Subscriber Only

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox: ticking the boxes

Actor has less panache as a writer but Succession fever will lure fans to his book

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat
Author: Brian Cox
ISBN-13: 9781529416503
Publisher: Quercus
Guideline Price: £20

As an actor, Brian Cox can convince his audience of anything. He can be a killer cannibal (Manhunter), a Nazi war criminal (Nuremberg), a sleazy traitor (Rob Roy) or a ruthless media mogul (Succession) and always lure us in.

As a writer, Cox has somewhat less panache. His memoir is a perfectly readable, straightforward account of the 72-year-old’s life. We start, in Dickensian fashion, with his birth, move through his working-class upbringing in Dundee, the death of his father when he was eight, his early days as “assistant to the assistant” at the Dundee Repertory Theatre, and his decades-long career as a stage and screen actor. In the context of the celebrity memoir, it more or less ticks the boxes: there’s a bit of name dropping, some gossipy titbits and a window into a world unlike our own.

The narrative has a rags-to-riches arc, but not one that bolsters the myth of capitalist meritocracy

Cox sets out his stall by describing himself as an “infant determinist”. Invoking Dundee’s whaling history as a metaphor (he will later appear in a stage production of Moby Dick), he says, “The infant determinist would be tossed and thrown in his pursuit. I would challenge oceans in pursuit of ‘the reason why’ – why be an actor? – and on occasion I would get severely drenched.” Inelegant word repetition aside (pursuit, pursuit), this sets out the book’s approach. We are about to witness the voyage of an Ahab-like character, monomaniacal in his attitude towards his work and the meaning behind it.

In truth, the book cleaves quite loosely to this strategy. At times it’s just Cox, like a man at a bar, telling us things. He seems to be unlucky with planes, bitter about Oscar snubs and antipathetic towards directors, most of whom he considers “pests”. Variations of the phrase “following my bliss” appear over and over, without (as far as I can tell) any irony.

The book is at its most compelling when Cox reflects on the craft of acting. His interest in taking moment and circumventing it, being at home in slowness, understanding character, and creating parts in a film “where the character itself might be quite bland, but the actor makes it impactful” is infectious, regardless of whether you have designs on becoming an actor.

The book is also strong on class. The narrative has a rags-to-riches arc, but not one that bolsters the myth of capitalist meritocracy. Rather, Cox has leftist leanings. He sees himself as a beneficiary of the “great period of social mobility that was the sixties” and Margaret Thatcher as “a force of devastation who destroyed British industry and laid waste to communities that to this day have never recovered”. He’s now a supporter of the Scottish National Party and actively campaigns for Yes Scotland.

But if he’s to lend his voice to movements towards equality, Cox doesn’t do quite so well on other fronts. It’s easy to spot times where the text is less than egalitarian – from the use of the word “actress” over “actor” to the overwhelming white-maleness of the actors/directors/writers he admires. And there’s his description of fatherhood: “While I consider my children to be wonderful miracles [. . . ]I have little affinity with the process of fathering them. Thank God they have a wonderful mother who bears the brunt and, more often than not, has to fulfil both roles.”

How are we to read this? A cheeky confessional? In truth, it feels a little arrogant. I wasn’t bothered with the whole childcare thing. Thank God for women, who are just better at those things. That said, the idea of a book as a bastion of equality and moral adroitness is a little hard to stomach – certainly this critical approach is going out of fashion – so perhaps it’s redundant to judge it in this way.

In the end, what's most compelling about this book is simply the legendary figure at its centre (well, duh)

An offhand, irreverent tone seems to be what Cox is going for, and though he’s not quite as good at it on the page as he is onscreen, he still reads the room quite well on this front. “I have to speak as I find,” goes his rationale. Johnny Depp is “so overblown”. Quentin Tarantino films are “all surface”, though “if the phone rang, I’d do it”. Harvey Weinstein “made my flesh creep”. Cancel culture, he says, has a “McCarthyist, vengeful element” and he’s critical of those who “hide behind the language of ‘woke’”. This all sounds pleasingly rebellious, though what’s “pleasingly rebellious” is probably more like status quo.

In the end, what’s most compelling about this book is simply the legendary figure at its centre (well, duh). Cox is old enough and experienced enough to justify writing an autobiography. And we’re all high on Succession fever, so we’ll lap up anything we can get. It’s interesting enough. Shrugs shoulders.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic