RONNIE COBURN - TARTAN TROUBADOUR
By Norman Christie
It is 7 o’clock on a cold November evening as I open the door to No. 1 dressing room in the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr. Inside, Ronnie Coburn pulls at his cuffs as he stands in front of the mirror checking the appearance of his outfit. He turns to greet me, his welcoming hand outstretched and his tall frame more erect than most people thirty years his junior.
In half an hour, the curtain will rise on his touring variety show, A Breath of Scotland, but there is no sign of tension. He jokes as members of the cast enter and leave his room; the twinkle in his eye, so prominent under the spotlight, is even brighter at close range. I remark on how relaxed he is. "Why not?" he asks, "I’ve been doing this for over fifty years and I know my audience and they know me".
It’s true. Edinburgh born Ronnie has been entertaining on stage for more than half a century and in that time has delivered his traditional brand of family humour to audiences throughout Scotland and in countries around the world.
"People come to my shows knowing they will get a serving of heather and tartan with no smut. There will be kids with their parents and grandparents all laughing together at the sketches and routines and clapping or singing along to old Scot’s songs, because essentially my shows are about Scotland. Audiences, especially those overseas, would be disappointed if I introduced something with an international flavour, because they want to see the kilts, hear Scottish songs, fiddles, accordions and the Scottish accents of the performers."
Yes, A Breath of Scotland sums up the essence of the show but as Ronnie explains, he can’t take credit for the name. "For a while, we travelled under the name of Tartan on Tour. Then a pal of mine came backstage, after we had performed in Detroit, to say how much he enjoyed the show. He said that the experience of watching the show was like a breath of Scotland. I liked the expression and I’ve used it for my shows ever since. But don’t print that" jokes Ronnie "if he reads this article he might want money."
With that, Ronnie was given his five minutes’ call and I left him talking to his fellow artistes and joined the audience in the Gaiety.
I next met with Ronnie a couple of months later at his home in Dundee where I asked how he began in showbiz.
"When I was nine years old, I started as a call-boy, earning 5/- per week at Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal. I would run errands for the manager but essentially I was there to knock the dressing room doors of the artistes to call them to the stage." He continued as a call-boy when he moved to Edinburgh’s Empire and amongst those whose doors the young Ronnie knocked as he hollered "Your half-hour call!" were Laurel and Hardy. Did he meet them, I wondered. "Meet them? I chased them every night for a week. As part of a comedy sketch, I had to dress as a policeman and chase Stan and Ollie round the stage."
From call-boy he progressed to working backstage on the flies; in the area high above the stage he would control lighting and manipulate the ropes which changed scenery and backdrops. He then began an apprenticeship as a stage carpenter whilst embracing other tasks including acting as box office assistant, bar manager and even stoking the boilers. "That was an interesting time" says Ronnie "and it gave me a valuable appreciation of how a theatre works and what makes it tick".
Meanwhile, away from the Empire, he was learning what made audiences tick. He began to appear in concert parties organised by his father who was involved in amateur dramatics. But Ron’s professional debut came at the Naval Club in Rosyth. There, he was involved in sketches and gags as he acted as "feed" to comedian Billy Paterson. (Billy later changed his name to Billy Liston and went to Canada where he continued doing comedy work until his untimely death in a road accident). A theatrical agent was in the audience during that first show and afterwards offered young Ron his first solo spot. He accepted and from then on, worked solo in provincial theatres and small venues.
Throughout this period, he continued working backstage at the Empire but now, when he was not doing carpentry work, pulling on ropes or adjusting lights, he was eagerly studying the comedians. He watched Jack Radcliffe, Johnny Victory, Lex Mclean, Jack Milroy and Alec Finlay, observing their timing, watching their moves and noting what made audiences laugh. And it wasn’t long before he was asked to share the stage with some of the comedians or act as their straight man.
He learned a lot from these legendary figures, yet it was Alec Finlay who influenced young Ronnie most. "Alec told me to take it easy on stage and never to rush. That advice added polish to my act. But Jack Milroy was my favourite. He was an incredibly funny man and a joy to work with".
Then Johnny Victory invited Ron to be his straight man at the Palace Theatre at Dundee and together they travelled across the Tay for his first summer season away from Edinburgh. "Initially, I missed the buzz of Auld Reekie" says Ronnie" but somewhere during that initial season something clicked and I fell in love with the place. So much so, that my wife and I bought a house and made our home in Dundee."
That was in the 1950s when most towns in Scotland had theatres presenting shows throughout the year. Following on from his initial Dundee appearance, he performed in the summer show at Arbroath, beginning what was to be his long association with the Webster Theatre. That, in turn, led to pantomimes in Edinburgh or Dundee and soon the intervening months were taken up with spring and autumn reviews in Aberdeen and Ayr.
At that time, most of the shows did two performances each evening – one at 6.15 pm and another at 8.30 pm – so there was little free time, especially as there were morning rehearsals for weekly changes of shows, plus Sunday concerts in places ranging from industrial Airdrie to the Queens Hall in genteel Dunoon.
Working constantly in such diverse venues all over the country exposed Ronnie to the promoters who put on the variety shows. It also introduced him to hundreds of fellow performers and very soon his thoughts turned to promoting his own shows. To do so, he formed all-inclusive variety shows using singers, fellow comedians, musicians and dancers whose work he knew. These shows, with Ronnie acting as producer, director and comedian, were staged in theatres and clubs around Scotland. The concept became so successful that he had to promote similar variety shows, using different casts with Ronnie acting only as director/producer, to satisfy the growing demand from theatre managers. This was at a time of great activity in the entertainment industry. Working men’s clubs were being formed and their committees were desperately seeking entertainers. Small hotels too were eager to capture some of the market and Ronnie, using his first-hand knowledge of the showbiz scene, would provide them with a range of singers, ventriloquists, musicians and comedians.
Life was hectic but amazingly, he still found time to go overseas. Around 1965, he embarked on his first tour of Canada. "I’ve now done 44 tours over there, sometimes taking two shows over in one year" says Ronnie with enthusiasm "and I’ve been on five world tours, taking in places as diverse as Hawaii, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Fiji and New York. We even did a show in Gibraltar. I called it Don’t Knock The Rock. Most of the local people came to see us" - adding with a smile - "including some Barbary apes. Closer to home, we’ve toured all over Scotland and taken shows to Ireland and Wales … and I’ve even been to Englandshire."
Around 1970, he was instrumental in forming The Royal Clansmen. This successful group of singers, comedians, guitarists and other instrumentalists initially featured Denis Clancy, Alec Finlay, George Hill, Billy Leslie and Ronnie. The Clansmen continued for ten years during which time the line-up changed to include Arthur Spink, John Crawford, Joss Esplin, Blanche McIness, Billy Marshall, Grant Fraser, Joe McBride and the famous button-key accordionist Will Starr. As the group’s popularity increased they were given their own show on Grampian TV. It was immensely popular and ran for four years, during which time it gained the award of the best show on the channel. Throughout this period, they toured at home and overseas with Aof Scotland.
The summer of 2005 was the first time in 44 years that Ronnie didn’t take a show to Canada but the omission was not due to any lack of enthusiasm or stamina on Ronnie’s part. It was simply that he couldn’t fit it into his busy diary. July and August saw him continuing as he has done over the last 47 years, with his Breath of Scotland summer show at the Webster Theatre in Arbroath, but his dedication to charity work was taking more and more of his time. In recent years, he has been heavily committed to fund-raising and entertaining the citizens of his adopted home of Dundee, appearing at hospitals, hospices, retirement homes and civic functions. In 2002, at a reception for the Queen, he entertained Her Majesty during her official visit to the city.
Ron’s enthusiasm in giving freely of his time for the benefit of others did not go unnoticed. In 2005, at a ceremony presided over by the city’s Lord Provost, he was awarded the honour of Dundee’s Citizen of the Year for services and dedication to the community and in recognition of his role as an ambassador for the city.
If he was humbled and surprised by this honour, little did he know that more was to follow.
Soon afterwards, a letter from 10 Downing Street arrived advising that he was to receive the M.B.E. and on 8th December, together with his family, he went to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. For that extra special occasion, Ronnie decided not to wear one of the 30 kilts in his wardrobe. Instead he donned the MacMillan weave of the very kilt worn by Hector Nicol when Hector appeared in the Royal Command Performance at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre in the early eighties. Hector was Ronnie’s brother-in-law, who having had the kilt made especially for the Royal event, sadly died not long after and the kilt was never wore again.
At the ceremony, as Prince Charles pinned the medal to her husband’s lapel, Middi Coburn noticed His Royal Highness laughing as he and Ronnie exchanged words. Afterwards she asked what had passed between them. "I reminded Charles that Hector had raised a laugh from the prince on the last occasion the kilt was worn at the Royal Command performance in Glasgow." explained Ronnie. "Following the show, Prince Charles told Hector he liked the joke he had told on stage about the stretcher and Hector said ‘You mean the one about never make love on a stretcher, because you might get carried away.’ That’s what Charles was laughing at!"
Then, in March of this year another accolade came his way. At the Annual Glasgow Lunch of the Scottish Music Hall Society, a presentation was made by his fellow music hall artistes. Hon President of the Society, Johnny Beattie, himself a comedian and long-standing stalwart of the variety theatre, spoke on behalf of the gathered guests when he applauded Ronnie’s years dedicated to enriching people’s lives and keeping family entertainment alive.
These awards and honours are displayed in Ronnie’s home in Dundee alongside scores of photographs and items of memorabilia. Amongst them, two items in particular caught my eye. One is a letter from Jimmy Logan in which the legendary music hall star praises Ronnie’s commitment to keep Scottish theatres alive. It was written in 1996 from the Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
I have done my best, but if anybody has managed to keep the business going – employ many people at difficult times, and give to the business - it is you.
The other is a small silver plaque fixed to the wall of the hallway. Engraved on it are the words "Renovations 1968. Plasterwork by Frank Carson, Comedian, Introvert and Plasterer Supreme. Joinerwork by Ronnie Coburn." Ulsterman Frank Carson and Ronnie have been friends for years and the plaque commemorates the time when Ron had his house extended to form a larger kitchen. The Irish comedian, who was formerly a plasterer, plastered the walls of the extension and ex-carpenter Ronnie put in the windows, hung the doors and fixed all the facings and skirting boards. But the plaque does more than that. It demonstrates Ronnie’s ability to roll up his sleeves and get on with whatever comes his way.
Ronnie Coburn has come a long way from the time he chased Laurel and Hardy across the stage of Edinburgh’s Empire. He has collected acclaim, awards and accolades that are the envy of many of today’s younger showbiz personalities. He has managed to balance the roles of comedian, manager, promoter, entrepreneur, film extra and television personality whilst acting as an ambassador for Scotland and all things Scottish.
With so many talents, I wondered how he categorised himself. "Most of all, I think of myself as an entertainer" muses Ronnie. There are few who would disagree with that view.
