'Artist, author … actor. Surprise new role for Alasdair Gray' (Sunday Herald, 01/06/2008)

Celebrated Scots polymath puts down pen and brush to play aristocrat in a short film about the love life of Sir Edwin Landseer, the Victorian painter of Monarch Of The Glen

He is famous for painting church murals and writing one of the most celebrated post-modern novels. Now Alasdair Gray has added another string to his creative bow after revealing details of his acting role in a new Scottish film.

Gray told the Sunday Herald that he had spent the last week playing an aristocrat in a short piece about wild-life painter Sir Edwin Landseer, Queen Victoria’s favourite artist.

The Bedfords – a 15-minute film directed by fellow artist Henry Coombes – looks at the Monarch of The Glen painter’s romance with the Duchess of Bedford after he is invited to her Highland home to do a portrait of the family. The work is said to be influenced by David Lynch’s bizarre, often surreal style.

Gray, a life-long socialist, plays the elderly father-in-law of cuckolded husband the Duke of Bedford, and said he enjoyed playing against type. He added: “It was very easy. I don’t have much acting to do. I largely look wise and hold my tongue.”

He said he enjoyed the working environment. “I like being with actors and television professionals. That sense of family between diverse people is most enjoyable.” Asked if he had taken the job to broaden his artistic horizons, he replied: “I did it because they asked me to and they gave me £500.”

The film is loosely based on the life of Landseer, a wildlife painter who – like one of the protagonists in Gray’s land-mark novel Lanark – eventually went insane. He is played by Ewan Stewart, who has had roles in Hollywood blockbuster Titanic and the Scottish thriller Young Adam.

Landseer is most famous in Scotland for Monarch Of The Glen, the grand painting of a stag that now hangs in the House of Commons. His work offered a sentimental view of the Highlands popular with Victorian tourists.

But Gray admitted that he was no fan of Landseer’s work. “I don’t believe he is one of the great Victorian artists,” he said. “He painted the aristocracy, the hunting, fishing, shooting set, very much in the way they wanted to be seen.”

Gray is not a total stranger to acting, having appeared in a self-penned television play in the 1980s.

And director Henry Coombes, like Gray a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, said he never expected the writer to take on the part. “It was my call to cast him but I never thought I would get him,” he said. “I knew he would be right for the part after seeing him in interview.

“He is a real natural eccentric and I mean that in the nicest possible way. A man of genuine integrity.”

He added: “So far it has been a very enjoyable experience. I am getting a very powerful feeling from his performance. I think it’s going to be good.”

Made by upcoming production company Brocken Spectre, the film was shot last week in Capenoch House, near Thornhill, Dumfriesshire.

Stewart said Gray had been a pleasure to work with and that his acting skills were “fantastic”. “Working with him is a joy,” he added. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. He’s great company as well.”

David Smith, Brocken Spectre’s owner, said that while there were no definite plans yet, he hoped the film would be shown on television and that it would help attract funding to shoot a full-length Landseer film in the future.