Denise Mina’s play Ida Tamson, and most recently played 50s jazz singer Mary McGowan in The Sweetest Growl.

“When I turned 60 last year I said I was only going to do jobs I really wanted to do,” she continued. “When I was younger, I tended to take everything that came along because I had two young kids and didn’t have a millionaire husband. It wasn’t a hobby. My husband and I had a company together but we had to work to do that.

“There are times when you take a job and you think, ‘that’ll pay the mortgage’. I’m not living a billionaire lifestyle now, but I’m at a stage where the kids are up and now’s the time to do what I really want to do.”

Elaine as Miss Hannigan in Annie

Elaine will be in a theatre production of Brecht’s Puntila & Matti early next year, followed by filming for the next series of Two Doors Down.

Before that, though, is her annual turn in panto. This is the third year back at her spiritual home of the King’s in Glasgow, after nearly a decade in Aberdeen’s premier pantomime.

She’s starring in Jack And The Beanstalk with Johnny Mac and her old pal and long-time co-star Jonathan Watson.

“Even though you know panto is exhausting, when you come in with someone like Johnny, who is so great to work with, I look forward to it,” Elaine said.

“And Jonathan and I were at drama school together – he was the year below me. We started out in Naked Video and then City Lights, now Two Doors Down. But it must be about 15 years since we did the panto together.”

Elaine’s been headlining pantos for almost a quarter of a century, but she says she didn’t feel worthy of that billing in the early days.

“Looking back now, at 61, I think when I got my break doing panto at the King’s, when I was 38, part of me didn’t feel like I’d earned it yet,” she admitted.

“The public did, they knew who I was, but it’s only in the last few years I feel I’ve earned being top of the bill in something like this.

“I think women suffer from imposter syndrome anyway. You’re waiting for someone to come along and say, ‘Sorry, your time’s up, you’ve been found out. Thank you very much’.

“Looking back, I want to say to younger actors not to wish it away. Don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, go out there and earn it and learn how to do this. I’ve learned every single year I’ve done this. I have a thing about encouraging younger women. If all I’ve done is say ‘here’s a path’, then I’ve done my job.

“When you become successful as a woman, you’re called a pioneer and therefore the only one. But then you look up and think, ‘wait a minute, there’s been women before me’. Dorothy Paul, Una McLean, Eileen McCallum, all these actresses.

“But they were never afforded the chances because so much of the comedy wasn’t being made here, particularly network comedy.

“So when Two Doors Down happened I felt incredibly blessed. I’ve had loads of chances and opportunities, and here is another one coming along.”

© Martin Shields
Jonathan Watson, Elaine C Smith and Johnny Mac launch the King’s panto

Elaine’s sense of duty to the next generation of female actors comes from not always having had that backing herself.

“Because there were so few jobs around and so few opportunities for women, generally speaking those who were already there were not all that happy about younger people coming along and you were viewed as a rival. When you’re just getting established, you’re much more likely to say ‘How did she get that part and I didn’t’, that’s the nature of the game.

“But I feel I’ve had a lot of chances and have done for the last 10 or 20 years, so if an actress comes to me then I’ll ask them what they want to know – try this or that. I don’t want people to be carbon copies of me, they have to develop their own thing, but I think it’s a duty, as a woman, to pass on and encourage as many other women as you can.

“One of the worst things about Mrs Thatcher when she became Prime Minister was she didn’t seem to like women much. I really like women and so I see it as a duty to put something back.

“After all, if you can give other people a hand up – do it.”

Jack And The Beanstalk, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Nov 30-Jan 5