Michael Alexander speaks to singer and actress Clare Grogan and former Taggart star Colin McCredie about the impact of Covid-19 on the arts as they play the lead roles in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Covid-busting filmed production, The Magic of Christmas.
They did five episodes together of STV gameshow Win, Lose or Draw in the late 1990s, appeared together on Alex Norton’s episode of This Is Your Life in 2003, worked at separate times on gritty detective drama Taggart, and, in real life, have even been known to hang out together at concerts in Glasgow.
But as Gregory’s Girl and Altered Images star Clare Grogan teams up with Shallow Grave and River City star Colin McCredie to play the lead roles of Mr and Mrs Claus in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s filmed version of The Magic of Christmas, the excitement of working at all during these challenging Covid times is palpable when The Courier catches up with them on a Zoom call.
Heart-breaking, says Clare Grogan
“It was really quite heart breaking watching my calendar being wiped out,” says Clare, 58, reflecting on how, back in March, she was only a few days into another show at Pitlochry Festival Theatre – Barefoot in the Park – when the Covid lockdown forced everything to close.
“I had a really busy year ahead of me. There was just something quite surreal about it all, there really was.
“In my head I really thought we were going to be out of it or on our way out of it within a month.
“But that’s how wrong I was!
“I watched email, phone call after email and phone call just saying ‘this isn’t going to happen Clare. Hopefully it’ll happen next year.’
“I’ve had some difficult days with it because at times it’s felt like our industry has been thrown under a bus.
“My husband and I also have two restaurants, so we’ve experienced that as well.”
Horrendous situation, says Colin McCredie
It’s a sentiment shared by Perth-raised Colin, who, like Clare, has worked hard to sustain a career in the sometimes precarious acting profession.
“It’s been horrendous,” says the 48-year-old who played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Pitlochry last year, adding that other than an online play he did for the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr and some radio, all TV and theatre work through the year had evaporated.
“Although the theatres have been helped out to a degree financially, I think a lot of other industries have maybe shouted out a bit more.
“A lot of industries got back a little bit. Certainly with theatres and live music, they’ve been absolutely decimated.
“Actors can maybe pick up a bit of work doing Zoom or radio.
“But if you are a designer or a stage manager or a lighting designer, absolutely nothing.
“People have had to go and work in Tesco and things like that – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but these are highly trained specialised people.
“When you have Rishi Sunak saying your careers are unviable go and train, I don’t think any other industry would accept that.”
What impact has Covid had on Pitlochry Festival Theatre?
The Magic of Christmas was originally meant to be an outdoor promenade show at the theatre with the gardens set out as a winter wonderland.
But with Covid restrictions meaning people can’t travel to Pitlochry from out-with the area, the decision was taken in November to film the play instead.
It was mostly filmed in Pitlochry, but a scene was also done down in Stirling at a Christmas shop called Tinsel and Tartan.
Clare, who is celebrating her 40th year in show business this year, says it was “like a dream come true” when she got a call from Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s “amazing” artistic director Elizabeth Newman asking if she’d like to play Mrs Claus.
Having started lockdown at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, there was “something really lovely about the opportunity to come back to Pitlochry and do something that was really joyful”.
To then learn that Colin was to play Santa, was truly the icing on the (Christmas) cake.
“For me it was a really nice boost for what has been a really difficult year,” smiles Clare.
“I genuinely love Christmas. It was a dream role to be asked to do Mrs Claus so I relished it.
“I was also very pleased to hear that Colin was going to be Santa, because Santa and I do know each other a little bit from hanging out at gigs in Glasgow and stuff – apart from our illustrious TV appearances we’ve had together!
“Just being in a room with other actors and creative people was really genuinely emotional – all joking aside, because this is what we love doing.
“We were just all delighted to be there and be part of something, and very much enjoyed supporting Pitlochry and Elizabeth Newman who has been really good to us.
“It was really lovely. We were actually giddy with excitement most of the time! There was a lot of laughter going on!”
Thrilling to walk out on a real set
Colin, well known to younger viewers as the star of CBBC’s Woolly and Tig, says it’s great theatres like Pitlochry have managed to produce material over the lockdown period.
Although theatres are not dong live shows, some more than others are spending money and giving people jobs and commissioning writers.
For him, to actually turn up and put on Santa’s costume and walk out onto a set in the open air was “actually really thrilling” and it made him realise actors often take for granted what they do normally.
“It was lovely Pitlochry managed to do this,” he adds.
Colin laughs when he reflects on the times he’s appeared with Clare on TV.
When they did Win Lose or Draw more than 20 years ago, he jokes it was a “dream come true” for Clare to get to work with him at a time when he was already becoming well known for his role as DC Stuart Fraser in Taggart.
A few years earlier, before Colin was in the series – a time, he laughs, when he was “still at primary school” – Clare had appeared in the STV show playing the wife of a Glasgow gangster.
It was also “quite surreal” and “pretty cool” to appear together on This Is Your Life – coming through the doors to find Michael Aspel standing waiting with the ‘big red book’.
But joking aside, having worked with lots of actors who were in Gregory’s Girl like Alex Norton and John Bett, and as one of his favourite films of all time, it was genuinely great to get to work with Clare again – especially as he “quite likes” her band Altered Images.
The appeal of Gregory’s Girl
“The thing about Gregory’s Girl is it was the first time ‘our Scotland’ was seen on screen,” he reflects.
“It was normal working class people in normal houses who went and got chips and played football and went up the country park and they spoke in our accents.
“Certainly when I was growing up it was like ‘this is my life’. It was funny, tender. It was just like watching your life.
“I think that’s why it was so important to people then, because at that time there was no Taggart, there was no Chewin’ the Fat, there was no River City.
“There was no real Scotland on screen. For me it was the first time as a teenager seeing things, saying ‘Oh, I can relate to that’.”
What might 2021 mean for live music?
Both Clare and Colin enjoyed traditional family Christmases growing up and, in ordinary times, enjoy going to see pantos or, in Colin’s case, “watching a good derby” at his beloved St Johnstone FC.
They are both looking forward to having a quieter Christmas at home this year within the restrictions.
They remain cautiously optimistic, however, about what 2021 might bring.
“I definitely know I’m doing an arena tour this time next year with the Human League, so everyone is feeling confident enough about that to say it’s going to happen,” says Clare.
“But with spring dates for things, I just can’t see it.
“I think public confidence has been rattled and I think live music venues might be the last thing that’s going to be coming back, which is really disappointing for me, because I’m missing it enormously.”
Colin adds: “Yes, it’s a difficult thing. We all love going places like the Barrowlands where you are crammed in with 2500 people and it’s five deep at the bar and you are pushing past people.
“That’s what I love about live music. Whether it’s going to see a band in Dundee at Fat Sams or whatever.
“I’m desperate to go back but as Clare says there’s that confidence thing about will they limit numbers?
“Don’t get me wrong I’d love to be back in a sweaty Barrowlands, but we’ll just have to all wait and see how things pan out.”
How to watch The Magic of Christmas
*Written and filmed by award-winning filmmaker Russell Beard and Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Artistic Director Elizabeth Newman, The Magic of Christmas also stars Barbara Hockaday as Lari and Ali Watt as Hari.
The film features music composed and arranged by Barbara Hockaday, lighting designed by Jeanine Byrne and sound designed by Ben Occhipinti.
The filmed production of The Magic of Christmas runs until December 23.
For more information visit www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com