This biography is based on an interview which first appeared in the Scots Heritage Magazine and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor of that magazine. Early Years Kenneth McKellar was born and brought up in Paisley where his father owned a grocery shop. Although there were no musicians at home, the McKellar family nevertheless loved music and often listened to opera on the gramophone. "There wasn't much Scottish music at home," he recalls. It simply wasn't being recorded. My father was very keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, Caruso and Gigli and I lapped all that up."
As a child of three or four he sat for hours absorbed in the power of the great singers like Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson, Norman Allin and Richard Tauber. I thought Peter Dawson, the Australian baritone, was wonderful," he said. "He had the kind of voice that could be identified within the first four bars."
He recalls his parents taking him to a concert in St.Andrew's Hall in Glasgow where he was enthralled by the Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. "I still have not heard better more beautiful singing from anyone," he said. Kenneth attended Aberdeen University and it was here, while he was studying for a Science degree which was meant to lead on to a career in Scottish Forestry, that he joined the student choir and showed for the first time that he had a special talent for singing. "The Director of Music told me I should think seriously about singing," he said. "So he gave me lessons. We did Mozart's Requiem; the B Minor Mass; Messiah, of course; The Creation; the St Matthew Passion; and he coached me for a Caird Scholarship which I won." Later, the Caird Scholarship would take him to the Royal College of Music in London for four years.
" Singing Career Takes Off
As soon as he graduated from the Royal College of Music, Kenneth joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He started out in the chorus but "by pure chance" was given an opportunity to sing the opening aria from The Barber of Seville. "They seemed impressed,' he says, "because they offered me a principal tenor's contract". He toured with the company for two seasons but didn't really like the environment of opera. "It was like living in a goldfish bowl" he says, "and I thought: 'I don't need this. All I want to do is sing' Alec (the late Sir Alexander) Gibson, wanted me to join the Scottish Opera. 'No,' I said, 'I've had enough'." However, in 1965, Benjamin Britten did persuade him to join the English Opera Group at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Champs Elysee Theatre in Paris in the part of McHeath in "The Beggar's Opera".
Recording and Performing
THE QUEEN OF OOBLA DEE AND OOBLA DAH
by Ray Smith
Ask any jazz aficionado from Peking to Portobello or from Dallas to Dalnaspittal to name the top female jazz vocalists of the 20th Century. The list will invariably include Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith, Della Reese, the tragic but brilliant Billy Holliday and inevitably, Miss Annie Ross.
If this was the old eleven plus exam that used to be written by generations of terrified Scottish bairns, the one that determined at an early age if we were destined to become plumber or pope, we would now be asked, who is the odd woman out? Simple. The first four were African Americans, born and brought up within the black dominated American jazz ghetto.On the other hand, the newborn Annie Ross’s distinctive vocal chords first saw the light of day on England’s pleasant pastures green, Surrey to be exact. Her proud parents famous Glaswegian vaudeville comics Ma and Pa Logan (May Dalzell and Jack Short) promptly whisked her north of the border where she immediately bonded with the land o the hills and heather to become a true Scottish lassie.
Although Annie is as much a Flower of Scotland as Flora MacDonald or Bonnie Mary O Argyle I always thought the international singer got only scant attention in the UK press. Usually I came across one liners describing her as ‘Jimmy Logan’s sister, the jazz singer’ And this is the woman whose innovative style of vocalize singing was described by top American jazz reviewers as The Queen of Jazz. Aye, the same wee Scottish Annie won five prestigious Grammy Awards for her acclaimed recordings as part of the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross jazz trio. Her fans include the brilliant New York comic and moviemaker Woody Allen who chose an Annie Ross vocal as the title song for one of his most popular recent movies Deconstructing Harry.
It’s doubtful whether Anabella MacAulay Allan Short would have taken New York, Paris or London by storm. She might not even have taken Brigton Cross by storm. The name was too long for the Marquee. But as Annie Ross, Ma Logan’s wee lassie acted with Orson Welles in Paris, barnstormed in Sweden with American vibes king Lionel Hampton and created a sensation at New York’s Apollo Theatre on her 21st birthday. Most of us celebrate our 21st by receiving the ‘key to the door’. Not Annie. She got an early morning phone call from her agent. "Billy Holliday has an abscessed tooth...you’ll have to take over" quite a daunting task to sub for Billy who was both an American blues legend and the darling of New York’s jazz crowd. And as if that wisna’ terrifying enough, the bandleader was a bloke called Duke Ellington. But Annie received the best 21st birthday present of all, a standing ovation. In addition to her many jazz albums including such titles as Music Is Forever, Annie was always in popular demand for gigs in both America and Europe and even branched out into film and TV acting. She played in two of Robert Altman’s most prestigious quality films, The Player and Shortcuts. Other Annie Ross credits include such titles as Pump up the Volume, Superman 111 and Throw Mama from the Train with Danny De Vito. On TV she donned a gray wig to become Howard Hesselman’s maw on Mamma Was A Rolling Stone, a top rated episode of the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Other TV credits have included the Uk sitcom Send In The Girls and appearances on Dick Emery’s Christmas special in the early eighties.
Mind you Annie was no stranger to the silver screen. At an age when you and I were writing that notorious eleven plus exam (aye, again) oor Annie was playing a young Judy Garland’s sister in Presenting Lily Mars. Which remind me of how many showbiz watchers have tended to compare Judy Garland and her lassie Liza Minelli. pointing out somewhat superfluously, that great talent runs in families. No less a comparison can be made between Annie Ross and her mother Ma Logan. (Indeed between Ma and any of the Logan bairns). Although Ma never achieved such international stardom as Annie, the dean of Scottish showbiz journalists Jack House, described Ma Logan as, ‘The funniest woman I have ever seen on the Scottish stage". Aye Jack lad, great talent DOES run within the Logan family!
Annie Ross is readily associated with such jazz standards as Twisted and Farmers Market. I heard that some years ago during a visit to Scotland she could still produce a genuine Glesca accent and, with the enthusiasm of a wee Gorbals bachle on a Saturday nicht, belt out a truly unique oobla dee oobla da version of Ye Canna Shove Yer Granny Affa Bus. Now THAT would be a recording worthy of archival collections anywhere in the world. Leading New York music critic Kenneth Tynan referred to the sophisticated Scottish Annie as The Queen of Oobla Dah and ‘the most stunning red head since Gwen Verdon’ As she stood backstage as a wee bairn watching her famous auntie Ella Logan star in a hit musical, I wonder if Annie Ross ever thought that she herself would become the toast of the town?
In the early years of the 21st century, Annie was still going strong. In 2005 she released a new cd n the CAP label, entitled Let Me Sing. And 2006 found her performing regularly at the Metropolitan Room in Gotham, NY. Earlier that year she got rave reviews at the World famous Hollywood Bowl. Sure, she was Ella Logan’s neice and Jimmy Logan’s sister. But, to her ain fowk she will always be a musical treasure-Scotland’s gift to the world of jazz.
BEST OF TIMES.... WORST OF TIMES
by Ray Smith
Sometimes I have to pinch myself---hard! No, I am not one of those sado masochistic flagellators. But I do suffer from that chronic plague; you ken the one I mean--no Granny, not neuralgia...NOSTALGIA. And when I do pinch my behind, and let out that all time favourite Scottish curse of pain: ooooo-ya, I feel that I have done my bit for the lost and wanting generations. Aye them that didnae have the opportunity to enjoy, as we enjoyed, the great variety shows, concert parties, summer shows and pantoes that were integral to growing up in Scotland during the first sixty-five years or so, of the twentieth century. The problem with my affliction is that I tend to look at the world of show biz as it was back then, with Rose Colored glesses. I am on the ‘happiness’ bandwagon as eulogized in song, by Doddy and the Diddymen...I am helping Donald Peers of Shady Nook and Babbling Brook fame, to ‘Powder your face with sunshine." I am humming along to George Formy’s banjo as he puts on the biggest happy face he can possibly muster and serenades us with "Ha ha haha...happy go lucky me".
Having been raised in Perth, a lot of my show outings were to places along the east coast, which was where I remember seeing some of the best and possibly the worst, summer season I can ever remember. The best was around 1951. If you have a programme, you will be able to correct my dates. The resort was Leven. The theatre was the Beach Pavilion. The show was a Frazer Neal Production, Revels of 1951 with costumes by William S. Mutrie. The skits, sketches, blackouts, scena’s and company numbers were superb. They were well up to the usual Fraser Neal production standards. It was a tiny wee summer show on a wee tiny stage, and yet I remember some of it to this day. Mind you I have long forgotten all the wonderful company members that worked so hard to keep Leven’s town folks and summer visitors coming back for more. But I do recall the principal comic, the front cloth patter merchant wee Jimmy (ah’m next’ Neil) who became a regular with Robert Wilson and the White Heather Group. Decades later I came across a Jimmy Neil LP on Canada’s old Dominion Label and still listen with nostalgia, to the sixteen tracks, including his Regimental Tribute, Brig Of Balgownie and such monologues as, Haw Maw, Geez A Piece-delivered in the Glesca stage accents of bygone days. Great stuff. And the other act I remember from Leven, was Scotland’s answer tae the Beverly and Andrews Sisters. How many of you enjoyed performances by those ‘world famous’ blonde bombshells, the St Denis’ sisters? They were usually part of the Johnny Victory entourage. What terrific old pros! And what a shame there are no recordings with which to remember their unique song stylings.
But it’s amazing how a few years and an entirely different company can make a world of difference. "How We Closed the Beach Pavilion" might not have been the mission statement of the other show I remembered, but they certainly did their best to make it come true.
This was the year when the Beach Pavilion broke with the variety tradition and brought in a’drama’ troupe’ which I have never heard of since. These days they would call the show ‘minimalist’-nae costumes...nae scenery...nae props...in fact nae nuthin. Their program was an odd mix, some concert party but mainly old tyme melodramas such as Murder in The Red Barn and Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber, played out on a bare stage against a rather tatty curtain. The show was reminiscent of the old portables and fitups that toured the remote villages and towns of Ireland eons earlier. Also, there was some sort of financial fiasco going on and it even made headlines in the News of the World. In fact it prompted the shows manager, principal actor and indeed principal comedian to deliver the best line of the entire evening. "Ye cannae get intae this theatre for love nor money... The News O’ the Worlds at the back door.... And Scotland Yard’s at the front". After the interval, Granny and I returned to our seats with those weel-remembered tubs of Eldorado ice cream and the familiar wooden spoons with which to scoop it out. The small crowds that summer meant the ice cream wasn’t turning over at its usual rate. An accordionist who doubled as juvenile lead in the plays (I recall the name Gordon Fraser) warmed things up as we tried to do battle with ice cream which was like a frozen dodd of white snow. As we prodded, poked, pummeled and pushed, the wooden spoons became embedded for life in the granite-like vanilla. Finally we gave up. But it was hilarious-the first time in Scottish theatrical history that ‘The Duke of Perth’ ‘Moneymusk’ and ‘The Circassian Circle’ evoked more laughter than the principal comedians jokes! I hoped the accordionist wouldn’t get swell headed and swop his button box for a coamics red nose. Years later, turning the pages of my old autograph album I wondered who this bloke, Ethelred Wellbanes was-his signature appeared on the page opposite to Calum Kennedy‘s! I was hopeless at reading handwriting, Then it all came back. Ethelred was actually Elliot and Wellbanes was Williams. And thus it wisnae Emlyn Williams of Wales but Elliot Williams of Glesca, who led the dramatic thespians of ‘The Scottish Arts Theatre" on Leven’s seafront all those years ago. When she reminisced aboot that performance in later years Granny used to say, "aye Raymond, that wiz the Scottish Arts Theatre a’ richt.but they spellt arts withoot the T!"
