Obituary: Kim Kinnie, Scottish comedy pioneer

Kim Kinnie
Kim Kinnie
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Kim Kinnie, Comedy pioneer and TV producer. Born 6 December 1943. Died 11 February 2018, aged 74

Kim Kinnie was in the business of making people laugh. This diminutive dynamo of chuckle helped drive London’s famous Comedy Store, launching, in the process, the careers of household names such as Jo Brand, Eddie Izzard and Paul Merton. In the early 1990s he arrived at STV when the Cowcaddens-based station was undergoing a renaissance in production and Kinnie was central to producing a string of light entertainment and children’s programmes. He was small in stature but gigantic in personality and his natural sparkle and sound judgement led to highly watchable TV which earned the respect and affection of those he managed.

He was the man with three names. Born Thomas Kinnie on 6 December 1943 he was referred to by that name by close family and friends. When the young Thomas decided that he wanted to be an actor, the Glasgow vernacular “Tam” clearly didn’t sit well with his ambitions to be an aesthete. His acting did not prove a springboard to a dramatic career. I once teased him, “You could have been the Scottish Olivier”. He shot back, “hardly, everything I played I sounded like a wee Glasgow fairy”. The self deprecation was more to get a laugh than any expression of self doubt. Thomas Kinnie took himself to London in the mid-1960s where the opportunities were limitless compared to the narrower canvass of Scottish theatre, but not before spending some time in Paris as a dancer, in a case of from Castlemilk to Moulin Rouge.

In 1966 in London he met Michael Burrell, a writer and theatre director of some sophistication and taste. Burrell was a man of whimsical humour, steeping his conversation in rich anecdote and advertising in an understated way that he was a man of intellectual pursuits. Michael would have broadened the horizons of young Thomas and they formed a close partnership that lasted nearly 50 years. They were the kind of gay men who were unwitting trailblazers but not by organising and agitating. By the simple act of being themselves they challenged prejudice, refusing to cow to the view that they should be neither seen nor heard. Young people today perhaps understand little of the debt they owe those who did dare a love to speak its name in an age of criminalisation.

Thomas became Tony when attempting to forge an artistic career. One day, whilst working as an assistant stage manager, a director became exasperated at having three people named Tony working on the production. He christened the ebullient Glaswegian Kim and the rest is history. His greatest achievement in London was being what one appreciation described as the “svengali of alternative comedy”. He was responsible for booking acts at the world famous Comedy Store. In his book on the club William Cook called Kinnie the venue’s “unofficial artistic director”. By this time he had an insatiable appetite for showcasing new talent, challenging boundaries and finding comedy that was as innovative as it was funny. His tenure saw the careers of many a household name take off.

The evidence for Kinnie’s importance to the development of British comedy can be found in the warmth of the tributes in recent days. Kevin Day described him as the “spiritual godfather to many comedians”. Dave Cohen recalled, “to say Kim Kinnie booked the Comedy Store doesn’t tell the half of it. He cared for all of us who worked there even when things weren’t working out”.

With an impressive contacts book it was perhaps inevitable television would come calling. Kinnie was in a position to deliver because the stars warmed to his effervescent personality. They knew he was trustworthy and dependable but they would also have seen that the camp demeanour and flirty conversational style couldn’t mask a man who thought seriously about the comedy business. He was sharp and instinctive in his observations and judgements and he could hold his own in conversation across a whole series of art forms from literature to painting, cinema and theatre. Wee Tam was indeed a lad o’ pairts.

He was headhunted for STV by Sandy Ross to produce Funny Farm in 1990, bringing with him the stars he had mentored. By 1993 the holder of the central Scotland franchise would broadcast 1,000 hours of local programming as Gus MacDonald sought to outmuscle BBC Scotland in creative terms. Add to that the substantial slate of network commission’s in drama and children’s programming and the studios at Cowcaddens hummed constantly to the production process.

Kinnie’s STV CV is extensive and impressive. There was Comedy Rules, the network game show Win, Lose or Draw, the children’s puppet programme Wolf It, Get Wet, On Safari, Uncle Dad and Butterfingers. After STV scaled back its programming in the chill of the dotcom crash, Kinnie was employed as a consultant on drama development.

He was a marvellous producer, the glue that held together the production process. For the benefit of the audience, he would massage egos, offer words of reassurance to junior members of staff, cajole those prone to indolence and deliver a verbal rocket if necessary. He was a permanent fixture in studio and at outside broadcasts, where he would tap dance across a set, laughing, joking, setting the tone but always with the endgame of delivering a polished product. Those who worked with him loved him because he turned the business of laughing into an everyday experience.

In recent years his life was marked by sadness. In 2014 his beloved Michael died at the age of 77. Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi led the tributes. In 2015 his close friend, TV director Paul Hineman, died at the age of 42. It left him in shock. Injustice mounted when Kinnie had a heart scare, then a cancer scare which he thought he had conquered. And then, 18 months ago, the cancer returned, more virulently. In moments of melancholy he would bemoan his misfortune but it was never maudlin for he was above all a practical, stoical soul.

He wasn’t finished, either, in a creative sense and produced and directed a one-man show, Hess, written by his late partner, during the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. He had mounted it in Glasgow earlier that year. Always thinking, always looking to give an audience something different, that was the mark of the man.

The hellishness of his final months was made bearable by the love and support of STV colleagues Angela Morton and Terry Quinn. Theirs was truly a special friendship which knew no bounds. His girls demonstrated compassion and commitment came without any ceiling. Sainthood has been bestowed for less. Fiona Ross and Elizabeth Partyka were never far away with visits and words of encouragement. He took delight in the company of seven-year-old Tyler, daughter of close friends James Brodie and Pamela Docherty. And cousin May Ferguson and husband Archie were there right to the very end. They dealt in that priceless currency, loyalty.

Thomas, Tony or Kim? It doesn’t really matter. In the end his career hit highs most can only dream about. His legacy is a solid body of achievement that lives in the TV archives and in some of the biggest stars of today. Kinnie was a star, one who lit up a room, lifted the spirits if you were down and made you laugh and cry. The crying always came from too much laughing. His was the laughter business and whenever those he knew think of him, they will laugh again as they remember this warm, vivacious and deeply funny and loving man.

Bernard Ponsonby