Edinburgh River City star recalls real life ‘soap opera’ of growing up in tough Pennywell

The emotional turmoil of murdering evil cop Joe Dunn lie heavy on the shoulders of Maggie McLean as River City returns to our screen on August 30, but actress Kathryn Howden, who brings the Shieldinch matriarch to life is upbeat and a laugh a minute as we chat over a pot of Earl Grey.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 12:30 pm
Kathryn Howden back home in Edinburgh for a day

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Her ability to see the funny side of life should come as no surprise, her dad was Leith comedian and actor Alex 'Happy' Howden, a man who could always raise a smile.

From Leith originally, the Howdens relocated to Pennywell when Kathryn was just three and the actress is delighted to be home in the Capital for a day; she’s popped through from Glasgow, where she lives with partner Gilly Gilchrist and their daughter Holly, to see her 'screen daughter', Leah MacRae, in a Fringe show.

Kathryn Howden, front and centre, as Maggie McLean with her clan; Caitlin (Gayle Telfer-Stevens), AJ Jandhu (Sanjeev Kohli), Ellie (Leah MacRae), Ruby (Zindzi Hudson)

However, our conversation quickly turns to the similarities between her own working class upbringing and that of the characters of Montego Street, Shieldinch.

"I don't think it matters where you are,” she says, “Although I was brought up in Edinburgh and River City is set in Glasgow, people are the same all over. For me, it's always about family. When I was growing up, if you came out of school early and your mum wasn’t in, you could go to the house of any neighbour and get a jam piece. That is what River City recreates, that sense of community. That feels familiar to me.”

She continues, "When we moved to Pennywell we had that same sense of community, so I feel that I can relate to life in Shieldinch."

After a moment's thought, she laughs, "Actually, when we were kids we didn't realise we were working class because my dad didn't work nine to five. People would say, 'You're working class and I'd be all indignant, 'We're not working class!'"

Kathryn Howden as Maggie McLean in River City

The story brings back memories of her dad, a miner, bus driver, club comic and actor who appeared in films like Gangs of New York and The Acid House, as well as another reason why Kathryn and her siblings Lewis and Frida were confused about the whole working class thing.

"Dad would have a new car every two or three weeks and give the local kids money to watch them for him. These massive cars would arrive in our wee square on the council estate and then disappear just as quickly. What we didn't realise was that he was gambling, winning the cars and then losing them, and then winning again."

One of the areas of Edinburgh blighted by drugs in the Eighties, Pennywell as it was is long gone now and Kathryn recalls, "I remember when I was at college, taking a boyfriend back to show him where I’d lived - mum and dad had moved on to Silverknowes by then. He was absolutely terrified. That was the first time I looked at it through someone else's eyes because, when I was growing up, I knew everyone. I never felt scared, I felt more scared going up to the disco on Lothian Road.

"Of course, that's all gone now. It's really strange, I was talking to my sister about it and our primary and secondary schools and house have all been pulled down."

Kathryn Howden as Maggie McLean with screen granddaughter Ruby, Zindzi Hudson, in River City

Muirhouse Primary and the old Craigroyston Secondary was where the Howdens were educated, "My dad always used to say, 'My first school is still standing and yet yours are both gone'. When he was really ill, he used to like being driven around the area but would get really confused because he couldn't understand the changes, for example, the end of the football pitch of the new Craigroyston School is where our house stood."

It was in Pennywell that Kathryn first made it known that she wanted to be on the stage, there was just one problem, she was painfully shy.

"This is all I have ever wanted to do. I never thought I would do anything else," she admits. "My mum said I wanted to be an actress from when I was three-years-old, but I was really shy when I was wee. Mum said, 'You used to come up with wee plays for yourself but you wouldn't do them in front of anybody'," she laughs.

Any bashfulness has disappeared over the years and Kathryn beams, "I've never looked back, although there are times when it's feast of famine and I've had a great few years doing River City, which is so different for me because I was so into theatre for years.

"I did wee bits of telly but never a long-running role. I think a three episode thing was the nearest I got to that. I don't know if it is an age thing or because I have Holly now, but before when I was offered long contracts I couldn't imagine working in the same place all the time. So I was quite surprised at myself when River City came along, although Maggie McLeod was originally only in it for six weeks.

"They said at the time that the contract might be extended, but not by much, and yet here we are, it'll be five years in November and I had some great story lines, probably why I'm still there. I don't know how I would react if it became just a job."

Those story lines have included murdering her granddaughter's abuser, the ramifications of which are about to be felt when the series returns, on Monday.

"People absolutely live these characters and I think they did a great job with the murder story line," she says. "They looked around and thought, 'If we have him murdered, who can we get to murder him without people hating them?' Because of what had happened to Maggie in the past, they thought she was the ideal one to do it.

"No one knew it was me, they all thought it was going to be Nicole, so no one guessed. They even hid it from me, telling me, 'It might not be you, we've not decided yet.' So even I didn't know until I read the scripts."

Maggie McLean is very much an old school matriarch, there is nothing she wouldn't do for her girls, something that occasionally gives the bubbly performer pause for thought.

"I'm 60 now, although I still have to think about that. Even when I'm reading scripts I think, 'Oh, I could play that,' and then realise I couldn't," she chuckles.

"I am very honest about my age, I don't care about age, but I just don’t quite believe it sometimes. The upside is there are now parts that come up that I was too young to play in the past.

"What is weird, is that on the first day I came to River City, I had a scene with Gayle Telford-Stevens, who plays my daughter Caitlin, and her son Drew and I thought, 'God, that makes me a granny, she has all these kids.' Then, when her daughter Ruby had a son I thought, 'Oh my, now I'm a great granny!'"

So what can we expect when Maggie returns to our screens.

Excitedly, she says, "What I can tell you is that...." she stops mid-flow. "Oh, wait, I can’t tell you that, actually. I'm rubbish," she laughs, thinking, "Right, what I can tell you is that Maggie is kind of losing it. She's getting anxious, having flashbacks and can’t sleep. We're about eight weeks ahead with filming - that was all in the can before our summer break and it's been great having these story lines and I wouldn't be without them but it's way, way more lines than I ever had to learn in theatre."

River City returns Monday 30 August at 10pm on BBC Scotland

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