Luckily enough there were still many great shows to enjoy along the East Coast and in central Scotland. When Johnny Victory left the familiar environs of Dundee Palace, he took the road and the 22 miles miles frae Dundee to Perth. Johnny’s show was excellent. His company included his lovely wife Betty, song and piano stylist Nicky Kidd, tap dancer Benny Garcia and of course those wonderful St Denis Sisters. Nowadays Johnny Victory would be considered mild compared to most of the comedy we see on TV. But back then he was thought of by some, as ‘risque’ (coorse)-except in Dundee, where he was as well established as Keiller’s Marmalade and the jute industry. And of course Johnny worked tirelessly for local charities. However, Perth audiences were very different from those of the heavily industrialized Dundee. But he soon had them rolling in the aisles. One sketch had him playing Pierre Zee Great Loverr. He tried to impress a skeptical Betty whom he was trying to seduce, of his prowess as an operatic tenor. He did this through one of the most hilarious, high-energy skits I have ever seen on stage. He kept dashing from bedroom to living room, to wind up a wonky old gramophone, all the time miming the voice of the Great Caruso that was on the turntable. The ancient HMV instrument kept going from dead slow to dead fast with hilarious and brilliantly mimicked results. It brought the house down. At the opening of that season Johnny did a brilliantly wicked but simple blackout item I remember to this day. Perth Theatre had a high class Repertory (drama) theatre in residence during the winter months. Its leading lights included such prominent Scottish thespians as Marjorie Dence and David Stuart.
As was their habit, they had just vacated their residency in Perth to go on a summer tour. As a finale to his opening night's remarks, Johnny reached into the footlights and help up a huge pair of red bloomers (knickers). "So this is whit that Repertory Company calls rehearsing!" he said. Perth knew what was in store for the next 15 weeks. And they kept coming back for more. Although he had a rough gravel voice, Johnny Victory could use it to brilliant effect, moving an audience with tear-jerking sentimental monologues, performed with a tenderness that evoked loud applause. "Hing oan a meenit Jummy" I hear you say, "How d’ye ken they were so guid after all those years..Rose-Coloured glesses syndrome again???" Not a bit of it China. You see, my archive still includes that smashing LP, the original Breath of Scotland, evoking North American tours with performances from Ivy Carey, Wee Jimmy Fletcher, Will Starr and of course oor Johnny. Whether playing the Auld Shepherd to a teenaged Denis Clancy’s hiker,(’treat a’ men ye meet as yer friend-and juist like the Happy Wanderer, ye’ll get close tae Lord Goad at the end) ; or lamenting the old Scottish regiments that were being amalgamated( ‘ tho’ naebuddy comes tae oor aid, Scotland the Brave shall remain ever-safe, wi the chiels o’the Highland Brigade) his monologues had a tremendous impact-not least on Scottish exiles in Canada and the States, all those years ago. If he were alive today his thoughts on the Scottish variety theatre might be stated something like this:
A few more Halls to close, and when they do,
I’ll know My Time is nigh,
Tae go and Join the Auld Scoats pro’s,
At their Palace in the Sky"
Women in Scottish Popular Theatre
By Karen Marshalsay
It is easy to get the impression that all of Scotland's great entertainers were men. Names like Harry Lauder, Harry Gordon, Will Fyffe, Tommy Morgan, Tommy Lorne, W F Frame, Walford Bodie and Jimmy Logan are the ones which keep appearing throughout this exhibition. One of the problems seems to be that although women could, as for example Florrie Forde at the Tivoli in Aberdeen, get top billing in Music Hall (where every act did its own turn and then was finished), it was always the comic who headed the bill in revue (where each act did their own individual turn as well as taking part in various other sketches etc). And the comic was almost always male.
The most obvious role that women played was in the chorus line. The dancers may have added glamour to a show, but it was in fact a hard life. Lena Nicol, who trained with Adeline Calder, provides a glimpse into a dancer's life in Kings, Queens and People's Palaces:
"We were paid about £2 a week. Our digs would be about sixteen shillings for full board, which came out of our pay. There was no union to fight for better conditions, until the Variety and Equity took up complaints and eventually studied the problem of pay. Chorus girls were regarded as less than nothing. We may not have been principals but we were the backbone of the show. The dancers backed the soprano, did solo turns of ballet and tap, troupe work, company ensembles, opening numbers and finales. There were so many quick changes at the side of the stage."
Lena adds that Mondays, when the costumes for the week were organised, meant "sewing, mending and rehearsing", and that they were never allowed to wear trousers. Even in cold, damp rehearsal rooms the dancers were bare-legged and "often had poor health, suffering from muscle cramps and inflamed skin problems on our legs." Things were not any easier during the war, when tights were unavailable and the dancers had to use leg tanning lotion every night. The Tillers were one of the most famous dancing troupes, making their name on the high-kicking uniformity of a well-drilled Tiller line. There were Tiller Girls in shows all over Scotland and Harry Gordon's daughter Bunty remembered their part in the Beach Pavilion shows at Aberdeen, recalling the costumes especially, being "all ostrich feathers, sequins, all very colourful." Having first gone to dancing school at the age of two, Bunty Gordon joined the chorus line of the Edinburgh Half Past Eight Show in the 1940s. Along with Margaret Holden, Jack Holden's daughter, she joined the Tillers after the head of the Tiller School had arranged with her father that the audition would simply be that night's performance of the Half Past Eight Show. Bunty later said that it "was a happy time with the Tillers, although the precision dancing and the rehearsals were very, very hard", and noted that:
"At the Tiller School the rehearsal room had mirrors all around. You would start with two Tillers dancing together, then three, four, five and gradually build the line up and when you have been used to dancing in your own style for years, it is very difficult to discipline yourself to be as one in a troupe. In a line-up of twenty-four girls, it takes a great deal of control to keep absolutely together."
May Moxon was a dancer from Glasgow who started out in an act called The Four MacLeans with her mother and two brothers during the First World War. After her mother died she became a soubrette and dancer at the age of eighteen. There was plenty of work, until the night when she had been dancing in Huntly and was involved in a car crash on her way home. Her legs were badly injured, but she refused to let the surgeons amputate, and was determined to earn her own living. May went to Galt's Agency in Sauchiehall Street, and asked if they would give her a trial booking if she formed her own troupe. She was given a week at the Empress Theatre, recruited six dancers, taught them the routines and made their costumes. The troupe was successful, moving onto the Metropole in Stockwell Street as the resident dancers and staying there for one hundred weeks. It was not long before May Moxon had troupes dancing in the Palladium, Edinburgh and the Gaiety, Leith as well as at the Metropole. That was in the thirties and no matter whether they were billed as 'Moxon Girls', 'Moxon Ladies' or the 'May Moxon Lovelies', there were Moxon girls still dancing at the Pavilion in the seventies.
Feeds, comediennes, comedy couples and singers
There have been some very talented female comics on the Scottish stage, often working a double act with their husbands. Dora Lindsay and Bret Harte highlighted the gulf between the speech of Glasgow's working class and that of Kelvinside. Dora went to Australia where her success continued. Some years later Doris Droy also used plain Glasgow speech to hilarious effect with her partner Frank. Doris started as a singer and worked with her sister in Walford Bodies company for a while. Frank and Doris Droy were famous for their pantomimes at the Queen's Theatre near Glasgow Cross. Two other well-known couples were Chic Murray and Maidie Dickson, and Grace Clark and Colin Murray, known as 'Mr and Mrs
Glasgow'. Renee Houston was described by Albert Mackie in The Scotch Comedians as "probably the most talented comedienne Scotland ever produced." She was born in Johnstone in 1902, to Jim and Liz Houston, who were a variety song and comedy act. She teamed up with her sister Billie, who played the Eton-cropped boy to Renee's little girl. The Houston Sisters were in Tommy Lorne's revue Froth in 1924. They also played in pantomime and made their London debut in 1925. The following year they appeared in the Royal Variety Show. Billie retired in 1935 but Renee continued, working a double act with her husband Donald Stewart and making a successful career for herself in acting and broadcasting.
Helen Norman was born in London in 1907, but made her stage debut at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. She was the niece of Walford Bodie and appeared with him when she was a young girl, before moving into acting and playing Principal Boy in pantomime when she was seventeen. In 1935 she became Jack Radcliffe's feed and worked with him for many years. Albert Mackie recalls one of their "most fondly remembered appearances" as two old folk meeting in a city park who realise that they are old stage partners and "go through their routine once again; becoming transformed almost to youngsters in the process."
There have been many other women who made their names as entertainers over the years, and only a few can be mentioned. W F Frame in his autobiography describes Ruth Stanley as "he real comedienne of the halls. To see her was a treat," and calls Helen Kirk "the leading Scottish vocalist." Nellie Wallace, although she made her name in London, was actually born in Glasgow in 1870. She was famous for her characterisation of the frustrated spinster, comically dressed, who would bluntly declare:
"My mother said always look under the bed,
Before you blow the candle out, To see if there's a man about."
I always do, but you can make a bet, It's never been my luck to find a man there yet.
'Master Joe Peterson' was known as the Singing Choirboy and dressed as a little boy. Her real name was Mary O'Rourke, and she came from an Irish showbusiness family in Glasgow's Gallowgate. Jim Friel recalls her appearances in the Logan Family shows, and with Tommy Morgan at the Pavilion: "she always brought the house down and got several encores and was one of the finest singers I have heard. She sang sentimental songs with such a superb voice. The spotlight would be on her and you would just see her wee white collar and face." Peggy Toner who had appeared in Florrie Forde pantomimes during the First World War, was billed in the thirties as 'Scotland's Sophie Tucker' and 'The Girl with the Phenomenal Voice'.
Women have played an important role in Scottish popular entertainment, appearing as singers, comediennes, feeds, dancers, in pantomime, summer shows and variety. Behind the scenes too, they have made their mark, whether as well-loved landladies like Greenie (Mrs Green) who was also the cleaner at the Beach Pavilion in Aberdeen; or involved in booking artistes, such as Mrs Horace Collins who took over the running of the Collins Agency in Glasgow; or in stage management and production like Aileen Vernon. High-calibre female performers are of course still to be found in Scotland, with well known names such as Dorothy Paul and Una MacLean figuring largely in the Scottish entertainment scene of the 1990s.
