by Tom Lappin
Scotland on Sunday, December 28, 1997
These things go in cycles, 1997 began with 'McCallum', a tight clenched fist of a crime drama. John Hannah was the police pathologist of the title, a brooding, moody, principled sort, slicing the corpses from neck to groin, gazing worriedly at the contents, then setting out through' the noirishly shot streets of East London to clear up a detail that was nagging away at the back of his mind. McCallum was Quincy de nos jours, a post modernist crime show hero. He lived in a minimalist loft somewhere near Docklands; he had a self destructive streak. He spent a lot of the first series being slowly poisoned by a villain with a grudge and convenient access to his water supply. He broke up messily with his significant other. He fell apart, physically and mentally.
Throughout the series, JH held the small screen in his thrall. For TV, he's an undemonstrative actor, adept in conveying a sense of inner turmoil that never quite breaks the surface. By crime series standards, 'McCallum' was fine, not quite a 'Cracker', but a cut above the formulaic pap overcrowding the genre, with an ambition that went beyond craving ratings.
But JH didn't want to be in a cop show. 'I'm not comfortable with being McCallum' he told me at the time. 'I tried to get them to change the title. I didn't want to do a show that was about being 'McCallum', like 'Taggart' or 'Morse''.
JH isn't an actor who can slip easily into a 'vehicle'; he doesn't have the role hopping ease of more simplistic, commercially viable actors. His McCallum had to be real rather than a collection of marketable quirks. After making the first series, he was by no means clear whether he'd consider a second.
He came around; 1997 ends with the return of 'McCallum'. JH is back [as Iain], alone, damaged, prone to heading out on drinking binges to sleazy pick up joints, squatting naked by his fridge swilling lager, ravaged alternately by guilt and libido.
JH, by comparison, is almost chirpy. He actually seems quite happy to be back. 'McCallum', you see, isn't just a cop show any more; it's an in depth exploration of the character's psyche. 'The new series follows the ongoing personal crisis that the character McCallum has been developing' says JH. 'In terms of the whole idea of life and death, it asks what life means, how people deal with certain aspects of being alone. It's very contemporary and real without, hopefully, being coy or avoiding those issues that are sometimes quite unpleasant, this physical search for something lacking in his own life.
'It's a continuous thing. We don't jump to episode 2 and everything's fine. We see the way he deals with his own emotional crisis and realises what he is. That's what I find interesting, his development of character, as a human being'.
Hmm, so McCallum rarely gets to say 'right, my son, you are nicked' then? JH's career has always been like this, a deliberate shying away from the simplistic. As detective, Franky Drinkall, in the BBC's 'Out of the Blue', he played probably the most dysfunctional detective ever seen on British TV, so mad he had to be killed off. He was Harry, Bernard Hill's boyfriend, in the peculiar, pretentious film 'Madagascar Skin'. Even in the froth of '4WaaF', he recited Auden with a smouldering intensity that stole the show. Nobody has seen him in the Disney remake of 'The Love Bug' yet, but you'd imagine he brings a certain passion and commitment to the scenes with the freaky Beetle.
Pickiness isn't the greatest of career attributes tho'. While JH's drama school contemporary, Robert Carlyle, and Ewan McGregor lay waste to the world's box offices, JH has experienced a less smooth rise, spending plenty of time slumming it in bit parts in 'The Bill' or 'Between the Lines'. Until '4WaaF' upped his profile he had been considering giving up. It would be tempting to see a second series of 'McCallum' as settling for job security, but actually it reflects a belief on JH's part that it is quality material, a belief supported by audience response.
'I suppose no-one is going to come up and say 'you're in that series, it's shit' he says. 'By nature, it tends to be people who like it. But the response has been quite extraordinary, I find. People are looking for something more than just escapism and moving wallpaper. People respond to the humanity of the programme and what the characters are going thru'. Unlike some more anodyne TV, it doesn't shy away from the darker sides of what people are capable of. It's about life or death. What's more important than that?'
McCallum's job as a pathologist is used almost as a metaphor rather than a situation. McCallum broods over the slab, a witness after the fact. We see more of him outside the workplace, mooching around the mean streets. JH's rather pleased about that, actually, as he 's not over keen on the surgical bits.
'I am quite squeamish', he admits. 'I fainted watching the first 5 minutes of 'Pet Sematary' on video actually. I had to go to the bathroom because I felt a bit giddy and I fell over in there and I thought, well, the wife will come and get me in a minute. And she didn't'.
