|Falling To Earth
Sunday Herald 16th March 2003
From superstardom with Deacon Blue to River City via a part in a Ken Loach film ... it's been an unusual career path. But Lorraine McIntosh is undeterred, and she tells Lesley McDowell why
WE may live in an age that takes the reinvention of popular figures for granted -- Kylie and Madonna have made careers out of switching their identities -- but we're still slightly suspicious of it all the same.
So when a singer with one of Scotland's most successful bands ever suddenly pops up in a soap opera, what are we to think? Lorraine McIntosh was so firmly established as part of Deacon Blue, even married to its front man Ricky Ross, that many viewers of the Scottish soap River City were surprised to see her appear as the latest troubled inhabitant of its fictional home, Shieldinch.
There's nothing to say a singer can't become an actor or vice versa. Yet I can't help feeling reassured when I meet McIntosh, and discover that she looks exactly the same as she did at an early Deacon Blue gig I went to about 15 years ago. Tangled black hair piled up on her head, a 1940s-style thrift shop floral dress, black tights and black biker boots -- it's exactly how she dressed then. She's down to earth, chatty, friendly (when I ask how old she was when she had her first child, she asks me if I have any children, and soon we are having one of those ridiculously girly but very amusing chats about late babies and the scarcity of single men), and you get the impression that, fundamentally too, she hasn't changed much since those early Deacon Blue days.
'It was a good time to be a musician in Glasgow,' she says, re miniscing in the canteen at the new BBC River City studios. 'There was tons of stuff -- Texas, Hue And Cry, The Big Dish, Goodbye Mr MacKenzie -- around then. There are very few bands in Glasgow now. Maybe it's a cyclical thing and that time will come around again ...'
These days McIntosh is not only an actor -- she got her first break when Ken Loach cast her in his 1997 film My Name Is Joe, and followed that up with parts in Taggart and the recent stage hit Mum's The Word -- but the mother of three children: Emer, Georgia and Seamus. She is 38 years old, looks easily 10 years younger, and still seems slightly bemused by the path her life has taken.
'My mum died when I was 11,' she explains, 'I was left with my dad; my brothers had both gone to university. My dad didn't cope, he basically fell to pieces after my mum died so my family life at that time was just chaotic, it was just hellish. As soon as I could I got out of it.
'Just after I left school I came up to Glasgow, I didn't have any qualifications, all that had fallen by the wayside like it does in a lot of families when ...' Her voice trails off. 'My dad had a drink problem,' she continues, 'he didn't take care of himself -- I just got out, came to Glasgow and slept on my brother's floor.'
Not sure what to do with herself, McIntosh began busking in Glasgow with her brother before joining various bands. 'The thing then was just to get signed -- you weren't bothered about a chart hit or anything, you just wanted to be in a band that was getting signed.' Eventually she met Ricky Ross and began singing with Deacon Blue.
Success didn't happen overnight. 'Raintown [their first album] was doing nothing until Real Gone Kid came out,' she says. 'It took a lot of hard work, a lot of touring and a lot of luck. I don't think bands get the chance to do that, there isn't the circuit there any more. We played every university, every college, every pub we could find for about two years.'
Throughout the eight years the band was together, they released several albums, all of them hits, and had numerous top 10 singles. They travelled the world, played to huge audiences, were a true success story. Next week Deacon Blue are reforming for one night only to play the prestigious opening gig at Glasgow's newest music venue, the Carling Academy. In spite of the band's achievements, however, the story the press was most interested in was McIntosh's affair with Ross, then married with a small daughter.
How did she, then only 23 and experiencing fame for the first time, handle the breaking of this story? 'It was an awful time,' she says. 'Really, really painful for lots of people, for Ricky, for his wife, obviously. We had fallen in love -- not just because we were in a band, lots of people think, you're in a band, it was bound to happen -- but it would have happened if we'd been teachers meeting in the staff room. You just fall in love.
