The big interview: Dan Gordon

Helen McGurk meets Dan Gordon at the Lyric Theatre.  Picture By: Arthur Allison Pacemaker Press.
Helen McGurk meets Dan Gordon at the Lyric Theatre. Picture By: Arthur Allison Pacemaker Press.

Dan Gordon’s down-to-earth sensibility has made him one of Ulster’s favourite actors, documentary makers, commentators, writers, directors...the list goes on.

Born and bred in working-class east Belfast, he has little ‘aktorrly’ affectation or luvvie pretension.

‘‘The first time I heard a man call another man ‘dahling’ I thought ‘wait a minute, what’s that about..I’m from east Belfast’,’’ he chuckles, in a gruff, mock hard man accent.

When we meet in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, where he is rehearsing for Nivelli’s War, it is with a firm handshake, rather than a mwah-mwah air kiss.

He apologises for being a bit late - he had to change out of his Lycra garb (he cycles in and out to the Lyric from his Greencastle home) into sedate head-to-toe black.

The cycling’s a relatively new thing ‘‘because I’m of an age and all these ads on TV tell you about diabetes and eating too much,’’ he says wryly.

Gordon is funny and self-deprecating, not too precious to admit he turns into a jabbering wreck around other celebrities.

‘‘I get terribly star struck,’’ he confesses.

‘‘I always say the wrong thing to a star.’’

And to prove the embarrassing point he recounts a couple of goofy incidents when he ended up fraternising with Hollywood ‘royalty’.

A few years ago he was in New York with the play A Night in November, penned by Ulster playwright Marie Jones, he met Kevin Costner and had his photograph taken with the statuesque star.

‘‘When Marie and I are together we look like the Krankies,’’ he laughs.

‘So, Marie was on one side of Kevin Costner, who is about 6ft 2in - and I was on the other side - I’m only 5ft 10, so I kinda lifted myself up a wee bit in the picture and Kevin went (he adopts a drawly American accent) ‘Get off your toes Dan’.’’

And there was another cringe-worthy blunder when he met the actor Jeremy Irons.

‘‘I said to Jeremy Irons ‘You were brilliant in the Lion King’...but it was a cartoon and there’s a million other great films that he has done. But I had just been watching the Lion King with my daughter,’’ he says laughing, but still clearly mortified.

Dan Gordon is probably best known for his portrayal of the lovable (?) psychopath Red Hand Luke in the BBC series Give My Head Peace, the breakthrough Northern Ireland sitcom about intertwined, dysfunctional Republican and Loyalist families.

‘‘Ten years of it, and it was great fun and what was nice was that I wasn’t in it all the time - I could kind of come and go and they let me do outrageously back acting, like I was in panto, rather than on the TV.

‘‘It was satirical and it was about here and it kind of replaced James Young who was an idol for a lot of people. It was of it’s time. When there’s satire it actually makes our politicians behave a bit better because they are in the public eye even more.’’

Dan Gordon was born in 1961 in the epicentre of east Belfast.

He recalls a ‘‘very happy childhood’’, with a younger brother and sister and was very much immersed and in love with his local area.

‘‘I went to school there, the school is still standing, but they changed the name, a bit like Sellafield, it used to be Sydenham Infants and Strand Primary and then it became Victoria Primary.’’

He went to the Boys Brigade,in the church across the road.

‘‘It was all a little area - the Lower Newtownards Road; we got our school uniforms on tick, my mum shopped in the butcher’s and the grocer’s - there were shops for everything then, you didn’t go to a supermarket. We had a car, but we didn’t do foreign holidays or go far in the car, maybe Helen’s Bay or Portrush.’’

It was a working-class upbringing, with a very strong shipyard connection.

‘‘My father served his time in the shipyard as a joiner and carpenter, but he didn’t then work for the shipyard. He left and worked for sub-contractors who worked for the shipyard on and off.

‘‘He didn’t spend a huge amount of time on boats, but I have an uncle Andy, which is ironic because Uncle Andy’s in Give My Head Peace, and he did 50 years in the shipyard. My uncle Billy did 30 years.

‘‘From the house I could hear the big old-fashioned air raid warning horn they used in the morning at 8 o’clock and at 6 o’clock in the evening.’’

Growing up the young Dan was ‘addicted’ to television - one of the first times he watched colour TV was in the artist Jack Pakenham’s house up the road, it was for the auspicious occasion of Princess Anne’s marriage.

‘‘Then we got a colour TV from Radio Rentals on the Newtownards Road and paid for it every week.

‘‘I loved Sunday afternoon television because you got old war films and Errol Flynn and Scaramouche and Stewart Granger. I loved the comedies, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. Then later on watching Swap Shop and Blue Peter and Jackanory.’’

Dan grew up through the troubles, but describes being ‘‘very insulated from it’’.

‘‘My father wasn’t interested in either side, he was just a real grafter, but, of course, the troubles impacted on everybody here because you were around it, you heard it, but personally I had very little connection to it. In later life I heard of friends who I had been in primary school with who had died in the troubles.’’

He attended Sullivan Upper School in Holywood and got involved in acting, and so his passion was born.