To research the role, JH hung around Poplar Coroner's Court absorbing the language of pathology. 'The one thing you don't get from TV is the smell, which is actually quite strong and all encompassing. For the actual post mortems, we don't want to be too graphic. I think it's much stronger to leave it to the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. You cam imagine things much more vividly than they can actually be shown. We're not really making a medical documentary, it's a drama'.
For the first couple of episodes of the new series, it shapes up as an erotic thriller as much as a crime drama. McCallum, single and unhappy, spends a lot of time cruising the clubs. JH is disarming about the time sans clothing.
'Yeah, well, there's no point in trying to make something realistic and then being coy about showing your bum,' he says. 'Let's face it, we all lie around with no clothes on. I had a bit of time where, like everyone else in the late 20th century, you go to the gym. I wasn't particularly thinking about the scenes where - no, actually, that's a complete lie, if you're getting your kit off on TV, would you not try and do something about it? Yeah, I was madly pumping iron'.
Being a little self conscious is forgivable in the circumstances. 'McCallum' was JH's first chance to be a star rather than a scene stealing support. It brought him into the league of those TV actors who get their name above the title, become associated with a role. JH remains uneasy about that, unwilling to accept that the series might have changed people's perceptions of him.
'I don't know, you'd have to ask the people who perceive me', he says. 'I honestly don't know. I just get on with the work and I try not to be overly affected by the profile of the work. It gets you a table at a restaurant now and again, perhaps'.
On the plus side, it has increased his visibility, led to some intriguing offers. 'I've been in a very luxurious position of having options, which I think is a very interesting position to be in. It means you can choose not just whether to work or not work but which work you want to do'.
The script he has been associated with most recently, an obvious cause for tabloid stories, is Emlyn Williams' screenplay of his book 'Beyond Belief', tracing the early life of Moors murderer, Ian Brady. Scots producer/director, David Blair, is rumoured to be planning a film and JH's name has come up in connection with the Brady role. For the time being, he's playing it down.
'This is getting totally out of hand. It's a script I read a while ago, that I happened to mention I'd read. As far as I know, there are no plans. I read it quite a while ago. I made a passing comment about it and everybody's knees jerked'.
Actually, JH would seem perfect for the role. He has the same [Glasgow region] background as Brady, is not physically dissimilar, and is demonstrably capable of conveying a certain obsessiveness. Williams' book is a masterful piece of psychological insight, the sort of work JH thrives on. It would be a shame if the prospect of controversy deterred him from what could be a career landmark. Along with 'The Love Bug' of course.
Hannah Bares All
by Claire White
Ask most people what made Four Weddings And A Funeral a memorable film and most cite John Hannah's recital of WH Auden's eulogy in the funeral scene.
Although he played Hugh Grant's gay friend Matthew in the hit film, John won himself a legion of female fans. Those who now tune in to see him in TV drama McCallum will be delighted that in the new series, there's even more of John on show.....
The temperature rises in this steamy series when John's pathologist character strips off for a number of scenes. John says he has no qualms about baring his behind for the cameras.
"There's no point in trying to make something realistic and then being coy about showing your bum," he laughs. "We all - well, I do - lie about in the heat of summer with no clothes on."
The thought of others seeing us in the not so perfect flesh is enough to send most people scurrying to the gym. Faced with the same question, John starts to bluff: "I go now and again like everyone else..." he protests. Then he comes clean: "That's a complete lie. Of course I was madly pumping iron!" he confesses. "If you're getting your kit off in front of everyone, that's what you do!"
Unlike John's McCallum character who leaps in and out of bed with various women, in real life he's happily wed to actress Joanna Roth. John says he loves married life but insists: "We were always happy together anyway. "It wasn't about getting married and having kids. It was about having a big party, which we did. Our life together is just the same - great!" he grins.
"I can't imagine being old and not having children," says John, 34. Although he loves the commitment of his marriage to Joanna, he admits he's nowhere near ready for the patter of tiny feet. "We're both just getting on with our lives and enjoying ourselves," says the native Glaswiegan .
Although John plays a hardened pathologist who performs post mortems without a second thought, in real life he admits he's really very squeamish: "I fainted after the first five minutes when I watched Pet Sematary a couple of years ago," he says. "I felt so giddy I had to go to the bathroom. I hoped Joanna would come and help me but she stayed watching the film!"
John grew up in East Kilbride, Glasgow, and trained as an electrician before a workmate suggested he try acting. The proud Scot, who insisted on keeping his accent for his Four Weddings part, is thrilled about Scottish devolution.
"I'm excited that the Scottish people will have the power to decide what to do with their wealth, rather than people in the South East. I hope other regions follow the same path," he says.
