Obituary: Andy Stewart
Wednesday 13 October 1993
ANDY STEWART, the kilted minstrel, was the Englishman's image of Scotland in the Fifties and Sixties. Stewart's television performances, on The White Heather Club, and in particular at Hogmanay, featured a swinging kilt, topped by a boyish-faced lad who gave out musical propaganda for the hills, lochs, islands - and that purple heather, from which an earlier comic singer, Harry Lauder, had obtained so much mileage in the first three decades of the century.
But Stewart, a schoolmaster's son, never intended to be a new Lauder. He was studying for a career in the theatre when his gift for mimicry forced itself out. To me and others who caught him at the beginning of his career, he seemed like a Scottish version of Andy Hardy, the perky, eager, jump- about American youngster portrayed by Mickey Rooney. Stewart could 'jouk' about, just as Lauder had with his tartan plaid and crooked walking-stick years before, and he landed on this theme at a time when it was becoming old-hat and despised by the postwar generation. The fact that Stewart succeeded in combating the anti-Lauder campaigners is proof of his talents, energy and fondness for the Brigadoon-style image that exists in the minds of song-writers and tourists to Scotland.
The White Heather Club, produced by BBC Scotland and televised throughout the network from the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties, was Stewart's niche. This was the ubiquitous Scottish ceilidh (Highland sing-song and party) offered to, and accepted by, television controllers in the Fifties. You sang, you cracked a joke about the kilt, and you sat round at tables with small glasses of whisky and lots of shortbread, and you pretended to be having a great end-of-the-year celebration until the maudlin and sentimental came in with the midnight bells. Millions loved these televised parties, usually from a cardboard studio in Glasgow or from a hotel in the Highlands. It was a rural way of life, beamed to urban Britain.
Stewart took his White Heather Club into the Empire Theatre, in Glasgow, a notorious graveyard for English comics, and packed the place for months on end. He took his unit to the United States, then to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He won over a Royal Variety Performance in London mimicking Presley singing 'Donald, Where's Your Troosers?' (Stewart is said to have written that number in 10 minutes as he sat, minus troosers, in the lavatory of a recording studio.)
Recordings were Stewart's great stand-by. He wrote the words of 'A Scottish Soldier' ('There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, who wandered far away and soldiered far away . . . There was none bolder . . .'), linked them to a pipe tune, and sold 3 million records to stay for over a year in the Top 50 in the United States.
Alas, bouts of ill-health and not just the passing trends in show business were the enemy. The fresh boyish image of the idol of the 1950s was replaced by a slight frailty and stumbling words. His occasional appearance on television worried those who knew the real Andy Stewart, the brash and confident lad who belted out the songs of Scotland at everybody's favourite Hogmanay party.
Stewart was almost a constant visitor to hospital wards. He was in and out between 1972 and 1978 and in 1986, and again, three years later, he had bypass surgery on his heart. The boyish comic singer was showing his age. When he hit his early fifties, he could easily have been taken for a man in his seventies. After two heart bypasses, Stewart's doctor told him to look on 'work' as 'a dirty word', but he kept going, even touring to Australia. He admitted: 'I would need a psychiatrist to tell me just why I carry on.'
He was set to top the bill in a Pride of the Clyde variety-revue at the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, from next Monday. He was planning yet another tour of North America. And, just the night before he died, he was on the stage of the Usher Hall, in Edinburgh, doing his act with other artists to raise funds for the building of a children's hospice in Scotland.
Offstage, Stewart was typically Scottish, down-to-earth, dour-looking at times, but always with a twinkle in the eye, and a penchant for Robert Burns. A family man, short of build (he was 5ft 7in), and a grandfather, he lived variously at Glasgow, Banchory, near Aberdeen, and at Arbroath, the fishing town in Angus on Scotland's east coast, where he died only hours after giving his last performance.
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