"Francie and Josie"
By Muriel Marshall.Once upon a time, during the glory days of Glasgow’s Alhambra Theatre, a young comic called Jimmy Logan was booked to star in the forthcoming ‘Five Past Eight’ summer show. His co-star was a man who had been making a name for himself at the Citizen’s Theatre - Stanley Baxter.
As ‘Five Past Eight’ changed programmes every 3 weeks , Jimmy realised he would need lots and lots of fresh, new material for all the sketches, singles double-acts, front cloths etc which a top - class show of this type would require. Hired as staff writer to supply this torrent of merriment was a young comedian/scriptwriter called Stan Mars and one of his assignments was to come up with a belter of a sketch to open the second half of the programme and get the punters out of the bars.
Stan got to scribbling and the result was "The Hameless Ones" --- two wee snotty - nosed street urchins who created havoc and mayhem for the local policeman (played wonderfully by Roy Kinnear). Fast forward a year to 1958. Logan was to repeat his success at the Kings, Edinburgh , so Stanley Baxter moved up into top spot and Rikki Fulton was hired as, what the Americans call, the second banana.
Stan Mars was retained to write and play small parts and once again, was asked to provide a corker for the after interval spot. He decided his two wee boys from "The Hameless Ones" would now be grown up and he saw them as a pair of loveable layabouts, philosophising as they hung about the street corner, waiting for the ‘Buroo’ to open. He even had names for them -- Francis McKenzie and Joseph Tierney -- ‘Francie and Josie’
Not being sure Stanley Baxter would go for his new characters, he tried them out on his cousin Robert in the kitchen of his Mt. Florida home, the morning before he was due to pitch it. Robert gave F & J the thumbs up and, later that day, so did Stanley and it was he who decided how they would look - teddy boy suits, brothel-creeper shoes and wigs - dead gallus. I’m told Rikki was decidedly unconvinced and grumbled that, if the sketch didn’t go down well, he’d be considerably out of pocket having paid a tailor for a bright blue suit plus shelling out for shoes and a wig. As things turned out, he got his money’s worth from those props.
Baxter was brilliant as Francie and Fulton, as the know-it-all Josie was born for the part. That year, ‘Five Past Eight’ must have done a twenty one week season for, as well as all the other material he supplied, Stan wrote seven "Adventures of Francie and Josie". Each one opened with a single spotlight on their American pen-pal (played by Rikki’s wife, Ethel Scott) as she read out their latest letter to her mother - "Gee Mom, will you listen to this - Francis says "we wiz at a weddin’ and the groom got bluttered an’ chinned me wan, an’ I goat stoor and glaur aw ower ma best simmet" Golly Mom I don’t get it- maybe it’s in that Gaelic they all talk over there". As she reads on, her spot dims, the lights go up on the main set and there stand Francie and Josie, posed and ready to spring into action for their next adventure.
Fast forward again. It’s now 1963, Stan is in a pub with an old school chum who happens to work for STV. The talk turns to the good old Alhambra, "Remember the ‘Five Past Eight’ shows - Logan - Baxter and Fulton as Francie and Josie. Boy- wouldn’t that make a great television series? If only it was always as easy as that!
Before you could say ‘agent’ it was up and running but by now Stanley Baxter was based in London and was a big time film star so - enter the marvellous Jack Milroy.
Stan reworked six of the stage scripts, the show went to air and the rest is history. The following year, there was a second series of thirteen and then a further thirteen. In all Stan wrote thirty two TV shows. They were so successful, the tenement back- courts were deserted when the mammys yelled oot the windies - "Weans, come in fur yer teas - Francie and Josie’s oan in a minute".
They were so successful, they regularly knocked ‘Coronation Street’ off the top spot in the ratings in Scotland and N. Ireland. They were so successful, STV wiped every tape of their No.1 show and not an inch of footage remains. By rights, this should have been the end of the story because Stan Mars was heading overseas to fulfil a contract. But the two stars were in great demand - the TV public wanted to see their heroes on the stage so, Rikki wrote and suggested that he could take over as scriptwriter. Stan gave him a licence and from then on F & J went from strength to strength. The prose got flowerier, the flights of fancy even fancier with Fulton’s comedy genius at the helm.
