Interview with actor Brian Cox
Actor Brian Cox OBE was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1946. After leaving the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 1965, he found employment with a variety of prestigious theatre companies and in small roles on television programmes including Z-Cars and the Wednesday Play. His profile grew throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s as he exceled in critically acclaimed productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Riverside Studios and the National Theatre. He is known today as much for his work on stage as for his prominent film and television roles, which include performances in Manhunter, Braveheart, The Bourne Identity, Running with Scissors, Zodiac, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and HBO’s Succession, for which he won a Golden Globe Award.
Riverside Studios: Hello Brian. Can you recall your first visit to Riverside Studios?
Brian Cox: My first experience was of doing Z-Cars (in 1969), which was filmed at Riverside and in the surrounding area. We pretended it was some northern town, but it wasn’t. It was all filmed around Hammersmith and Ravenscourt Park and the studio work was done at Riverside (then the BBC Riverside Television Studios). It was a very good studio. The pub across the road was where people would hang out, because there was no café or anything like that, there was just the pub. I remember that vividly. And I remember recording there vividly. I remember going out the back and watching the river. Little did I know that, within a few years, I’d actually be working there again.
RS: How did that come about?
BC: The whole Riverside Studios movement happened thanks to Peter Gill (Riverside’s first Artistic Director, 1976 – 1980, pictured above, centre), who was astonishing. Peter started this series of workshops which were held in what was the old BBC dubbing theatre, where they used to do all the post-synching for their shows. There was quite an extraordinary bunch of actors, people like Zoë Wanamaker, Ian Charleston, Anna Massey, Penelope Wilton, James Hazeldine… There was a whole group of us who came together. And it expanded and subtracted as the years went on. We were all working with Peter and there were a lot of text exercises and a lot of talking. And Peter started to do productions; The Cherry Orchard, Julius Caesar, and of course his famous production of The Changeling (1978) which I was involved in. All of that grew out of these workshops. Peter was staging things in a much more interesting way than they had been staged. And it was quite an amazing space. People complained because we had to do a lot of running entrances, but the thing about running entrances is that they created a tremendous dynamic, particularly in The Changeling. It was probably one of the most unusual spaces that was going in London, there was no space like it. And Peter mastered that space incredibly well. It was an amazing time.
RS: Did the workshops continue throughout?
BC: Yes, we did them once or twice a week.
RS: So, you were training as well as performing?
BC: I suppose I was retraining because I’d already trained. Peter is a great stickler for language and was brilliant. He had this incredible ear. He taught us all how to listen, how to speak, and really about text. And he was quite pioneering in that way. He was responsible for a lot of fine young actors really beginning to understand their whole relationship to text. That hadn’t been happening. I mean, it happened a bit at the Royal Court with Bill Gaskill and stuff like that, but the great thing about Riverside was that it was very neutral ground. It didn’t belong to the English Stage Company, it wasn’t part of the National Theatre, it wasn’t part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was all these disparate elements which came there for that incredibly historic period, when it really blossomed.
RS: Can you describe the atmosphere at that time?
BC: It was astonishing. It was the best atmosphere ever. It certainly had an amazing effect on me. The Changeling, which had a very young company, showed an incredible edge because there was this raw energy. I felt it was the first time I came into my own as an actor. I learned at Peter’s hand and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that.
RS: Didn’t you also pick up some Box Office skills?
BC: Well, you see, we didn’t have a huge staff and we did this production (of The Changeling) which just went stellar. I mean, it went off the charts. But there was nobody to get the people into their seats so John (Price, actor) and I said, “We’ll do it”. So, we went into the box office and we were there for about a week while the reviews were coming in, better and better reviews. This was quite a sexy production. It really took off in a big way. John and I knew nothing about how to work a box office. I was on the phone and I’d say “What do we do about this? They want four seats?”. It was nuts, absolutely nuts.
RS: Did people recognise you?
BC: Yes. We would do the night shift before we went and got changed, and I remember some actor came in and said, “What are you doing here, aren’t you supposed to be getting ready?” and I said “No, I’ve got to get this sorted”. But it was great.
We also created the studio upstairs, (what became) the original cinema. We cleared that whole top floor and we had skips down below and we were all in masks. We literally did the building work. Well, certainly the knocking down! If there was a wall, we’d knock it down.
RS: So, building work, box office…?
BC: We didn’t think about it at the time, we just did it. It was lucky for me because I happened to live locally.
RS: Did you keep the relationship going with David Gothard (Riverside’s second Artistic Director, 1982 – 84)?
BC: No, I didn’t because I followed Peter Gill to the National Theatre (Gill became an Associate Director of the National Theatre in 1980). I went to do Danton’s Death and that was a great production. Danton was absolutely the sort of production we had been doing at Riverside. It would have been a Riverside production, except we were playing in the Olivier.
RS: But then in 1989 you were back at Riverside Studios.
BC: I was back because of Titus Andronicus (previously staged by the RSC at The Pit). That was great. It was the perfect home for it because of the style of the production. And everything came back. And the other actors, who didn’t know about Riverside… You know, there are a lot of ghosts there. Healthy ghosts. And they felt it. And of course, the scale of the production just suddenly raised. I felt that it was a much better venue for what we did. We got back to the running entrances and exits again. The great thing about Riverside was the audience. It was truly different from the audience you get at mainstream theatres. There was a vibrancy. I don’t remember that feeling in other places.
RS: In 1994, you returned to Riverside again, this time with ‘The Master Builder’.
BC: That was due to William Burdett-Coutts (Riverside’s Artistic Director, 1993 -2020). I did this production at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, but I wanted to take it to London. And I wanted to go where I knew the vibrancy would be. Riverside was, hands down, the place to be.
RS: Can you sum up what Riverside Studios means to you?
BC: Innovation. Cutting-edge. Unexpected. A great deal of fun. What theatre should be. There was nothing like it and that atmosphere pervades throughout. It’s always had that edge to it.
RS: How do you feel about the new Riverside Studios?
BC: I’m excited. It’s on the spot, which is great. I always felt there was more potential to the building than we could ever afford, that was the problem. We could never really open it up to the river, that was always frustrating. It was never quite right. I’m sure the new Riverside will provide a continuation of the remarkable work that was done there. It can’t be anything but. I can feel it in my bones.
RS: Thank you for speaking to us Brian.