John Hannah, Slab Boy
by Barry Didcock
The Scotsman, January 11, 1997
There are certainly a great many people who have not seen 'Trainspotting', but you would not expect J'4Waaf'H to be one of them. That is especially true given his position - along with the quintet of McGregor, Bremner, Carlyle, Cumming and Capaldi - as one of Scotland's foremost young male acting talents.
'When I heard they were doing the film, I knew that Ewan was playing Renton and I kind of thought Begbie would be a great part', he says.
But as for watching it? Too busy, he says. His excuse for Traindodging is his work on 'McCallum', the STV series which begins a 6 week ITV networked run on Monday. The 34 year old actor plays the eponymous hero, a London based forensic pathologist up to his mitts in murder and mayhem, aided and abetted by 4 sparky colleagues and a long suffering girlfriend. If this all sounds terribly familiar, you were probably one of the 11 million people who watched the pilot episode when it was broadcast in December 1995.
So, if it is that good, what kept it? 'Part of the function of a pilot is to find out what works and what doesn't' explains JH from the London home he shares with his actress wife, JR, and which is currently choked with builders knocking chunks out of his masonry.
'It actually swung into operation immediately' JH continues. 'You've got scripts to write and we started filming in the middle of July, so from the time we got the go ahead, which would have been January, it was only 5 months before we started shooting'. And, as we all know, the clocks run differently in TV land.
The series consists of 3 x 2 part episodes and uses 3 writers and 3 directors. This, says JH, gives it the feeling of being 3 separate films, linked only by people and place. The stories range from domestic tragedies spiced with suicides and infidelities, to a more 'Cracker'-esque plotline turning on murdered prostitutes and skullduggery in the medical profession.
It is intended to be hard hitting and, like it or not, 'Cracker' is the benchmark against which it will be judged. JH recognises this: 'It is in the same territory as 'Cracker' and perhaps 'Prime Suspect', he says. 'I think most of the other detective genres are perhaps a little bit more safe and cosy'.
But, unlike Robbie Coltrane's Fitz, Dr Iain McCallum has no greater vice than a liking for motorbikes and a penchant for cream cheese and pineapple bagels. 'There is nothing majorly quirky about the character. He's a pretty up and down bloke really'.
After a spot of bed hopping in the pilot, [Iain] has now settled down with his girlfriend, Joanna (Suzanna Hamilton). Between bouts of bagel munching - a dramatic contrivance if ever there was one as the first episode is about a family of Jewish bakers - the pair indulge in nothing more demanding than a slippery lets make babies in the bath routine. JH told 'The Scotsman' in 1995 that he could not go an hour on TV without taking his clothes off. So does he stay true to form in 'McCallum'? Well, that would be telling, girls, but lets just say there is more flesh on display on his mortuary slab than in that soapy bathroom clincher. You will have to make do with some gratuitous sloshing sounds instead.
It is all a far cry from JH's most famous role, that of Simon Callow's WH Auden spouting boyfriend in Mike Newell's '4WaaF'. Looking back, it is strange to hear the actor talk about the doubts the cast and crew had about the project at its outset.
'When we were doing it, nobody knew that it was going to be a s successful as it was', he says. 'There were the same old gripes about everything. I think Mike [director] was under a lot of pressure with it. They'd lost some of the budget not long before starting shooting, and it meant that they went from having a 10 week schedule to having a 7 week schedule'.
He is often asked about the film, but now takes a pragmatic approach to the questions and says he has no regrets about making it. His career has yet to go ballistic in the way Hugh Grant's did, but he seems to like it that way. What '4WaaF' did was give him room - to consider better job offers and to scan more fully the available opportunities more fully. He sums it up: 'It just gave me a profile, really. It hasn't made me a better actor but it allowed me to become a safer commodity'. And commodities are all important in what he mockingly refers to as 'show business'.
'With a few years gone by now, I can just see that that's how the business works. It's pretty shitty if you're not on the right side of it, but it's just how people are. People are very unadventurous but if you become acceptable to financiers, then you can find yourself in a lot more films'.
While the performances of Grant and McDowell supplied the film's comic texture and central romantic theme, it was anchored, says JH, by the relationship between his character, Matthew, and Gareth, played by Callow. Accordingly, the movie's most memorable scene is JH's reading of Auden's 'Funeral Blues' at Gareth's funeral. 'I think it's a beautiful poem' he says and, while he is now unable to recite any of it, one critic has described his rendering of it as 'devastating', which is not bad for a former electrician from East Kilbride who never had any intention of becoming an actor until a journeyman at work suggested it.