Sadly Jack and Rikki no longer inhabit this world. Surely they’re up in comedy heaven, looking down on the imitators who seek to re-create their magic - not an easy task!
What fun, what laughs, what joy they gave us.
Grateful thanks to all concerned.
Comedy King of Scotland - Stanley Baxter
by Laurence Marcus.For 25 years Stanley Baxter produced the type of television spectacular that Morecambe and Wise could only afford to put on as part of their Christmas specials. Those legendary song and dance routines that Eric and Ernie performed in their shows may well be the stuff of television legend, but for Stanley Baxter, spectacular musical-comedy specials, reminiscent of Hollywood's best extravaganzas, were part of every series. And they were so flamboyant, and proved to be so costly, that Baxter was sacked not from just one, but two TV channels, who simply couldn't afford to keep him. Stanley Baxter was born in Glasgow on 24th May 1926. His father was an Actuary (one of only three in the whole of Scotland at that time), but Stanley didn't inherit dad's head for figures. He claimed to be good at composition "but as for maths..." he once said, "I still can't add up my change. If I couldn't act, I wouldn't have been able to earn a living." School life wasn't altogether happy for Stanley, who said that he learned to make people laugh so he wouldn't get beaten up. Before that, his earliest memory was walking with his father in their street, Glasgow’s Fergus Drive, and singing 'There was a wee man who lived in the moon...' But Frederick Baxter did everything he could to discourage his son from a career in show business. Not so his mother, Bessie, who "desperately wanted to be an actress." She lived her unfulfilled ambition vicariously through her son as she dragged him from one church hall to another to entertain audiences. "Aged seven, I was impersonating Harry Lauder and Mae West without knowing who they were," he said. "I copied my mother’s impressions and she also gave me stage directions."
When war broke out, he was evacuated to Lennoxtown, but when nothing happened, his mother got fed up with the digs they were living in and they went back home. Then Clydebank was blitzed and he and Bessie went to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae, where she had a little holiday flat. It was Stanley's happiest period during those war years and he was educated on the only school on the island. "I had a very happy year and a half. I rode my bike all the time: they didn't ask you to do any homework." Then it was back to Hillhigh, where he took his Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate in English (the equivalent of a GCSE).
There were no theatrical activities at school, but in sixth form he put together a review, writing the whole show. "I needed a leading lady and plucked a 14-year-old out of the classroom because I'd heard that she'd done some work on the radio, or performed in a church hall, or something. Her name was Josephine Crombie, and she went on to marry Donald Pleasence. I wrote a burlesque of Hamlet, in American, and I had her rather seductively smoking a cigarette. I was Hamlet: I wasn't going to let anyone else have that part! The sketch was banned after just two performances."
His mother began to drag him round the church halls again doing impersonations. It was here that a producer for the BBC's Scottish Children's Hour saw him. Stanley was signed up and did 100 broadcasts. Standing on a box to reach the BBC Scottish Home Service microphone, Stanley’s first wage was a guinea per show. "I would perform in little adventure stories. We'd get in an old boat and it would drift out to sea just as the episode was coming to an end." Unfortunately, Kathleen Carscadden, the programme announcer, was so concerned that the young listeners have nightmares that she'd ruin the tension by saying at the end of the programme, 'Don't worry I'm sure they'll be all right.' Following this, Stanley studied music at the Scottish Royal Academy of Music, winning himself several diplomas and the 'odd volume of Shakespeare' as prizes.
During a spell in the Army for his National Service in the Far East it was realised by his C.O. that Stanley's most useful contribution to military life was in the Entertainment Section. He was posted to the official Entertainment Unit, where he compered and produced shows, in huts, tents and anywhere else that could be used as a theatre. When he was demobilized he returned to Glasgow, and was accepted as a member of the Citizens' Theatre. Stanley enjoyed pantomime, which in those days ran until Easter in Scotland. His favourite roles during this period were 'Buttons' in Cinderella and 'Wishee Washee' in Aladdin. With others of the Citizens' Theatre he also appeared in the most successful and colourful theatrical presentation at the Edinburgh Festival, 'The Thrie Estaites'. "That was a wonderful experience,' he said. "Tyrone Guthrie was the producer and was one of the few people who ever brought light, movement, and good entertainment to Edinburgh's dour Assembly Hall, where their other annual function concerned the very serious Convention of the Moderators of the Church of Scotland."
