We republished this 1989 interview with the legendary Scottish comedian Rikki Fulton when he died in January 2004. After its original appearance, Fulton wrote in the Scotsman that it was like no interview he had ever done before: 'I was astonished by what I revealed.'
When I arrived at Josie's place, Francie was just leaving. 'I want you to be happy,' Josie was saying. Francie, who was carrying a shopping bag, didn't look happy. He rarely does.
For those readers unfamiliar with one of the great double acts of the Scottish variety stage, I should explain that Francie and Josie are Glasgow teddy boys also known as Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton. William Hunter observed – in Scottish Theatre magazine, January 1970 – the essential nature of this comic phenomenon:
Josie (Rikki Fulton), all sharp, quick, tense, likes the taste of big words in his mouth so long as he is allowed to get them wrong. Francie (Jack Milroy), his face sad and crumpled as an unmade bed, doesn’t know any words, especially small ones, like work. How on earth did they team up? They are muckers, that’s all, mates, friends. One at a time each would be unbearable. But they make sense by the pair like silly kippers, which they also are. They last better than fish, though, because their patter has a time-resistant batter around it to keep it fresh. But dated, yes: nothing much a man, or even a brace of them, can do about that. They have been pickled in their prime – the time of Elvis and DA hair cuts and thick-soled shoes…
Twenty years on, the batter is as time-resistant as ever. When the silly kippers made a rare television appearance recently, most of Scotland watched admiringly. And the day I turned up on the doorstep, they were discussing their forthcoming season at the Glasgow King's. Before he was gone, Francie even managed a small, brave smile, possibly at the thought of the advance receipts.
Francie and Josie are pushing it a bit now. Rikki Fulton, the younger of the partners, has just passed his 65th birthday and calls himself a senior citizen. He lives with his second wife, Kate Matheson, in the sort of spacious, comfortable villa that he dreamt of as a child. Unlike Josie, he has come up in the world.
However, Josie would have felt quite at home in his creator's original habitat.
'You're a Glasgow man?'
'I'm an East Ender. Born in Appin Road, Dennistoun – you can't get a more Scottish name for a street than that. Left there when I was three, and went posh. Up to the Riddrie corporation housing estate.'
'That was posh?'
'Oh, really quite up-market, then.'
'Tell me about Appin Road.'
'Grey tenements. I've a great affection for tenements. Nowadays they're just the most wonderful apartments you can buy. But Appin Road was rather different, because it was a room and kitchen. The curious thing is that, years later, I could remember every detail of the kitchen almost to the last ornament. I was brought into the world in that room – in the kitchen bed – the recess.'
'What do you remember about your mother?'
'I remember her very clearly, although she's been dead a long time. Four feet eleven and a half inches in her shoes. Tiny wee soul. I remember her in the kitchen, standing on the bed – actually on the bed – in a red dressing gown. Quite distraught, really in a very bad way. I think I was responsible for her nervous breakdown.'
'You were a bad baby?'
'No. But I was born when my mother was forty. Highly significant! Here she was, a middle-aged lady, embarrassed at having produced another child and convinced that people were looking at her strangely and whispering to each other. Classic psychosis. She was of a particular generation who did not recognise the existence of the sexual act. My mother never used the word sex. She used the word Men with a capital M. "I don’t like men," she would say. We all knew what she meant. And yet she had the greatest sense of humour.'
'She enjoyed a joke?'
'Loved jokes, especially when they were sightly risque.'
Mr Fulton thought about that, and corrected himself.
'Maybe slightly vulgar would be a better definition.'
'What's the difference?'
'Possibly sexual jokes might come under the heading of risque. Vulgar jokes have to do with bodily functions. But she, of course, never quite grasped their meaning. The whole family would be laughing uproariously, while my mother was still struggling with the tag. Then, later, there would be a screech from her room and hysterical laughter…'
'The penny had finally dropped?'
'And the whole family would go to my mother's room, and we would enjoy the joke all over again.'
'What does that tell you about the nature of comedy?'
'It underscores the maxim that a joke is not a joke until an audience has laughed at it!'
'It's a question of timing?'