THE WONDERFUL HUMOUR THAT WAS CHIC MURRAY
I met this chap at the Olympics. I said to him, "Excuse me but are you a pole vaulter?", he replied,"No, I'm German, but how did you know my name was Walter."
I was in London the other day and this man came up to me and asked me if I knew the Battersea dog's home. I said that I didn't know it had been away.
This chap said to me, "If you look over there, you'll see Dumbarton Rock". Well, I looked for 20 minutes and the thing never moved an inch.
"This friend of mine had a terrible upbringing. I asked him once what his ambition was and he replied it was to have an ambition. In the end tragedy struck - as he lay on his death bed he confessed to three murders. Then he got better"
I went to the butchers to buy a leg of lamb. 'Is it Scotch?' I asked. 'Why?' the butcher asked. 'Are you going to talk to it or eat it?' 'In that case, have you got any wild duck?' 'No,' he said, 'but I've got one I could aggravate for you.'
What use is happiness? It can't buy you money.
"I rang the bell of a small bed-and breakfast place, whereupon a lady appeared at an outside window. "What do you want?" she asked. "I want to stay here," I replied. "Well, stay there then," she said and banged the window shut.
"My wife went to a beauty parlour and got a mud pack. For two days she looked nice, then the mud fell off. She's a classy girl though, at least all her tattoos are spelt right."
"There are only two rules for drinking whisky. First, never take whisky without water, and second, never take water without whisky."
It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to have to paint it.
"My father was an Aberdonian and a more generous man you couldn't wish to meet. I have a gold watch that belonged to my father, he sold it to me on his death bed.……...so I wrote him a cheque".
"So there I was lying in the gutter. A man stopped and asked 'What's the matter? Did you fall over?' So I said 'No. I've a bar of toffee in my back pocket and I was just trying to break it."
"So I gave him a wave. Actually, it was more of a half wave, because I only half know him."
"He started talking to me about this and that - about which I know very little."
The police stopped me when I was out in my car. They told me it was a spot check. I admitted to two pimples and a boil.
I admit to spending a fortune on women, booze and gambling. The rest I spend foolishly.
It was raining cats and dogs and I fell in a poodle.I made a stupid mistake last week. Come to think of it, did you ever hear of someone making a clever mistake?
I drew a gun. He drew a gun. I drew another gun. Soon we were surrounded by lovely drawings of guns.
We've got stained glass windows in our house. It's those damned pigeons.
You know what they say about stamp collecting. Philately will get you nowhere.
There's a new slimming course just out where they remove all your bones. Not only do you weigh less, but you also look so much more relaxed.
I first met my wife in the tunnel of love. She was digging it at the time.
I dreamt I was forced to eat 25lbs of marshmallows. When I woke up, my pillow was missing.
My girlfriends a redhead, no hair, just a red head.
A neighbour put his budgerigar in the mincing machine and invented shredded tweet.
My parents were wonderful, always there with a ready compromise. My sister wanted a cat for a pet I wanted a dog, so they bought a cat and taught it to bark.
I got up this morning. I like to get up in the morning; it gives me the rest of the day to myself. I crossed the landing and went down stairs. Mind you, if there had been no stairs, I wouldn't even have attempted it.
We were so poor; the ultimate luxury in our house at the time was ashtrays without advertisements. It was all the wolf could do to keep us away from his door. A luxury meal was prairie sandwiches- two slices of bread with wide-open spaces between them. There were so many holes in my socks I could put them on seventeen different ways.
She had been married so often she bought a drip-dry wedding dress.
This friend of mine had a terrible upbringing. When his mother lifted him up to feed him, his father rented the pram out. Then when they came into money later, his mother hired a woman to push the pram - and he's been pushed for money ever since.
A Scot is a man who keeps the Sabbath, and everything else he can lay his hands on.
ALL THAT JAZZ"
By Mary Shields.
My Cousin Jean was born on the 23rd. December 1940, her father was Tony Lamb, a jazz accordionist who was part of a trio, Douglas, Nicol and Lamb.
Jean’s mother was from a showbiz family, the McKenna’s from Coatbridge. Her mother Betty joined the May Moxon Young Ladies at the age of fourteen, in 1933. Later in 1936, Betty joined her older sister Kitty, as one of the Morrell Sisters. In August 1939 Kitty married John Nicol who was Hector Nicol’s older brother. John was a drummer in the orchestra pit. Kitty’s previous dancing partner, Maimie Ridley left the dancing duo, to further her career down South.
Jeannie Lamb has been singing from an early age, As a teenager she joined the "Clyde Valley Stompers" with band leader Ian Menzies. She later moved to London, where she worked with Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, Alex Welsh and George Chisholm. Jeannie developed her unique phrasing and her fabulous voice was brought to the notice of the worlds greatest mainstream and modern musicians. Those included Sandy Brown Monty. Alexander, Joe Pass, Ben Webster, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Wild Bill Davidson and of course her husband Danny Moss.
Danny needs no introduction; he is a stalwart of the British Jazz Scene. For many years his tenor saxophone has been heard in many settings, from playing with Johnny Dankworth, to his own quartet. Danny has worked with Geoff Simpkins, Billy Butterfield and Yank Lawson. He has toured with Stan Kenton and played in orchestras both in Britain and the U.S.A., where at one time the orchestra he was with accompanied the late Nat King Cole. Jeannie and Danny have been married for over forty years; have two sons, Danny Jnr. Who sometimes plays double bass, Robbie his younger brother is a talented artist and photographer. They emigrated to Perth in Western Australia about eighteen years ago. Danny and Jeannie are widely travelled, working with the P. & O. cruise ships, entertaining the passengers while sailing to Rio De Janeiro, Lima in Caracas and other ports of the world. Jeannie’s repertoire consists of most of the great standards such as "Stormy Weather", "Aunt Hagars Blues", "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home", "Black Coffee", and "Mad About The Boy" along with her ballads including Richard Rodgers "It Never Entered My Mind". "My Funny Valentine", "Little Girl Blue" and Hoagy Carmichael’s "Do I love You, Do I".
Jeannie also became a leading star on television and appeared in "That Was the Week That Was" with David Frost, Millicent Martin, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, she worked in a few episodes of "Secret Army" starring Bernard Hepton, and also with Una McLean in "Between The Lines" and radio shows with Jimmy Young. Danny Moss with Jeannie and the Quartet have toured Europe Jazz Festivals, Montreux , Nice, Edinburgh, Brecon and Cork, the "Rainbow Room" New York City the famous jazz club seasons at Ronnie Scotts in London, also the Birdland Jazz club in Hamburg, Germany. They both have made recordings, choosing a marvellous selection of songs which showcases Jeannie’s great emotional range. It is an experience to watch her work in the recording studio, she never just stands at the microphone and sings, with each song Jeannie performs as if it were alive performance on stage, in this way she gets inside the song and extracts the full meaning of the lyrics. In the studio the atmosphere is electric as Jeannie inspires the musicians to great swinging heights, she has a magical quality when she sings her ballads and when she swings --- Watch Out!
It was at the beginning of the annual Edinburgh Jazz festival on Sunday 31st July 2005, the event was held in the Speigltent, Nicholson Street, my daughter, her two friends and myself were in the audience, Councillor Eric Milligan declared the Jazz Festival officially open and the first part of the evening’s entertainment were Jeannie Lamb and the Danny Moss Quartet. I was so proud of my successful younger cousin, her opening number was "Stomping At The Savoy" and what a wonderful and rousing start to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.
Johnny Beattie tells a story against himself that reveals a great deal about the man. The comic was standing outside the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr in 1952, where he had been starring in a lengthy summer season..
Suddenly, he was spotted by a wee wifie, who then approached him."It's you! It's definitely you."
"Yes, well, it is."
"Ah jist knew it was you."
"Yes, and you're right. It's me."At this point, Govan-born Johnny took on a satisfied air, and prepared to sign an autograph. "Aye, I knew it was you," added the wifie. "You were supposed to dae my windaes last week and you never showed up. Where the hell wur ye?"
Johnny has never cleaned windaes, professionally - but has cleaned up in showbiz over almost 60 years. But the story illustrates a couple of points; while his profile has never been as high as that of Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton or Lex McLean, Johnny has not been consumed by a need to be a star.
However, at 80, he has proved himself a real success story. He can still sell out a theatre and is working in BBC soap River City. This Sunday, at the Thistle Hotel, the great and the good will pay tribute to Johnny on his birthday. Sir Alex Ferguson, Jimmy Reid, Johnny's daughter Maureen, the Alexander Brothers, Jack Milroy's widow Mary Lee and entertainer Peter Morrison were all on hand to speak of Johnny's talents. The star rolled up, in the company of his family, in a tartan limo - the result of a kind donation - and was piped into the hotel by members of Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. All told, says broadcaster Angus Simpson, one of the organisers, around 450 of Johnny's pals will be here. "It should be quite a night," says Angus. "The fact that Johnny is still working at 80, and has so many admiring friends, says it all, really."
Meantime, back to Johnny: does he think his lack of ambition helped him achieve longevity? "Could be," says the comic at his West End flat, a home that is covered in theatre and film memorabilia and photos of his late wife, Kitty, and their four kids. "I've always been relaxed about it. I never set out to get into the business. One day, I was in the University Cafe in Byres Road and people from the amateur dramatic society came in. "This bloke said the actors were short-handed and could anyone help them out with a performance? "I went along and played a police sergeant in a play called Grand National Night, and quite liked it.
"The strange thing is, I went on to play villains because I had that sort of Mafia face. Then we formed a concert party and a double act with comedian Wally Butler."
Johnny had finished his National Service and worked at Fairfield's shipyards. "Then, students' charity week took place in the Lyric Theatre and I got my first notices in the paper: 'Young electrical engineering student Johnny Beattie is Principal Comedian'. I panicked at the billing! "Robert Wilson, the performer and impresario, asked me to go on tour with his show for six months and, suddenly, I was a professional."
Meantime, Johnny was about to be married to model Kitty Lamont. "I was worried about leaving Fairfield's, and Kitty could have been upset at the idea of me touring for six months, but she had tremendous faith. She said 'If it fails you can always go back to the shipyards'." He never did. For years, Johnny toured Scotland in variety shows such as the Tivoli Aberdeen summer season that lasted 16 weeks. "Kitty used to line the kids up to meet this stranger who would come into their lives every so often. "Even when I did get home I would be so busy writing material I would fall asleep with a pen on my pillow."
By 1959, after working in the Gaiety Ayr for five consecutive summer shows, he was wheeched off to the King's Theatre for panto A Wish For Jamie. However, his next panto role, at the Empire Theatre as Buttons, brought slight criticism. "I was told I was 'too sexy' to play Buttons'. So the next year I played Dame in Mother Goose." Johnny, regarded as a generous performer on stage, went on to work with the great Duncan Macrae. "He hadn't a clue what was funny. He would ask me to read scripts and tell him if they were worth doing. "But I have had great funny people around, around me, like Alice Dale, Anne Fields, Hector Nicol and Walter Carr."