He made his television debut on the BBC's 'Shop Window' in 1952, followed by guest appearances on variety shows. Stanley then returned to Glasgow taking to the stage for three more years at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre before moving to London. Following an appearance in a comedy sketch on ITV's 'Chelsea at Nine', he ran into an old friend from Scotland, James Gilbert, who was now working for the BBC. Between them, they concocted the TV show 'On The Bright Side', which more than any show before, would demonstrate Stanley Baxter's comedic talent, especially his gift for mimicry. The series was a fast-moving satirical sketch and music show fronted by Stanley with the popular comedienne Betty Marsden. Stanley selected television as his satirical target, assuming his audience were 'in the club'. In the 1960s the BBC made its first venture into language programmes with 'Parliamo Italiano' - 'Let's Speak Italian'. The show was ripe for the Stanley Baxter treatment and he didn't disappoint. 'Parliamo Glasgow' had a fictitious scholar visiting Scotland where he tackled the broad Glasgow accent. The scene which most people remember is when he goes to the local market and says to the trader "Izat a marra on yer barra, Clara?", which he then translates into plain English as "Is that a marrow on your barrow, Clara?". The series' resident team of young dancers included Una Stubbs and Amanda Barrie. 'On The Bright Side' won Stanley a BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Performance.
The series was also popular enough for it to be transferred to the London stage where it opened on 12th April, 1961. The original cast appeared and were bolstered by the future 'Rowan and Martin' sock-it-to-me-girl, Judy Carne and another rising star; Ronnie Barker. A 40-minute extract from this show was screened by the BBC in June of that same year. In December he appeared in an episode of 'Comedy Playhouse,' entitled 'Lunch In The Park'. By 1963 Stanley was sufficiently well known to be given his first series with his name in the title. 'The Stanley Baxter Show' was shown fortnightly on BBC1 on a Saturday night although Stanley never really did a series in the traditional sense of the word -that is he hardly ever did a run of consecutive shows apart from his 1968 and 1981 series of six twenty-five minute comedies. That same year he also appeared alongside James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Sally Smith and Ronnie Barker in the British comedy feature film 'Father Came Too!' The film was notable for a host of cameo appearances from the likes of Hugh Lloyd, Terry Scott, Arthur Mullard, Peter Jones, Fred Emney, Cardew Robinson, Patrick Newell and Kenneth Cope...among others!
Between his first and second TV series he teamed with June Whitfield for the six-part 'Baxter On...' (1964), tackling a different subject each week, including law, class and television. In 1969 he played in the original production of Joe Orton's controversial farce 'What The Butler Saw' in the West End at the Queen's Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, and Hayward Morse. His occasional and sporadic comedy series continued through the 1960s until 1972 when Stanley left the BBC for London Weekend Television on the rival ITV network. The ITV shows became even more lavish, taking Stanley five months at a time to write, the were sometimes controversial, too. He was the first person on television to impersonate the Pope and the Queen. But the shows played to huge audiences of around 20 million viewers and elevated Stanley to TV superstar status. Stanley's one man tour-de-force performances became must-see television, winning him a BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Performance. The series was also awarded the BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Programme two years running in 1973 and 1974.
After nine years of specials, he reverted to a weekly series with 'The Stanley Baxter Series', 6 half-hour shows which won him another BAFTA. Then a year later, on 24th December 1982, LWT broadcast 'The Stanley Baxter Hour'. Planning and filming the special had grown to epic proportions with lavish sets and costumes and with budgets to match. A spoof of 'Brideshead Revisited' where Stanley "only wanted a room" for his set resulted in him getting an enormous long corridor with busts of emperors down the sides and a conservatory beyond that. "I never asked how much the productions cost because I thought knowing that would make me too scared to go in front of the cameras" he said. LWT knew how much they cost and decided that it was far too much. They didn't renew Stanley's contract.
