From QMU to Craiglang
Actors Jane McCarry and Mark Cox reminisce about student life at Queen Margaret College and their years starring in two of Scotland’s best loved TV comedies, ‘Chewing the Fat’ and ‘Still Game’.
It’s a November Monday morning. Jane and Mark should be preparing for an evening show of their new stage show ‘Still Gaun’, but this has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, they are at their respective homes in Glasgow, joining a Zoom call to talk all things QMU (or QMC as it was when they studied there).
“Mark, I was going to phone you, but I’ll just tell you both since you’re here,” says Jane, as she recounts a hilarious story from the previous day. It’s just like watching an episode of ‘Still Game’, Isa is in full swing and Tam can’t get a word in edgeways.
They’re both roaring with laughter by the end and it’s apparent how good friends Jane and Mark have become.
Jane tells me:
"We knew each other at QMC, but we didn’t really become good friends until after."
"We kept getting cast together and our paths kept crossing but it wasn’t until our late 20’s that we started becoming closer friends."
Starting at the beginning - Youth Theatre and ushering at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow saw Mark’s interest in drama grow.
We talk about how his careers advisor at school completely ignored his desire to go to drama college, and instead, encouraged him to apply for an apprenticeship.
"Work always felt like a stopgap rather than a career. The family wasn’t very keen on me giving up an apprenticeship to go to drama school, but I eventually got their support to go and do it. Lots of people don’t get the opportunity to go and do what they really want to do. That’s always been very important to me, that I got the chance."
Jane’s journey to QMC was a little different – first appearing in several shows at Glasgow Arts Centre (GAC) and then completing a one-year drama course at Clydebank College. She recalls how Robin Wilson (then Director at GAC, now lecturer at QMU) helped her prepare her audition pieces. Both had the real feeling that Queen Margaret was different and a ‘bit more them’.
Mark goes on to say:
"QMC suited us perfectly. We are theatricals but we’re grounded. We’ve got families, dugs and cats and everything else. QMC felt like home."
And right on cue, Mark nips away for a few seconds to let his new kittens back into the house. Reminiscing about their fondest memories, both Jane and Mark express their love for Bert Bracewell. “Bert was the fencing and stage-fighting teacher and an absolute legend. He was one of my favourite people in the world. Wee Bert – I just loved him.”
Mark adds: “He made everyone feel like they could be a world champion.” This isn’t the first, and I doubt the last, I’ve heard about Bert Bracewell, who sadly passed away in 2020. He has clearly left a lasting impression on all those he taught.
Jane and Mark fondly mention other lecturers: Lynn Bains, Clive Perry, Christine Raffaelli and Marillyn Gray, to name a few. They reflect on their training and what was expected of them; at least three 12-hour days a week and lateness was just not accepted - three strikes and you were out! “We had to do a 30 minute physical warm-up every morning,” remarks Mark.
Both Jane and Mark are acutely aware of the discipline they received at QMC and how important this was for preparing them for successful careers.
Jane came back to QMU six-years after receiving her diploma to study another year to gain a degree.
"I was a different student second round, rather than thinking about getting my 20 pence on the pool table and doing the minimum, I was the pain in the a*** that was always asking questions!"
We move on to talk about their roles in ‘Still Game’. Mark describes how he first got involved with the sitcom.
"I was out drinking with my friend Paul Riley (Winston), he says to me that Ford (Kiernan) and Greg (Hemphill) (creators of Still Game and ‘Chewin’ the Fat’) were writing for the telly and needed a couple of characters. I appeared in a couple of Chewin’ the Fat sketches and this led to Still Game."
Jane’s journey to Still Game came from having worked with Ford and Greg on a number of sketch and stage shows early in her career.
“I actually played a home help who was very similar to Isa in a comedy sketch show called ‘Pulp Video’. I then did the radio Chewin’ the Fat. I remember, I’d just had a baby, I was greetin’ because I hadn’t slept for weeks and then Julie (Greg’s wife) came to visit and said: “Jane, don’t worry, Ford and Greg are writing a new show and they’re writing you a part as an old woman called Isa.”
Both Jane and Mark skip straight to talking about the Live Shows at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow. This saw 21 shows in 2014 for ‘Still Game Live’, 15 in 2017 for ‘Still Game Live 2’ and eight shows for ‘Still Game Live: The Final Farewell’ in 2019. Every performance was a 13,000 sell-out audience – playing to over half-a-million people.
"We love live theatre; we’re trained stage actors. There’s much more fun to be had doing a live show."
“During the last dress rehearsal on the afternoon before the first show, I tripped and fell on stage. I smashed my glasses, got a massive black eye, cut my face and I later discovered that I’d fractured my wrist. But, what could I do? I just had to go on stage and do the show.” I can see the baffled look on Jane’s face as she replays the moment in her head.
This ‘the show must go on’ attitude was clearly developed at QMC all those years ago.
Mark continues: “At the same dress rehearsal, I’m doing my one-page monologue with not a person in the place and I remember saying to myself: “This is going to be a f**king disaster. Who is going to come and be able to listen to this?” But, the audio was sensational and we had these massive high-definition screens. Technology helped it become a theatre show. You could not do that 20 years ago. That was quite amazing.”
With all the hype surrounding the first live show, Jane reveals the intense nerves she was experiencing just moments before the show.
"The music was blaring; I could feel it in my chest - it was like a rock concert. I said to Mark, What if it’s terrible? What if I forget my lines? I never worry about things like that but because it was so crazy, these doubts were there. And then Mark says to me: Jane, you can do anything in those clothes. And that was the key. We all knew these characters so well. We were all so comfortable, no matter what."
“We got a round of applause for just walking onto the stage at every show - it was sensational,” Mark exclaims with a huge smile, hands held high clapping above his head and follows up with a whoop and a cheer.
“I loved the Hydro, it was fantastic. But even when you’re touring around in an old Corpy van doing TIE (Theatre in Education), you’re still having the time of your life. Even if I hadn’t done anything except for that, it was worth going to drama school - just to get up in the morning to do something you love," said Jane.
“Oh Mark, tell the story about when I said look who’s in the audience,” says Jane with raised eyebrows.
“I’ve never liked seeing the audience so I don’t wear my glasses,” Mark explains. “At the Hydro you can obviously see there is an audience ‘cause there’s thousands of them, but it just looks like a big blob to me. Jane says to me: “Do you see who’s in the 5th row? Peter Kay and Paddy McGuinness!” and I say: “Shut Up! You’re winding me up.”
They reminisce about Peter Kay and Paddy McGuinness coming back stage and how they discovered that Peter is a Still Game fanatic – he knows every character, episode name, release dates – the lot.
Jane also delights in telling me what Peter said to her when he and Paddy joined the cast for dinner: “It was the most exciting thing ever.” Jane does a very good impression of Peter Kay: “Eh, eh Paddy? Get me, having me tea with Granny Murray!” A reference to Jane’s role as Granny Murray in the children’s TV show ‘Me Too’.
We finish with Mark remembering that U2 wanted the Hydro but they couldn’t get it”…cause we added extra shows? Mad!” Once again we’re all chuckling.
It’s not many people who can say that they’ve kept U2 out of a venue, but Jane and Mark are one of the few.
Jane McCarry – Diploma in Drama 1992 and BA Acting 1999
Mark Cox – Diploma in Drama 1993.
Jane McCarry/ Mark Cox (Characters Tam & Isa from 'Still Game') - image courtesy of BBC Scotland/BBC Studios/Alan Peebles