Lou Grant

Comedian and radio presenter

Born: November 3, 1936.

Died: April 24, 2020.

RADIO presenter, comedian and panto star Lou Grant has died after suffering with dementia for several years. The 83-year-old, however, managed to retain the impish sense of humour and mild devilment which served him so well in his career.

It was a career that saw Grant storm national television, perform with variety and comedy greats such as Dave Allen (who was godfather to his children), Bob Monkhouse, The Krankies and Sydney Devine.

Yet, while West Sound Radio and theatre audiences loved Lou Grant, his love of a little anarchy could cause radio programme controllers to scratch their heads in dismay, theatre directors’ mouths to fall open wide, and, on one occasion, a helicopter pilot’s head to shake in disbelief.

There was little doubt that Lou Grant Ritchie (he chose his mother’s maiden name for his stage listing) was born to make people laugh. Although he grew up close to the race track – his father was an Ayr bookmaker – schoolteachers would not have bet against young Lou choosing a showbiz career.

Seduced early on by the lights of the town’s Gaiety Theatre, aged 13 the teenager landed work as a page boy showing audiences to their seats. At 18, he was working on comedian’s follow spots, lighting up the stage while magic was being performed – and dreaming of such a life for himself.

Her Majesty contained that dream for two years when he was sent on his National Service stint to Malaysia with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Demobbed in Yorkshire, Lou Grant landed work in the Butlins holiday camps, in Skegness and Filey, as a Red Coat. Not only did he meet great friends such as Monkhouse and Allen, he met his future wife Margaret, also a budding entertainer. (They would have two sons and a daughter.) The couple based themselves in Maggie’s home town of Birmingham while Grant worked the working men’s clubs all over the north of England and south Wales. “He told me of how tough this life was many years later,” said chum and one-time panto partner Sydney Devine. “I knew if he had survived these clubs he had to be very good. And he was.”

Grant was talented enough to win TV’s Opportunity Knocks. He recalled many years later: “Opportunity Knocks was the earliest version of Britain’s Got Talent and after winning the show I toured with Hughie Green, his assistant Monica Rose and acts like muscle man Tony Holland.”

The profile of the show helped Lou Grant to work continually throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Audiences loved his cheeky delivery and he became a warm-up man alongside old pal Monkhouse on TV show The Golden Shot.

Lou Grant also travelled abroad with the White Heather Club tartan variety shows, headlined by stars such as Andy Stewart. At one gig in Canada, Grant actually became Andy Stewart, reveals old friend and West Sound colleague, Jim Higgins. “Andy Stewart was taken ill and the promoter suggested to Lou that since he looked a little like Andy, and the audience didn’t really know what Andy looked like outside of a photo, that he take his place. Lou laughed and said he only knew four Scottish songs. But he was up for the challenge and he sang those four songs on a loop. To this day those audiences don’t know they were being entertained by Lou.”

Grant’s stint in England had come to an end in 1981 when he moved back to Scotland in the hope of landing work with Ayr’s new radio station. Managing Director Kenneth Roy realised he had a major talent on his hands.

Former Programme Controller Gordon McArthur smiles as he recalls how Lou Grant (who loved to claim the American sitcom character of the same name had stolen his name) could also present a regular challenge. “Lou would sometimes ignore music policy. He’d suddenly announce ‘I’m not playing that!’ and put on a Scottish traditional record he liked. But it was harmless fun. And the listeners loved this.”

One morning Grant played an early Elvis rocker, faded the record and then announced in a straight voice: “I don’t know who told him he could sing.”

Sydney Devine recalls the “great, fun times” working in panto with Grant in the mid-Eighties. “Lou was a master comedian and he was so fast and slick. And he was also wicked. We’d have young actors in the show who were straight out of drama school, who wouldn’t put a comma out of place and needed to stick to the script religiously; that was all they knew. But each night, Lou would ad-lib, not quite giving them their feed line on time. The audiences would love it. It showed how he could play with a script, get laughs, and get it right back on the page. He was a master. And the producers never knew what Lou was going to do next.”

Writer and comedy actor Russell Laine agrees that trying to tie Grant to a tight script was like trying to catch the wind in a jeely jar. “We had a magic act, Fernando Natasha,” he recalls. “I was Natasha, and he was the very funny drunken magician. And his ad-libs were brilliant.”

Lou Grant was always his own man. Gordon McArthur recalls a stint in Belize, where charity supporter Grant (he worked for Erskine Hospital and later Ayr Hospital Radio) had gone to back the Forces at Christmas time. “We went out there to record messages from the troops for broadcast at home, and the trip involved us taking a helicopter high above a mountain on the Belize/Guatemala border to get to a tiny campsite. “My greatest memory of that trip is seeing Lou leap down several feet from the helicopter onto the peak of the mountain – wearing a Santa hat.”

The entertainer seemed to work to his own clock. “Lou would MC many charity events over the years but the little problem with Lou was he couldn’t stick to just the allocated ten minutes. He had a story for every occasion. But that was his great strength.”

Former West Sound colleague Jim Higgins agrees Lou Grant loved to walk the fine line between professional conformity and mild anarchy. “I can remember him telling me he had a walk-on part in Crossroads [the 1970s TV soap based in Birmingham.] Lou wouldn’t just walk on. He was determined to say something, even if it was just ‘Good morning,’ because it was a challenge to him, and those words meant he was paid extra.”

And he got extra attention. “Oh yes,” says his friend. “But that was Lou. He loved it. And even off-stage he lit up a room. You couldn’t get angry with him.”

The comedian’s health worsened on the death of his wife in 2014.

Sydney Devine maintains his friend is a very hard act to follow. “Lou was a wonderful wee man, and so well-loved. He was one of the originals.”

Lou Grant Ritchie is survived by his son Andrew and daughter Lindsey.