Monday 29 April 2024

In memoriam: Vincent Friell (Telegraph 27/04/24)

Vincent Friell
, who has died aged 64, was an actor whose career describes an entire history of Scottish film and television, beginning with the cult indie comedy Restless Natives (1985) and proceeding to appearances in Danny Boyle’s era-defining Trainspotting (1996) and Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share (2012) via episodes of Taggart, Rab C. Nesbitt and Still Game.

In Restless Natives, directed by the American import Michael Hoffman from a script by Ninian Dunnett, the dark-browed, 6’3” Friell – a gangly, shrugging presence in the John Gordon Sinclair mould – starred as the lovelorn Will, one of two underemployed chancers who become unlikely, Dick Turpin-like folk heroes upon holding up tour buses with toy guns. Set to a stirring score by Big Country’s Stuart Adamson, it echoed Bill Forsyth’s beguiling, better known efforts at modern Scottish mythmaking; much like Gregory’s Girl (1982), it lingered long in the imagination. 

As with most myths, the film required some degree of legerdemain, particularly in the scenes that required Will and sidekick Ronnie (Joe Mullaney) to make a high-speed Highland getaway on a motorbike. “I don’t drive, and I have an aversion to any form of speed,” Friell later admitted. “The first time we were on the bike, Joe revved the engine. He went one way, I went the other, and we were never let on the bike again. In the film, it’s not Joe and me on the bike.” 

Friell was born in Glasgow on January 17, 1960, one of five children for the actor and Labour activist Charlie Friell and his wife Mary. He made his screen debut among the suspects in Killer (1983), the ITV miniseries that first introduced audiences to the character of DCI Jim Taggart, played by Mark McManus. Such was Friell’s dependability and versatility that, after spin-off Taggart (1985-2010) became a ratings juggernaut, he returned to the show, playing three further, entirely new roles. 

The close-knit nature of the Scottish industry meant Friell repeatedly worked with the same performers in different contexts. He appeared with Gregor Fisher on the period miniseries Blood Red Roses (1986), before taking two separate roles on Fisher’s breakout vehicle Rab C. Nesbitt (1988-2014) and playing a landlord in the BBC’s fondly remembered, Fisher-led revival of The Tales of Para Handy (1994-95), based on Neil Munro’s books. He appeared alongside stage colleague Robert Carlyle in prison drama Silent Scream (1990), and then watched Carlyle become a star as Begbie in Trainspotting, where Friell played Kelly Macdonald’s baffled father.

More TV work followed, in Jack Docherty’s adworld sitcom The Creatives (1998), as a detective alongside Adrian Dunbar and Ray Winstone in ITV’s Tough Love (2002), and as a developer trying to take over the Clansman pub in Still Game (2002-2019). Friell belatedly returned to film in the indie Fast Romance (2011), which won BAFTA Scotland’s public vote for Favourite Scottish Film; in a marker of how far he’d come since his Restless Natives days, he played the Procurator Fiscal sentencing the wayward young hero of The Angels’ Share to community service.

Friell’s final screen credit came with the comedy short Jim the Fish (2015), although he remained a bedrock of regional theatre. In 2013, he toured Scotland in Paul Coulter’s one-man play Linwood No More, playing a worker laid off from the factory that produced the Hillman Imp and the Talbot Sunbeam; in 2017, he played a crime novelist confronted by harsh reality on the London-to-Glasgow train in Simon Macallum’s Late Sleeper.

Restless Natives – which remained a mainstay of the BBC Scotland schedules, lent its name to a popular podcast presented by the actor Martin Compston, and even spawned a stage musical, currently touring the UK – achieved a newfound prominence in the 21st century after being reissued on DVD. Among the bonus material was an interview with the now middle-aged Friell himself: “It’s a lovely feeling to think […] there’s going to be a whole new generation who are going to see it. I hope it stays around for years, so that it can become a nice novelty factor, that there was this wacky little Scottish film made in 1984 that’s going to stay the course.”

He is survived by his wife Alana Brady and two children, Connie and Jude.

Vincent Friell, born January 17, 1960, died April 14, 2024.

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