An unlikely partnership between Kenneth McKellar and the Monty Python team is part of an exhibition celebrating some of Scotland’s funniest comics which opens on Saturday, finds Brian Ferguson
HE was the classical tenor who will forever be associated with the tartan extravaganza, The White Heather Club. Kenneth McKellar was widely regarded as the finest singer of his era over several decades, equally adept at classical, traditional or pop numbers.
But now his little-known comedy talents are being celebrated in a major new exhibition charting 75 years of the nation’s finest entertainers.
McKellar has been given pride of place alongside comedy greats like Billy Connolly, Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, Chic Murray and Ronnie Corbett in the new display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – thanks to a rare accolade from the Monty Python team.
The National Galleries of Scotland has used the exhibition to help revive interest in the comedy past of entertainers like McKellar and Lulu, as well as largely forgotten comics including Johnny Victory, Tommy Lorne, Sammy Murray and Tommy Morgan. According to Paisley-born McKellar’s family, he was the only person to have his work accepted as good enough to be turned into a sketch on the cult TV show.
The sketch – involving a blindfolded man trying to identify the name of the celebrity beating him up – has earned him a place in “Tickling Jock”, which will run at the Edinburgh gallery from Saturday for more than a year. The National Galleries of Scotland have also highlighted McKellar’s largely forgotten work in variety theatre. He found success starring in pantomimes in Glasgow in the late 1950s and was to form a partnership with Rikki Fulton in a series of “Jamie” pantomimes, before striking up another enduring double act, with Johnny Beattie.
Both of these celebrated entertainers also feature in the exhibition, which also features Dad’s Army favourite John Laurie, Porridge star Fulton Mackay and veteran actor Graham Crowden, best known for sitcom Waiting for God.
McKellar, who passed away three years ago, turned his back on a career in forestry to train as an opera singer in London, joining the Carl Rosa Opera Company. But he instead chose to record an incredible 45 albums in a huge variety of styles, from mainstream classical and religious songs to traditional works by Robert Burns and Harry Lauder.
McKellar, who made numerous appearances on The White Heather Club TV show and Hogmanay specials on the BBC and STV, was chosen to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1966 with A Man Without Love and his song The Royal Mile was the official anthem for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970. But according to his daughter, Jane, who now lives in Australia, it was his unlikely alliance with the Monty Python team that was to provide one of his career highlights.
She says: “Comedy was a big part of his career, even though he’s not really remembered for it. “He definitely appeared in pantomime at the Alhambra in Glasgow as early as the 1950s and appeared quite a lot with Rikki Fulton and Johnny Beattie over the years.
“I think he always felt he had an untapped vein of comedy in him, so he would be very touched to know he was in an exhibition like this.
“He always saw the Monty Python thing as a highlight of his career. He had met John Cleese a few times and had got on with him very well.
“On the spur of the moment he had the idea for a sketch and decided to sent it off to them. John wrote back to say they were going to use it. I’ve still got that letter. It was actually performed by the Pythons for several years afterwards in the Secret Policeman’s Ball shows.”
McKellar himself said several years before his death: “I’d scripted all my own radio and television series, so I knew how to go about it. But although it was quite exciting at the time, I didn’t see it as a new career opportunity.”
Beattie, now 86, is one of a handful of surviving comics to feature in the exhibition, which covers the period from 1900 to 1975, when Billy Connolly made his debut on Michael Parkinson’s chat show.
Others still performing include Dorothy Paul, who is due to open the exhibition this weekend, and is shown in a glamorous pose drawn from The Scotsman’s archives, the long-running stand-up and after-dinner speaker Andy Cameron, and Una McLean, the veteran actress and panto favourite, who is also Beattie’s current co-star in the BBC Scotland soap opera River City.
Beattie said: “The thing I really remember about Ken McKellar is how much he loved writing comedy. He would go over the road from whatever venue we were in and sit down with a cup of tea and write new material, even in his costume.
“I can remember one summer season where we played two wrestlers in a sketch which ended with us singing to each other You Always Hurt the One You Love. It’s lovely that an exhibition is being staged so that a lot of the performers who had been going when I entered the business, like Tommy Morgan, Tommy Lorne and Johnny Victory, can be recognised.”
Morgan, who was born in Glasgow in 1898, found his talent for comedy after taking part in a concert party while serving in the First World War. He went on to be one of the first variety stars at the city’s Pavilion theatre. Tommy Lorne, another of the early music hall comedians, was one of the city’s first panto stars, with his ill-fitting outfits and white make-up. Lorne sausage is reputed to be named after him.
Victory, the son of an Edinburgh taxi driver, who was born in 1923, was able to pack out the city’s Usher Hall in his heyday, thanks to his good looks and movie-star surname, after initially making his name as one half of a double act with Tommy Hood.
Among the other female performers to feature in the exhibition are the late Molly Weir, the comedy actress who shot to fame in the golden age of radio comedy in the 1940s and 50s, but is probably best remembered for starring in children’s TV show Rentaghost in the 70s and 80s.
Lulu, who was born in Stirlingshire in 1948, is perhaps a surprising inclusion in the exhibition, given her breakthrough into showbusiness was thanks to her singing talents, but between 1967 and 1985 she starred in no fewer than 14 of her own music and comedy programmes.
Exhibition curator Imogen Gibbon says: “We started off with the idea of looking at the history of entertainment in Scotland, as well knew we had quite a lot of material in our own archives. We didn’t just want to concentrate on the comedy greats, we wanted to look at some of the comedy actors and variety performers, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, when a lot of them had a number of talents.
“We decided to finish the exhibition in 1975 to coincide with Billy Connolly’s big breakthrough exhibition on Parkinson, but I’d certainly hope we could do at least another big exhibition covering the later years.”
Comedy historian Susan Morrison says: “A lot of the older comedians are almost completely forgotten about now and it’s amazing how many people you speak to who haven’t heard of Rikki Fulton or Chic Murray.
“Part of the problem is that it’s very difficult to find footage of a lot of the great comedians. The exhibition will hopefully do a lot to reintroduce them to people.”