CHRISTMAS has come early for the saviours of Scottish panto this year. Old pals Grant Stott and Andy Gray team up for a mid-life crisis comedy that promises to be a hot – and steamy – ticket.
MY TAXI driver has no knowledge of the former civil service carbuncle that’s been turned into an arts centre and I’m dumped on Edinburgh’s London Road to fend for myself. Eventually I find it and, via one of those clunky lifts you think twice about before entering for fear they’ll get stuck, am disgorged on to the fifth floor. There is no sign of life, or art. The corridors still look like they should house pen-pushers on plump pensions. Tentatively I knock on a door and am greeted by a big, grinning Grant Stott.
He listens to my tale of disorientation and confusion and sympathises. “The other day we were rehearsing here and these girls burst in. ‘You’ll have to move down to the second floor,’ they said. ‘We’ve got a nude painting class starting in 15 minutes.’” You see: even in a building where squatters’ rights seem to apply, Stott’s presence is questioned.
Well, he’s not an actor, is he? He’s at best a panto performer. Now, my journey here was not along slush-covered streets; it’s high summer. Unless global warming has turned the cultural calendar upside down, panto guys like him should be hibernating right now, or Hibernian-ating, Stott being a fervent Hibs fan (and if you think that’s a crummy joke, you should hear the ones he gets away with in the name of festive family entertainment). No, the last thing Stott should be doing is appearing in a proper, grown-up, long-trousered play on the Festival Fringe.
The man knows all this better than anyone. “For what’s ahead of me, on every conceivable level, all things considered, I’m absolutely shite-ing myself,” he groans. But he’s no fool: he’s not flying completely solo with Kiss Me Honey, Honey! Alongside him will be a real trouper, a Scottish smell-of-the-crowd redoubtable, and one of his panto mentors. “I have absolute faith in Grant,” says Andy Gray. “And if this is a complete disaster, well, I’ll just blame him.”
Now Gray, 54, in jeans and T-shirt, is pacing round the room in a clockwise direction muttering to himself and indulging in some Pacino-esque throat-clearing. Stott, 46, whose 6ft 4in frame looks most peculiar in shorts, goes anti-clockwise. Then they come together, bounce chests, hug and grunt. This is their pre-show routine at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre every winter, to bring them good luck and the right kind of boos. Normally Allan Stewart, the third member of the panto triumvirate, would be involved and because of his absence from this production there’s an extra grapple. Then they’re ready for one of their final run-throughs.
Gray is Ross and Stott is Graham, men of a certain age who book into the same grotty bedsit having misplaced their wives. They swap notes and discover a shared affection for the melodrama of Shirley Bassey showstoppers (“I, I who have nothing… Isn’t it rich, are we a pair?”). Graham’s wife has left him for her Pilates instructor, a woman. Ross’s better half has run off with a TV weatherman. “I sold him a ton of life insurance,” laments Gray’s character, “so if anything happens to him Fiona will be laughing – even more than she is now.” Even though there isn’t time for full drag, the pair play all the female parts as well.
In real life Stott is married to Claire, mother of his two children, which happens to be the name of Gray’s current partner, also his 23-year-old daughter from his first marriage. All very confusing – “I have to be careful when using the phrase ‘Old Claire’,” quips Gray – except it’s not: both are very happy. But, much as they can see the comic potential of their saddos in the play, there’s empathy too.
Gray again: “We’re both very fortunate because when men reach a certain age, late forties-early fifties, they can look around and wonder: ‘Is this it?’ What’s true of acting is that, for many, the business is their relationship. During the course of a touring production – different town every week, hotels, supper with the company – they might have a wee fling. But after the show ends they’ll go home to meals-for-one and the telly and it can be quite lonely. There have been a few tragedies recently.”
There’s poignancy in this play as our down-on-their-luck duo’s stories, and their male bravado, begin to unravel – but plenty of laughs as well. The pair try online dating via a website called Old Dogs. They try speed-dating (“The discordant jangle of a Primark bangle… the clack and scrape of bunions squeezed into size 10 heels”). And Stott’s character, the more naive of the two, ends up in a dogging car-park with a woman who reveals herself to be the organiser of the alfresco sex-show, and a church minister. She hands him a school cap and says: “It’s Lookylikey Night and we’re The Krankies!”
Encouraged by colleagues to find a play, Gray and Stott put the idea to Gilded Balloon impresario Karen Koren, who quickly nabbed them for the Fringe and suggested Philip Meeks could write. “We thought it might be fun to play variations on ourselves which weren’t too far removed from what we do in panto where I’m the idiot and Grant’s the baddie,” says Gray. A loud chuckle. Mindful of the scene I’ve just watched them rehearse, he adds: “Obviously there’s isn’t much dogging in panto. On stage, anyway…”
Is the pair’s summer breakout suitable for key elements of their panto constituency? Says Stott: “A bloke asked me on Facebook: ‘Can the wee man come? He’s nearly ten.’ I had to tell him the play’s a bit fruity. I’m relaxed about my daughter Lori, who’s 12, seeing it even though she’ll probably go: ‘Oh no, you’re talking about sex!’ And as for my son Sam, well, I’ve been embarrassing him for years.” Meanwhile Gray hopes to entice along some of the “wee wifies” whose annual visit to the panto is often the sum total of their theatrical experience.
