THERE is something refreshing about uncovering an actor who’s spent time in the jug, hid in the Australian bush to avoid conscription, was a ship’s stowaway and once threatened with having his throat slit.

Along the way, he’s been captured by drink and drugs, married young and landed an Equity Card in the most ironic circumstances.

It all suggests tremendous life experience which implies, and is certainly true in the case of former Brookside, Doctors and Emmerdale star John McArdle, having all the more layers to bring to a character.

McArdle, in a break from rehearsals for Patrick Marber’s football dressing room play The Red Lion, in which he plays kit man and one-time local hero Yates, is rewinding on past lives. And you soon realise he could fill several kit hampers with stories.

Now 68 and with hair the colour of a freshly-painted touchline, the Liverpool-born actor explains how he came to be one. But first he recalls how he ended up in Australia and then a New Zealand high security prison.

The turning point for the then 16-year-old came one morning when his father, an Army physical training instructor, set off for work and never came home. He’d suffered a heart attack. “When your father dies young, at 38, with five kids, it really does make an impact,” he says, the understatement evident in his voice. “I went off the rails, as young men do.

After a journey into drink and drugs, and having left school with no qualifications, McArdle landed work as a scaffolder (which was quite astonishing, given he was terrified of heights) but decided to emigrate.

“With my father’s death I realised how short life was. I felt I might die early as well. I needed desperately to get out there and experience life. And given I wanted to see the world I took off to Australia. With me being a young hippy sort with long hair, the lot, this really appealed. It was a very egalitarian society.”

All went well, Down Under. At first. “Me and another bloke shared a flat with a Scots guy, Bill, who announced one day he was heading home.”

He says: “Maybe because his bright red hair and freckles complexion couldn’t take the Australian sun.

“Anyway, Bill was taking a ship going via New Zealand. So we all boarded the ship to see him off and stayed for a bit. But after we’d drunk half the ship’s bar we ignored the tannoy call which said ‘All non-passengers leave the ship’. We decided we’d go to New Zealand, for a laugh.”

It didn’t turn out to be funny. McArdle was captured and put in the brig. And when the ship docked in New Zealand he was sent before “a hanging judge” who sentenced him to three months in notorious Mount Eden prison.

“It had all been a prank, and we’d jobs back in Oz, but the judge made an example of us. And I was terrified. I was a soft, hippy boy.”

The teenager’s head was shaved and he was thrown into a cell with someone so dangerous-looking McArdle was too afraid to even ask why he was inside. “The first night in the cell I was crying my eyes out, and this bloke said, ‘If you carry on like that I’m going to cut your throat.’ And this only made me worse.’”

McArdle didn’t tell his mother he was in prison. He was so worried the worry would wreck her. But his teenage throat, and the rest of him, survived the three months, thanks to an innate ability to play the role of Invisible Scouser and he was deported back to Australia.

Yet, that wasn’t the end of his travails. He found himself called up for the Australian army. “It was decided upon like bingo,” he recalls, smiling in disbelief. “Birthday numbers were called out like bingo balls ‘Everyone born . . . 16. 8. 1950.’ And the results of those drafted announced in the newspaper. So the next day I applied for a job in New Guinea, and got it. Six months later, back from the Solomon Islands, which was wonderful, and now married, aged 21, the army found me in Perth.

“I was horrified. I had to go for an interview where I begged them, ‘I don’t want to join the army, I don’t want to kill people – and this isn’t even my country. I’d be a useless soldier!’ The officer looked at me and said (Aussie accent) ‘We’ll be the judge of that, mate.’”

Thankfully, McArdle received the best rejection he’s ever had. “A few weeks later I got a letter saying simply ‘We don’t want you.’”

After five years, McArdle decided to come back to England. But what to do with his life? His then wife (he later remarried) asked what he had enjoyed at school and he remembered he’d been keen on acting. “I joined the local College of Education theatre workshop and the guy running it said I should become a professional. This gave me real confidence.”

McArdle went on to drama school in London for three years. “Hardships strengthen you,” he says. “When I went to drama school at 26 I had so much life experience, I thought I could get through anything.”

The graduate was determined to make it. He decided to treat the job the way he had that of scaffolder. “I wasn’t going to take other jobs, waiting tables or driving taxis or anything. I said to myself, ‘If I don’t land acting work I’ll starve.’ And this attitude helped me.”

But first he had to earn an Equity card. McArdle landed it, thanks to a stint touring prisons. “But, of course, I had an advantage,” he says, laughing, “when I went up for the interview a woman asked me, ‘What experience had you had with prisons?’ I smiled and said ‘Well, I’ve been in one’.”

John McArdle has rarely been out of work since. But he doesn’t do as much theatre work these days. “It’s hard work,” he admits of touring theatre. “This play is probably the last I’ll do. I’d rather work in television or film. And I’ve got grandchildren now. I took on this part because when a script like this comes along you can’t turn it down.”

Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion is described as so amateur football authentic you can almost smell the liniment. We discover Yates, the kit man who once played for the club, sees a lot of himself in Jordan (Harry McMullen), this talented young trialist with immense potential. Yates wants to take him under his wing, but the manager, Kidd (Brendan Charleson) wants to exploit him. “There’s a pull between Yates and Kidd,” he says. “We have very different ideas of how this young man should progress.” It’s not simply a football story. It’s a morality tale, it’s about humanity. “It’s funny, sad – and haunting.”

Does he know the world of amateur football from experience? “I played,” he shrugs. “Badly. I was a defender. A stopper. My father used to shout at me ‘Take him out!’ And I would. But in my family it was my brother Rory who had all the talent.” He grins: “Yet, he also had such a temper. He became a referee and in one match where a player was arguing with him – which wasn’t a clever idea – Rory ended up head-butting the player.” He shakes his head and smiles: “The referee was sent off for assaulting a player.” A first? “Maybe,” he laughs. “Rory was just too . . . passionate.”

The Red Lion was written eight years ago. Given the pressure on theatre companies to produce diverse work, would a male three-hander be commissioned today? “Yes, that’s a fair question. But although it’s a play about men, their strengths and their weaknesses, their need to compete, to achieve, it’s for everyone in that women will gain a greater understanding of men in watching it.”

It’s not surprising John McArdle has appeared in more TV dramas than his team Liverpool have European championships, including 2001 police drama Merseybeat, in which he starred alongside (second) wife Kathy Jamieson.

His passion for acting is evident. “I didn’t have qualifications when I left school. But when I went to drama school at 26 I felt I had something to contribute. University of life. And I loved every moment of it. That’s continued.”

McArdle’s smile underlines his argument. “I can’t believe I’ve had the chance to work with heroes such as Helen Mirren, Billie Whitelaw. It’s been great to appear with the likes Robbie Coltrane and Robert Carlyle, whom I discovered was a big Brookside fan.”

Right now, the role of the kit man is challenging. There are long, demanding, emotionally wrenching speeches. Yet, it’s all a reminder of why he got into the business in the first place, to throw it all out there. To immerse himself in another character.

He offers a magnificent grin. “And whenever acting life has been challenging I just think of holding a freezing scaffolding pole in the freezing winter.”

Rapture Theatre Company’s production  of The Red Lion is touring venues throughout Scotland, ending at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow June 18.