Stanley returned to the BBC where he produced just two 50-minute Christmas Specials, in 1985 and 1986. The Corporation matched the expensive production values of the ITV series as Stanley spoofed 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'The Jewel In The Crown' in the 1985 special, 'Stanley Baxter's Christmas Hamper'. For the 1986 show, 'Stanley Baxter's Picture Annual' he played 37 different characters including Noel Coward appearing in a Western and Mae West turning up in the Baxter version of 'Gone With The Wind'. However, the expense and time spent producing each programme once again proved his downfall, and his contract was cancelled.
In the absence of other work, he accepted a role in the children's series 'Mr Majeika' (ITV, 1988-90) a show about a magic teacher, expelled from Walpurgis (the wizard land) for failing his wizarding exams. The move into children's television, he said later, was purely financial. "I had been fired twice from my one man comedy shows as we were frequently running behind schedule and over spending. I had reached the point in my career where I wanted to retire, but I needed more money in order to do that." He also lent his voice to the animated film 'Arabian Knight' (1995) and the television series 'Meeow' (ITV, 2000-01).
Stanley remained a great favourite on the Scottish pantomime circuit starring with popular Scottish stars, Jimmy Logan and Una MacLean. Then in 1996, he returned to the small screen in a more familiar guise with two Channel 4 specials combining old highlights and new material under the titles 'Stanley Baxter is Back' and 'Stanley Baxter in Reel Terms'. The new sketches showed that Stanley's style had changed a little: there was still plenty of dressing-up and make-up but less physical comedy. In 1997 Stanley's wife Moira, whom he'd been married to for 46 years died. The marriage didn't produce any children. "It was a surprise to me when she said she didn’t want kids." He once said. "Like any husband, I just assumed they would be coming along."
In 2004 Stanley returned to radio where he starred in 'Stanley Baxter And Friends' a series of four comedy plays co-starring Maureen Lipman, Claire Bloom, Phyllis Logan, Lynn Ferguson and the double-act of Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan. Baxter supplied 11 voices in one of the plays including a yapping dog!
Now in retirement, Stanley has seen his television legacy honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award at the British Comedy Awards and two television tribute programmes. He has no plans to return to the small screen and not even the offer of a plum part in the 'Harry Potter' movies has lured him back in front of the cameras. Despite this, fan letters still arrive every week by those who remember Stanley Baxter; Scotland's mimic supreme who combined superbly observed, written and performed comedy in spectacular eye catching style. He is one of the true creative geniuses in British television light entertainment, and as far as comedy goes...Stanley Baxter is the true King of Scotland.
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JUTE, JAM, JOURNALISM & JAYGEE
By Ray Smith
Ask any one of those hopeless, hapless and helpless National Service men from TV’s Army Game what the word volunteerism meant, and they were likely to deliver a gesture made famous by Sir Winston Churchill. However, the style of delivery when targeted at Sergeant Major Claude Snudge alias Perth’s very own comic-actor Bill Fraser, was anything but Churchillian! Having grown up on The Army Game, I adopted Private Excused Boots Bisley’s philosophy-never volunteer. And yet in these early years of the 21st Century, the world could not function without volunteers.
Years ago, the ladies of a small town women’s institute asked me to ‘volunteer’ to organize a fund raising variety show. We had endless meetings and all kinds of names were thrown about including those of Roddy Macmillan, Stanley Baxter and even Miss Annie Ross, then living in New York City. Aye, I am sure one of the worlds greatest jazz diva’s was waiting for that phone call to travel 3,000 miles to appear in a wee Perth shire town hall. I managed to contact a few of the artistes and remember receiving a very polite regrets letter from Roddy. But in the end I decided to call the great Sir Jimmy Shand. In those days, (even then he was a dance music legend around the world) you simply looked him up in the phone book. I explained my predicament. "Juist get hauld o’Johnny Geddes in Dundee, son. He’ll pit oan a grand show fur ye" For years Dundee was renowned for it’s three ‘J’ s jute, jam and journalism. However there was a fourth J. Dundee insiders will tell you that the best-loved 'J' in Dundee belonged to The Jay-Gee Variety Agency and its legendary founder, Johnny Geddes. Until his retirement after a bout with ill health, Johnny was Dundee's top talent agent and 'Main Man O'Magic.' I first encountered Johnny at Leven's answer to Hollywood Bowl, Letham Glen, where he was the kindly and polished host of a summer talent contest. He became a mainstay in nearby Arbroath, where the Johnny Geddes Giveaway Show packed Webster’s Hall, for years. And in response to my phone call, 'Johnny Geddes & His Stars Of Variety', comprising Dundee area-turns including the bonnie international recording soprano, (aye, her recordings within my modest wee collection, were even available in the wilds of Canada!) Doris Gilfeather, put on a first class performance. With his sidesplitting comedy-magic routines and wicked patter, Johnny himself, was a splendid top of the bill.
