The Scottish actor, author, and artist John Cairney died in September 2023, aged 93. It seems only appropriate to have waited until Burns Night to pay him homage. In 2021, The Herald published an ‘Agenda’ piece calling him “the finest incarnation of Robert Burns. Perhaps of any human being. Possibly of all time.” It said that novelist Gordon Williams had asked, “If Rabbie came back today, would he hold a John Cairney supper?” It was only partly a joke.
Cairney knew Burns like they were brothers, down to his very marrow. But he didn’t only portray and present Burns. His other one-man shows on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William McGonagall, Robert Service, and Robert Louis Stevenson were also his own tribute – to men of letters and of Scotland, but above all to the power of their art. This was how I met him, and performed for him, through another man in love with words: my father.
A lad o’ pairts
The son of a driver and road surfacer, Cairney democratised written forms that might otherwise have seemed outdated or elitist. He had a genius for knowing which words should be lifted off the page and made to soar on the craft of his remarkable voice. To be taken from the eye and placed in the ear.
I grew up in Stockport, my Welsh dad being a BBC cameraman and having to live near the Manchester studios. But my parents were restless, and constrained by the micro-class systems of their workplaces. Dad wanted to direct and produce, not be told where to point his lens. So we emigrated to Calgary, Canada, in 1975. The man who’d told Dad a job awaited him at CBC had vanished, so he had to sell hockey equipment at first. But within a year he was directing at local station CFAC-TV.
It surprises me now that I didn’t have a crush on John Cairney when I first met him, aged 11, in 1977. I already had form with handsome and charismatic actors much older than me; I’d been mad for Michael York since I could see. And Cairney was the most handsome, charismatic man on the planet. (I can still say this – just – despite having since met Michael York).
He gloried in his four beautiful daughters and handsome son, and I envied them for having sisters. I could have been in awe of him, but he was too kind for that. I can’t remember how it came about, but he came to CFAC to televise his show about British-Canadian poet and writer Robert Service, which my Dad directed. (He did the same with his shows about other writers for STV).
One Service poem is about a First Nations girl who proves to be a long-dead daughter. I didn’t understand, when asked to play her, how problematic the poem is to modern eyes, or how problematic my casting was. Those weren’t 1977 considerations.
What I understood was that I’d get a day off school in the Rocky Mountains, with my Dad and John, to be on telly. The antique beaded boots of my costume were fragile, and it was snowy, so I got carried about all day. It was brilliant. I went to the CFAC studios to record the poem as voiceover, doing it in one take. John was just delighted – one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever known.
He returned to Calgary a few years later to introduce us to his second wife, wonderful New Zealand-born actor and writer Alannah O’Sullivan. His one-man shows became two-handers. They toured the world and its theatres, sometimes on cruise ships, performing Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker scripts, among others, they wrote themselves.
I visited them in Glasgow in my early 20s in 1990, after moving back. Their art-and-book-filled apartment had views of the Finnieston Crane inside and out; a tremendous painting hung on one wall. They showed me industry can be moving; to see with wider eyes. They sent me to galleries and museums, took me to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh House.
John told of going there for its opening, and spilling red wine on the new cream carpet. Alannah taught me how to get that out. There was always a story. The playwright and director John McGrath dropped by. I had no idea I was in the presence of a creative revolutionary, and sat quietly listening to a conversation I can no longer recall. Auld lang syne cuts deepest sometimes.
John Cairney: the man who played himself
I’ve just realised that my love of dark eyebrows paired with silver-white hair started with John’s own such look. It’s so glamorous and dramatic, the ultimate Celtic accessory. It suited him perfectly. He was so theatrical, but never mannered. It’s who he was: “his charm and charisma were absolutely real”. His voice boomed, his eyes sparkled and took everything in, his hands gestured gracefully to accompany the simplest statement.
The world will remember him in its own ways. A man so ludicrously good-looking, with so sonorous and commanding a voice, so richly talented, that he could have entered the pantheon of Hollywood greats if he wished. A man of faith, and of football. A respected painter and much-read writer. A scholar. A man who played other men and rewarded their words with his voice. A Glasgow man. He travelled the world, but he was born in Glasgow, and died there.
“Ours is a world of storytelling by way of acting and writing … Creativity is all.”
You can read obituaries and public records about all that, or visit the Cairney and O’Sullivan website, or his IMDb page. Watch him gambolling – in what would later be Leonardo DiCaprio’s part – in the Titanic film A Night to Remember, or lying stretched out in a skimpy toga in Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra boudoir.
For me, I treasure these things about John Cairney. A booming, warm laugh. Him shouting, “Oh, well done!” with genuine and rare enthusiasm and encouragement. And above all, John and Alannah standing on our step in Calgary, when he brought her to meet us, during a sublime snowfall. Huddling together in jumpers, fat snowflakes in their dark hair, radiant at being alive and together.
Now, there was a man.
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