'Basically, yes. But personality is also incredibly important. One of the essential things about making people laugh is that, first of all, you've got to make them like you. If they don't like you, they won't laugh. That's why it's often very difficult for two men to make their living as a double act and why so many of the great double acts end up at loggerheads. Because there are two of them out there, fighting for the one love – the one adulation.'
This sad but perceptive comment set Mr Fulton speculating about the personal instability of comedians and the curious fact that so many have what he called 'difficulties over relationships.' He reeled off the names of half a dozen celebrated comics with unhappy private lives, and had difficulty naming one (apart from his own partner, Jack Milroy) who has a stable marriage. He finally selected Jimmy Tarbuck.
'Why is this?'
'It's got something to do with what you have to do when you're faced with a career in comedy, when you make your living putting your emotions on the line.'
'It's true, then, that comics are very insecure people? That comedy is a form of self-defence?'
'It certainly was in my case. I was the youngest of three boys – by a long way. Within the family, I was referred to as "the baby," "the kid," or "him". I came into a family that was established, where there was an eight-year-old and a fourteen-year-old, and a mum and dad who obviously regarded themselves as having finished with that part of their lives. I was an outsider – an interloper. I was thirty-two before I became absolutely convinced that I was a blood relative of these people.'
'Oh, I was quite convinced I'd been discovered on a doorstep.'
'What happened when you were thirty-two?'
'I suppose I'd matured as much as I was going to, and had thought it through. And facially, I was beginning to resemble my elder brother.'
It occurred to me that throughout a long, detailed and vivid recollection of his early life, Rikki Fulton had not once mentioned his father. When I expressed some surprise about this, he invited me to draw the obvious conclusion.
'My father,' he said, 'was the quietest man I've ever known in my life. He never spoke to me, except to tell me to stop playing the piano, and that in somewhat colourful terms.'
'What did he do?'
'He was in Singer's. A very clever locksmith. He could open any door. Then he became a shopkeeper.'
'It was a typical Glasgow family, then?'
'Yes, a matriarchal society. She was the ruler. She made the decisions. It was my mother who took me to the hospital when I was near death – I had a tubercular gland which just about did for me. My mother who went up to the school and told the teachers to lay off her child.'
'You didn't get on well at school?'
'If only I'd had the thirst for knowledge that I gained after leaving school, if only I'd had the audacity – the bottle – to say, "Excuse me, sir, I don't understand that, would you be good enough to explain that again?," I think I would have got on a lot better. English I sailed through. And I once got 100% for art.'
At the start of our meeting, Kate Fulton had asked hospitably when it might be suitable to bring tea. After an hour, perhaps? Yes, an hour sounded fine. By then, I judged, we would be nearing the end of the interview – via her husband's first professional engagement with the BBC in Glasgow, his many pantomimes, his 'Five Past Eight' seasons, his 'Scotch and Wry' television series, his film appearances, his recollection of people and events.
The charming Kate arrived on cue with a glorious afternoon tea served from a tiered cake stand. But our interview had not gone according to plan. We had still not progressed from Mr Fulton's fascinating childhood. We were spiritually stuck in Appin Road.
'When did you leave school?'
'When I was fifteen. I got a job in a builder's merchant's office at 134 St Vincent Street. A one-man business with a double office and a name on the door. I've often dreamt about that office. Always with the name on the door. Some special attachment. Something to do with identity. It seemed to say what you are…who you are…'
'Is that still important to you?'
'Yes. I adore letterheads, for example. I'm a stationery freak.'
Mr Fulton's own letterhead has his address in ornate lettering across the full length of a finely woven A-4 sheet.
'You have a problem about your identity,' I suggested obviously.
He sounded surprised and intrigued, though not displeased. We had with some relish already devoured the more mouth-watering contents of the lowest tier of the cakestand, and were now eyeing the various dainties above.
I persisted: 'Well, yes. Lonely child. Brothers much older than yourself, uncommunicative father, dominant mother…'
'I think that's right,' he said, warming to the theme. 'But what I discovered was that when I made the family laugh, I felt secure. That was fine. But when they were not laughing, I was quite insecure. And really rather afraid.'
'And that remained true, did it – when you became a comedian?'
'It's a long, long time since I faced a hostile audience of any kind. But I did once have difficulty getting across to an audience – I think because of my own personal circumstances at the time. They were not laughing. What they were saying to me was, "We don’t like you."'