I have always been intrigued by magic-oriented acts and the integral role they played in Variety. Back in my twenties, (exactly 2 and a hauf years ago) I worked as a pro in concert party, club land and also became involved in puppetry and magic, mainly in a foreign country (England!). You could say that my career took an upward spiral-aye up the hill to the local Brew (no’ Irn Bru-but rather, what the local Labour Exchange was referred to in my day, Aggie!). But this interest in mysticism allowed me the opportunity to meet some of the great variety theatre magicians, including Gerry King, Stanley Watson and Diane, The Amazing Margo (Al Davis) David Berglas, Franklyn the Dove Man and a gent who has remained a good friend to this day, John Dudley. John who often appeared in Scotland at such venues as The Met and Kelvin Hall was famed for his Dudley Marionettes, including the colourful touring Caravan Puppet Theatre and his Komedy With Kandles routine, originally performed under the billing Mysticus The Magician. I also knew the great Shekh Ben Ali, who used to bill himself The Biggest Laughter maker in Magic. Alas, Shekh wasn’t laughing when he got stuck in a snowdrift up to his oxters, while doing a Highland tour one winter with Calum Kennedy. Sheikhs often referred to ‘Water from India’ would not have helped him in those weather conditions, although a few wee splashes of that ‘water from Speyside’ would have made a world of difference.
Years ago through this magic connection, I was entertained royally in the home of then Glasgow University biochemist Dr Edwin Dawes and his wife. Not only was Eddie a great magician, he was a renowned historian for the Scottish Association of Magical Societies and the UK's leading authority on 'the magical arts.' When he learnt that I was writing a wee memoir about Johnny Geddes, Eddie provided a few 'inside stories' about one of his favourite magicians. I was intrigued about a rumoured 'schism' within Dundonian magic circles. Back in the 50's Johnny was active in the Dundee Magic Circle, founded by Broughty Ferry fishmonger Harry Carnegie. In l957, Johnny Geddes and a group of fellow-magicians revolted, walked out of the Dundee Circle and established a 'rival brethren,' The Scottish Magic Circle. Johnny was President for 25 years. Apparently the split was caused by a unique phenomenon known as 'magicians wifies.' They were less than attentive during lectures by visiting magic stars. What upset the 'breakaway' magicians was that the women-folk sat in the front row during these lectures, nonchalantly 'bletherin' back and forth and 'clackin awa' noisily with their knitting needles. Johnny was sorely tempted to 'persuade' these lassies into one of his big magic cabinets. and make them vanish forever! In those days, magic was a male-dominated profession steeped in as many rites, rituals and dark secrets as the Masonic Order!
But this isn't just a Dundee story. Johnny Geddes, who was inspired by such famous magicians as Maskelyn and Levant and the Amazing Fogel, came a long way from his days as 'Boy Wonder. Johnny Geddes.' His national TV break came in l954 on 'Christmas Barnstorm' with wee comic Charlie Drake. In later years he was a regular on Grampian TV. And on The Rolf Harris Show he enhanced his national reputation as 'The Biggest Dope In Magic.' He also wrote numerous books about comedy magic, including 'Gags With Magic' and 'Gags With Gimmicks.' By this time Johnny had given up his 'day job' as commercial traveler for Reckitts-Coleman and dedicated his life to magic. He was a big favourite at American magic conventions in Hartford, Rochester, Buffalo and Chicago, working alongside such renowned US magicians as Jay Marshall. And in l981, the wee Dundee magician received one of magicdoms highest accolades. He was appointed Honourary Life President of the Israeli Magic Circle. Surely no higher offshore honour could have been bestowed upon a Scottish variety artiste and magician! Nobody was a bigger Johnny Geddes fan than magical historian Dr Eddie Dawes. "I shall always remember Johnny as the Peter Pan of Magic." Eddie told me, "He seemed ageless. His magic routines for children were absolutely hilarious" 'Jay-Gee' was the man who brought Scottish stage magic to the entire world. And although he was billed, The Biggest Dope In Magic, Dundee's Johnny Geddes was certainly nae dope!
