Born: 21 March, 1931. Died: 8 March 2016, aged 84.
Born in Glasgow, the only child of a shipyard riveter and Union steward – who remarkably saw no strike on his watch – Helen Murdoch spent much of her life in Partick. She inherited her father’s socialist beliefs and her mum’s love of children, but from primary school it was clear she would not be a nanny as her mother before her.
After the family got a council house in Knightswood, she won medals at Hyndland Senior Secondary. Private tutors were out of the question for her parents, but their daughter duly received a First Class Honours MA from Glasgow University. Further study at Jordanhill confirmed Helen’s chosen path.
She combined passions for literature and drama teaching English at Strathbungo Senior Secondary.
Rev Elizabeth Mansill, nee Livingstone, who now lives in New Zealand, recalled: “Helen was very active in school productions and was the first ever teacher to organise London theatre visits. On one trip, across the cheese counter in Fortnum & Masons, a beautifully modulated voice boomed: ‘Helen- how wonderful to see you!’ It was Dame Edith Evans.”
Minds weren’t broadened only by classics, either. Alfie at the Mermaid, with its earthy language, raised a few parental eyebrows, but no-one complained about Miss Murdoch’s choices – not when pupils at Chichester met Dame Sybil Thorndike in Uncle Vanya. The modest Glaswegian teacher, who was excellent company, got on with people from all walks of life.
A latter-day Miss Jean Brodie, Helen inspired pupils, with a gift for networking long before the term was invented. With great charm, she persuaded Albert Finney, starring at the Citizens Theatre at the height of his fame, to visit her school, and schoolgirls swooned.
Celebrity comedians like Stanley Baxter and Nicholas Parsons kept in touch, due to her immense knowledge of Scottish theatre. Agifted author, she wrote Travelling Hopefully, a respected biography of actress Molly Urquhart; Helen also established the Strathclyde University Theatre Club, and was a stalwart of the Scottish Music Hall Society, ensuring Glasgow’s rich comedy seam from that era was acknowledged.
A lectureship at Hamilton College of Education while in her thirties meant this warm, eloquent woman inspired an entire generation of primary teachers too. I met Helen during the 1960s there.
Her socialist views were highlighted in a Suffragette revue The Shrieking Sisters and a hardhitting version of Oh, What a Lovely War! Her plays for children were all published, with original music by friend Ethel McCracken. Alan and the King’s Daughters, based on the tale of the 12 dancing princesses, had rave Fringe reviews. The Genie of the Golden Key and others were still being produced (by Buchlyvie Drama Group) recently. In later life, Helen worked at Edinburgh’s Lyceum in marketing when Leslie Lawton was artistic director, and she was always active at the Glasgow Citz.
She delighted in the achievements of former students. Those promoted to school heads, she visited. Those who sang in the Phoenix Choir, or performed onstage, she applauded, and those who went to the BBC/STV or published writing, she supported.
We will all miss her joie de vivre and fun; some of her comedy sketches, she always claimed with a grin, went uncredited on The One O’ Clock Gang Show – with no fee either! Knowing this remarkable lady, it is very likely true.
Helen attended Anderston-Kelvingrove Parish Church, and had a strong faith. Her loss will be felt there sorely. She will also be much missed by her longtime carer, Margaret Gray, and honorary niece and nephew, Ann and David, the children of her dear friend Ethel.
The legacy Helen leaves however to education and theatre in Scotland is immeasurable. It was a privilege to know her.