While variety died, Johnny moved into TV, with seven series of Welcome To The Ceilidh, and nine of the quiz show Now You See It. He even wrote a speech once for Ronald Reagan. Johnny says of his career: "I have never been driven - it seems to have fallen into place. Even when I landed a part in River City I couldn't believe how straightforward it was."
There is another reason why Johnny has gone the distance. He is a consummate pro who has never caused offence. "I was known as the Mary Whitehouse of Scottish comedy," he jokes. "But I think career distance is about working hard and enjoying it. By and large I have been very lucky."
This article on Johnny Beattie is by Brian Beacom and appears by very kind permission of the Evening Times Newspaper.
The Panto Crinoline
by Beryl Beattie
Once upon a time there was a grand pantomime filled with wonderful characters and dancers and magic. There were costumes worn by the fairy tale people, including perhaps one of the most important, the Queen of Hearts. She wore a huge crinoline, which is to say a long dress with a petticoat stiffened at the bottom by a hoop of fine metal sewn into the fabric. This made the dress stick out like a meringue. The top was made of the finest velvet with a pointed bodice which fitted snugly into the tiny waist of whomsoever wore it. The cream sleeves were puffed at the shoulders and then narrowed into velvet at the wrists. There were bands of the brightest red, ribbons to decorate the sleeves. The skirt itself was of the most beautiful sky blue satin and at the foot, there was a pattern of dots and crosses in red and cream. The final touch was a silk apron which was decorated with pale blue designs to match the edge of the dress. It was said that whoever wore this dress felt like a real queen. And certainly the Crinoline knew she was very important because when she went on stage each performance, the audience all applauded. She was the happiest crinoline in the world.
The years went by and all of a sudden the fashions changed and poor Crinoline was no longer chosen from the long line of costumes in the theatrical store. She was passed by. She was ignored. She was, dare one say, unwanted. Then one day some people came by and asked if they might borrow some costumes for the famous festival cavalcade parade. To her delight, crinoline was immediately selected and luckily did not hear the owners mention she was of no further use and the new owner could keep her. Oh my, how she rejoiced when she heard the cheers from the crowds as she swept along the main street. Once again she was happier than ever.
More years went past and the once vibrant satin began to look a little dull and there were signs of wear and tear at the hem of the dress. The owner was no longer involved in the festival parade and so Crinoline was carefully hung up in a wardrobe which she had to share with a pretend fur coat, some evening dresses and a man’s evening suit. Who knows what tales they all told each other when the wardrobe door slid shut. But for once Crinoline was silent. She knew they all were modern and would be taken out and worn again. Alas, there would be no more occasions for her to be seen. Then one day the door slid open and the owner took Crinoline out and brought her downstairs. To her delight, she was laid carefully on to the ironing table and her huge skirt carefully ironed. The apron was next. Oh how happy Crinoline was. How she loved the way the iron tickled her fabric and freshened up all the creases so that she knew she looked young once again. It turned out that the owner had offered the use of Crinoline to a lady who was to take part in a charity event selling raffle tickets to help children. But oh dear, who could possibly have anticipated the reaction Crinoline would receive when she was carefully presented to the lady. "Would you wear that?" asked someone in a most disparaging manner. The owner suggested the lady try on Crinoline. But to her dismay, the feisty female refused to remove a black tee shirt which would have completely spoiled the look of the velvet top. Instead of admiring her, they looked down their noses as if she were ugly. Crinoline shivered in fear. How could anyone dare to spoil her beautiful design? The owner luckily agreed with that sentiment and said: " It is quite all right. You cannot spoil the look of this beautiful costume, so there is no need for you to wear it, thank you." Crinoline sighed in relief as she was carefully put back on the hanger and returned to the car. But once alone, she wept her heart out.
Maybe in the harsh light of the large supermarket she did look a little bit worn but that was only at the hemline. She was sure she had seen several little girls look in curiosity at her, now here she was, unwanted and not apparently good enough to be seen in modest surroundings far away from the fabulous pantomimes and parades she had been so used to starring in. She cried herself to sleep. It is a dreadful thing if you feel unwanted and unloved. Crinoline knew that feeling for the first time. But she was unaware that the owner had secretly been very annoyed at the reaction to Crinoline from people who, if the truth be known, were just a tiny bit ignorant and could not appreciate beauty. Soon she was safely home and back in the wardrobe and when the other clothes asked how the big event had gone, because she always told the truth, she confided it had been a disaster. The pretend fur coat put her arm round crinoline’s velvet shoulders and the man’s evening suit squeezed her arm reassuringly. "Never mind, Crinoline, we think you are the most beautiful crinoline in the world," they told her. "Oh, it is so good to be home," she told them gratefully. But even they could never guess how hurt and disappointed she had been.
Christmas was coming. In the shops toys and decorations had begun to appear. The panto rehearsals were in full swing. There was a promise of snow and rosy cheeked children were busy writing letters to Father Christmas who had arrived at the shops. The owner had heard about a group of people who used to be in the theatre who loved to stage exhibitions of a very important nature. One such extremely important display was to take place in a magnificent concert hall which boasted its very own art gallery and restaurant. And so it came to pass that Crinoline was offered as a prize exhibition in the very next show. The offer was gratefully accepted and the day came when once again the wardrobe door slid open and the owner carefully took out Crinoline and transported her to the gallery. Now Crinoline had no idea what was happening. The owner had simply told her it was to be a surprise. A very nice surprise. A beautiful mannequin was set up in the corner of the huge gallery amongst the old play bills which advertised the shows and the stars taking part. There were old photographs of famous artistes and shows taken long before digital cameras were even thought of. Even before there were colour photographs. Crinoline was placed carefully on the mannequin who looked almost alive and was the perfect size for the dress. Somebody had cleverly placed theatrical spot lights at the foot of the model so that the blue satin once again shone brightly and the bodice revealed the true beauty of the velvet and the cream silk looked crisp and fresh.
At last Crinoline was back in the spotlight. Even the red ribbons on the sleeves spread themselves evenly over the silk and velvet. Crinoline’s appearance was an instant success. People came past and gently touched the fabric, noting the workmanship and the design. "My, they don’t make costumes like this any more, " they praised. Crinoline was so happy. They were admiring her beauty and seeing her as she was in her days of glory and pantomime. The owner smiled to herself. The magic of King Panto had once again woven its spell. As for Crinoline, well this was the best ever Christmas present. Whisper it, but even Father Christmas agreed.
OVER THE SEA TO PANTOMIME!
By Ray Smith
Oh no! Not another nostalgic article aboot Scottish Panto, I hear you gasp. Well, I had to write this article as an educational piece back in the 70s. That was the first time in the history of Canadian theatre, that a genuine UK pantomime was staged and toured across the land.The show was Cinderella. Now you'd think that even the most backwoodsian of Canadian Lumberjacks would have known the story of Cinders. And indeed they did. But definitely NOT in the context of a stage pantomime which was hardly Walt Disney. So for the hundreds of French-Canadian lumberjacks NOT born and raised with the Scottish panto tradition, this is how I explained what Lionel Blair as Billy Buttons and that wee stoater Fiona Kennedy, in the title role, were getting up to on the mighty stage of Ottawa's 3,000 seater National Arts Centre.
'The word pantomime will signify a typically French form of entertainment. Usually it’s a silent mime performed in classic Continental tradition by that brilliant wee Frenchman, Marcel Marceau. He wore a skintight leotard, a bowler hat and highly exaggerated clown makeup on his face. He went through one hilarious comedy turn after another. It was a throwback to the days of Charlie Chaplin and silent movies like the Gold Rush. The laugher and the pathos were created entirely by arm, leg, face and body movements. Not a single word was spoken. Aye lads, it was exactly how you wanted your mother-in-law to behave, especially when you were being nagged tae death! There was nothing common about the French form of pantomime. It could easily be described as ethereal, ephemeral and esoteric. (That explains why Monsieur Marceau sold Chamber’s dictionaries at every performance-well it would be easier than selling Chamber’s pots!!).
On the other hand, the traditional Scottish Pantomime is a horse of a very different race! Its detractors might use slightly less hoi polloi adjectives such as lewd, rude and crude. But that’s unfair. A Scottish Panto is a boisterous traditional (or contemporary) fairy story converted into a musical variety show for family audiences. It will be splendidly costumed and feature fantastic scenery and effects. Look for outrageous 'drawers-drooping' comedy and dreadful cross talk between the comedians: Father: son who is the laziest boy in your class?: "Faither, I huv nae idea" "Well when you are busy writing your assignments who just sits watching you instead of working?" "Och that’s easy faither-it’s oor Teacher!(Oh the size of it!). Join the singalongs in which a gigantic song sheet flies down to fill the entire stage proscenium opening, while children of all ages bawl out such choruses as ‘Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzen-ellen bogan by the sea" Och that sort of dates me doesn’t it hen? . These days Top 20 pop songs from rap to reggae have replaced "There’s A Tiny House’ Ítsy bitsy Spider’ or Three little fishies and a mammy fishy too" The story line or plot is as thin as ever.
Such classic tales as Cinderella, Robin Hood, Mother Goose and Aladdin have become loosely followed 'coat-hanger' stories around which are featured the comedians, rock singers and TV soap opera stars who participate in this 'lucrative' wee earner. Over the years Scottish audiences have turned out in their thousands to enjoy such home grown panto’s as Goosie Goosie Glasgow and A Wish For Jamie. While some might consider the French mime to be a unique form of entertainment, nothing could be more unique than the Scottish panto. It’s the only type of family entertainment on earth, in which men play women and women play men. Traditionally the Panto Principal Boy is really a principal girl. A leggy woman in leotards plays such male hero characters as Robin Hood, Aladdin and Robinson Crusoe. The Scottish singer Fay Lenore was one of our best-loved Principal Boys. Meanwhile Aladdin’s mither, the Widow Twanky, is portrayed as a 'grotesque dame' by the male comedian.
Over the years, Scotland has produced some brilliant panto Dames, as enacted by such stars as Jimmy Logan, Duncan McRae, Harry Gordon, Stanley Baxter and of course Johnny Beattie The Panto Dame is quite different from the female impersonator or drag act. The Panto Dame is an outrageous, larger than life character, a deliberately grotesque 'man in skirts' whose underlay of masculinity including a 'cod' woman's voice and 'bursting balloon bosoms' adds to the laughter. The closest example of a grotesque panto dame seen regularly on TV talk shows around the world is the outrageous Dame Edna, depicted by actor Barry Humphries. John Inman, long pensioned off from Grace Brothers Department Store on TV's Are You Being Served? is currently one of the most popular grotesque Dames in contemporary Panto.