ZIPPO'S CIRCUS RECALLING VARIETY MEMORIES
By John Moore
Zippo’s Circus, which toured Scotland July into August, visiting Perth, Greenock, Ayr and Stranraer, brought back memories of the times when circus acts were common on theatre variety bills.
By modern standards Zippo’s is a big and an excellent show, housed in a 900-seat four-pole big top. Director of the organisation Martin Burton, also known as Zippo the Clown, did not himself appear in the ring. He left that to "the world’s greatest ringmaster" Norman Barrett who not only mastered the ring and drove the show forward by the power of his personality but also managed to present his own act of budgerigars which he has played all over Europe and in British pantomime.
I have known Norman for two decades from the time he was ringmaster at Blackpool Tower Circus. As a boy he worked in his father’s circus and eventually moved to the legendary Bertram Mills Circus where he became equestrian director, in those days a title synonymous with ringmaster. He had ridden as the Courier of St Petersburg, dressed as Ben Hur, standing one foot on each on the backs of two horses while one by one six liberty horses passed forward between his legs as they all cantered round the ring. His act finish was when his two mounts jumped him over a pole. It was an incredible feat of horsemanship, and an exceedingly spectacular and dangerous act.
The first thing he said to me when I met him on the eve of the first performance on Ayr’s Low Green was, "We saw the Gaiety Whirl last night. What a wonderful show it is!" His wife Sally, a former skater who had toured in many of the great ice shows of yore, chimed in with a paean of praise for Scotland’s only summer variety revue.
The entrance to the big top was facing that curious building on Ayr’s Low Green which resembles a white elephant lying on its back with its feet in the air. It is the Pavilion, scene of Ben Popplewell’s first triumphs in the town, no longer a theatre or dance hall but a children’s playground themed as a pirate ship. But it was enough to bring to mind the great connection there used to be between theatre and circus, which has continued at Ayr Gaiety particularly in the recent pantomime series by Squires and Johns. Mentioning to Norman that in 1933 at the Pavilion in summer season was one feature was a dance act, We Four Girls, which was led by Marie Louise Beck whom I had met in 2000 at Bobby Roberts Super Circus in Ayr. She was by then Bobby’s Aunt Marie having married his Uncle Tommy Roberts.
At that Norman called over Zippo’s equestrian director, Tom Roberts, also Marie’s nephew, and of course Bobby’s brother. The conversation then covered the facts that Tom’s father and mother had both appeared at the Gaiety early in 1941, father Bobby with his brother Tommy and the clown Jimmy Scott as the Robert Brothers on a mixed variety bill, and mother Kitty with her brother Michael and his wife as The Norman Sisters and Michael on a variety bill topped by snooker ace Joe Davis. Three years later Bobby and Tommy formed their Robert Brothers Circus.
Chat then swung on to other acts like clown Coco, and clown Noni, and clown Charlie Cairoli Jnr. Then there was the fantastic balancing of Tommy de Vel, who also worked as the clown Professor Grimble, who Society president Johnny Beattie will remember from Hi-Deedle-Doddle, the Ayr Gaiety pantomime of season 1971/72. Tom was actually Tom Fossett and a direct relative of the Roberts family.
By Helen Murdoch
This article first appeared in Scottish Theatre News 1981.
When Scotsman Jimmy Mac strides into a room, his tall lean figure, keen eyes and firm aquiline profile give the impression of a very fit, off duty headmaster or a senior officer on leave from the regular army. An alert TV viewer might feel stirrings of recognition and well he might, for Jimmy is the kind of actor who is in constant demand both as a supporting and extra. He played in many episodes of DAD’S ARMY as one of the ‘other’ soldiers and his distinguished appearance has added a degree of authenticity when he played a Privy councillor in EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON. His agility as a dancer was utilised in the fantastic choreography of the street scenes in the film musical OLIVER.