'You were unhappy then?'
'Well, my first marriage was up the spout. Yes, a difficult time.'
'We're jumping ahead. What happened after the builders' merchants with the name on the door?'
'I became a customs clerk. Loved that, except it was a stressful situation in one way. If you made a mistake, it was almost considered to be criminal – and they fined you! There was a woman called Miss Flynn. She sat behind an old-fashioned high desk. Probably the ugliest woman I ever saw in my life. Very red face, a great beak, glasses, hair scraped back. And next to her, this man – equally unpleasant, Germanic looking, with as pale a face as hers was red. I think they were having a sort of…well, I'm going to use the word affair. But that has the wrong connotations.'
'Miss Flynn and you didn’t get on?'
'She was like a really awful headmistress. She would rant and rave. "Stupid boy!" She would cry. It was hands behind the back time. Literally.'
The appalling Miss Flynn was not the only source of adolescent dread. When Chamberlain returned from Munich with his meaningless bit of paper, at least one inhabitant of the Riddrie corporation housing estate felt a tingle of fear.
'When the war started, it seemed that everybody I knew was going into Fighter Command, and making noises like aeroplanes. I must be honest, I couldn't understand that. I just didn't want to know about war. There was nothing heroic about me at all. Suddenly, a wee girl I fancied very much – all the girls were absolutely enthralled at the thought of these boys going to fight for king and country – this wee girl said to me, "What are you going to do?" I felt I couldn't say, "I'm not going to go. I'm a conscientious objector." Well, I don't suppose I was anyhow. With me, it was just cowardice.'
'So what did you say to her?'
'Out came this voice with an explanation I'd never heard before. I was going to join the Navy. "Why?" she said. "Well," I said, "I'm in a shipping office, and I know all about shipping." Strangest reason!'
He promptly volunteered, and joined up on his eighteenth birthday. His experiences in the Navy, though harrowing, proved rewarding in later life. They provided the inspiration for one of the richest themes in his work: the caricature of the Scottish working-class lad hopelessly aping southern manners.
'I remember when I was commissioned. The first question they asked was what your father did. Then education. On guard duty one night, the guy next to me suddenly wanted to know what school I'd been to. "Whitehill," I said – deliberately disguising the fact that it was just a Glasgow secondary. I became terribly conscious of background – social standing. In some cases, they even taught you how to use a knife and fork. Sent you away to learn manners!'
But there was nothing in the school of Navy etiquette to prepare him for the moment when his ship was torpedoed. He spent five hours in the waters of North America before he was picked up. He saw his skipper dead on the deck.
'It wasn't the sight of his body that upset me, but the fact I'd seen his wife with him just a few weeks before. She must have boarded at Greenock or somewhere. That's what I find so obscene about death. It's not the dying or the being dead. It's the wrenching apart…'
'Are you a religious man?'
'A couple of years ago, I went into hospital for a simple operation and the doctors found something they didn't know was there – this tumour. I could have bled to death on the operating table. Both Katy and I were atheists, I suppose, but because of what happened to me, we both took another look at it. I saw an opportunity perhaps to return to a faith, and be happier for it.'
'Where did that lead you?'
'Katy's taken it a good deal further. But then she's a very special lady. She's how I see the Christian – goes out of her way to help people, feels for them, cares for them in a way that frankly I don't. We became members of the church, and I found I liked going to church. Enjoyed it. Liked being with people who believed. And I read and read all sorts of books, and talked to some very interesting people. Oh, the debate is wonderful. I adore the debate.'
'But you haven't reached a conclusion?'
'Yes, I have.'
'What is it?'
'I just can't accept. Or – if there is an alternative – that it's just too difficult. And the Church of Scotland message is pretty downward-looking, I think.'
'In what sense?'
'Well,' he said regretfully, 'you don't really get a sense of joy and good news, do you?'
At which I thought inevitably of the annual Hogmanay ritual on our television screens: of the doom-laden Scottish minister created by Mr Fulton, who hilariously fills the fag end of the year with his deeply lugubrious reflections on Life.
'Ah,' I announced triumphantly. 'You're talking about the Reverend I M Jolly!'
But Rikki Fulton wasn't laughing.
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