'But it's not something you're proud of,' she continues. 'You look back, and you think, I can't believe that was actually us. It seems like such an unlikely thing for us to do! But then things happen in life -- it was just such a horrible time. I look at other people in the press now and their stories and I think, you should never judge people because you just don't know what's going on in people's lives. It's so easy to judge.'
She laughs suddenly. 'I'm glad my mother wasn't alive to read about it -- and all her family in Ireland just thought I was this terrible scarlet woman! But your friends are still your friends and they stand by you.'
After Deacon Blue split up, there were rumours of other bands, other singles to release and so on, but McIntosh had always wanted to act, she just thought that at 33 she was too old. 'I mean, when you're growing up in the 1970s in Scotland, in Cumnock, your only option really was Lena Zavaroni, she was about the only role model. My dad used to watch her and say, 'Aw, you could dae that, hen!' But there weren't any drama groups where I lived, or any musical happenings at all. I just thought. I was lucky to have gotten into music.'
It was through a mutual friend, the screenwriter Paul Laverty, that McIntosh met Ken Loach one night for a meal. 'He has this brilliant knack of saying nothing and before you know it, you've told him your entire life story!' she chuckles. 'I'm still amazed he took me on -- he doesn't like 'famous' people, or at any rate, people with a profile, but he knew nothing about the band, so I was OK.'
The profile she enjoyed from her Deacon Blue days may not have been a problem for Loach but it quickly became an issue when she joined River City. Newspapers immediately concluded that McIntosh, a celebrity compared to the rest of the cast, had been brought in to 'rescue' the soap after BBC bosses panicked over low ratings. In fact, its audience share has continued to decline and last week it recorded its lowest ever ratings figure of 157,000 viewers.
McIntosh, keen to quash any remaining doubts about her presence in the soap, maintains she was part of the series from the beginning, although she wasn't due to appear until later. She had auditioned for a role as soon as she heard about River City being launched, but didn't get it. 'My agent told me they were considering me for the bigger part of Alice, and I thought, 'Aye, right', but I got it.'
'That report really annoyed me actually,' she adds, referring to the original story that revealed her new job. 'I came in the next day to everyone winding me up, you know, 'Thanks for saving us' and all that. It's just a great role to play, I'm really enjoying it.'
She agrees that when the series started, the critics were right to call it 'ropey', but argues 'early EastEnders and early Coronation Street were poor too. I think people expect too much -- it's improving greatly now and there's a huge quality of acting on the show.
'There are three young actors over there from the Ken Loach film [Sweet Sixteen],' she says, pointing across a few tables, 'and they're great. I don't see why we shouldn't have a Scottish soap and I don't see why we should be ashamed either of Scottish voices. Some people have been complaining about that aspect of it -- it's all right for Cockney or Australian voices but somehow we don't want to hear ourselves? Why not?'
McIntosh's strong political sense is not articulated in Deacon Blue's songs, as Ross's are, but they do share the same vehemently anti-poverty views. She says she was disturbed to hear that Martin Sheen might be sacked from the US TV show The West Wing for his recent anti-war statements.
'As an actor or a 'famous person', people often ask to use your celebrity status for charity,' she says. 'And that's fine. But when it comes to actually having an opinion of your own to voice, they don't want to hear it.
'I can understand, like in the 1980s and 1990s when a lot of people in bands were being asked to give their political views, some people thinking, what do they know about it? But I want to hear what people who are making films in your country and writing books or songs in your country, think about things, hear their opinions just as citizens.'
Celebrity status is not something McIntosh thrives on -- she doesn't like the instant success of the TV pop shows which, she thinks, don't allow fans to develop a relationship with bands or singers they like: 'Now you're given everything instantly, there's nothing to discover, there's no journey to go with that person, to make you feel that they're really yours, that you discovered them.' And she doesn't like giving interviews like this one either: 'Having your home, your family, your marriage written about -- I knew when I took this job on that that would be a side of it, but it's not a side I enjoy.'
Celebrity, she concludes, is all very well 'if you're living a rareified existence. But if your kids go to the local state schools and you're trying to live a normal life, it's a bit more difficult.' She sighs. It's tough being a down-to-earth star.