When I complimented the late Rikki Fulton(Francie and Josie/ Rev. IM Jolly) on his excellent female nurse and nanny characters, he pointed out that the secret of making this sort of role funny was to ensure that it was always larger than life. Said Rikki,’I always tried to create a particularly masculine type of Dame. The children knew it was a man in skirts and laughed even louder because of it! Had I tried to exactly replicate a vampy woman in the Danny La Rue style, it wouldn’t have worked in Panto’ Some people suggest that the most famous Dame in pantomime history was likely Arthur Lucan who made a lifetime career out of portraying the dirty, bedraggled, Irish washer woman known to millions of 1950’s movie fans as Old Mother Riley. Nobody could possibly mistake the 'typical Irish' washer wifie for a 'real' lady. It was as if Arthur Lucan took the Widow Twankee in Christmas Panto and turned it into a lifelong year round career! But life in the Riley household got even stranger. When Old Mother Riley starred in Panto, the Principal Boy was played by his on stage daughter Miss Kitty McShane, who in real life was Old Mother Riley’s wife!
The origins of Panto cross dressing go back in time to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Women were not allowed on stage and so pre-pubescent boys played the female roles. But I think the origins of Scottish panto were somewhat different. After his tragic defeat at Culloden Moor, Bonnie Prince Charlie had to flee the pursuing Redcoat Armies. Dressed as his maidservant Flora MacDonald, the young pretender rowed over the sea to Skye. That’s one version of history. But another version suggests that Bonnie Prince Charlie rowed to Skye, not to get away from the English, but to star in panto, at the Palace Theatre, Portree. So popular was Charlie as The Widow Flora, that the people of Skye composed an anthem in his honour-Will Ye No Come Back Again? (Aye, Charlie, to star in next years panto!)
Men dressed as women, women dressed as men, husbands playing mothers, wives playing daughters, princes dressed as princesses, understudy drag queens doing impersonations of other drag queens, an aging Irish washerwoman colleen who was really a pipe puffing old codger in baggy troosers, and the inevitable question asked by the Fairy Queen in every panto I have ever attended," Children, do YOU believe in Fairies?" All this and more, belongs to the eccentric but very real world of Scottish Pantomime.And with that simple, historically accurate explanation, I rest ma case!
WHEN SCOTLAND WAS HAPPY AS LARRY
by Ray Smith
Forty years after it all came to an end; one of the most unique shows in the history of STV re-entered my life like a whirling dervish. Make that a Comet. No’ a Hailey’s Comet ye ken. But a rust-bucket of a seagoing pirate ship named Comet, which enabled an eager Scottish nation to lap up the great programming on the original Radio Scotland. The show that was transferred from TV to the wireless by Radio Scotland boss Tommy Shields, was a downsized version of Larry Marshall and The One O'clock Gang, less Dorothy and Charlie but with the addition of that great deejay and broadcaster, David Kinnaird. It became a radio favourite for several months’ back in 1964. And guess what? Not a single recording seems to have survived Aggie! It’s an interesting episode in the show’s history and one about which I only recently fund oot. But it’s not nearly as interesting as the show’s TV story.
Once upon a time.... If STV’s program boss Canadian Ray Purdie had been given his way, thousands of Scots would have tuned in to approximately 2,000 editions of a daily lunchtime variety show called The Goofy Gang. Luckily the views of the shows newly discovered star and creator prevailed and in September 1957, ‘Larry Marshall and The One O'clock Gang" for such was its official title, was born. It remained on STV until June of 1965. It was a show that Scotland loved to hated or hated to love (but loved just the same) and invariably watched in large numbers. " Sit back and Relax its the one' o'clock Gang!" With the Tommy Maxwell Quartet playing in the background, the screen would be filled with the grinning, friendly face and cheerful ’ba faced’ Glesca voice of the Gangster in Chief, Larry Marshall.
The show had an earthy spontaneity and sense of improvisation. Too much so it was said by some of the BBC cheps over at Queen Margaret Drive. Before upstart STV and its adverts came along, the Beeb had years of experience producing near perfect, much rehearsed, if somewhat stolid fare. But producing a fourty minute variety show 5 days a week without a break, especially in the days of live TV, was an accomplishment in itself and naturally things did not always go according to plan.
The newspapers of those days speculated about what the reaction from QMD must have been when they learnt that Larry and The Gang were to appear as special guest stars on BBC TV’s top rated national variety spectacular, The Billy Cotton Band Show. The gruff but affable Cotton had been interviewed by Larry when he was appearing at the Glasgow Empire. Billy took such a shine to the show that he insisted they appear as guest stars on his own show. All of Scotland watched with pride. One wag of those days suggested that serving up the Gang to a national BBC audience was like serving Queen Elizabeth a mealie puddin supper. To which his detractors replied, " weel judging by Larry’s popularity in Royal Commands, Her Majesty must have enjoyed the ‘mealie puddin’!
So what was the secret of the most successful lunchtime variety show (technically it was called an entertainment and public service show) in the UK? It would be easy to say teamwork and that was certainly a factor. The show made household names out of performers who were completely unknown. The Gang’s straight man was Jimmy Nairn, who managed to stay poker faced throughout the daily pandemonium. In contrast his earlier and later work for STV, as a programming host must have seemed like a piece of cake. Trim, dapper and handsome Chairlie Sim was developing quite a reputation as a sort of Scottish style pop vocalist in the Sinatra tradition, when the Gang show beckoned. In addition to doing truly winning renditions of some of the most obscure American pop songs I have never heard since, Charlie shone in comedy skits and double acts with Larry Marshall. He demonstrated a brilliant talent, which he subsequently developed to the full, for Scottish character comedy.
On the distaff side another newcomer was Dorothy Paul, who went on to become one of Scotland’s most successful character actresses and comediennes. She could turn her voice to everything from operatic arias to show tunes or the pops of the day. Her one woman shows featuring See That’s Her and That’s Her Again were made into highly successful dvd’s thereby bringing oor Dot to the attention of a much larger world-wide audience. When she does the cleaning lady in that rough and ready, earthy Glesca stage accent, she is almost like Gracie Clark or Ma Logan reincarnate! Another resident songstress with quite a flair for comedy was Marie Benson, who popularized the original wee school girl in the classroom skits. When she left, the Gang welcomed Ireland’s Moyra Briody, who was at that time an already experienced, highly polished and accomplished cabaret and vaudeville singer. She and Dorothy became known as Dot and Moe. Moyra died in April 89 Down Under. But thanks to her sister Jean Ann Page, her memory lives on in the form of a wonderful album, Rare Auld Times. In the latter years of her career Moyra toured extensively in the Antipodes, appearing with such names as Sir Harry Secombe. And she was definitely the only Gang show ‘alum’ whose recordings were featured regularly on CBC radio’s top-rated coast to coast Saturday morning program, The Max Ferguson Show. I asked Jean Ann why her sister went from Moira (oi) to Moyra (oy). "Nothing more than printer’s gremlins, Ray" quipped Jean Ann, "They usually got it wrong and spellt it that way on bill matter, so Moyra went with the flow". Then there was delightful dancer choreographer Kay Rose, who became Mrs. Larry Marshall, together with an ABC of showbiz who made periodic appearances. They included singing deejay Peter Mallan and for a while in the early years, the Caruso-like Greenock tenor Gordon MacKenzie, who was a longtime personal friend of mine and a leading soloist with The White Heather Group.
In addition to the daily grind of lunchtime variety shows, it was quite common for the One O Clock Gang Show to appear in concert halls and theatres. Their TV fans were not disappointed. As a teenager I remember a performance they did at Perth City Hall. It was my granny's birthday and I treated her to a front row seat. During one bit of comedy biz, Larry even smacked me lightly over the heid with a great big ‘sticky’ lollipop, as he ran through the audience. I became a fan for life!
But, although the One O’ Clock Gang earned a legitimate place in the annals of Scottish variety theatre, for millions of Scots, the Gang is synonymous with STV and with only one man, Larry Marshall. A leading newspaper described him as, "One of the most natural and likeable blokes you could meet, on or off the screen"
He joined the fledgling STV as a scriptwriter but his ability to think and act on his feet were immediately recognized by Program boss Ray Purdie.
Larry started performing at age eleven. After demob (aye , he was older than eleven by then) he acted and produced for Ruther glen Rep, before turning professional in 1951 appearing in concert party at North Berwick. Then came a round of variety, summer shows, concert party seasons and pantoes/ He even stooged for Clairty Clairty Morgan and much later in his career, worked with the great Lex McLean. In addition to the daily grind that was the One O'clock Gang, Larry hosted STV panel games, acted in episodes of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Revenue Men and The Borderers, did three series of Larry Look Lightly for STV and starred in a memorable evening series, Happy As Larry. It could almost have been billed UNHappy As Larry. During the show that went out live, Larry tripped and fell onto a pair of scissors in his pocket. No time for ‘tape delay’ in those days. He was immediately bandaged during a commercial break and finished the show in extreme agony (unknown to viewers). As soon as it ended he was rushed to the Emergency Ward. I was always impressed by his genuine interest in people, especially members of the studio audience who would be warmly welcomed, whether they were visiting American tourists or had just come ‘doon the road frae Polmaddy" His people skills were recognized by one of his biggest fans, Sir Sean Connerry who stated that nobody was Larry’s equal in dealing with an audience. Praise indeed from 007. Next to his career with the One O'clock Gang, Larry told me that his proudest achievement was being the star of Jamie’s Scottish Evening, a record-breaking Tartan cabaret that ran for 19 years at the King James Thistle Hotel in Edinburgh and was directed by Kaye Rose. This show earned Larry the kudos of visitors from as far away as Japan, Korea, Afghanistan, every European country, the USA and of course The Commonwealth.
He fondly remembered quick visits to Toronto to star in Scottish and Burns Evenings. But when I interviewed Larry in 1995 for this article, he told me that he had resisted many requests to star in ‘tartan tours’ of Faraway Places. I suggested at that time that his many Scottish fans around the world would be absolutely chuffed to find a One O'clock Gang video at their local suppliers. In fact it would undoubtedly become a best seller in Scotland and around the World. I hoped that Larry’s ‘no’ really meant, ‘no’ the noo, but wan o’ these days, mebbe!" Memories of Larry and the Gang came flooding back. Of international guest stars who were usually starring at the Glasgow Empire: of tongue twisting nonsense monologues when the Gang did their weekly Old Tyme Music hall: Of Larry ‘working’ the studio audience, always so informal, so apparently spontaneous and yet so effective: of Teacher Jim, sticky lollipops and naughty short troosered, over aged schoolboys: of warmly sentimental performances of Auld Scots Mither Mine, Come Back Paddy Reilly (tae Ballyjamesduff) A Town Like Glasgow, The Ballad of Rob Roy : and the Larry Marshall recording (’captured’ aff the Internet) that gets played at full volume in my car whenever I travel across Canada-Wee Harry, The Minstrel King Of Scotland.
Memories of a ‘jaunty balmoral and an affa crookit stick" may not be a Puccini Opera or a regular selection on BBC Radio Scotland‘s Grace Notes, but they sure mak them miles flee by. I can still picture Larry wearing one of his cozy cardigans, opening the show as he so often did with a topical song whose lyrics changed to suit the news headlines of the day. Och how did it go again.???... You remember....