Stott is the former policeman who one day glanced at the TV where big brother John Leslie was patently having much more fun and decided someone else probably not as tall could do the job of rounding up the capital’s miscreants. Early in his showbiz career, he couldn’t escape comparisons with Leslie. In any piece written about him, Leslie’s name would appear high up the copy, but since the latter’s spectacular fall from grace – a series of sex scandals which led to charges of indecent assault, only for the case to collapse in court – this hardly happens any more. Say what you like about panto but Stott has made a great success of it.
Gray was an original member of BBC Scotland’s Comedy Unit, involved in the early hits Naked Video and City Lights. The latter was last on screen 20 years ago so he’s amazed when folk still come up to him and say how much they enjoyed the sitcom and his portrayal of Chancer. When an early-1990s stage tour of City Lights reached the King’s, one of its biggest fans booked seats in the front row as a birthday present for his Claire – Grant Stott.
The warmth of the pair’s friendship is obvious in the banter between them, such as when they swap stories of Hogmanay TV – the small screen’s equivalent of the Scottish Play with just as many curses.
With director Sam Kane, they review the scenes just completed and Gray notes that Stott copied his prancing little walk from a few minutes before. “He nicks all my stuff,” Gray laughs. “Grant’s career has been total osmosis.”
Stott is fascinated by tales from a time-served thesp’s back pages, such as Gray’s portrayal early this year of 1950s Glasgow serial killer Peter Manuel. (“There weren’t many laughs in that, but we had to find some humour, otherwise it might have been unwatchable. One review said I was mis-cast, which I had to take as a compliment.”) And Stott’s in stitches at a story from Gray’s first panto, Cinderella in his native Perth, when he got given one line as a butler and an even more fleeting appearance as a vampire. He decided this called for method acting and blew almost his entire £45 week’s wages on a set of custom-made pointy falsers – “But no bugger noticed them!”
“Butler/Dracula – you wouldn’t get these kind of parts written now,” says Stott. “I learn so much from guys like him because I never trained as an actor. I wanted to, and after getting my four O Grades and two Highers I expected to go straight to drama college. But I got knocked back from all of them, including my local one, Queen Margaret, which hurt. That’s how naïve I was as a teenager. After that I didn’t know what I was going to do and just stumbled into the cops.
“You could say that this show with Andy has been 28 years in the making. But I’m under no illusions. I’m constantly asking myself: ‘Can I do it?’ Andy’s been talking about gigs he did back in 1977 and it’ll look to some people as if I’ve just strolled in, fancying myself as an actor.” He affects the accent of the sceptical radge: “‘Oh aye, so you think you can dae proper acting just because you’re a DJ and you’ve got your pus on the bus?’”
Stott helms a morning show for Forth One and is the face of the local Ridacard campaign. These are the kind of credentials, for a panto guest star, that usually make Gray groan. “There’s a tradition of local celebrities being crowbarred into pantos,” he says. “Some of them really fancy themselves and think: ‘I can do this, it’s easy.’ But Grant wasn’t like that. He wants to be good and now for me working with him is no different from working with any other actor.”
Gray recalls some contrived castings. “You know, I’ve worked with that bloody harrumphing dog from the insurance ads.” Stott: “Are you comparing me with Churchill?” Gray was once cast as Rolf Harris’s mother. “He was 60, I was 32. Incredibly we never met on stage, not a single crossover. He was there to sing Two Little Boys and Jake The Peg – just crowbarred in. Oh, and he played his didgeridoo, although I’m not sure you’re allowed to mention that any more.” There was another dog act – Ward Allen and Roger. “We asked him: ‘How long do you do?’ ‘Oh, just five minutes.’ He was on for bloody three-quarters of an hour! We were screaming at him from the wings to get off. By the time he did we’d lost the kids.”
Gray and Stott, along with Allan Stewart, can reasonably claim to have helped save the King’s panto for Scotland. “For a while it was bought-in,” says Gray, “and at times quite an English show. We’d get a Peter Pan which had been at Wimbledon the year before and there would still be St George’s flags everywhere. The theatre decided the panto needed more of a local identity and every year since that’s what we’ve tried to deliver.”
Having first worked together 13 years ago, our pair know each other’s moves so well. “Grant hates it when the run comes to an end – he’s bereft.” “Absolutely gutted,” adds Stott. Gray again: “Allan and me, the old pros, will be packing up and he’ll be like: ‘Guys, please don’t take the Christmas cards down. We’ve still got one more performance!’ He’s just like those blokes we were talking about earlier who’re lost when the wagons leave town. Middle-aged male loneliness – it’s a terrible thing!”
This year, though, Christmas has come early for Stott. He’s treading the boards in August and his good chum is by his side for encouragement and advice. “You did a brilliant actor’s thing just there,” says Gray after another scene is rehearsed. “You cocked up and made it look like my fault. Bloody crowbarred-in bloody local DJ!”
• Kiss Me Honey, Honey! is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot until 26 August, tickets from £12.50, www.edfringe.com