Aidan Smith: Has there ever been a more popular and yet more mocked Scottish entertainer than Sydney Devine?
Then, to be able to stick his head in the booth and announce: “That’s me got the keys to No 1, sweetheart. Send us up a wee cup of tea, would you?”
No, not Tom Cruise. The man with the elemental showbiz power that elemental Glasgow night 14 years ago was Sydney Devine. I was granted an audience with him in No 1, the Pavilion’s top-of-the-range, top-of-the-world-baby dressing-room, and then witnessed him work his strange magic on the crowd. And I’m pretty sure it was the brolly-hoister who tossed the see-through knickers at his feet just before he launched into “Tiny Bubbles”.
Devine that night was just four weeks out of a Spanish hospital after a life-saving operation and not his first. In tabloid-ese he’d “cheated death” - again. On Saturday, aged 81, he finally went on his way rejoicing and there must have been tears from his fanbase, another river’s worth. He liked a sad song, did Steak and Kidney, and “Crying Time”, “Two Little Orphans”, “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” were typical, triple-ply tissue numbers from the set-list, delivered with a warble and a yodel and a plaintive howl at the moon.
Among the tributes his daughter Karen said: “He fought his illness with great dignity and with everything he had.” That seems very Sydney. The fighting - not letting triple heart bypasses or double aneurysms stop the show - but also the dignity. Has there ever been a Scottish entertainer so derided for being rubbish at his craft but who just kept on smiling and performing through it all?
Sir Harry Lauder took some stick - for that curly-wurly walking cane among other things - but was most of it not after he’d died? The Bay City Rollers were ridiculed by music snobs but the stackheeled stomp of their bubblegum pop, produced under the duress of having a sinister ex-potato merchant for a Svengali, has been reappraised. Fran & Anna? Never as big as Devine who shifted 15 million albums.
No, he was a deep-fried Mars bar in his field. A country and western McGonagall. His career had been a flyin’ heidie off a Bridge to Nowhere, the name given to raised sections of a Glasgow ring road never completed. In the league of national embarrassments he was right down there with the 1978 World Cup football squad. And in TV Hell, the Scottish section, he sang on a loop for bussed-in OAPs perched on hay bales and clapping out of time, or as part of the cast of some horrific heedrum-hodrum Hogmanay heucharama. For many, this was Sydney Devine.
Just when Scotland was trying to assert itself culturally as cool and hip, along came this fellow in a spangly jumpsuit and stetson peddling steel-guitar sentimentality to muck everything up with his huge popularity. It was the kind of masochistic joke Scotland often played on itself.
Sydney Devine jokes started to proliferate. What’s got 100 legs and three teeth? The front row of a Sydney Devine concert. But for every gag from a Devine denier there seemed to be one from his camp, usually funnier.
If Sydney Devine can sing then Crippen was innocent. That was comedian Andy Cameron who gave Devine his showbiz break and was among the first on Saturday to pay tribute. And while Tam Cowan had compared Devine gigs to the war crimes of Saddam Hussein, the Off the Ball funster’s favourite joke concerned two Scotsmen facing a firing squad and nominating last requests … Condemned No 1: “I’d like to hear Sydney Devine singing ‘Tiny Bubbles’.” Condemned No 2: “Can you shoot me first?”
But the best Sydney Devine gagsmith has been Sydney Devine. Battling back to the Pavilion in 2007 for what was his 34th annual appearance at the venue - a world record, it was claimed - he revealed that his presence in that Spanish hospital had helped other patients: “One afternoon a nurse put on my CD and a woman who hadn’t walked for five years got out of bed to turn it off.” Devine also paid tribute to his wife Shirley: “She was always at my side except when she flew home for a couple of days to sift through the insurance policies.”
Before taking the stage that night he told me: “I’ve heard all the jokes about me and Saddam, all the Pavarotti and Princess Di ones too. I don’t suppose they heard all the Sydney Devine gags before they died - their loss.” Surely, I asked, there must have been times when the gags hurt or he’d yearned for more respect? “No, I’ve got the respect of my family and my fans - that’s plenty. My biggest critics have never seen my show. Some folk don’t like me but I don’t think I’ve done anybody any harm.”
Even though everyone at the Pavilion - crowd and star - was a little bit older it was easy to imagine a Sydophile once leaping ten feet across an orchestra pit to molest him, another nicking a seven foot cardboard cut-out from the foyer and going home with it on the Castlemilk bus and a third following Devine back to Ayr and the next morning being found sleeping by his goldfish pond.
If he’d died in 2007 then Elvis, had the latter still been around, would have been his choice for stand-in - “though just think about all the empty seats.” Now Syd has left the building, too.
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