Brian Cox is signing copies of his new autobiography, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat. “I’ve done 2,600 and I’ve got another 1,200 to go,” he grumbles. “It’s the curse – well, not the curse, it’s just the way the book business is run nowadays. You have to do these signings. I didn’t know anything about it. They didn’t tell me at the time.”
The title of his autobiography is an old adage from his theatre days. You can only pull off a magical performance if you do the prep. The book is therefore a compilation of the roles and experiences – from the poverty-stricken childhood in Dundee to playing Lear at the National – that manifested as Logan Roy.
The tyrannical media mogul, patriarch of a dysfunctional dynasty, powers the razor-sharp, feverishly acclaimed Succession. Currently airing its third season, it’s the defining drama of our age.
Cox is rambunctious company, canny and frank. It’s impossible not to notice shades of Logan Roy. The role, he says, feels like the culmination of his life’s work.
“Curious things happen. Synchronicity. I do believe to a certain extent in destiny. This part comes along and you go, ‘This is the part that I’ve always been shaping up for.’”
Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, initially batted away Cox’s suggestion to make Roy a Scot.
“Jesse said no, he has to be American. I said fine. He had me born in Quebec to start with so I did a reasonable Vermont-border accent. Then they suddenly changed the guy’s birthplace to Dundee! That was a belter, but a bit of a blow. I mean a nice blow.”
In the second series the Roy clan travels to Dundee – Brian’s home city. “It was weird, because his experience of his history is very different from my experience of my history.”
Cox was the youngest of five children, a family of “Mick-Macks” – a mixture of Irish and Scottish. His father died when he was eight; his mother, a spinner in the jute mills, suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and Cox was raised by his older sisters. He left school at 15, found escape in the Dundee Repertory Theatre and soon left for London to study acting.
Though he says he’d never return to live in Dundee, he was back recently, fishing with long-term friend, fellow actor and fishing master, Paul Young, who shared some wise fishy advice. “He said, just remember you’re not chopping wood, you’re stroking a lady’s chin. I can remember that.”
Cox is less forthcoming on another passion: football. “I’m a Dundonian but because of who I am I can’t just support any one team,” he says. “I admire United but my cousin Bobby Cox played for Dundee. He was the man who invented the sliding tackle.”
Dundee is divided by more than football. Despite being a centre of redevelopment and regeneration, led by the V&A design museum, there is still poverty.
“A Dundonian working-class boy has not got the access I had,” Cox says. “When I went to drama school, my mum was a widow. I got a grant from the Scottish Education Authority covering my fees, plus my expenses. That was in 1963, when we’d just come out of a war. We certainly weren’t a rich country and yet there was this movement towards people having access to stuff that we never had access to.
“There’s still elements of class that are pitifully not recognised. Partly because ours is a feudal system. A horrible system. It keeps people in their place. And people want to be kept in that place because they’re conditioned to behave in a certain way. That’s the tragedy.
“As you know, Dundee has one of the highest drug addiction rates in the United Kingdom. And that’s because of the people who have been deprived systematically for years – from my time onwards. That’s something that really needs to be unstitched. Big time.”
Scotland is the drugs death capital of Europe, with rates higher – far higher – than any other European country. Within the UK, the rate is three-and-a-half times more than other nations. Last year, there were 1,339 drug-related deaths recorded in Scotland – 57 in Dundee. Cox believes the problem’s roots go far back. “If you think about it, we’ve never kept pace with our move from agriculture. We moved from an agrarian society to an industrial society literally overnight. People were simply not prepared for it.
“We had two wars in the 20th century and in the 1950s people were still catching up from the effect of something that happened in the 1840s. Then we move so radically into the digital age and we still haven’t caught up.”
Lockdown gave Cox the chance to reflect. “It was tragic for a lot of people, but a pause button was pressed where we had to take stock, to think, well, where are we? What idiocy are we in the middle of? How did we create the Eton clown Johnson or that horrible pink Pinocchio Trump? Why have we come to this time where we’re in such a state of moral malaise that these creatures come out of the sewers?”
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He takes a brief detour to the stratosphere. “These rich guys taking excursions in their toy planes up in the sky. They say we need more spaceships. No, we do not need more spaceships. We really don’t. What we need to do is attend to the problems we have here. Learn to walk before you fucking fly.”
He returns to Earth. “Of course, in Scotland I love what’s happened. But there’s also been shenanigans going on. I think Nicola [Sturgeon] has done an amazing job. And she gets pelted by people who really should know better.”
Like many expatriates who get intensely patriotic, Cox is a convert to the Scottish independence movement. Does he ever feel that independence is used to distract from the big issues plaguing the nation?
“Focus on freedom,” he replies, “because we’re not free. Decisions are made on our behalf that we have no control of. When you think of the industries Thatcher destroyed and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Cox draws comparisons between addiction now with what he remembers of growing up. “Let’s look at alcohol. In the 19th century whisky was a relatively sacred drink. If you had a good harvest, you drank it. You’d wet a baby’s head. Then, to do with tax, distilleries decided to create this other kind, what eventually became known as blended whisky. But at its early stages it was rot-gut whisky.
“They realised that they had all these people – Dundee was a particular example – where you had all the women who were working and the men who weren’t. They were kettle boilers, house husbands. They were bored. They couldn’t do what they were supposed to do, which would be farmers. So the pub was created.
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“The pub is a completely industrial thing. I remember when I was a wee boy seeing people staggering out of the pub at nine o’clock and falling over, because they were drinking really fast. They were targeted. The guys would get the wages of the women, they’d spend it and then the poverty increased.
“When I was a kid, Scotland was North Britain. Scotland has rediscovered its identity in the last 50 years. Now it’s time to go ahead. I don’t see it as a distraction. I see it as quite the opposite.
“I only woke up to this. I was ambitious. I didn’t want anything to do with country. I wasn’t interested in being a Scot. I just wanted to be an actor. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. But time has told me that you have to acknowledge your roots.”
His book, then, is acknowledgment, ultimately, of how where he is from got him to where he is today. He’s recording the audiobook version the day after we speak. “I’ll probably make it up as we go along,” he says.
It should be a great listen. There are plenty of passages in the book where he takes aim at colleagues and contemporaries – Logan Roy style – and, after decades in the business, Cox has crossed paths with everyone.
There are digs at Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Gambon. The “so overblown, so overrated” Johnny Depp, the “ludicrous” Steven Seagal. And on Ed Norton: “He’s a nice lad but a bit of a pain in the arse because he fancies himself as a writer-director.” Meanwhile, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman all get glowing appraisals.
Have any of your friends mentioned in the book read it yet?
“No, not yet. I’m expecting probably never to hear from some people again. But that’s the way it goes.”
There’s also plenty for Succession fans. Key to the character, Cox says, is that despite Logan Roy’s behaviour, in his heart – if he actually has one – he loves his kids.
“That’s all you really need to know about Logan. Whatever terrible things he does, however awful he is, it comes from this bedrock of wanting the best for his children. It may be terribly twisted and wrong and immoral and all the other things you can say about Logan, but at least it comes from that place.”
There are several hundred pages getting to the heart of Brian Cox, but if he had to sum himself up in a pithy description, what would it be?
“Optimistic. Enthused. Tries his best. Could try harder. Basically, compassionate. Can be intolerant. Doesn’t suffer fools. But no a bad lad.”
Brian Cox’s autobiography Putting the Rabbit in the Hat is out now (Quercus, £20)
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