JOHNNY Beattie has exited Stage Left for the very last time, after a career which ran for an incredible 63 years. Beattie, in later years, found success on television with BBC soap River City. But much of his career was spent in the trenches of variety theatre, where turns battled nightly against sometimes indifferent (tired, drunk) audiences, the limitations of performance time and the need to reinvent their act – if they were a comedian – every single day.

But now that Beattie’s gone, does this signal the end of variety theatre in Scotland? Scotland has talent. We have more comics than DC Thomson. We have more singers than the Clydebank factory ever produced. But will they ever appear on a variety stage?

Are there theatres out there which, when the virus allows, will ever open up their doors to offer punters a variety show? And do audiences still wish to see variety? You wonder if our locked-down world is desperate to see a fat juggler try hard not to drop his balls, a magician pull out the card we all knew she would. Isn’t ventriloquism for dummies? And do we really need to see yet another tear-stained, relationship-ravaged face up there on stage perform an Adele song, including Adele herself?

Yes, we miss much of what Johnny Beattie represented; how could you not admire a man who managed to make it back from Dunoon, who survived the Aberdeen Tivoli in winter and a thousand seaside landladies who declined to offer towels, sheet changes, warmth or visitor entry to their paying guests.

But do we really miss the art form upon which he developed a career?

Variety in Scotland has been in demise since the late 1950s, when the likes of Max Bygraves were hired to entertain at the Alhambra in Glasgow, at huge expense.

The theatre form has struggled on, with shows such as Pride of the Clyde running in the 1980s and 90s in Glasgow and Ayr, featuring the likes of Jack Milroy, Dean Park and Beattie himself. The Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow has attempted several variety relaunches, with limited success.

Do modern audiences need to see over two hours of compendium entertainment? Should variety not be allowed to die alongside gag and tag jokes, given how outdated they appear in comparison to the observational material of the likes of Billy Connolly and Kevin Bridges?

Perhaps nostalgia isn’t all it used to be. The Five Past Eight Shows of the 1950s starring Jimmy Logan and Stanley Baxter are never to be replicated.

But hang on a minute. If you look around the world right now there are signs that the troupes are at least holding their own in the battle to survive. One of the biggest successes of Las Vegas in recent years is the variety show Absinthe, which has broken all Vegas records in running an incredible 14 sold out performances a week.

Variety certainly continues to be effective on television shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. It is alive and well on the cruise ships, as the current TV documentary featuring The Nolans reveals. And it still exists in holiday parks, in Blackpool and in Great Yarmouth summer seasons.

And there are signs variety in Scotland is clinging to the stage by its (nail-varnished) fingertips.

Those fingertips belong to Louise McCarthy and Gayle Telfer Stevens, AKA The Dolls. McCarthy and Telfer Stevens were set to bring their new show Rerr Terr (an expression that’s older than both their combined ages) to theatres across Scotland, until the pandemic ensued.

Within hours of going on sale, The Dolls, in variety form, had sold an incredible 15,000 tickets.

Other variety platforms remain. One of Scotland’s most successful stage shows in recent years has been a Francie and Josie revival, with Johnny Mac and Liam Dolan taking on the roles made famous by Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy.

In August, Rosie Glow Productions will be staging Revival, Scotland’s first drive-in variety theatre production, at Scone Palace in Perthshire. “Our teams are passionate about bringing live entertainment back to Scotland,” said a spokesperson.

But the Dolls apart (they are already a well-formed comedy act featuring two major performers) can variety make money? The Revival Show is crowdfunded, which asks questions.

What we do know is that panto is often a variety proxy, offering stand-up slots, silk acts, acrobatics, magic, singing and dancing. And we know that there are performers such as Johnny Mac, Jerry Taylor and Karen Dunbar – who don’t need to work from a script – who represent all that variety theatre embodied.

Johnny Beattie, The Alexander Brothers, Anne Fields, Walter Carr, Gary Denis and Mr Abie may no longer be with us, but the art form which they sold to millions, still lives on.

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