Anyone who noticed him up to his neck in water during the making of the TV film TITANIC, would have certainly not have out his age much beyond 60. The American director, impressed by his simulated panic as he plunged through the rising studio ‘sea’ called over the grey-haired extra to ask his age. "Sixty seven", replied Jimmy without a blink. Immediately the other extras playing passengers on the ill fated liner were summoned "just take a look at how this guy can handle himself in the water. Would you believe he tells me he’s sixty seven?" Jimmy’s eyes twinkled as he recalled the story, "I wonder what he would have said if I had told him I was seventy seven!"
Ordeals by water were nothing new to James MacLeod, who was born in Glasgow in 1902. He started his career in show business in 1915 while he was still at school. His father was connected with the publicity for the famous Hengler's Circus which appeared in Glasgow every winter. When he heard they required a doorman, young Jimmy applied, and, although he was still at school, got the job. Manager Albert Hengler presented his circus at the old hippodrome at 326 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, every Christmas and New Year seasons from 1904 to 1924. The hall held over 1300 and was more often than not filled to capacity. Amazingly spectacular, the show was the treat of year for countless families and many senior citizens today recall with wonder its enthralling sequence of acrobats, equestrians, performing animals and clowns. Best of all was the Finale, always a water pantomime, which involved the whole company enacting an aquatic scene in the flooded arena, which represented anything from the Rapids to the Steppes of Russia, or the Rolling Main to a Highland River. While Jimmy was there, the leading clown was Doodles, athletic and skilful in every way, he presented a small endearing figure, with comedy, that had something of the Chaplinesque. In a season in Blackpool, a sketch which showed him being fired by a supposedly irate ring master caused hundreds of children to write letters, pleading ‘please do not sack Doodles’. Young James was fascinated by the clowns, and watched them at every opportunity. His own job was to open the door for patrons. Elegantly dressed in white breaches, long top boots, white silk shirt and black tie, he was the envy of all the children, especially, his school fellows, who knew of the permission that had been granted him to be off school for the midweek matinees. The next season provided Jimmy's big chance. The finale was called TALLY-HO in which a hunting scene of red coated riders mounted on beautiful horses entered and proceeded around the ring which had been flooded to represent a river with various fords and water jumps. Doodles was to follow the hunt on a small pony, which when it jumped a fence was supposed to unseat the hapless little clown, and land him head first in the water. Not being a swimmer Doodles naturally demurred at this. When the manager looked around for a substitute, who should he see but young Jimmy. Would he dress like Doodles and ‘double for him in the water scene? "Would I no recalled Jimmy Mac". It was arranged that the clown would enter on the pony, go off, then the boy, in an identical costume and make-up would take over and head for the water leap. No one had thought to ask whether he could swim or not, but Jimmy had planned his campaign so that he would slide off into the water and catch the pony’s tail. This he did and the pony obligingly pulled him out. The following year, the Water Spectacular was called The Redskin, and Jimmy got a solo spot in his own right, jumping over the Rapids with his pony from a height 30 feet, into the turbulent river below’("I hadn’t learned to swim even then but I had a trusty steed").
The pantomime running at the Alhambra was JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. Dorothy Ward played Jack, and her husband Shaun Glenville was the dame. As every panto fan knows, this show requires not only a giant but a cow called Daisy. The necessary players for these characters were drawn from the Pender Troupe of Pantomimists, an acrobatic act that included senior and junior members. It was with the youngest of this group, who had appeared as the smallest member of the stilts speciality act, that Jimmy found himself chatting while attending the annual Pantomime Ball that was held in St. Andrews Halls, Glasgow’s great concert venue. Not much interested in the dancing they both concentrated on the lavish Buffet supper. They got on well together, these two youngsters who had both resolved to make their way in show business. The acrobat was Archie Leach from Bristol, who was later to change his name to Cary Grant.
Now fourteen, Jimmy had left school and managed to get a full time engagement at the Blackpool Tower Circus, where he soon graduated to become a clown. There is of course, a rank order in clown- make up. A star like Doodles might have the familiar white face, red nose and black accentuated eyes, while at first Jimmy adopted the pale face, white mouth and white eye make up. He was still fated to get wet for a living , and finally did learn to swim, for one of the sketches involved him in sweeping the ring which gradually lowered and water poured in, much to his discomfiture. As he floundered out, a troupe of girls glided in to do a twelve minute swimming act, predating the aquatic ballets of Esther Williams' movies by about 30 years. He also played stooge to the famous Winston Sea Lions. As they swam around an artificial island in the middle of the ring, Jimmy clowned around the edge, and predictably, fell into the water. One sea-lion immediately lifted a prop rope from the island, swam over and pulled him out. On one occasion, the stage manger had forgotten to put the rope in position and like a seasoned trouper, the creature improvised by fastening on to Jimmy's jacket to steer him to dry land.
