Coronation Street's Jim and Liz are the 'Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor' of Corrie's cobbles'
Ulster star Charles Lawson is back in Weatherfield but the world of TV has changed radically since his career began, he tells Susan Griffin.
He might be behind bars, but that doesn't mean Coronation Street's Jim McDonald will cause any less trouble when he returns to the soap. Peter Barlow, currently in the clink after being wrongly arrested for Tina McIntyre's death, will come face-to-face with him after a cellmate reveals there's an inmate known as 'The Landlord', who illegally sells alcohol to fellow prisoners. Imagine Peter's surprise when he pays him a visit to discover that it's none other than his former Weatherfield neighbour, Jim.
And Fermanagh man Charles Lawson, who's played Jim on and off for 25 years, says he's "delighted" to be returning to the role for a three-month stint.
"I love playing Jim," says the 54-year-old. "He's a man, warts and all. Coronation Street's always been a female-driven show and I get that, but you've got to have some strong men and he's one of them."
The storyline doesn't see Jim actually return to the cobbles, however, but focuses on his life behind bars. That said, the prison set's been built above the Roy's Rolls set, "so it does feel like I'm on the street", the actor notes.
"We've filmed at a real prison in the past," Lawson adds. "(I knew) one of the screws, so I spent most of my time signing autographs."
As viewers already know, Peter (Chris Gascoyne) has been battling a drink addiction and now, wrongfully incarcerated and depressed, he's desperate to hit the bottle once again.
This could pose a moral dilemma for Jim but, inside, he says, "those things really go out the window", and "if Peter wants the booze and is willing to trade, then Jim will supply it, whatever the situation".
As usual, though, Jim's motivation is driven by his "monumental love" for his estranged wife Liz, played by Beverley Callard.
The fiery couple, first introduced with their twin sons Steve and Andy back in 1989, have experienced countless ups and downs over the years. "They're the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of Weatherfield," says Lawson, laughing.
It was Jim's desire to give Liz enough money to buy the Rovers Return back in 2011 that led him to rob a bank, the reason he's now serving a jail sentence for armed robbery.
"His love for her is a huge part of his raison d'etre," continues Lawson. "She said she'd wait for him, then changed her mind. And because Jim wants to see Liz and Steve (Simon Gregson), he thinks Peter can help by asking Ken or Deirdre (his parents) to get them to visit him."
It's not long before Jim finds out about Liz's boyfriend Tony, but as far as he's concerned, "Liz is his woman".
"Under it all, Liz will still love Jim and vice versa," notes Lawson, who played the former squaddie for 11 years before departing the soap in 2000. He's intermittently reappeared in the ensuing years, and never has trouble getting into character. "I know him too well," he says, shrugging.
It would be fair to say that Jim McDonald made a big impression on Corrie viewers from the outset, with his strong Northern Irish brogue, but in fact Lawson had been living and working in England as an actor for some time, after graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He had enjoyed roles in iconic Eighties dramas such as Harry's Game, in which he played an IRA lookout, and football hooligan film The Firm, before Coronation Street bosses approached him in the late Eighties. Lawson turned them down initially, something he's since attributed to arrogance on his part.
"We (Liz and I) are very lucky with what we've had written for us over the years. Any actor will tell you it's very rare to get that. That's why other actors have wised-up to how great it is to work on a soap," he explains. "There used to be a time when actors wouldn't consider a soap; I was one of those actors, back in the day, but all that has changed."
Born in Co Fermanagh in 1959, Lawson enjoyed a privileged education at Campbell College in Belfast. But as a young man growing up in the Seventies in Northern Ireland, it wasn't long before the Troubles exerted a certain pull on the middle-class boy.
"The older I got, the further I wanted to be from this institution (Campbell) and the closer I wanted to be to 'out there' because you started to meet working-class people," he told fellow Northern Irish television success story Eamonn Holmes during a 2008 Troubles documentary.
"It certainly affected me and I found myself in a sense trying to go in a more working-class direction in politics, as opposed to towards the unionist parties."
He also spoke of the sympathies he had for the loyalist cause and some of the "interesting characters" he met in Belfast during that time.
"Although I never dipped my toe in those waters, you were very proud to be a loyalist," he said.
"It was something I aspired to. Had I spent longer here, then I might easily have got involved. Two of my very close friends did 13 years for conspiracy and possession of firearms."
Since his last appearance in Corrie, Lawson's been on stage in Belfast and Glasgow, and continues to run the farm shop he opened in Prestbury, Cheshire, with his partner, Debbie, in 2010.
He was inspired to set up the business after touring the play Rain Man with Neil Morrissey for four months. "I can't tour any more as I'm not good at last orders, so the days end at 4am!" Lawson confesses.
"I was absolutely knackered, and wanted to spend some time at home with Debbie."
Plus, having been brought up in Co Fermanagh, he's always classed himself as "a country boy" at heart. "Our village in Cheshire didn't have anything like a farm shop, so we bought the premises and set it up."
They specialise in game, and have a bull that the kids can come and groom.
"It's fabulous. I get to indulge my passion, as I'm very interested in countryside pursuits," says Lawson. "And I can combine that with my love of acting, because once you are an actor, you're always an actor."
While Lawson admits he might not have been a fan of Coronation Street when he joined, he was nevertheless aware of its popularity.
"It was a different animal in those days. People were huge stars – the first big TV celebrities. It was very funny, because people had their own chairs (in the green room) and you had to be careful where you sat."
He considers himself "very lucky" that he and Callard joined at the same time.
"We came in on a year's contract, but people got used to the new kids on the block very quickly because they (the McDonalds) felt different, and had some amazing storylines."
Back then, there were only four channels on offer, so 20 million viewers tuning in to watch wasn't uncommon.
There was also a permanent cast of 35 (it's almost double that now) and only two, as opposed to five, episodes a week.
"The atmosphere was different; we worked hard and played hard.
"We even had a Coronation Street cricket team, but there's not time for any of that now, as the pace is much quicker. People tend to go home to learn their lines and there isn't the time for the drinking!"
He admits that he hasn't kept up with what's been going on in Weatherfield in the time he's been away. "When I finish what I'm doing, I like to go for a beer, so I don't have time to watch the soaps at all, but Debbie watches all the time. She always tells me if Jim gets a mention."
That said, he does try and watch his on-screen son Gregson every now and again: "He's a very dear old friend. I see him every week, but he can't keep up with my drinking!"
So, will Jim be back for good once he's released from prison? Lawson sounds optimistic: "If the writing's there and the characters that connect him to the street are there, then absolutely."
- Coronation Street is on ITV on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Jim McDonald returns next Friday, August 8
The comeback king of soaps
He's made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra but at least unlike Bobby Ewing in Dallas, he's never come back from the dead – yet.
Double-denim wearing Jim McDonald first appeared as the rough, tough Irishman husband of the flirty Liz McDonald in October, 1989 where over the next 11 years he got into more fisticuffs than Muhammad Ali.
It was the love of Liz that prompted Jim to escape from prison when he reappeared back on the programme in 2003-2005, when he needed to confront his errant wife over a supposed love affair.
He's made regular guest appearances on the show since then, most notably in 2007 for his son Steve's (Simon Gregson) wedding to Becky (Katherine Kelly).
Lawson left the programme three years ago but like a bad penny, he always turns up again – as viewers will discover with his latest return.