JOHN STAHL (STEELE)
John MacDonald Steele who has died at the age of 68 was, under his stage name John Stahl, one of the most recognisable Scottish actors of his generation.
In the latter part of his life, he lived in Valtos, Uig, and he died in Bethesda Hospice from cancer, less than a year after being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour.
In Uig, he said he had found “the real Scotland” and continued to work all over the UK and the world, returning to his home base whenever possible. He became an active and popular member of the community, writing and directing pantomimes with the same attention to standards that he applied to any professional performance.
Two days before entering Bethesda, he fulfilled a commitment to record a video which accompanied a song written by Andrew Easton-Lewis, a friend in Uig. John made the immense effort, seated in a wheelchair at the window of his home. A professional to the end, he offered the uninformed no clue of how ill he was. The song is called ‘Valhalla’.
His initial connection to Lewis was through his partner, Jane Paton, whose mother’s family was from Habost in Lochs. Her grandfather, Fergus Ferguson, was a youngest son for whom there was no croft. At the age of 16, he walked to Glasgow and found employment with Denny’s shipyard in Dumbarton.
Though he never returned to live, the family’s connections with Lewis remained strong through family holidays. When John and Jane, after many years in London, decided in 2010 to establish their home in Scotland, they settled on Lewis; first in Riof and then, in 2016, by building their own house by the shore in Valtos, looking over to Pabbay.
Jane says: “A lot of people thought that, by coming here, he would never work again but things have changed and when he went to castings and told them where he lived, the response was quite the opposite. He loved coming home from Los Angeles or Adelaide or wherever to here. It was nice to be in all these places but better coming home”.
When John sought the role of a Shetland crofter in the National Theatre production of Frankenstein, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee-Miller, Jane told him to go straight into the casting wearing the same clothes and dishevelled hair with which he had left Stornoway airport in the morning. He got the part.
During lockdown, John discovered a play by John McGrath called ‘Random Happenings in the Hebrides’ which pre-dated ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ and was performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. It became an on-line project to put together readings from it, linked with discussion.
In spite of his advancing illness, John completed this work and it was performed with friends, on-line from Uig in January of this year, to mark the 20th anniversary of John McGrath’s death from leukaemia.
John was born in Sauchie, Clackmannanshire, and his potential as an actor was identified by a teacher at Alloa Academy who instilled in him a love of Shakespeare.
In later life it was one of his great fulfilled ambitions to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the highest level of his profession. Although better known for television roles, his great love was for theatre and live audiences.
“Shakeseare,” says Jane, “was his real and lasting passion. On the way down to the operating theatre for his craniotomy after being given the drugs before surgery, John gave Claudius’s speech from Hamlet at full volume. The surgeon came by later to say thanks for the Shakespeare – normally they just got Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell”.
After school, John went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow where he was on the same acting course as Jane. “We almost got it together”, she says, but they went their separate ways and it was to be another 20 years before they met.
“John told me that he fell in love with me during our first year at college but never had the courage to tell me. It was only later when we met at an evening ‘do’ that we hit it off instantly and were together ever since”.
John’s early work had been as an actor and director, in London and at Darlington Drama Centre as well as in Scotland. He was soon also picking up work in television and became a fixture in STV’s soap operas – first Garnock Way and then, for 18 years, Take the High Road.
He was sacked twice for challenging the crazy schedule and its impact on standards – recording as many as seven episodes in a week – but his popularity ensured he was brought back on each occasion.
During breaks between filming, John would appear in pantomime, often writing the scripts, playing the baddy or the Dame, working with the likes of Jimmy Logan and Johnny Beattie. As became very apparent to his much later Uig audiences, he loved panto, saying that the discipline, timing and choreography of the format really stretched him as an actor.
He gained a wider television audience through Game of Thrones playing Rickard Karstark. A lecturer at drama college had told him that he would become more successful as he grew older and this proved true. As the lanky youth evolved in middle-age into a commanding figure with a booming voice and presence, the work rolled in.
Jane had forged her own successful career as a dancer and then actor before becoming a drama instructor in London by the time the couple got together.
She recalls: “When I was working at the Central London School for Girls, I would have John come in to give Shakespeare workshops and he would give advice to the students who were interested in working in the business. He was a great help to drama students and would travel to see them later in their careers”.
The move to Lewis in 2010 proved a great success in every respect until the devastating confirmation of his brain tumour and the inevitability of the outcome.
Jane has nothing but praise for the medical care he received and her appreciation of the support they were given from the community around them, particularly in the very difficult latter stages of John’s illness, is beyond words.
John and Jane formalised their relationship last year by becoming the first male/female couple in Scotland to be joined in a Civil Partnership.