Interview: Brian Cox at The Cambridge Union

Scarlet Rowe 7 February 2022
Image Credit: @theoratorcambridge on Instagram

Lots of us know Brian Cox (the actor, not the physicist!) for his extraordinary success in the acting and directing world, not least for his role as controversial media mogul Logan Roy in the hit series “Succession”. So, when I am given the opportunity to sit down with Brian before his talk in the Union, I am interested in finding out more about where it all began; namely his childhood in Dundee.

he would hopefully congratulate me on my persistence if nothing else

Brian didn’t have the easiest start to life: he lost his father to cancer when he was just eight years old. II ask him what he thinks his father would say if he saw him now, and how his death has impacted his outlook on life. Brian’s answer to the first part of my question is that “he would hopefully congratulate me on my persistence if nothing else.” He continues, “I think anybody who loses a parent when they are young misses out on a great deal and I certainly did. It was a double whammy for me because my father’s death affected my mother who suffered a number of nervous breakdowns”.

The survival mechanism kicks in, even at the age of eight

In a previous interview with the Scots Magazine, Brian talked about how his mother spent time in Dundee’s Liff psychiatric hospital, and how the family were left “penniless” following his father’s death. Brian tells me that losing his father “was tough but at the same time it is only tough in retrospect because at the time I just got on with it. The survival mechanism kicks in, even at the age of eight.” For Brian, the “downside” of losing his father is that it made him “far too independent far too early,” while the “upside” is that he is “never bored,” and “never depends on anybody” which, he cautions, also comes with its disadvantages.

“Trying to make your way on your own from the age of eight is tricky. I didn’t think so at the time, but if I looked at that little boy now I’d think ‘that poor boy has been left to his own devices from far too young’. Whereas of course for me, I was just getting on with it.” Brian grew up as the youngest of five, and his sisters played an important part in bringing him up, so my next question for him is about what it was like to be the “baby of the family” so to speak. He says that “my initial childhood was very happy until it all went horribly horribly wrong. But also being the youngest child, everyone was concerned about me, so it didn’t occur to me that the person who it caused most disruption to was my sixteen year old older brother.

“I only realised it when I was writing my autobiography [published in 2021] and it made me miss him terribly because we didn’t have much of a relationship. He was eight years older than me and ran away to the army when my dad died, but I think he was really traumatised by the loss of my dad. My sister tells a story about how to cover up for the fact that he was crying at the funeral, he was peeling an orange and frantically hiding behind it. I didn’t know about this until a couple of years ago and it just struck me that everyone was concerned about me as the youngest but he had a far more traumatic time than I did.”

Catholicism is an interesting one. I am no longer religious at all, but the thing that I liked about the Catholic Church was the ritual.

I ask Brian about how (if at all,) growing up in a Roman Catholic family and community shaped him and what his relationship is with the church today. He says that “Catholicism is an interesting one. I am no longer religious at all, but the thing that I liked about the Catholic Church was the ritual. It appealed to my theatrical side. So I loved the Angelus at twelve o’clock and I loved going to the Benediction. And I didn’t even realise I did love it until I thought about it [much later on]. It is the meditative side that it had in those days that I liked.”

Conscious that time is ticking, I ask Brian a final question: what does he miss most and least about the Dundee that he knew as a child? Even though he now lives in New York, Brian maintains close connections with Dundee and served as rector of the University of Dundee from 2010 to 2016. He also returned even more recently to film an episode for ‘Succession’ as Dundee was, coincidentally(!), chosen as the birthplace of media mogul Logan Roy by the writers. Brian says that “Dundee didn’t have any access to Fife until quite late on, meaning that it was quite isolated. So there was a sort of feudalism that I didn’t like and I didn’t like the way that my brother was treated. But it was a lovely little mediaeval city, and the communities were great.”

I thank Brian for taking the time out of his undoubtedly busy schedule to be interviewed and wish him luck for his talk in the chamber. By this point in the article (if not in the interview itself), I have to confess that I have not actually watched ‘Succession’, but meeting Brian has made me reconsider this. Brian is a kind, empathetic and clever man and I am absolutely fascinated (and slightly alarmed) by how he can transform into a formidable, tyrannical and patriarchal character on screen. I guess there is only one way to find out…