When Lex Was King
"Keep It Bright"
"The Master of the Belly Laugh"
He was known as "Sexy Lexy" and his unique brand of earthy, topical humour tickled Scottish audiences for almost 30 years. Derek Green of the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society looks at the career of "Scotland's King of Comedy.
Alexander McLean Cameron (Lex McLean) was almost certainly the last of Scotland's great music hall comedians. From the late 1950's to the early 1970's he packed Glasgow's famous Pavilion Theatre with record 24 week seasons, his shows played twice nightly with performances at 6.25 and 8.35 with a regular change of programme.
Lex's seasons ran from May to October each year and with twice nightly shows he could pack around 3000 into the seats. It was a known fact that when the 6.25 and 8.35 audiences were leaving and entering the theatre the crowds had to be controlled by mounted Police.
While is is correct to attribute the title King of the Pavilion to Lex McLean, natural successor to Tommy Morgan, it would be wrong to assume, as some mistakenly have, that Lex was a one-theatre man. Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen audiences were equally in thrall of his great comic talent. The Edinburgh Palladium in particular hosted many long-running seasons. Indeed the late Hamish Turner went on record to say that Lex extended the theatre's life by a good way.
The man who championed Lex was comedian/actor turned showbiz journalist called Michael Howard. He had in former days been a radio comedian with his own top-rated show. Trying to translate his radio stardom into UK-wide theatre success eluded him and he lost a packet on the halls. He was recruited by the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch to host a showbiz column. One of the first things he saw up here was a Lex McLean show at the Palladium. He was lavish in praise and never missed an opportunity to mention the McLean magic. On one famous occassion when a top American was playing the Edinburgh Empire, Michael Howard extolled his readers to "Go to the McLean show, spend half the money and get double the laughs!"
Yes, Lex in the fifties was top of the Palladium Hitlist. With his comedy team of Carr & Vonnie, Margo Bentley, Glen Daly (for a spell) he also nurtured artistes who went on to pursue long careers in Scots showbusiness. Who doesn't remember the Melodymakers with Ron Dale (still plying his comedy on cruiseships), Tommy Banner (a stalwart yet with The Wurzels and now resident in Bath) and Billy Gordon who went into a long singing career in Clubland. Lex introduced us to the Harmonichords, a young musical act from Ireland who later changed their name to the Batchelors and went on to see quite a few records.
Away from the Theatre Lex was a very quiet and private man. When Lex was at home he had his 3 main loves, his home which was a beautiful Villa on the sea front in Helensburgh, His boat "Dolphin 2" and his charming wife Grace.
After a show at the Pavilion Lex would dash out of the stage door and run down to Queen street Station to catch the last train home to Helensburgh. Sometimes it was known that Lex would be held back leaving the theatre and when the last train arrived at Queen Street if Lex wasn't on the platform the guard held the train for a few minutes until he arrived. There was one occasion when Lex was so late as he ran down the stairs to the Queen Street low level he stumbled and rolled down the rest of them landing in a crumpled heap on the station platform.
When the train arrived at Helensburgh, Lex would get into his car which he always left at the station and drive the few miles from the station to his home. When he arrived home always at 3 minutes past midnight Grace would have his supper ready for him and then they would chat about the evenings show. During the seasons there was a change of programme every fortnight and Lex always had to have new material for every change. During the day before he would set off to the theatre, he would sit in his rocking chair up on the enclosed balcony in his house which faced onto beautiful views of the River Clyde and write fresh material. When Lex wasn't doing that he would relax for a few hours on his boat "Dolphin2" and he would regularly go for sails up the Gareloch or over to the Clyde resorts such as Dunoon, Rothesay, Ayr or even Largs.
Through the years Lex always gained great strength from his wife Grace (Dryburgh). Grace had been a dancer in various troupes during the summer seasons in Girvan, Burntisland and many other Scottish Seaside resorts. It was during a summer season in Burntisland that they meet and fell in love and later married. When Lex started to move up the ladder of success, Grace had formed her own troupe of dancers and they were called "The Dryburgh Girls." When Lex took over as resident comedian at the Glasgow Pavilion Grace retired from Dancing and supported her husband for his remaining years in Showbusiness. When Lex collapsed during his Edinburgh show in 1971, Grace was his tower of strength and she nursed him with great patience and affection till his death in 1975. Lex after his operation in 1971 referred to his wife as his "Amazing Grace." and today when you hear people referring to Lex they also have a lovely word about his charming wife Grace.
Sadily after Lex's death Grace developed ill health herself and passed away of a stroke in 1980, and her sister Linda who also was a dancer in the "Morganettes" passed away in 1990.