Think Brian Cox and you think of his huge, demi-god appearances such as Agammemnon in Troy, in which he made Brad Pitt’s Achilles look like a rep theatre’s flipflop-wearing spear-carrier.
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It’s all rather incongruous therefore to discover the Hollywood actor has been signed up by Radio Scotland to appear in a light comedy, in which he plays a fictitious Dundonian former window cleaner who spends his time writing daft emails. Cox, who now lives in New York, is set to star as Bob Servant, a spoof character created by writer Neil Forsyth, whose emails with spammers across the world have appeared in book form. But it says a lot for Cox, and indeed the strength of the writing in The Bob Servant Emails, that the actor agreed to take on the role.
“At heart I’m a populist,” says the 64-year-old, revealing a wide smile. “I’ve always seen myself more as a comedian than a straight actor. I know that I’ve played all these heavy roles in my career but I tend to look at the funny side of them, which sort of makes them human, really. But as I get older I want to do more comedy, the laughter roles rather than the repressed stuff.”
Cox, who’s set to appear in a new prequel to Planet Of The Apes next year, didn’t know of the Bob Servant success before agreeing to take on the role. While living in New York, Neil Forsyth went to watch a Scottish football game and he started talking to a fellow Dundonian – who turned out to be a close friend of Cox. And the rest …
“I did it to show the flag and help a young writer on his way,” says Cox. “But recording Bob Servant turned out to be far funnier than I’d imagined. Once you get into his outrageous stories you are hooked. You see Neil has captured something particular of the Dundonian, surreal sense of humour. And I don’t think we’ve ever had that before. We’ve had Billy Connolly and Lex McLean’s Glasgow stories and traditions, but now we’ve got this Dundee creature, with so much time on his hands to send out emails, who is just so funny.”
Bob Servant could in fact be the bastard son of Henry Root, the mischievous spoof-letter-writing character created by the brilliant Willy Donaldson in the 1980s, who caused institutional mayhem. “Yes, that’s right,” agrees Cox. “But I think, however, Bob sounds original. I recorded a Question Time last week and was in the studio for about eight hours, and then drove up to Glasgow to record Bob, but I could hardly get a word out because I was in hysterics. The emails were so preposterous.”
The actor reveals that he had a real-life character in mind when he formed the performance of Bob Servant. “He reminds me of my late brother, Charlie, who lived in this incredible fantasy world. Charlie had a very dry and funny sense of humour and always saw himself as a being on the run from the cavalry, which was the VAT man. He was always having to ‘lay low for a couple of weeks’ because there was a ‘posse’ after him. His life was always a comedy drama. I’d be in the back of his van, and notice a cardboard box or something and say, ‘What’s that, Charlie?’ And he’d say, ‘Contraband!’”
Perhaps Charlie Cox should have been the actor? “I never thought of that, but you’re right,” he says, smiling. “He was an actor in life, always pretending, whereas I happen to get paid for it.”
Brian Cox was a late arriver to the film industry, having worked for years in theatre. Nowadays, there’s scarcely a blockbuster or comic book fantasy film made in which he doesn’t appear: The Bourne Identity, The Ring and X-Men 2 are examples. However, the actor admits to being a little disillusioned with cinema.
“The film industry is in a state of flux. And it’s all CGI-based now. Actors are less important. And while I think it’s a phase, I’m actually planning to do more stage work. I hope to appear in That Championship Season, which is being revived on Broadway and the producers are trying to get an amazing cast together at the moment. Hopefully, it will be clinched soon. It’s all so relevant today, with this climate of raging ambition in America. It’s about purity of purpose, getting life into perspective.”
He adds, with a mischievous smile on his face: “Sometimes, I just want to get back to acting occasionally, instead of simply turning up and taking the money.”
“Taking the money” from time to time, he admits, allows him to indulge himself in current home-grown projects such as making a documentary in Africa about tropical diseases, where he follows in the footsteps of David Livingstone. After that, it’s back to Dundee to fulfil rectorial duties at Dundee University. “When I come to Scotland my feet don’t touch the ground,” he admits. “My diary is always tight as a tick.”
He wouldn’t be happy staying in Hollywood, however. “I’m the modern version of the old fashioned explorer,” he says, laughing. “I like to keep moving. And I like to learn as I go along. Life is a continuing odyssey and learning cycle.”
In recent times, he’s learned you can’t escape the influences that form your character. “My father was a great man for variety and he’d take me to the Palace Theatre in Dundee every summer to see a comedian called Johnny Victory. Johnny really made me laugh, although I was only six at the time. Then I came to appreciate Duncan Macrae, Fulton Mackay (who became his mentor in rep theatre) and the master, Stanley Baxter.”
Had he been born 30 years earlier, would Brian Cox have climbed up on to the variety stage?
“It’s hard to say,” he muses. “Being a Dundonian, I just wanted to learn how to speak, which is why I went to drama school. But I do love comedy.”
The Bob Servant Emails begins on October 29 at 1.45pm on BBC Radio Scotland