DCSIMG

Variety is the spice of a life on the boards

AS ITV celebrates 50 years of broadcasting, we should pause to reflect on STV's contribution to the great goggle-box oeuvre. Right, that's quite long enough.

STV don't actually hirple to their half-century until 2007 so that will be the moment to pass round the commemorative macaroon bars in tribute to such tartan telly totems as Arthur Montford, Bill Tennant, Glen Michael, Sydney Devine and - don't get your bloomers in a twist, missus, the polis are very much on the case - Crime Desk's Bill Knox. A very male, mostly sports-jacketed bunch, but STV can claim to have at least tried to redress the balance by producing Scotland's first-ever one-woman show.

"It was called Did You See Una?" says Una McLean, as if this was only yesterday. We're actually talking mid-1960s, the show debuting six weeks after the birth of her first child. Then came a follow-up, Over To Una. "I got paid 400 per edition, what's the equivalent of that now?" (Good question. How much do you think Scotsport's Sara O is worth?)

With much less razzmatazz, McLean is marking a 50th anniversary of her own. In fact, the landmark only seems to occur to her when she mentions that it was way back in 1955 that she entered Scottish showbusiness at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, playing a prim maid in a Victorian melodrama and muffing her only line: "Everything is raid out leady, sir."

She has no plans for a celebratory shindig, having not long returned to active trouper service following the death of her husband, Russell Hunter. But her next gig almost demands that she allows herself a nostalgic wallow, and in her bright Edinburgh flat, surrounded by images of the man from whom she was inseparable for 15 years - a portrait by a scenery-painter of Hunter as Lonely in one of those truly great ITV shows, Callan, is particularly striking - she's soon romping back through the decades and sprinkling the air with names, famous and forgotten, like icing sugar on a sponge cake.

Follies, the Steven Sondheim musical, revolves around a reunion of showgirls in the old theatre where they enjoyed their biggest hits and this one-off charity performance brings together McLean, Annie Ross and Dorothy Paul, who themselves go back a fair way.

"I've known Annie for ages," she says. "We did a Royal Command in Glasgow a good few years ago now, and also a telly, a New Year thing, what was it called? ...Ten Scottish Something-or-others with Beryl Reid, Aimi MacDonald and some pop singer...

"I hadn't seen Dorothy for many years, but we've just bumped into each other at rehearsals. She was jumping for joy because she's about to become a granny for the first time." McLean can beat that: she's great-stepgrandmother to weans on Hunter's side of this redoubtable showbiz dynasty.

Then there are the Krankies. "It's funny, but I've never worked with them before. They were directed by Paul Ciani, who got me involved in kids' telly with Hope And Keen's Crazy Bus playing a Glesca clippie. Paul and I were great friends; he was the first person I knew to die from Aids."

McLean has counted them in and counted them out. She's just heard that Irene Sunters has joined that great variety show in the sky. Sunters was a RSAMD contemporary alongside the likes of John Cairney and Alex McAvoy, although Larkhall-born McLean almost didn't get there.

"My daddy thought acting was the road to perdition. He wouldn't send me to night class so I thought, bugger it, I'm going anyway, so I worked at the Coal Board during the day and paid my own fees.

"Then later when I applied for a bursary to study at the college full-time, he wouldn't sign the form. It was a kind of inverted working-class snobbery. I came from solid mining stock, although the truth was that places like Larkhall and Shotts were really quite artistic. Shotts always won the am-dram cup but then the Larkhall society went recruiting for new members. My two pals and I were the outrageous girls in the town, the tennis club and all that, and we joined on the promise of a free party. Then we helped Larkhall win the cup."

The old man was won round when McLean started making a name for herself as a comedienne. At the Citizen's in Glasgow, she spoofed the Alhambra's Five Past Eight Show, Clydeside's version of Vegas revue. Then, like Rangers FC when a provincial player scores against them once too often, the Five Past Eight poached her by doubling her wage to 25 a week. She fed gags to Jack Radcliffe and Jimmy Logan, brother of the same Annie Ross. It all comes around.

"The next year, Dickie Henderson joined. The Alhambra was the place to be and tickets were flogged on the black market. Newlyweds bagged the boxes because they would get a mention from the stage. And the critics said: 'Here we have a new young Doris Droy.' I was the speak of the place. And from there I got on to the telly."

ANNIVERSARIES ARE coming out of McLean's ears. Forty years ago this autumn she joined Tom Fleming's new Lyceum company in Edinburgh. On stage, from pantomime principal boy to challenging stuff with Scottish Opera and the Traverse, she's worked with everyone who was anyone in Scotland theatrical life: Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton, Duncan MacRae, Fulton MacKay and - as a panto poster from that very first Lyceum season in her lobby confirms - a likely lad by the name of Russell Hunter. "But I thought he was a wee nyaff back then," she says, before letting rip with her trademark cackle.

Then there was Lex McLean - no relation. The Rangers-supporting comic with the tremendous conk often gets forgotten in round-ups of the glory days, and the hoary ones, but the girl who supplied the mini-skirted glamour on his Saturday night telly show is only too happy to sing his praises. "I also worked with him at the [Glasgow's] Pavilion. He was so funny, especially in drag, the most unfeminine man there's ever been, in a pink suit and high heels: 'Now, it's no' Princess Margaret.'

"He insulted audiences and they loved it. 'I only come here for spite,' he always told the Gaiety in Ayr. But performers lived in fear of him. If you were as little as 30 seconds over your allotted time, he'd order the curtains to be pulled: 'Tabs, ya balloon!'

"But Lex, poor soul, was also indirectly responsible for my very worst theatrical experience. He suffered a brain haemorrhage and Walter Carr, Charlie Sim and I had to take over at the Pavilion, which was very much his domain. On the opening night, the theatre played a recorded message from Lex, all slurred, like a voice from beyond the grave. We had to play two houses a night and ran out of material pretty quickly. We were reduced to begging news-vendors for gags.

"Lex recovered, although after that, if he meant to walk left, he'd go right. I almost suffered a nervous breakdown myself. But my agent, Jimmy Fraser, said the wholly ghastly affair put steel up my spine and he was right. I've heard actors moan, 'Oh my god there's only seven people in tonight,' but after that I never gave a damn."

Fifty years on, she still doesn't.

• Una McLean appears in NCH Scotland's 50th anniversary gala production of Follies in concert by Stephen Sondheim, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (0141-353 8000), September 18

 
 
 

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