29 November 2010 Scotland on Sunday
THREE years ago, I wrote a review of Sleeping Beauty that compared the comedy legs of Gavin Mitchell with those of Gerard Kelly. Mitchell was playing Norval, the witch's son, in the Glasgow King's panto and it looked as though his pins were ready to give way beneath him. Kelly, of course, was the high priest of knock-kneed hilarity and, as Chester the Jester, gave his legs a life of their own. I suggested Mitchell had been paying attention to Kelly's technique.
Apparently, the review sparked off a running joke between the two actors. Having threatened each other with lawyers ("I've got someone in every night watching you," growled Kelly), they proceeded to compete with each other for rubber-limbed comedy on stage every night.
"There was a scene where he was dressed in drag and I quite fancied him and we would watch each other's legs all the way through and would outdo each other," says Mitchell. "We'd have this wobbly leg competition, so much so that I would come out and take photographs of his legs. I'd say, 'I've got a lawyer as well, Kell.'"
He laughs at the memory but we can't ignore the poignancy in the room. Just a few weeks ago, Kelly died at the age of 51 and it has fallen to Mitchell to take his friend's place as the lynchpin of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
"He was an incredible man," says the 45-year-old, his eyes welling up with emotion. "I miss him so much. I learned so much from his professionalism, his pragmatism, his craftsmanship, his belief and energy. He gave his all. He belonged to the public. He was theirs."
In his 20-year reign at the King's theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Kelly – or "Kells" as Mitchell calls him – built up tremendous audience affection. Tireless and big hearted, he got all ages on side with his cry of "Hiya pals!" and made the panto his own. "He was a brilliant company man and that defined him," says Tony Cownie who directed him in all the recent pantos. "He loved people and that's why they loved him."
Mitchell, who starred alongside Kelly as an ugly sister, a knockabout soldier and the evil Abanazar, thinks that in this year's show it would be a mistake to act as if nothing had happened. "It has to be addressed," says the actor best known as Boaby the barman in Still Game. "The audience has a lot of expectation this year and we're all in a lot of pain, we're grieving and it's all very raw. But if I was a member of the audience, I would like it to be addressed. They want to be part of it and to pay a tribute."
In rehearsals, they have had much agonised discussion about the most sensitive way to go. For instance, should Mitchell inherit Kelly's trademark "Hiya pals," which Kelly, in turn, inherited from Jack Milroy? Yes, is Mitchell's answer: "It's a tradition and something that should live on and be remembered. But how far do you take that? It's such a difficult line. We're having a good time, but we shouldn't forget Kells."
Barbara Rafferty has come forward to play the wicked queen, freeing Mitchell to take on Kelly's role of Muddles. He is stepping into a very big pair of Dr Martens but, having watched Kelly at close quarters for the past five years, he has a better idea than most what he is in for. In particular, he can draw on the experience of 2007 – the year of the competitive legs – when Kelly suffered a bad case of sciatica a fortnight into the run, amazing his fellow cast members with his resilience. "Kelly, no matter what state he was in, to his own self-detriment, would always go on," says Mitchell. "He went through incredible pain that year. It was astonishing. He would never disappoint."
Even Kelly had his limits, however, and come Hogmanay, he asked Mitchell to take over the community singalong, prefaced by the audience chant of "bring doon the cloot", for the remaining three weeks of the run. "I knew it must have been bad if Kell couldn’t do Hogmanay," says Mitchell. "He gave me one chance to see it. There were certain things he kept a mystery, that you never saw. You'd always hear the song sheet on the Tannoy but you'd never see it. He asked me to go up and watch it – once. So I stood at the side of the stage and he gave me a quick glimpse in the wings and then he carried on. That was my rehearsal! I didn't sleep. I was trying to learn this song. I was going off my head.
"I got through it, but I don't remember much. At the end of it, I was just panting and shaking, and Kelly came down for his bow and gave me an OK sign and a wink. Then afterwards he said, 'You'll no' be doing that for too much longer. I'm watching you.' He allowed me to do it to the end. I asked him on the very last night if he'd like it back, because he was quite superstitious, but he said, 'No, it's yours now.'"
It is big deal picking up where Kelly left off, but Mitchell also knows he is inheriting a tradition that predates them all. "Kells was very firm about that tradition," says Mitchell, who saw his first pantomime at the King's in 1974 and is still awestruck from his costume fitting as an Ugly Sister in 2008. "You pull a shoe out and it's got 'SB' on it and you go, 'SB? Oh my God, Stanley Baxter!' You start thinking of the people who have walked on that stage before you: Jimmy Logan, Jack, Rikki, Stanley . . . it's mind-blowing."
There was a time, however, when his enthusiasm would have shocked him. Starting out at the Citizens Theatre, he fell in with a crowd of old-school actors who would look down on anything as coarse as pantomime. "It was all 'terribly, terribly, let's go for supper,'" he says, affecting a plummy accent. "People did look down their nose at panto and I fell into that trap: 'That's some silly thing that people do, it's not a Wilde or an Ibsen, that's where the really testing stuff is . . .' which is a nonsense."
It was not an attitude he could maintain for long. He is a gifted mimic of RP, but having grown up in Springburn, Coatbridge, Glenboig and Airdrie, he is far from being posh. On the contrary, his childhood was so troubled, it's a miracle he survived at all. By the time he was 13, he had lost a father and a step-father (they died within a year of each other) and seen his mother abandon the family home, leaving her debts and domestic responsibility behind. He hardly saw her again. Only thanks to the intervention of his older brother was he not taken into care.
In difficult circumstances, he did moderately well at school, but took the wrong subjects to pursue his dream of art college and, after a breakdown from which he says he has never completely recovered, found himself working as a scene painter at the Citizens. Egged on by a friend, he volunteered as an extra and discovered his love of acting. He knows it's a psychological cliché, but it suits him to have a job where he can pretend to be someone else.
As well as appearing at the Citz, he has played Casanova for Suspect Culture, an Elvis impersonator for the Tron and Humphrey Bogart in a stage version of Casablanca which he plans to revive next year. He has a great love of Still Game, but is equally animated about his straight roles in the forthcoming You Instead by David Mackenzie set at T in the Park and a film project with the artist David Shrigley.
It's a prolific and varied output, one explained in part by his need for discipline. "Work does help, because you just have to do it," he says as he is called for afternoon rehearsals. "Your own personal life is such a mess and you come in and you go, 'Hey, I'm very organised because I can do two shows a day, I know when I eat, I know when I leave, I know exactly what I'm doing from now until 9 January.' So it has always given me a structure, which I do like."
Nervous about the task ahead, he is reassured by the thought that Kelly himself would tolerate no self-indulgence or maudlin behaviour: "The show must go on – that certainly would be Kelly's adage. He'd be giving me a big slap across the face: 'Get on with it and dry your eyes.'"
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, King's Theatre, Glasgow, 3 December–9 January.
© Mark Fisher 2010
This is a sample caption