First the pubs closed. Then the schools closed. And then, the libraries closed. I did my duty as a proud Scottish citizen and accepted all of these new limitations to support the overall public good during the global pandemic. And then Andy Gray went and died. This was too much. It was my breaking point.
Many years ago, in our first summer in Edinburgh, during the Edinburgh Festival, I quickly fell in love with the box office. On three successive evenings I purchased reasonably priced tickets for The Sufi Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, The Batsheba Company Theatre of Israel and Russia’s Marinsky Opera. When my wife saw our credit card statement she asked me to sit down for a wee chat. This is always a sign of trouble to come. Then she asked me “Why is it you cannot pass a box office without purchasing a ticket? Are you obsessed?”
I thought about her question and then confessed that I was indeed obsessed with the riches of live theatre available to us in Edinburgh. She then suggested that I have mental health counselling before I plunged our family into financial distress.
I explained that I was already receiving help from a very effective group therapy experience. She then asked me the name of the group and I smiled and answered, “The audience.”
When I first sat in Andy Gray’s audience at the King’s Theatre during the annual Christmas Panto I soon realised that I was in the presence of a comic genius similar to the great cinema clowns such as Charlie Chaplin, Bert Lahr, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton. The greatest of these clowns first gently and firmly invite you to emphatise with the human condition that they portray through their comedy. As Andy looked upon the audience and said with his forlorn face “I am not so well!” I immediately fell willingly and happily into the steel teeth of his firm comic trap.
Andy Gray, like all great theatre artists, used his economy of movement to speak volumes to his audiences about the misery of daily slights and through our resulting laughter helped us realise that humour is indeed the best medicine. His long soulful look, the arched rise of his eyebrow, and those slumping round shoulders all communicated to me and many others that following the pain of life there is a smile waiting as we emerge triumphant from the human condition.
And now this beloved clown prince has gone and left me navigate the rest of my life without his annual help. I, like so many others, fortunately am left with many happy memories of his gentleness and sweetness amidst a hurricane of chaos and comic confusion upon the Panto stage. In his final Panto performance, my family was fortunate to be seated in the third row of the stalls when suddenly Andy descended the stage in his bright red sequined circus ringmaster’s coat and black silk top hat and stood directly in front of our family and lifted his topper, bowed in a courtly manner as his eyes open wide while lowering his rubbery double chin and sweetly said “Helloooooo…” We were completely captivated as the entire audience simultaneously looked upon us and silently wondered, “What’s next?”
This question was asked millions and millions of times by the audience whenever Andy appeared on stage. The answer was always a surprise, a revelation and a special gift to help us laugh and smile our way out of our own troubles, no matter how great or small.
For example, last evening our new puppy barked throughout the night and disturbed my sleep. I am comforted by knowing that Andy would have found humour in this seemingly very distruptive and discomforting experience. Perhaps, this is the mental health therapy we all need right now and therefore we may be eternally grateful to Andy Gray for helping us realise that although we are “not so well” we may find hope and comfort through the precious healing gift of laughter that he so generously provided so well to so many for so long.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. For many years Professor Goldblatt, with his wife, was a professional mime whose role models were Chaplin, Laurel, and latterly, Andy Gray.