It’s in the news; it’s in the news:
We hope you liked this tale o’ Larry Marshall:
It’s in the news; it’s in the news:
Tae this wee Glesca coamic, we’re quite partial:
With Jim, Chas, Kaye, Tom, Dot and Moe:
He cheered us up each day:
Those golden years at STV seem but a smile away:
When Marshall worked his magic:
Scotland shouted ‘Hip Hooray”
Ye'd have seen it had ye read the news!
By Henry Aitken
His Childhood Years:
At the age of two in his home in the miner's houses in Smithstone Row, Croy, Will attempted to play his first tune, "Poor Old Joe", on a melodeon belonging to his father, Joseph Starrs. He was a child prodigy. His family recognised the musical potential in young William and encouraged him to continue playing the melodeon. Later he progressed from the melodeon to the chromatic button accordion and began to develop a method of playing which suited his style and personality.
Although, as a two year old toddler, he started his musical life playing the family melodeon, his ultimate choice of instrument was the chromatic button accordion, which he continued to play all his adult life. As the years passed, his playing technique developed and he quickly acquired a growing repertoire of tunes in the Scottish tradition. Soon he became confident and accomplished enough to enter the local accordion competitions and at the age of ten he became Scottish accordion champion. Together with his younger sister, Rosie, who sang, Will would frequently play at local events, social functions and go-as-you-please competitions. Sometimes they would compete at more than one event on any night, often travelling as far afield as, Larkhall, Motherwell or Cowie. However, it was soon accepted by the other competitors, that if Will and Rosie had entered, they did not stand any chance of winning. Prize money for the winner in these days was £3.00 per event. In one particular season, Will is known to have won at least 13 individual events and together he and Rosie won 9 events.
At this time of his life, not only did Will develop his accordion playing to an advanced level, but he also taught himself to play the piano and the coronet and to read and write music. In an attempt to improve his musical ability, Will attended music lessons with a teacher, Mr Serafino Arcari, at the Arcari family home in Main Street, Lennoxtown. (Serafino had a Paolo Soprani accordion made specially for him at the factory in Italy. It had square buttons.) The lessons cost £1.00 per hour, but after a month, Serafino Arcari took him aside and declared that these lessons were a waste of time and money, as he could not teach Will anything.
During his primary education, Will attended the local Holy Cross School in Croy. From there he progressed to St Ninians School, Kirkintilloch, but was allowed to leave school at the age of 14 to pursue a stage career.
His Teenage Years:
At the age of thirteen, while making a solo guest appearance at a County Dinner in the Grand Hotel in Glasgow, Will was introduced by Sir Ian Colquhoun to Jock Kilpatrick, the manager of the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow. Jock invited him to join the cast as a solo performer, and after being granted permission to leave school early, Will began his professional stage career. The next four years saw Will develop his own unique style of playing. His technical skills became renowned and his repertoire extended to include the full range of traditional Scottish music, Continental music and the classics.
When World War II broke out, Will was seventeen and was eligible for military service in the armed forces, however, since he had been born into the mining community of Croy, he was already working underground in the mines. There he had contracted pleurisy which left a shadow on his lung and caused him to fail the Army medical examination. Consequently, he was sent to work as a ‘Bevin Boy’ in the coal mines at Number 3 Gartshore Colliery, Dullatur. His fellow miners were so considerate of Will's status as a highly talented young stage performer with a great future, that they allowed him only to work at the pit bottom - not at the coal face - where the work was less demanding. He was also allowed to wear gloves to protect his 'valuable musicians' hands from any damage done by the hard manual work of manoeuvring coal tubs on and off the mine shaft cage.
Britain experienced great difficulty in importing coal during World War II. This meant that the production of indigenous coal from British mines had to be immediately increased. The Minister of Labour at the time was Ernest Bevin and in an effort to alleviate the coal shortage, he proclaimed that twenty percent of young men, eligible to serve in the armed forces, should be enlisted to work in the coal mines. These conscript miners were given the nickname ‘Bevin Boys’. Will was well aware that it was at the same Gartshore Colliery on the 28th July 1923, that an underground explosion had killed 8 men. Nevertheless, in 1939 he started work in the coal mines as a 'Bevin Boy' in the service of his country.
At the age of eighteen, he made his first 78 record in London for Parlophone. The music was his own composition, "The Jacqueline Waltz". At that point the tune did not have a title, so he decided to name it after his current girl friend, Jacqueline Georgson, an English chorus girl whom he had met in a show. In 1940, while playing in a Sunday night concert in Dunoon, Will was introduced to Robert Wilson, the famous Scots tenor. Wilson was so impressed by the playing ability and stage presence of the young eighteen year old, that he invited him to join the 'White Heather Group' of Scots entertainers as a touring professional. That was the start of a long-time friendship and show business association, for they appeared on stage together for many years thereafter and Will made many recordings with "Thistle Records" of 65 Berkeley Street, Glasgow, a record company owned by Robert Wilson.
His Adult Years:
Although Will Starr travelled the world as an international performer, during his spare time he always enjoyed returning to his home in Croy. Will spent his later years with his sisters, Rose and Theresa, at 16 Weldon Place, Croy. The family had moved there when the family home at Smithstone Row, Croy, was demolished. After a losing battle with cancer of the spine, Will Starr died in his home town of Croy on 6 March 1976 and was buried in the Starrs family grave in Howe Road Cemetery, Kilsyth, Stirlingshire. The funeral on March 10th 1976, was attended by hundreds of local people, civic dignitaries, show business celebrities and many family friends from all over Scotland.
The Croy Silver Band played the funeral march as the cortège walked to the local Holy Cross Church in Croy. Will Starr was a life-time supporter of the Band and often played with them at rehearsals and functions. This was their opportunity to show their appreciation for that support by giving him a fitting send-off. Later, the funeral cortège stretched for a mile and a quarter, as the mourners walked the distance from his home town of Croy to the Cemetery in Howe Road, Kilsyth. The week before he died, the great Scottish Dance Band leader, Sir Jimmy Shand, paid him a visit at his home and played a few tunes for him. Shand was invited to play at Will's funeral, but he declined with the words, "Ah could'nae play that great man oot!" This was an expression of the great sadness Sir Jimmy Shand felt at the loss of such a good friend, fellow countryman and highly respected vituoso accordionist. The honour of playing was granted to Bill Powrie (brother of Ian Powrie, the famous Scottish fiddler) who played the slow air, "The Mist Covered Mountains" on Will Starr's own black Hohner Morino at the graveside.
Visit the fabulous site in memory of Will Starr at www.willstarr.com
This aritcle appears by kind courtesy of Henry Aitken.
THE KING’S THEATRE EDINBURGH 1906 – 2006
I hope that you enjoy our Autumn and Winter season at the King’s. I am particularly pleased to say that there are lots of great shows to celebrate the first 100 years of the ‘Grand Old Lady of Leven Street’. Over the years The King’s has established itself as a fine drama and variety house playing host to an array of established and up and coming artists.
In the article below writer Mike Ridings looks back at the King’s over the years gone by, reminding us why the theatre still exerts and amazing influence in the life of the city. Once again this Autumn The King’s will be doing what it does best – entertaining Edinburgh’s audiences with a season packed full of delights.
John Stalker, Chief Executive, Festival City Theatres Trust
One Hundred Glorious Years of Variety: A Centenary Celebration of the History of the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh.
On the 8th December, 1906, the King’s Theatre opened with Cinderella, and to celebrate its centenary, the curtain will rise again on the best loved of all pantomimes, the magical story of Cinderella and her Prince Charming. The building of the King’s was commissioned in 1906 as a rival to the successful Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, and also to the prestigious theatres in London’s West End. It was designed to be, and a hundred years later, is still recognised as a Number 1 British theatre.
James Davidson and J.D Swanston were not specialist theatre architects such as Matcham and Phipps .But Davidson’s rather dour, red sandstone, ‘Lanarkshire municipal’, building, with its spacious foyer, solid mahogany doors, marble stairs, and fine parquet floors, which echoed’ the good taste ‘of a Victorian gentlemen’s club, was nonetheless impressive. Swanston’s auditorium, was a cornucopia of Viennese baroque, plush red, and opulent gold, ornate rococo boxes, nine on each side, all graced with voluptuous nudes. The building of the King’s was a statement of Victorian ebullience and confidence that here was a theatre of which Edinburgh could always be proud.
Andrew Carnegie, the Dunfermline-born millionaire, laid the foundation stone of the King’s, on 18th August, 1906 as ‘The House of Variety’. It has remained true to this challenge to this day. It is this comprehensive and all-inclusiveness which has been the bedrock of its strength. First of all are the audiences who for a century have flocked to the theatre which has become an important part of their lives. There are the outstanding theatre managers, such as the Cruikshanks, who planned and sometimes produced, the season’s programmes. They would welcome the patrons, many of whom became their friends, through the mahogany doors of the foyer. The office staff were responsible for the efficient day to day administration of the company, and the barmen and ushers looked after the needs of the audience. Especially important were the unsung heroes, the backstage staff and crew, without whose sheer hard work, ingenuity, and above all, love for the King’s and all it represents, and without whom, as all producers, directors, and stage performers are acutely aware, no show could go on. All these things are as true today as they have been since the 8th of December, 1906, when the King’s opened for the first time with Cinderella.
As the curtain rose, the audience were entranced by an elaborate winter forest scene, which in a trice was transformed by fairy wand into a verdant glade, with a family of live rabbits hopping about happily in the warm springtime sun .A pumpkin and four white mice were magically changed by the Fairy Godmother into a (Shetland pony) horse-drawn carriage, taking the lovely sixteen-year-old Phyllis Dare, as Cinderella, in gorgeous dress and glass slippers to meet her Prince Charming at the ball. At the end, Prince Charming and Cinderella descended the palace stair to marry and live happily ever after, much to the chagrin of the Ugly Sisters, but to the joy of the grown-ups and also their children, who were to come to the Christmas pantomime again and again, as were their children, and their children’s children…For a hundred years the King’s been famous for its traditional pantomimes. Cinderella especially, has been popular. Not only did it open the theatre in 1906, it was the pantomime chosen for the King’s Golden Jubilee in 1956, and it will charm us again, on this, the King’s Centenary Celebrations. Even though there may be no live rabbits on the stage, Prince Charming and Cinderella will still be married and live happily ever after.