That suggestion led to JH leaving his apprenticeship to go to the RSAMD in Glasgow. He graduated in  and went into the theatre. The first real break came with a part in a production of Christopher Hampton's 'The Philanthropist' which toured to such theatrical hotspots as Croydon.
Films are his first love, however. He recalls that, around the time of 'The Philanthropist', Al Pacino was bombing in 'Revolution', the American Civil War epic made by Goldcrest. As the film production company went quickly down the pan, it took what was left of the British film industry with it, leaving slim pickings for the young Scottish actor fresh out of drama school. Luckily, JH did not have too long to wait for a screen break: he soon landed a part in 'Brond', directed by another recent graduate, fellow Scot, Michael Caton Jones. Since 'Brond', of course, things have picked up for both British films and that director in particular. He has gone on to steer a number of movies - including 'Memphis Belle', 'Scandal' and 'Rob Roy'. That has meant box office success and he can now claim to be a Hollywood player.
But if 'Brond' was the first and '4WaaF' the biggest, what was the best of his film appearances? JH is in no doubt: 'Madagascar Skin', directed by Chris Newby and produced by Julie Baines. Made about a year after '4WaaF', it again cast JH as gay, this time in a relationship with Bernard Hill. 'It was pretty much coincidence, really', he says, by way of answering the inevitable query about typecasting.
'The story I was told was that they were seeing people for it. Chris hadn't wanted to cast me, I suppose because of the connection [with the gay character in '4WaaF']'. But Baines had already called JH in for an audition, so a 'truculent' Newby grudgingly agreed to see him. JH raved about the script but admitted he did not understand a word of what it was about. 'Chris just laughed and I think that was when we sort of connected'. JH got the part and says it is both the best film he has ever seen and the best work he has done.
So does he fancy following Alan Cumming to Hollywood? 'I'm not saying I'll never go to Hollywood or that I'm desperate to go to Hollywood', says JH, hedging his bets. 'I just want to make films and if they're good scripts, I'll do them'.
His most recent outings are in a romantic comedy, 'Romance and Rejection' and, sounding more promising, 'The James Gang'. It is about 'a mad, dysfunctional Scottish family who argue their way across the country pursued by the police and various other groups'.
So, big screen parts, small screen parts - things are looking good for JH.
Life After Auden
by Tom Lappin
Scotland on Sunday, January 12, 1997
Once a nation of footballers, Scotland is reinventing itself as a nation of actors. When was the last time you saw a film that didn't have a part for Ewan McGregor? Think menacing but witty thugs, these days, and you think about Robert Carlyle. Casting agents who once thought of Scotland as a source of twinkly old buffers, now scour the nation for pasty faced urban Pacinos, all cheekbones and toughened up consonants.
So where does this leave JH, the one that got away? A drama school contemporary of Carlyle's, JH went south 11 years ago. His actor's life has been composed of bit parts, scene stealing cameos, interspersed with a couple of memorable leads. His screen presence has tended towards the intense, playing heavy browed, complex individuals with a neurotic undertow.
For roles such as the self destructive but brilliant cop, Franky Drinkall, in the BBC's short lived 'Out of the Blue', the smart Nick in John Strickland's 'Faith', Harry in Chris Newby's surreal film, 'Madagascar Skin', JH deserves to be recognised as one of Britain's most compelling actors. Trouble is, all those pieces were difficult left field works doomed to be forgotten by all but the dedicated art house crowd. So JH, for the time being, is known as Matthew, the Auden spouting gay character in Mike Newell's obscenely successful '4WaaF'. Sure, his performance was a memorable one, but you suspect that any actor with any depth would have looked pretty good in a movie starring Grant and MacDowell.
Now that profile could change. In Scottish TV's new crime drama 'McCallum', JH plays the eponymous pathologist. It's a prime time network drama, a cop show in effect, with all the potential for shallowness that implies. For once, JH is the star, allowed to dominate, to hog the camera. Only he doesn't really want to.
'I'm not comfortable with being 'McCallum', he says, sipping Stella in a cafe in the heart of gay Soho, oblivious to the sly glances of surrounding Auden fans. 'When we did the pilot, I tried to get them to change the title. I didn't want to do a show that was about being 'McCallum', like being 'Taggart' or 'Morse'.
They wouldn't change the title, but JH was determined that the character wouldn't be an off the peg 'tec, a collection of audience winning traits and foibles.