‘‘There was an atmosphere there where they nurtured creativity and allowed you to do stuff.

‘‘I had a fantastic time at Sullivan and did just enough work to get me through.’’

He trained as a teacher at Stranmillis University College - his subjects were English and Drama

‘‘PE was my subsidiary subject, sure look at me I walk like a PE teacher,’’ he laughs.

But although he qualified as a teacher and worked in schools, he says he found the profession too difficult.

‘‘I couldn’t do it, it was too hard - all that responsibility for those little lives. I discovered myself shouting at them for their English homeworks and there were kids coming into me in secondary school, who hadn’t had breakfast, whose parents maybe hadn’t got up - and the fact that they were there at all was remarkable...and I’m shouting at them for a poetry homework,’’ he says.

‘‘It’s that thing of trying to see them all as individuals and good teachers do that, the teachers who taught me did that, and I just didn’t have that ability - I was more of a childminder.

‘‘Although I was doing Drama and English, I was really storing it up to be an actor.’’

Whilst at teacher training college he worked part-time at the Lyric, under the stewardship of the legendary actor, theatre director and playwright Sam McCready.

He describes his route into the acting profession as ‘‘through the back door’’.

‘‘I was delivering posters round Botanic off a bicycle and brushing the stage and being around and then doing an extra part and that’s how I got in.

‘‘Then I got offered an Equity Card. The Lyric were looking for an acting assistant stage manager - and that meant I could act in tiny parts, like the footman who didn’t speak, or the butler.

‘‘I was there for a year and a half on an Equity contract - then I got offered a part in a Mike Leigh film and Adrian Dunbar took over the part I was playing, which was kinda cool. And then I just went freelance and the rest, as they say, is a mess and a blur and I can remember very little about it,’’ he laughs.

‘The rest’ has been a long theatrical career as an actor, garnering many plaudits and awards for best production, supporting and leading actor along the way.

He has many directing credits to his name including The Hypochondriact by Molière adapted by David Johnston for the Lyric Theatre, Belfast and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness in a prison, which was the subject of a four-part documentary series for the BBC.

He says of prison: ‘‘That institution was really tough - I wasn’t scared, but I was everything else - I was tortured, I was wracked with guilt and anxiety - these young fellas, I could see myself in them - it was that thing about the guys I went to primary school with, because I fluked getting down the road to Sullivan and they went elsewhere; the group that I moved in, I became kinda lower middle-class without knowing that I was doing that.’’

Over the last few years, as well as acting and directing, he has presented and co-authored many documentary and factual programmes for BBC Television and Radio. He is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Ulster programme schedules including programmes as diverse as Thought for the Day and The Book Programme.

Family is very important to Dan. He is married to Cathy, his ‘current wife of 32 years’, who teaches in a school with children with special needs and has three grown-up daughters, who have ‘‘the worst traits of me and the best traits of their mother.’’

His father died in 1992 from a type of cancer called mesothelioma from asbestos that he allegedly picked up in the shipyard.

Talking about the death of his beloved father is an emotional subject.

‘‘My father dying, that was much harder than I ever imagined it was going to be. I never really got over my father’s death. Writing the play, The Boat Factory, which was based on him and the character’s called Davy Gordon, and it’s about him as an apprentice. At the end of the play every night, it wasn’t too hard to produce tears. It was therapy for myself and it was also a love song to Belfast and the shipyard. I love this city. I love this country. We have our problems, and we are a thran, difficult, bunch, but I love being part of the people here.’’

Gordon has always looked up to local actors and talent.

‘‘Mark Mulholland, who played the original Uncle Andy in the Billy plays, John Hewitt, a wonderful actor.

‘‘The very first live theatre play I saw was in 1977 the Lyric - and I can remember the entire cast, but one of the main ones in it, playing the hero in the Colleen Bawn, was Liam Neeson, so the first experience was a good one.’’

He is channelling that admiration for local talent into a new documentary and play about the comedian Frank Carson.

‘It’s called Frank Carson- A rebel without a pause.

‘‘Frank was part of that growth of television between the 70s and 80s, when you could get 22 million people watching one programme.

‘‘I love stuff about here, for people here.

‘‘This sounds awful, but I’m glad I’m not Jimmy Nesbitt - Jimmy has a brilliant life, but I don’t envy what he does, I do what I do to my strengths.’’

Like his late father, Dan Gordon is a ‘grafter’, not just sticking to acting, but with a multi-faceted and accomplished career.

‘‘It’s because I’m from here and you can’t make a living doing just the one thing,’’ he says honestly.

‘‘It’s very hard for young actors in Northern Ireland to make a good living, we do like to say how well we’re doing in the film industry and we are doing much better than we ever did before. Game of Thrones is here, but it will go shortly. A lot of those extras were from here, but a lot of them were wearing their own clothes,’’ he jokes.

And adds: ‘‘When parents said to me ‘my wee lad or my wee girl wants to do acting, what do you think? ‘I used to say ‘get GCSEs, get A Levels, get a degree and then worry about it. Now I say ‘just go for it’.’’