During the fourteen happy summer seasons he spent in Blackpool, he gradually established himself as one half of a song, dance and comedy act, first of all with his brother and later with a brother of Jimmy Gold who was one of the famous Crazy Gang. This kept them going over the winter. They got work on the halls in London, playing Islington, Hounslow and Forest Hill appearing on the Friday bill, when traditionally; new acts were put on as extra items, so that agents could see them in action with a live audience. Sometimes there were three shows a day, and it was on one such date the lads found themselves playing to about twenty people, after the juggler, Rex Stratford, and before Peggy Cochrane –‘Songs At The Piano’. When they went on at the two o’clock performance, their act was received in absolute silence, "not a titter" recalls Jimmy with a wince. His feet sketch out the tap routine they used to play, as he sang.Back to those happy days, Back to a life worth living
Back to those happy days, Finding the joy in givingThen they would go into the patter…which on this occasion, left the audience unmoved. They got through, somehow, to be greeted by a smiling manager. "Not bad boys. You’ll find them better next house." So despite that apparently unpromising start, they were spotted by Cissie Williams, an agent from Moss Empires – and they were launched into regular work in Pantomime.
Jimmy finally left the circus to play the first of many summer seasons in a summer show at New Brighton. It was there that he met his pretty wife Wynne, who was a dancer, and they have been partners in life ever since, Wynne is another ‘weel kent face’ since she also is in almost constant demand as an extra and model. Her neat figure and beautifully styled silver hair made her one of the most attractive figures in advertisements for anything from Girobanks to international Air Travel. Her favourite job was for a woman’s magazine fashion feature, where she modelled for photographs to match a series of pictures of the Queen Mother to illustrate how other grandmothers can look elegant by imitating the basic fashion lines of the outfits worn by everyone’s favourite Royal.
Jimmy has played countless dates north and south of the border, Including a season in the FIVE PAST EIGHT SHOW which ran for many years at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow. Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy were top of the bill. And the Glasgow Empire? "only place we ever got the bird !" The star was an Irish tenor Morton Downie, who was an enormous favourite with the regular patrons. The Two Lads, as the double act was called, were put on the bill immediately after him, and had to make their way on to the stage just as the audience with the impassioned enthusiasm Glasgow displays when they take an act to their heart, were roaring for more encores. "No way would the listen to us," Jimmy chuckled to recall. Even a plea from the courteous Mr. Downie himself, asking the audience to give his two young colleagues a chance, was drowned in a manner which brooked no refusal. "Get them aff an’ give us another song!."
Despite the belief that Scots comics rarely succeed in England, Jimmy enjoyed tremendous popularity as lead comic for twenty years in pantomime in, of all places, Bath. Playing everything from Buttons to Simple Simon in the lavishly staged Maddox Pantomimes, his lively comedy and vigorous Scots voice made him a great favourite and he was given the great theatrical accolade of having his name placed above the title of the show on the posters outside the Theatre Royal in Bath. He and Wynne frequently gave their services to help charity during seasons there. One afternoon when taking part in a National Savings promotion campaign, he was surrounded by literally thousands of young fans so that he barely got to the theatre in time for the evening performance. Now Jimmy restricts his work to films and television, travelling all over the country from his London home. Recently he played a small part in RAGTIME, a film starring James Cagney whom he much admires ‘a very charming old gentleman’ Then he went of to Hereford to play in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, a B.B.C. TV play with Trevor Howard in the lead. Wynne has been busy too, with appearances in THE GENTLE TOUCH, WHEN THE BOAT COMES IN and DR. WHO.
Jimmy Mac has that extra something that makes show business what it is. He has one ambition, to meet up with the young acrobat of the Alhambra pantomime of long ago, Cary Grant. I hope he does. Their reminiscences would be worthy of the Parkinson Show.