Rikki Fulton

Comedian and actor who became a Scottish institution
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Robert Kerr Fulton (Rikki Fulton), comedian and actor: born Glasgow 15 April 1924; married 1949 Ethel Scott (marriage dissolved 1968), 1969 Kate Matheson; died Glasgow 27 January 2004.

The Scottish comedian Rikki Fulton was a Jock-of-all-trades who mastered every medium in the entertainment business, playing every kind of role from pantomime dame on stage to private detective on radio.

Whether executing a Rachmaninov piano concerto with genuine skill on his 1965 television show The Rikki Fulton Hour; working in partnership with the comedian Jack Milroy (they were described by one writer as "Scotland's answer to Morecambe and Wise"); in the role of Dan McPhail in the BBC's The Tales of Para Handy; judging the 1979 Miss Scotland beauty contest; or promoting the image of Glasgow's dentists for a 1985 public information film - versatility was always his trademark.

Born in Glasgow in 1924, immediately after wartime service in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Fulton took up acting, and he was soon gaining useful experience in local repertory theatre, and through broadcasting on the BBC Home Service from Scotland. In 1952 his knack for accents secured him the straight dramatic role of Alonso de Vaces in Tiger Mountain, a Children's Hour adventure serial about a lost South American tribe; later that year he played in revue at the Gateway Theatre on the Edinburgh Festival fringe.

As the laconic compere of The Show Band Show (1953), a Light Programme showcase for Cyril Stapleton and his musicians, Fulton started to write his own material; in a comedy sketch for the Gateway, he was the doleful hospital visitor wondering (aloud) how to manoeuvre a coffin around the bed, and leaving the patient some magazines with the dour advice, "Ye'd better not get started on any serials."

When in 1954 Howard and Wyndham took over the Glasgow Alhambra to present Five Past Eight (Scotland's very own precursor of Beyond the Fringe), the show was popular enough for it to have a second home at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh, and Fulton became a stalwart of the joint companies.

On 3 July 1958 he received the first of many accolades - a booking for that year's Royal Variety Performance, in a predominantly Scots-flavoured cast which included Duncan Macrae and Stanley Baxter. An edited version of the show was broadcast on radio a few days later, and Fulton obtained more national exposure in 1959 on ITV when Bernard Delfont's Sunday Show, transmitted from the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, introduced him as "the new comedy personality".

There followed two Saturday night specials on BBC television in 1960 and 1961, The Rikki Fulton Show, scripted by its star, and with the comedy actress (and Fulton's first wife) Ethel Scott as his principal foil. Eric Maschwitz, the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment, had recently seen A Wish for Jamie - a regional Christmas panto in which Scott had created her "Aggie Goose", a singularly incompetent fairy - and, keen to reproduce the atmosphere of that occasion, he negotiated for Fulton's 1961 show to be recorded before a live audience at the Alhambra in Glasgow.

Although Fulton's appearances outside Scotland during the 1960s were infrequent, his occasional forays south of Hadrian's Wall constituted a rare delight. In 1965 Scottish Television sent the ITV network The Rikki Fulton Hour, first of a monthly series. Sketches included a parody of John Grierson's then current programme about the classic documentary film This Wonderful World, re-titled This Scunnerful World ("scunner" being Scots slang for a mischievous rogue or ne'er-do-well), with the resourceful Fulton impersonating Grierson and all the other characters. Another burlesque, on Napoleon and Josephine, had a concealment of lovers - including an entire pipe band - trooping out of Josephine's wardrobe for the punchline.

Meanwhile, another Scots comedian had been travelling a similar road. Jack Milroy was already a popular solo turn in variety and pantomime when he and Fulton appeared together in Five Past Eight at the King's, Edinburgh, and the duo became an institution in Scotland as "Francie and Josie", a pair of gormless Glaswegian Teddy boys. In frightful wigs and lurid Edwardian suits with drainpipe trousers at half-mast, Fulton/Josie (a spiv with social pretensions) and Milroy/Francie (the naïve, pliable stooge) convulsed theatre audiences; had their own series on BBC Scotland; and made hit records. In 1970 they were named Scotland's "Light Entertainers of the Year".

During the next decade Fulton was on call for legitimate acting work, mostly on home turf. At the 1973 Edinburgh Festival he played in a pre-Reformation satire entitled Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis in Commendatioun of Vertew and Vituperatioun of Vyce. Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thrie Estaitis featured a corrupt pardoner - named "Flatterie" - whose sale of indulgences personified the malaise of medieval Catholicism. As the droll buffoon in question, Fulton was superb.

In BBC TV's serialisation of Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1977), he was Andrew Fairservice, loyal companion to the young hero; in a 1979 televised adaptation of Molière's The Miser he was the eponymous comic monster the Laird O'Grippy, a skinflint wont to remind his dying wife, "If ye slip away before I get back, mind and blow out the candle"; and in The Sandyford Place Mystery (1980), dramatised from the real-life case of a Victorian servant girl, bloodily slain with a meat cleaver, he was the ambivalent, ancient Fleming.

He then excelled in a tailor-made role, that of a great pantomime star whose career was being sabotaged by an envious cast member, in Nothing Like a Dame (1981) from Scottish Television. As Robbie Kerr he gave a cracking performance, all rage, panic and megalomania. With Fulton's track record, his fictional character's Widow Twankey was the genuine article; and "off-stage" as Kerr he delivered with sardonic relish such killer lines as "I hope she doesn't give us a medley of her one song".

Also in 1981, he was Autolycus, the cunning, amoral rustic in the BBC Television Shakespeare production of The Winter's Tale, then Lord Justice Clerk in Boswell for the Defence, a filmed account of how Samuel Johnson's biographer came to oppose the judicial hanging of a sheep-stealer (made in 1981, but not seen until 1983). Guest appearances in Bergerac (1981) as "Andy Galbraith", a star playing summer season on Jersey, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (1984), and Scotland's Story, an epic dramatised history for Channel Four, followed.

Fulton did not abandon his comic roots during this period. Between 1979 and 1984 he was top banana of Scotch and Wry, a pot-pourri of stand-up and sketch material for BBC Scotland, with a cast that included Gregor Fisher. (Sassenach viewers glimpsed a New Year's Day edition in 1983.) The series established the character of Fulton's lugubrious television vicar the Rev I.M. Jolly (he wasn't) and lampooned popular programmes like Upstairs, Downstairs.

And the cinema beckoned. He was a sympathetic housemaster in The Dollar Bottom (1981), a brief parable about schoolboy resistance to corporal punishment; joined Bill Forsyth's repertory of players for Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984); and was effectively saturnine as the KGB major in Gorky Park (1983).

On New Year's Eve 1989 Fulton contributed an "old man in pub" cameo for the actor/comedian Gregor Fisher's starring début in Rab C. Nesbitt's Seasonal Greet, and the two were reunited in 1994 for The Tales of Para Handy. Neil Munro's yarns about The Vital Spark, an old cargo boat plying the Clyde in the days of steam, were regular favourites for the BBC TV treatment, and Fisher was the third actor to portray the skipper, Handy. Fulton was in his element as the dour engineer Dan McPhail, master malingerer, forever complaining about his imaginary ailments.

In 1999, Fulton celebrated 30 years of marriage to his second wife, the actress Kate Matheson, and, at the close of that year, appeared on BBC2 to reflect on the passing of another year, in It's a Jolly Life, Parson Jolly dispensing more pessimistic pearls. When, in 2002, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Fulton remained positive, saying, "There's plenty of life in the old dog yet. I'm not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself."

Cy Young

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