It was one of the saddest and most dramatic moments in the whole history of Scottish pantomime; the day in October 2010 when it was announced that Gerard Kelly, the legendary “daft laddie” in more than a dozen pantos at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow since the 1990s, had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm aged only 51, just five weeks before the opening night of that year’s King’s panto. Kelly was scheduled to play one of his favourite roles, as the jester Muddles in Sleeping Beauty; and over the years, he had also become one of the main upholders and tradition-bearers of the Scottish panto scene, using his television fame to add clout to his passionate defence of the Scottish panto tradition.
The loss was therefore huge, and stunning; and the man who stepped into the breach that year was television and stage actor Gavin Mitchell, who was already cast to appear in Sleeping Beauty as the wicked fairy Carabosse. Mitchell had watched and loved Kelly’s inimitable panto performances for many years; and although many in the business warned him against trying to reproduce Kelly’s style, in the end – with rehearsals set to start just 48 hours after Kelly’s funeral – Mitchell felt impelled to do just that.
“It was odd, but I just felt that I had to,” says Mitchell. “It was easily the most frightening thing I’ve ever done; but the strangest thing was that it worked. Audiences loved it, and ticket sales actually went up. I think, looking back, that it was the Glasgow audience coming to say goodbye, to make their tribute to Kelly. [The late actor’s real name was Paul, but nobody in the business called him that, or Gerard. Everyone called him Kelly].
“And although I’m not a great believer in anything, I did feel that Kelly was there, in some way. I could hear his voice, telling me to just get on with it.”
All of which makes a kind of sense, for an actor whose first experience of performing involved his uncannily accurate impressions of early-70s television stars, created to amuse his older brother’s friends after school. Now best known as the inimitable medallion-wearing Barman Boabby in the television series Still Game, Mitchell was born in Springburn in 1964, moved around Glasgow as a child, and felt drawn to a creative life from an early age, dreaming of becoming an artist; even today, he always carries a sketch pad with him during filming and rehearsals. When he left school in the 1980s, he eventually found casual work painting sets at the Citizens’ Theatre; and when a chance came up to appear as an extra in Philip Prowse’s 1988 production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Mitchell couldn’t wait to volunteer.
“That’s how it all began for me,” says Mitchell. “Within a couple of years, I was beginning to play speaking parts, and I think I actually got my Equity card when I appeared in the first revival of Giles Havergal’s Travels With My Aunt, around 1990. Then after I moved on from the Citz, I went straight into Robert Carlyle’s Raindog company, where all the guys had been to the RSAMD, yet sat around talking about football; until then, I didn’t realise you could be so Scottish, and still be in theatre.”
In his 30-year career so far, Mitchell has won his greatest fame on screen, appearing in Monarch Of The Glen (as PC Callum MacIntyre) and Still Game, and in many films, including the recently released Outlaw King and the forthcoming Netflix series The Last Czars. Yet he has also played some remarkable theatre roles, including the Humphrey Bogart character in Morag Fullarton’s smash-hit lunchtime version of Casablanca for A Play, A Pie And A Pint, which has just been voted by the audience their favourite Play, Pie And Pint show of all time, for next year’s 500-show celebration. He also, of course, plays Barman Boabby in the astonishing stadium stage versions of Still Game, which appear at the Hydro in Glasgow to audiences of 12,000 people.
And now, eight years on – after a year in which, out of a sense of responsibility to use his television fame to help fight the stigma attached to mental health problems, he has put himself through the sometimes daunting experience of talking publicly and on film about his own long-term problems with depression and anxiety – he is preparing to step onto the panto stage again, as an Ugly Sister in this year’s Cinderella at the SECC Clyde Auditorium, where he will appear alongside The Krankies, Keith Jack, and fellow Ugly Sister Jonathan Watson, of Only An Excuse.
“There are nine fantastically elaborate costume-changes,” says Mitchell, “most of them into costumes originally designed for people far smaller than me; and it’s just a matter of trying to make them all work, and give the audience a
good laugh. I don’t think I see myself as a pantomime tradition-bearer in the same sense as Kelly; I don’t want to do panto every year, or always play the same part – I like to mix it up.
“What I do believe in, though, is Kelly’s attitude to panto; the very high standards he set, the craftsmanship he brought to it, and the terrific sense of responsibility to the audience, particularly the children. Actors
keep coming back to panto for all sorts of reasons, including the money; but the relationship with the audience really is something else, and for the kids, this is really it. It’s possibly their first-ever experience of theatre; no matter how cynical you feel, you keep being reminded that they truly believe it. And that’s why panto, at its best, is such a true and honest form of theatre – the hardest to do, but when you get it right, pure magic.” - Joyce McMillan
Cinderella is at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, from 12-30 December. Casablana – The Lunchtime Cut is at Oran Mor, Glasgow and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in April 2019. The farewell Still Game Stadium Show is at the Hydro, Glasgow, in November 2019.