John McArdle: From Brookside to the beautiful game

Nineteen years after leaving Brookside Close, John McArdle is still greeted as ‘Billy’ by cabbies everywhere.

Thursday, 30th May 2019, 11:11 am
Updated Thursday, 30th May 2019, 12:11 pm
John McArdle in The Red Lion (Pic: Richard Campbell)

The actor who brought the legendary soap character, Billy Corkhill, to life, has enjoyed a career which has taken in everything from Cracker to Waterloo Road to Emmerdale,

And now he is back on stage with a play which has a subject close to the heart of every Liverpudlian – football.

The Red Lion takes audiences inside the sanctuary of the dressing-room where great teams, are forged and careers nurtured – a place few fans get to see beyond the front door.

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The Red Lion

And that’s produced a rarity – a football play that appeals to non-football fans.

Written by Patrick Marber – the author of hit film Notes From A Scandal among a great body of work – it tells the story of a non-football league tream with big dreams but barely a few quid in the bank.

But it’s more than set pieces and tactics.

The Red Lion taps into a world where men talk, open up and reveal their own ambitions and fears.

It’s dark and tender, and funny.

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The set is the dressing-room, strewn with the debris of empty water bottles, discarded kit, and a battered old physio table.

It’s a three-hander with Brendan Charleson as the manager who sees a way of everyone, including himself , benefitting if he sells on rising young star Jordan, played by the impressive newcomer Harry McMullen.

McArdle is Yates, club legend and current kit man. The club is his life, his passion – and he clashes with the gaffer over how best to nurture their young starlet.

The show lasts exactly 90 minutes and is followed by a Q&A in the bar afterwards where the audience gets to discuss the issues raised with the cast and director Michaels Amens.

That adds a different dimension to the night – and it’s a rare chance to meet the cast and explore the topic further.

After a career in television, it has taken McArdle back to his theatre roots, and a very rare tour across Scotland. Every venue is a new one to the actor.

“I’ve been very lucky in my a career and not had to do long tours – I’ve only done two, and this is is the last one,” he said.

So what lured him north for several weeks of rehearsal in Edinburgh and a 15-date schedule of venues from Stranraer to Lanark and Fife?

“The script,” he said without hesitation.

“I wasn’t going to do another theatre run, but this came up, I read it and it was really, really good.”

McArdle describes his character Yates as “the old hand” at the heart of the club – the keeper of confidences, the man who throws an arm around players and kicks them up the backside at the same time.

But there is much more to his story than clearing up, and setting out the room. His life is wrapped around the dressing-room – and his showdowns with the gaffer are as raw, and passionate, as anything you’ll see. If sport IS drama, then this is a fascinating insight into the highs and lows of what it means to be part of a team.

With rehearsals taking place at Edinburgh City FC’s ground, John was able to pick up some tips too from their kitman.

“I found out every kit man looks like me!” he laughed.

Every night, the show opens with John on stage ironing the tops and hanging them on their pegs as the audience drifts in.

The bigger the theatre, the longer it takes to fill, the more tops he has to iron!

“I knew the actor who played the role before and asked him for tips. He told me be a good ironer, and a masseuse!”

The preparations will be familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in a dressing-room – regardless of the sport.

“It’s a sacred place,” said John. “A lot of passion for the team comes out there, lots of arguments too. Everything happens in that room.”

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Marber’s script fleshes out out the characters who bring that room to life and who all blend together to create a unified team, with the kit man and the manager at its very heart – two people with very different agendas for the future of their starlet who has some ideas of his own.

The tour so far has seen very different audiences attending.

“Kilmarnock and Livingston were very much football audiences, but Musselbugh was the opposite, but they all got it,” said John.

“It’s about like-minded people coming together. Acting is similar as you share the same experience filming or rehearsing, and then want to get it right on the day.”

It’s a big change from working in television where John made his name as Billy Corkhill in Brookside – a role he remains ever grateful for opening doors.

“I was doing rep in Liverpool and was stuck in a play that was really awful.

“I told the director I wanted out but he said if I stayed he’d see me okay. He went on to dirfect Brookside and brought me in, so it was worth hanging in there! I think every taxi driver in Edinburgh said ‘hello Billy’ to me. It certainly helped my career.”

That success he also pout down to the strengths of the scripts.

“The writers were just great – not just Phil Redmond, but guys like Paul Abbot and John Godber who went to be so successful. They created real quality storylines. They knew what they were doing,”

The Red Lion, Adam Smith Theatre, Saturday, June 15 with post-show Q&A featuring Raith Rovers’ legend John McStay, and John Greer, co-host of Raith Rovers Hall of Fame Ticket info HERE

Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Friday June 7 & Saturday 8 with post-show Q&A featuring Patrick Marber Ticket info HERE