'I think the one thing I have imposed is a subversion of that character as being heroic. At times, that has meant being unpleasant, not in a quirky, grumpy kind of way but bloody minded, arrogant, a lot more self assured than I am. Being a dithering, emotional cripple can make a lot of characters appealing, so I deliberately tried to go against that idea'.
To damn it with faint praise, 'McCallum' is superior to the bulk of ITV crime dramas. In its favour, it has a noirish quality, a sense of place (the warehouses and back streets of East London). JH's performance has a still authority and a lack of flashiness.
'I didn't want to be comfortable playing McCallum. But what I like about him is that the character is actually much more intelligent about himself than I perceive myself to be. You feel quite empowered when you're pretending to be someone who's more together than you'.
JH isn't playing to some neurosis here, merely acknowledging that his career has rarely followed the smooth path enjoyed by McGregor or even Carlyle. Success has been anything but overnight.
JH grew up in the new town green spaces of East Kilbride. He and his mates would go to the cinema once a week, providing the grounding for lengthy debates on old Hollywood films with a workmate when JH started as an apprentice electrician. The workmate told him to go off and be an actor. So JH did, getting the bus to Glasgow to become an unapologetic student cliche.
'At that time, I lived the life I wanted to live', he says. 'I'd read these biographies of American actors and they'd all struggled in New York, done their classes, lived in poverty, and this is the world you cultivate when you're a student; you can invent yourself in any way you want, enjoy that image of the artist living in a garret with a tin of chicken soup and nothing else'.
So JH fancied himself a 1980s beat, reading Kerouac and Ginsberg and Corso, moving on to Dostoevsky. 'You'd read 'Crime and Punishment' and think, yeah, that's me, I'm Raskolnikov, and you get yourself a big coat and start being interested in philosophical ideas. I don't think there's anything unhealthy about it. I liked EK, but there comes a time when you feel you have to get out, to somewhere where you don't have your mother or your friends saying 'what the **** are you reading that book for, put it down and come to the pub' - and that's your mother not your friends'.
JH left drama school and Scotland at the same time, heading down to London to struggle mock heroically in the impoverished state of unemployed actor. He found that to mention any one of his defining characteristics - being unemployed, being Scottish, being an actor - was enough to put off potential landlords.
JH's CV isn't exactly short, but he paints a picture of long periods of inactivity punctuated by dead end jobs in bad TV series. 'Until about a year after '4WaaF', I had no continuity to my career at all. I've done a lot of things that were shit, because there are certain times in your life when you don't have any choice. There was a whole year when I had one theatre job and didn't work again for 6 months until I did an episode of 'The Bill'. I'd get paid £600 and it just goes on debts. Then I did an episode of 'Between the Lines' and that was crap, then I did 'Civvies' or something, real bottom of the barrel stuff. I thought 'what am I doing? I'm 30 years old and I've made four grand in the last year, nobody sees anything, nothing makes a difference. I'm obviously not very good'. And I know I can be really bad. The good thing is that not that many people have seen me being bad.
'The only reason I didn't give up was because there was nothing else I could do. I tried to get a job at Pizza Express and they turned me down. They wanted 'career motivated waiters''.
What turned things round for him was that resonant little funeral scene in '4WaaF' that had clueless casting agents yelling 'have you heard about this great new Scottish actor?'
'It really changed people's perceptions in the business of what I was. I was quite resentful for a little while afterwards. I'd been doing that for years. I was just the same actor I'd always been. Why am I suddenly being offered work at prestigious venues without having to meet anybody? You think, **** you, 2 months ago, you wouldn't even change your appointment because 'this is the National Theatre, you come to us''.
JH, like everybody involved in the film, was shocked by the success of '4WaaF' and by the power that a mainstream hit had to change the direction of his career. The offers that followed it called for some assessment of what he wanted to achieve. 'Whatever you've done doesn't satisfy the hunger you have', he says. 'That hunger can be in an artistic vein or it can simply be a desire to be rich and famous. There's always someone richer and more famous. You're never completely sated'.
JH, like all actors, thinks about the processes of acting, worries about the correct balance between empathy, naturalness and imagination while probably having a subconscious awareness of what looks cool. American films have been his biggest influence. He regards Al Pacino in 'Dog Day Afternoon' as the finest film performance ever, while being aware that Pacino has since turned into a self parody. In his own work, he's conscious of having a reputation for smouldering, committed roles, and welcomes the chance to lighten up. He lets slip that he's just finished a remake of 'The Love Bug' for Disney.
'I enjoyed it', he says, with only the faintest whiff of self justification. 'You have that Protestant work ethic. I never really thought that I could be any good if I wasn't trying my hardest, sweating and getting dirty'.
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