Born: August 18, 1948
Loading article content
Died: April 17, 2017
SEAN Scanlan, who has died aged 69, was one of Scotland’s top actors, who achieved great success both on stage and in television.
There’s little doubt Sean Scanlan was an unusual actor. Not only did he manage to shine via the subtle, precise lens of television in series such as The Tales of Para Handy, 2000 Acres of Sky and Rab C Nesbitt (in which he played Rab’s posh Anglo cousin Shug) he was also a truly accomplished stage actor who could deliver huge performances.
In his career Scanlan played the great Shakespearean roles at the Bristol Old Vic, won over the Royal Court and his performance in Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle at the Sheffield Crucible was described as a tour de force.
However, although his CV and natural talent suggest otherwise, Scanlan revealed in a recent interview that he wasn’t born with the performance gene. He had no need, nor desire, to become famous.
“My brother was a lawyer, and I was expected to study law,” he said, grinning in anticipation of his pay-off. “Bill Nighy, whom I would often meet for a coffee before he really made it, was quoted when asked why he became an actor. ‘I was always looking for something to do that didn’t involve work,’ he said. And that’s how I felt.”
Scanlan, who will appear in the recently remade Whisky Galore, worked a great deal for someone who once tried hard to avoid work, although the task was made easier thanks to finding a career he loved.
Yet, as a teenager he had no real idea how life would unfold. And any thoughts of the future were unsurprisingly rather nebulous given his fractured family. In a story line from the all-to-common West of Scotland script, Scanlan’s father Bill was a journalist who left the family when young Sean was just three. He never found out why his dad went off to work in Oxford. The father and son met later but most of the time Bill Scanlan was under the influence of alcohol. His son never dared ask why he had left family, three boys and a girl, behind.
“Bill Scanlan was an irresponsible man,” said his actor son who cites an example. “My mother was a secretary and I heard my father once came up to her office one day, demanding the use of a typewriter, claiming he had a deadline to meet. She gave him the typewriter – and he pawned it. Yet, he was apparently very popular, and charismatic.”
So too was his son. But he was also a little lost. Having been asked to leave Glasgow private school St Aloysius’ College (his Beatles-influenced long hair and gold coloured corduroys were too much for the teacher priests) a pub conversation led to the teenager trying out for the New Victory Players Dramatic Club, based, rather appropriately, in Glasgow’s Hope Street.
He went down “for a laugh” and ended up appearing in the play called Dodd’s Dilemma, as The Father. “I had never even seen a play at this time, let along been in one. But it turns out I got standing ovations every time I went on stage. And when my mother and granny saw me up there both declared ‘Born to it!’ And that was me. I was in.”
All hopes his family once had of a career in law were jettisoned. But he discovered later his mother secretly loved the idea of her son becoming an actor, and that she and his father had been amateur actors at Glasgow’s Athenaeum.
Sean Scanlan took off to London in 1971 to seek his fortune. He joined the Drama Centre, studying at nights and won the Gold Medal, prompting the visiting Anthony Hopkins to declare "You are the new me."
Scanlan had great fun along the way, enjoying party nights and drinking sessions with the likes of rock star Frankie Miller and writer Peter McDougall.
His career moved steadily upwards, but spirit-crushing disappointments also arrived, such as almost landing the lead role of Jimmy Boyle in 1979 film A Sense of Freedom (which would go to David Hayman). “I was too well-fed looking,” he said, with a wry smile. “Too much of a beer belly for the part.”
Scanlan had the talent, but major success often only arrives when accompanied by great luck. The actor landed a key role in the early 1980s ITV drama Airline, which was scheduled for a five-year run, but was shot down after just one series, thanks to Thatcher-TV franchise politics. “I thought at that age I was going to be a star. But you learn.”
Regardless, the actor continued to enjoy great runs in theatre and in television, including a stint in Coronation Street. When he returned to Scotland after 35 years, television doors opened for him, in the form of Rab C Nesbitt, River City and Katie Morag.
He worked hard to rebuild his reputation in Scottish theatre, to break into the cliques, and he managed this, producing searing performances in the likes of The Entertainer, and more recently in the East Germany political thriller, Democracy.
Along the way however, he realised he was following all too closely in his father’s footsteps. But Sean Scanlan quit drinking before it wrecked his career. His new-found love for life coincided with finding a new love who would impact unimaginably. Scanlan, it seemed, found perfect happiness when he agreed to appear at the Citizens’ Theatre in 1998 in Love Lies Bleeding.
He had known actress Barbara Rafferty for years and they had been friends. But now both were single and free to follow their hearts. That was 20 years ago and after that moment the pair were inseparable, often working together in theatre such as Glasgow’s Oran Mor. Indeed, they were scheduled to appear together in the recent production of John Byrne’s Cuttin’ A Rug, until Scanlan was stricken with illness.
“We had wonderful years together,” says Barbara Rafferty of time spent in Glasgow or at their holiday apartment in Nice. “Someone once said ‘Sean doesn’t quite walk as much as he cha-chas’ and that summed up this man who was so charismatic, who looked so great strolling around in his white trench coat. He was funny, and so clever.
“My family loved him, and we’re all devastated. He had great dignity and thought only of others until the last minute. He worried about leaving me alone. He was such a lovely man.”
Friend and panto co-star Elaine C Smith said was heartbroken when she heard of the death. “Lovely Sean has gone,” she said. “And it’s not fair.”
Sean Scanlan lost both his brothers Michael and Tim in recent years to cancer. He is survived by his sister, Barbara.