Putting The Rabbit In The Hat review: Honest and brutal

From errand boy to centre stage: Brian Cox’s autobiography Putting The Rabbit In The Hat is honest, brutal and will leave you standing

Putting The Rabbit In The Hat: My Autobiography

Brian Cox                                                                                                        Quercus £20

Rating:

In 1971, the young Brian Cox was called by his pregnant wife, Caroline. ‘I’ve got good news and bad news,’ she said. ‘The good news is that we had twins. The bad news is they didn’t make it.’

Caroline had, Cox says, ‘a dark, almost gallows sense of humour’. Right enough, though Cox himself is no stranger to darkness. 

Putting The Rabbit In The Hat is one of the best showbiz memoirs ever written, but its quality comes at the expense of the feelgood froth that usually fills such books. Cox is as honest here as he is on stage and screen.

Putting The Rabbit In The Hat's quality comes at the expense of the feelgood froth that usually fills such books. Cox (above) is as honest here as he is on stage and screen

Putting The Rabbit In The Hat’s quality comes at the expense of the feelgood froth that usually fills such books. Cox (above) is as honest here as he is on stage and screen

Like his Titus Andronicus, his Petruchio, his Hannibal Lecktor (the Manhunter spelling), the book has a kind of brutal integrity. ‘Humanity,’ he counsels at one point, ‘is a failed experiment.’

Certainly, Cox’s childhood was as hardscrabble as that of Logan Roy, the Scots-born zillionaire he plays in Succession. 

At one point, Logan’s children tour Dundee, where their father grew up. They are astonished by the humbleness of the semi Logan lived in. A semi would have been luxury to Cox, raised in a tenement flat in Dundee’s poor Stobswell quarter.

Only eight when his dad died of pancreatic cancer, Brian then had to watch as his mother endured a series of suicidal breakdowns. 

Thankfully, the lad was stage-struck – and found salvation in his dream of being an actor. ‘I don’t believe that you have to live through tragedy in order to portray it, but it does help.’

Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story, and Cox is highly informative about the craft of his art. But the account of his climb up the theatrical ladder – from Dundee Rep Theatre errand boy to joining the National Theatre – is the dullest bit of the book.

More entertainingly, Cox constantly carps at other stars. Johnny Depp? ‘SO overblown, SO overrated.’ Edward Norton? ‘A nice lad, but a bit of a pain in the a***.’ As for the Brits, Gielgud wallows in ‘poetic profligacy’.

Princess Margaret comes off no better for ‘feeling up’ Brian at a backstage party. Then again, though he is a CBE, Cox condemns what he sees as our ‘feudal’ society, designed to keep people ‘in one place, not allowing them to progress’.

The book isn’t all agitprop. It’s as funny as it is furious. It’s worth reading just for the onstage love scene in which Kate Nelligan removes some military-strength tights and Brian gets a friction burn on his surname.

Cox quotes advice from the director Lindsay Anderson: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ Brian Cox has done everything, and with this book he leaves everyone else standing.

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