It’s a series that has been described as a mixture of King Lear and The Thick Of It; proof positive that if power corrupts then absolute power can leave a family behaving like the Borgias on a bad night.
Audiences have relished the internecine warfare and sniping, sharp-tongued venom at the centre of Succession, which stars Brian Cox as Logan Roy, a giant beast of a lead character whose exploits around his kith and kin make the court of Caligula seem like Anne Of Green Gables by comparison.
Dundee actor Cox, who has been Emmy-nominated for his portrayal of the cantankerous media mogul Logan as more than just a monster (“The thing that’s so hard for him is that, like Lear, he loves his children, and he would hope to see some of that love reciprocated, as opposed to them just seeing him as a chequebook.”), has never hidden his desire to bring out the humanity in even the most notorious characters on his packed CV.
Which explains why critics have raved about his performances in such villainous roles as Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter, Killearn in Rob Roy, Herman Goering in Nuremberg and Richard Morgan in The Ring.
It might be a long way from Rob Roy to Logan Roy, but there’s more than a hint of a Scottish connection with ongoing developments in Succession.
Because Peter Riegert has just joined the cast – in the third series with a fourth already confirmed – as left-wing lawyer Roger Pugh, who may or may not end up incurring Logan’s wrath or delight.
Pugh has been hired by Logan’s estranged brother Ewan Roy (James Cromwell) to represent his grandson Greg (Nicholas Braun), who is a central figure in the family’s biggest row to date, one that threatens the future of Waystar Royco.
Speaking to the Talking Sopranos podcast in March, Riegert said: “He [my character] is a very old dear friend of James Cromwell’s character [Ewan).
“James’ character is provocatively fighting with the family and he brings me in to deal with his estate and to help his grandson.
“It’s fun. It’s a very good show and I’d never done a Covid thing [production] before so it was fascinating.”
Riegert’s one of those terrific character actors who blends seamlessly into productions and makes you think he has been there all along.
He is best known in the United States for films such as Animal House and Crossing Delancey and TV series The Sopranos – as crooked political operative Ronald Zellman – and Damages.
— Michelle Collins (@michcoll) October 25, 2021
But, here in Britain, he is inextricably linked with one of the most cherished movies in the Scottish canon – Local Hero – which may have been released nearly 40 years ago, but has lost none of its lustre in the intervening decades.
Riegert spoke about his admiration for Bill Forsyth, who wrote and directed the award-winning film about locals in the fictional community of Ferness – many of the scenes were shot in the Aberdeenshire village of Pennan – who lock horns in a battle of wills with US oil executives including the legendary Burt Lancaster in what was one of his last roles.
Yet while it would have been easy for Forsyth to depict the Scots as the heroes and the American interlopers as the bad guys, there was none of that.
Instead, he flipped that scenario on its head and there’s something of the same quality to Succession, which merges comedy with pitch-perfect personal angst.
Riegert, for instance, excelled as Mac MacIntyre in the 1983 film, and there’s no reason to suppose he won’t have the same impact now he has joined Cox, James Cromwell, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck and the rest of a superb ensemble cast under the aegis of scriptwriter Jesse Armstrong, who previously worked on The Thick Of It and its American counterpart, Veep.
Even in Local Hero, there was nothing straightforward about Riegert’s role.
Nor will there be when he clashes with the Roy clan in forthcoming episodes.
Iain Smith, the film’s ebullient associate producer, who also worked on Chariots of Fire, is among those who marvelled at the fashion in which magic was created between Forsyth and his colleagues in the 1983 work.
He told me: “Bill never followed a conventional path and the scene at the end where Peter Riegert’s character, back in the United States, empties his pockets of shells, and realises that he was happier when he was in Scotland, packs a real emotional punch, but there is no sense of the film laying the message on with a trowel.
“In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“Bill is a one-off, he is a true original and he has always blazed his own trail.
“He set off to write something out of the ordinary where the romantic ones in the world were the big oil companies and those who were out for the pennies were the villagers – and that is one of the things which makes it funny.”
Peter fell in love with Scotland
Riegert, for his part, was thrilled to travel to places such as Pennan and Aberdeen – which had previously just been obscure names on a map – and was gripped by the collaborative spirit that surrounded the filming.
He said: “Bill has a devilish sense of humour. He’s very open, extremely curious, and very courageous. What more can one ask for?
“When I met him I just fell in love with the guy. I was in heaven, literally.
“Here I am in the Highlands of Scotland, working with all this incredible talent, having the time of my life. So I was blind to anybody else’s problems.
“The character of Macintyre doesn’t really understand the troubles of the people of the town.
“In his eyes, he sentimentalises this place. But that’s the joke of the movie. They don’t. They can’t wait to sell their place.”
Riegert was already a seasoned pro by the time he performed in Local Hero. But if he was spellbound at working with Lancaster, he also relished meeting and chewing the fat with younger members of the cast.
One of these was was the future Malcolm Tucker and Doctor Who, aka Peter Capaldi who was making his debut in the acting realm.
And his “demented” persona made an immediate impression on Riegert.
He later recalled: “When the shooting was finished, Bill said to me: ‘What do you think of Peter? He has never acted before. Are you worried at all?’
“But I told Bill: ‘Don’t give him an acting lesson, just leave him alone. He is going to be fantastic.
“He’s got his own demented quality and you chose him for a reason. Just trust it. He’s going to be fine.’ And, of course, he was.”
Cox and Forsyth born a month apart
In their own eyes, they have stamped their imprimatur all over film and TV, which makes it more than mere coincidence that Cox turned 75 in June and Forsyth reached the same milestone just a month later.
Both these idiosyncratic fellows – Cox, let’s not forget, has combined all his Hollywood activities with starring as the eponymous Dundee ‘entrepreneur’ Bob Servant, while Forsyth had turned quirky mysticism into an art form – grew up in working-class Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s, when most young men were told by their parents to choose a “safe” profession.
Thankfully, neither succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy of their generation and blazed their own trails on Tinseltown and in various theatre companies on either side of the Atlantic.
Which is why, here we are in 2021, and Cox is wowing viewers across the world in Succession and is now being joined by a cast member from Forsyth’s most noted film, who admits it will live on long after he is gone.
As the 74-year-old Reigert said: “It was very powerful. It was very moving.
“I’ve had a lot of affection about the film from people and it’s always nice to be involved in something that is going to last longer than you will.”
— Zachary Lennon-Simon (@zachlennonsimon) October 29, 2021
But there’s plenty more gas in the tank for these individuals. Cox has put the success into Succession.
Cue the next chapters in this febrile family feud.