At a young age Scottish actor Stuart McGugan (78) caught the acting bug. Even though it seemed like a long shot at the time, growing up in the Scottish village of Letham, Angus, he can now look back on a successful career as an actor in renowned television series such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Tutti Frutti and Hamish Macbeth.
Stuart began his working life as a journalist, before the start of his official acting career. “I got thrown out of my school and took on a job as a reporter for the local newspaper,” he clarifies. “That lead to writing articles for not only local papers, but also district papers and national papers. Eventually I ended up, much to my amazement, as a sub-editor at the Daily Mail in London. But as a kid I loved drama and there were quite a lot of opportunities for me to practice acting. Every Boy Scouts group and each Sunday school had their own acting group or concert party. Even the local Young Farmers Association had a drama club! So as a schoolboy I did a lot of drama. I don’t exactly know why I wanted to be an actor, having grown up as the son of a farmer. But I’m very glad I did!”
Getting into drama school
“When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I tried to get into a drama school in Glasgow. But because of my checkered past at school, I couldn’t get any funding from the government to study acting. And my father, a very wise man, point blank refused to give me any money to become an actor. But approximately three and a half years later I reapplied to the drama school and I did manage to get in. Because at that point I’d been working for more than three years and was considered a ‘mature student’. Which at the time meant my fees and other costs would be indirectly paid for by the Scottish taxpayer’s money. So it all worked out for me in the end.”
West coast Scottish humour
As Stuart looks back on his career, which spans over five decades, he particularly remembers having a great time working on the comedy series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and on BBC Scotland’s Tutti Frutti, alongside Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane and Maurice Roëves. “The scripts for the series Tutti Frutti were fantastic. They were written by a brilliant writer called John Byrne. I remember getting them delivered at home in a huge parcel, and reading in bed for over two and half hours. I laughed so hard that afterwards I was sore all over! It was real west coast Scottish humour,” he fondly recalls. “I’m glad to have worked on series with some wonderful scripts. When it comes to taking up an acting job or not, a good script is usually the main deciding factor.”
Making the officers laugh
“Before working on Tutti Frutti, in the 70’s and early 80’s, I had a fun time playing Gunner Mackintosh in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. All the actors who played the soldiers tried their best to make the actors playing the officers laugh and mess up a take. We only occasionally reached that goal. But Windsor Davies (playing the strict Sergeant-Major) quite often managed to get us, and especially Don Estelle (Gunner Lofty Sugden), to burst out laughing! Also, the writers of the series, David Croft and Jimmy Perry, were just genius when it comes to writing the dialogue for the characters. Especially in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Dad’s Army. They would write the lines in such a way, that it would fit the actor who played the character. For instance, you’d be having a normal conversation with Croft and Perry in the rehearsal room… and then a while later you’d read the script for a new episode, where your character would say the exact same thing you once told them in real life. David and Jimmy remembered all that stuff and used it for your character. Therefore, as time went on, the space between the characters and the actors would become smaller and smaller.”
Nowadays the Scotsman is still busy, having recently recorded an entire book for Spotify of the famous ‘Aesop’s Fables’ in Scots Verse. His son Mitch McGugan, who is both a trained classical violinist and a heavy metal drummer, provided the music on it. The 78-year-old actor is also taking up his old profession again for a more personal matter: writing his own biography. “Many actors write their memoirs at the tail end of their career. Over the past fifty years I’ve done a whole variety of things… Ranging from acting, both on screen and in the theatre, to presenting the children’s programme Play School. So there is a lot to recall and write about. The main theme in my biography will be the disasters and odd or bizarre things that happened to me and my fellow colleagues over the years. They’re usually far more interesting than the good things!”
Advice for young actors
With tons of experience in the British entertainment industry, are there any particular pearls of wisdom that Stuart wants to hand down to the up-and-coming generation of actors? “Not that they’d pay any attention,” he jests. “But with the state of the industry now and the fragile nature of the business, I’d advise them to get a degree in something else, before becoming an actor. Also, having a bit of ‘F-you-money’, as we affectionately call it in the business, comes in handy. By that I mean having a pile of money that allows you the luxury of saying no to the more crappy acting jobs. Because if you resent having to do a job, you’re going to do a crap job. So if you have the money and the opportunity, it’s great to be able to pick and choose the roles you take on.”
– Follow Stuart on Twitter here.