Angus Lennie: Actor best known as Ives the tunneller in The Great Escape and Shughie McFee the chef in Crossroads

Lennie presented a conciliatory image of Scotland and was an expert at invoking sympathy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eschewing the machismo sometimes stressed by the Scots, Angus Lennie presented a conciliatory image of Scotland. A diminutive man with a high, light voice, soon to go bald and with a protruding row of upper teeth, he was an expert at invoking sympathy. Originally a dancer and stand-up comedian, he became a comic actor, sometimes incorporating pathos into his comedy, then a serious one.

He reached a national audience in the often-derided weekday soap Crossroads, as a Scottish chef named Shughie McFee, not slow to boast about purported trips abroad, and generally unlucky in love. One appearance that has arguably been televised more times than all his Crossroads episodes was in The Great Escape (1963), in which he played the tunneller Flying Officer Archibald "The Mole" Ives, recalling times in Glasgow with Gordon Jackson and telling Steve McQueen of his days as a jockey when they are in the cooler together after an unsuccessful escape attempt.

Ives becomes increasingly desperate to escape, and his killing by guards, when he attempts to climb over the wire after one of the tunnels is discovered, leads to McQueen joining forces with Richard Attenborough and his fellow tunnellers.

Lennie was born in Glasgow and educated at Eastbank Academy. He stated that his debut, as a dancer, had been at the Metropole, Glasgow, supporting the duo Jack Short and May Dalziel. Later he appeared with their son Jimmy Logan as a "gormless mother's boy" in Wedding Fever (His Majesty's, Aberdeen, 1961), and Widow's Paradise (Royal, Newcastle, 1970). By 1946, billing himself as Gus Lennie, with the strapline "Melodies With Memories", he had performed at several Glasgow venues, with a trip over the border to Wolverhampton.

Following National Service he was quickly in England, undertaking summer seasons in Bognor Regis, Margate and Worthing, and terming himself "Light Comedian – Dancer – Feed". By 1954 he had joined the Concert Artistes' Association, and performed at several of their concerts at Victoria Hall in Bloomsbury. Around this time, he became one of the last resident comedians at Vivian Van Damm's notorious Windmill Theatre, where the audiences had not, to put it mildly, come to see the comics; one contemporary, with whom he shared a flat, was the ubiquitous Barry Cryer.

On television, he was in Armchair Theatre, "The Mortimer Touch" (ABC, 1957), during its earlier, less adventurous period, in this case a stage play by Eric Linklater. By contrast, Lennie appeared in Mario (BBC, 1959), for the experimental drama movement the Langham Group, employing montages and still photography in adapting a short story by Thomas Mann. More in character was Para Handy – Master Mariner (BBC, 1959-60), as Sunny Jim, deckhand on the Vital Spark, commandeered by lean, craggy-faced Duncan Macrae in the title role. (Subsequent adaptations of the same stories, in 1966 and 1974, did not feature Lennie.)

Back in Scotland, at the Glasgow Empire, Jig Time And The White Heather Club (1961) was a stage recreation of two popular, music-based Scottish TV shows. Lennie hosted the first half and had a 10-minute solo comedy spot, which changed weekly. Observing this, The Stage's Gordon Irving made the prescient remark that Lennie's "forte must lie in 'Dame' comedy, I'm sure." After The Great Escape, Lennie stayed in RAF uniform for 633 Squadron (1964), chiefly remembered for Ron Goodwin's stirring score, and was directed by Attenborough in the panoramic Oh! What A Lovely War (1969).

ATV's Birmingham studios, where Crossroads was taped, were sometimes referred to within the industry as "Lew Grade's fig leaf", the impresario being keener on his productions at Elstree Studios, which had superior production values and were designed to appeal to the US market, such as The Saint (1963), in which Lennie eagerly ran errands for Roger Moore.

Given that, during its initial (1963-89) run, Doctor Who was sometimes compared to Crossroads, it was perhaps inevitable that Lennie featured in "The Ice Warriors" (1967), and "Terror of the Zygons" (1975), the latter being scriptwriter Robert Banks Stewart's attempt to explain the Loch Ness Monster. Coincidentally or otherwise, in the Disney film One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975), Lennie and his fellow emblematic comic Scot, John Laurie, believed a runaway dinosaur to be Nessie.

A one-act play for the burgeoning lunchtime theatre scene in London, The Technicians (King's Head, Islington, 1971) by Olwen Wymark, with Lennie as one half of a needling couple whose lives are taken over by two metaphysical "technicians", might have seemed a long way from soapland. However, one of the title roles was played by Philip Lowrie, Coronation Street's erstwhile Dennis Tanner.

Lennie recalled that while appearing at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham and meeting producer Reg Watson, he was cast as an estate agent for two Crossroads episodes in 1972, before returning as Shughie two years later, and remaining until 1980. His contract guaranteed him two episodes a week. Upon her death in 1985, he placed a notice in The Stage honouring the show's linchpin: "'Nolly' Noele Gordon, fondly remembered".

Having been in pantomime since 1954, when he played Simple Simon in Red Riding Hood, he took up the Dame mantle. Particularly successful was his work with Stanley Baxter: as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella (1979-80) at the King's, Edinburgh, and at the King's, Glasgow the following season; and Mother Goose (King's, Edinburgh, 1982), with Baxter in the title role and Lennie as "Glaikit Gussie". The pair also performed part of their routine on The Children's Royal Variety Performance (1983).

Providing the wraparounds for BBC2's themed evening ATV Night in 1994, Lennie cheerfully resumed the role of Shughie, alongside fellow stalwarts Tony Adams and Jane Rossington; David Stafford's scripted links cleverly caught the flavour of the show's heavily expositional dialogue in announcing what was coming up next. It was characteristic of Lennie to have a final laugh at himself. Latter-day TV appearances included Keeping Up Appearances (1995), and a recurring role as a butler in Monarch Of The Glen (BBC, 2001-03).

GAVIN GAUGHAN

Angus Lennie, actor, comedian and dancer: born Glasgow 18 April 1930; died London 14 September 2014.

Comments