‘The National Theatre of Scotland is Pantomime’ declared Sir Lewis Casson,( and for the hundred years until February 2006, with the first productions of the newly formed official National Theatre of Scotland, this was certainly true.) Dick Whittington, Babes in the Wood Jack and Beanstalk, Aladdin, and Mother Goose are all favourites. But most loved of all ,were the especially composed all-Scottish Jamie pantomimes, which took the King’s by storm.. ‘SCOTTISH PANTO IS A BOMBSHELL’ headlined the ‘Evening News’ in its review of A Wish for Jamie, on 15 December, 1962. Scottish pantomime has thrived, largely because of those other great Scottish traditions, the Variety Stage and the Music Hall. There is nothing a Scottish audience likes more than A Good Night Out, to borrow John McGrath’s phrase. Scottish audiences want to engage directly with the actors, especially the comedians, in chat and back-chat. Familiarity does not breed contempt. On the contrary, it creates a close friendship and bond between the audience and the entertainers. They came each year to be entertained, to join in the sing-songs, and the ’Oh Yes It I!’ Oh No It Isn’t!’ banter with the stage. They adored the glamorous chorus girls and marvelled at the magic transformations. Above all, they enjoyed a raucous good laugh at the Dame, with his /her outrageous costumes and blue (ish) innuendo.
On the Variety stage ,George Robey, Lily Gantry, Frankie Vaughan, Ken Dodd, Jewel and Warris, Bruce Forsyth, and Danny La Rue, is only the sketchiest and inadequate list of the hundreds of top performers, too many to mention individually, who have appeared at the King’s. Especially close to our hearts are the Scottish comedians who have brought gales of laughter and tears of joy to Edinburgh audiences. These are just a few names to conjure with: Harry Lauder, Tommy Lorne, Will Hay, Harry Gordon, Jack Radcliffe, Lex Maclean, Duncan Macrae,Chic Murray and Maisie, Dave Willis, Jimmy Logan, Walter Carr, Alec Finlay, Russell Hunter, Stanley Baxter, Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton.Today, as in the past few years, Allan Stewart and Andy Gray, are the proud inheritors of this very special tradition of Scottish comedy.
A principal emphasis of the King’s has rightly been to open its doors to an audience that comes to enjoy the show, to be able to forget for a short time the rigours of the real world outside. Pantomime in the winter, and The Five Past Eight Show for many summer seasons, kept the theatre in business. And it should never be forgotten that the King’s doors stayed open during World War1; helped people to forget the Depression, unemployment and rise of Fascism in the ‘thirties’: and never closed even through the darkest days of the Second World War. But the King’s is not only known for its pantomime and variety shows. The annual performances of Edinburgh’s Local Heroes’, the extraordinarily talented and dedicated amateur musical theatre groups, such as The Bohemians Lyric Opera Company, Southern Light Opera, Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Edinburgh Music Theatre, and the Scouts and Guides of The Gang Show, fill the theatre to capacity with shows of the highest quality and raise generous donations to local charities.
There can be few theatres in the world that can assemble a more prestigious list of the great national and international performers and Companies who have performed on the stage of the King’s Theatre of Edinburgh. Even before the Edinburgh Festival began in 1947, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Sybil Thorndike, Sarah Bernhardt, Edwige Feuillere, and John Gielgud all appeared at the King’s. In 1930, Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, and Laurence Olivier acted in the world premier of Coward’s Private Lives. More recently, Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale, Simon Callow, Nigel Havers, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox, Juliet Stevenson, Faith Shaw and Maggie Smith are just some names that come immediately to mind.
Stewart Grainger, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons, John Mills, Claire Bloom and Richard Burton are a representative group of film stars who have performed at this theatre. World famous companies such as the Royal National Theatre, R.S.C., Berliner Ensemble, Gorki Theatre, Moscow, and the Ninagawa Theatre, have played here, working with celebrated directors like Peter Hall, Peter Zadek, Ingmar Bergman, Ninagawa himself, and Peter Stein. They have brought the best of world drama. Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett, have all been seen at the King’s. Pavlova, Ninette de Valois, Moira Shearer, and Margot Fonteyn, have danced on its stage, as have Anton Dolin, Robert Helpmann, and Rudolf Nureyev. Diaghelev’s Russian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, and the Royal Ballet have staged both classical and modern ballet. Carl Rosa Opera. The D’Oyly Carte, Glyndbourne Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, directors such as Visconti and Franco Zeffereli, and conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham, John Barbirolli, Georg Solti, Guilini and Addabo, with soloists Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland, Kathleen Ferrier,as have Tito Gobbi, Placido Domingo and Pavarotti are further reminders of the glorious history of this world-renowned theatre.
Edinburgh owes a great debt of gratitude to those visionary and practical men of business who in 1906 felt a civic duty to build a theatre for the people of Edinburgh. What they also built was a theatre which has touched the lives of the people of Edinburgh, and at the reached out to the people of the whole world. After a hundred years of continuous use and two major refurbishments, the King’s is now in urgent need of repair, so fundamental that the theatre is in imminent danger of having to close. This building work will be very expensive, but The King’s is an invaluable part of Edinburgh’s heritage, and needs major renovation to be conserved for the future. We must not let it die.
Michael Ridings, September 2006.
Montage by Bob Bain, from back cover of "STAGEDOOR" Issue 74, Autumn 2006.
THE SCOTSMAN WHO LIVED IN A COAT
By Ray Smith
An expatriot Brit living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan asked me if I remembered the laughs we enjoyed from those variety (vaudeville) shows which dominated our screens during the golden age of television. "D'ye remember yon Palladium Show, Ray?" he inquired, adding "But since there wasn’t a Scottish connection, I don't suppose you’d ever write about it?
Although not even 10 seconds-worth of America's 'Ed Sullivan Show' was aired on our telly, we didn't feel deprived. You see, us Brits staged the best TV variety shows in the world. Sunday Night At The London Palladium garnered a weekly audience of umpteen million from Cornwall tae Kirkwall! It was an hour of sparkling international vaudeville. I bet you shed a tear at the poignant wee Italian mouse, Topo Gigio.... ye 'howled' at Spanish ventriloquist Senor Wences, when he opened a wee box, revealing the scariest 'dummies-head' in Europe....and how ye adored the dancin' pigs, Pinky & Perky. We didn’t even pine for those brilliant Jewish-American comics of the 'Catskill Resort' variety. They came to us! My favourites were the cigar-chompin Allan King, Stan (Hullo mudda, hullo fadda) Freeberg and the laconic-looking sad-sack, Jackie Vernon. But the comics who hosted the Palladium Show and it's hilarious 'Beat The Clock' segment, were stars in their own right. I bet you remember Tommy (You lucky people) Trinder, toothy Brucie (I'm in charge) Forsyth, and that 'Swingin'! Very Dodgy!' character, Norman Vaughan. But the Palladium Show wasn't just a 'Gentlemans Club' for Sassenach comics. My all-time favourite 'compere' was Angus Campbell. Ye cannae remember Angus? Not even by his full-name...ROBERT Angus Campbell?
But you probably DO know him by his adopted stage name, Don Arrol. Born in Glesca in l929, Don came from a showbiz background, his paw having been a part-time comic in the clubs of Lanarkshire's coalfields. In 1964, Don's scriptwriter, Denis Goodwin described his humour as being, "an extension of his shy, modest self, abetted by an engaging warmth of manner." A man who knew Don better than anyone was the late Norman Meadows, his former showbiz partner. A few years ago Norman very kindly shared his recollections of Don with me over the transatlantic phone lines. Norman began his own stage career as a singer. In the 40's he broadcast regularly and was touted as the UK's Bing Crosby. He appeared with Scotland's comedy greats including Tommy Morgan, who released him from a contract at Dundee Palace, so that he could sign up for yet another theatre,..the theatre of war. Aye, Norman became one of those "magnificent men in their flying machines." He was a familiar face on variety 'bills' at Ayr, Leith, Gourock and Glesca. And it was while the two lads were appearing in panto at Glasgow Pavilion in the early 50’s, that they decided to team up. Says Norman, "Don and I discussed the possibility of joining forces for the (then flourishing) variety circuit, and this we did. In fact, I was Don Arrol's straight-man until he hit the big-time on TV's Palladium Show." Back in those days they were represented by agent Cyril Berlin whose talent stable included a youthful "Desmond" O’Çonnor.
Remembering the early years, Norman described how he and Don improved their 'turn' by touring it through the drafty #2 and # 3 provincial music halls, entertaining troops in Germany and supporting the biggest names of the 50's..Ronnie Hilton, Vic Oliver, Pat Kirkwood and Italian heart throb, Toni Dalli.(Eat your heart out, Granny!) I asked Norman about Don Arrols speech. "He toured Britain and visited America to such an extent" said Norman, "that he developed a unique mid-Atlantic accent. Although he worked opposite Don extensively, it wasn't until they both walked onstage at Glasgow Empire, that Norman realized he was partnering a 'SCOTTISH' comedian. No doubt Mid-Atlantic became Mid-Maryhill, while Don did his stint at the English comics graveyard!) Later in Don's career, this distinctive vocal quality, (mid Atlantic, no' mid Glesca) ensured his success on BBC radio shows like Comedy Parade, Music hall and Light Up The Night! He also starred on the Black & White Minstrel Show and toured with the Fol de Rols concert party.
Don carefully honed his unique solo routines. Says Norman, " His props are difficult to describe. He often wore an oversized raincoat with squared shoulders. As he reached centre stage, he somehow 'stepped out' of it, revealing the interior." The coats 'walls' contained an assortment of pots, pans, cutlery, bone china and the bric a brac you'd expect to find in a suburban semi. While most of us lived in bungalows, maisonettes, or single-ends, "Don actually 'lived' in this coat...it was his house, during the time he took to perform his stage routine." recalls Norman. (Mebbe it was a 'housecoat'?). Don was equally well known as a sophisticated standup comedian and those who remember another of his stage acts might recall the large TV cabinet from which he ‘’appeared"" reeling off a string of hilariously topical gags about TV stars and the programs of those times. During the summers, Don and Norman went their separate ways. While Norman was on Eastbourne Pier playing 'stooge' to veteran comic Sandy( Can ye hear me moother?) Powell (he did this for 20 years) Don Arrol was packing them in for Hedley Claxton at Newquay. And this was where the wee Glaswegian was 'discovered' by London Palladium 'gaffer' Val Parnell and immediately contracted to host TV's top network variety show. Norman Meadows enjoyed a long showbiz career, eventually retiring from a post on the management side, to become one of the UK's busiest and most entertaining after-dinner speakers. He was a tireless charity fund-raiser with the famed showbiz fraternity, the Grand Order of Water Rats. If Norman and Don had been appearing together during that momentous summer when Don was discovered, perhaps an act known as Arrol & Meadows would have taken Sunday Night At The London Palladium by storm. We'll never know. Said a philosophical Norman, "that's showbusiness!"
Don Arrol died tragically of a massive heart attack, in l967. He was just 38. Showbiz lost one its brightest lights. Don's second wife and his beloved daughter lost a devoted husband and loving father... and that wonderful man, Norman Meadows, still 'stooging' back then at the end of Eastbourne Pier, lost a very dear friend. After years toiling in the backwaters of show business, Robert Angus Campbell didn't have long to enjoy his success. Norman Meadows spoke for everyone who has fond memories of Scotland's gift to The Palladium Show, Don Arrol. "He deserved a helluva longer run!"