JOHNNY Beattie, comedian, actor and Scottish variety star has died peacefully after a short spell at St Margaret’s Hospice near Glasgow.

During a career that spanned an incredible 63 years, Beattie became a panto star, a TV quiz show host and a TV soap actor. He toured North America with the Alexander Bros and worked with legends such as Billy Connolly.  

What was the secret of his longevity? “I think if you’re nice you have a nice long career,” he said, smiling, during a quiet chat.  

John Gerard Beattie’s reputation in the business was most certainly that of nice man. Yet, he was being intensely modest when he declared his success down to an ability to get on with people.

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HeraldScotland: Beattie with fellow entertainers Jimmy Logan, centre, and Walter CarrBeattie with fellow entertainers Jimmy Logan, centre, and Walter Carr

The son of a Govan road sweeper and a jam factory worker, young Johnny was immensely bright, becoming School Dux at St Gerard’s.  

His intelligence was underscored later in his comedy career when Beattie revealed an acute talent for taking a news story and turning it into a gag. “If it was in the news that day it was in the act that night,” says theatre producer Robert C Kelly who worked with Beattie over a 20-year period.  “Johnny was as clever as they come.”

Yet, university was never allowed to challenge Johnny Beattie. The 16-year-old accepted an engineering apprenticeship at Fairfield Shipyards simply because the family of six needed the income.  

And like Billy Connolly and Chic Murray,  Beattie absorbed and learned in this grimy, shouty world of welding torches and red-hot rivets. “It was a workshop for comedians,” he said of the banter which abounded.  

Beattie never imagined a showbusiness career at this point. Aged 18, life took a sharp turn when he left the Clyde for a two-year National Service stint in Malaysia with the Royal Marines.

Back in the shipyards, however, he felt dislocated. This was not a world he was entirely happy in. Then in 1951, while sitting in the University Café in Glasgow’s Byres Road, Johnny Beattie’s life changed for ever.

A stranger came over to the young man with the matinee idol looks and asked him if he wished to join the local am-dram group. Why not? The move from the muck and grease of the shipyards into the world of make-up and grease paint hinted at possibility.  

Beattie found he loved performing. He loved the theatre stage. And just as importantly, he loved the idea of being surrounded by “lots of lovely women”.

Beattie in fact fell head-over-heels for one of them, model Kitty Lamont. The couple married in 1952, going on to have four children.  

HeraldScotland: Pantomime dame Johnny Beattie enjoying a pint outside Montego Bay pub in Glasgow in 1985Pantomime dame Johnny Beattie enjoying a pint outside Montego Bay pub in Glasgow in 1985

Yet, Beattie  had also been entirely seduced by the world of performance.  He turned professional when he joined the £12-a-week showbusiness circuit tours with impresario Robert Wilson. It was the beginning of a workaholic, peripatetic life, of season after season of working in variety up and down the Scottish coast, of appearing at the likes of the Ayr Gaiety.  

Indeed, the comic was so popular at the Gaiety, theatre bosses had to close the summer season to rehearse panto – and then close the panto to open the next summer season.   “Johnny also had incredible energy,” said Kelly. “Doing a 30-week season is easy for a singer, but not so easy for a comic who has to change the act every week.”

Seaside audiences loved his gentle, wholesome, never blue, humour. Example: “I shouted down to the landlady, ‘There’s nae towel here with which to dry my hauns’.’’ She shouted back, ‘Ye dinna need a towel. Ye can hing yer hauns oot the windae’. “I replied, ‘It’s jist as well Ah’m no’ haein’ a bath’.”  

It was clear Beattie’s act had family appeal, although his own family life was far from traditional. Daughter Maureen (who would become an actress) was born in County Donegal where her father was touring.)

Beattie’s career however maintained an upward trajectory. He went on to become a favourite panto dame and he adored working alongside stellar performers such as Jimmy Logan and Duncan Macrae. “I had seen Macrae work at the Citizens and he was quite something. You idolised someone like that.”

Never a man to ignore a charity requests, Beattie devised (with Rikki Fulton) and starred in the Glasgow Empire’s Farewell Variety Show, on March 31, 1963.

And over the years, Beattie appeared in TV dramas such as Taggart, and acted alongside Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly in the 1990 film The Big Man. It was no real surprise to the world of performance when Beattie was awarded the MBE in the 2007 for services to entertainment.

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HeraldScotland: With his actress daughter Maureen Beattie in the 1980sWith his actress daughter Maureen Beattie in the 1980s

What those who knew him well believed, however, was that if the Govan man ever suffered from bouts of hubris they were rare. Beattie was always quick to point out the ridiculous oscillations which beset a showbusiness career. He would laugh about appearing on stage in New York – and a miner’s club in Fife, all in the same week, remembered later in the title of his retrospective show entitled From Broadway to Cowdenbeath.

Yet, while Beattie became one of the most popular performers in Scotland, the public really knew little of him. The comedian often talked of writing his autobiography, using the same title. But he never followed it through. Perhaps it was because he was too nice a man to tell tales outside of school. (The revelation he didn’t enjoy being on stage with legendary upstager Chic Murray had to be crowbarred out of him.)  

Had he written the book Beattie could have expanded on how he came to be asked to write Ronald Regan’s speech on a visit to Scotland. He could have talked more about his friendships with the likes of Rikki Fulton.  

But Beattie wasn’t keen on exposition, and he realised that writing memoirs demands laying your life on the lines. He was also aware he would have had to expand on details of his split in 1982 from the wife he adored. “I couldn’t understand the split all,” he later admitted, in a rare moment of revelation. “Kitty  had her own modelling business so I guess she was used to being independent with me being away.” He added; in deeply sad voice: “I missed my kids growing up.”  

If he had written his autobiography Beattie knew he would have had to chronicle the tragic irony in his relationship. When Kitty Lamont died, the hurt was made all the more acute given the couple were on the verge of rekindling the relationship.  “We still saw each other after we split. We tried to make it work again. At one point we looked at a big house around the corner.”

But Johnny Beattie did open up a little in our chat about life after Kitty. “It was almost impossible,” he said, through thin, quivering lips.  “And you want to know the hardest time for me when I lost her? It was going on stage. I had to go on and do my turn every night and be funny. Yet, I was shattered. I really don’t know how I got through it.”  

Sadly, he didn’t find love again. “Kitty was the real McCoy.”

Work, however, offered a focus. Indeed, Beattie loved his stints on Scotch and Wry and Rab C Nesbitt and certainly delighted in his 13 year stint in BBC soap River City, playing Malcolm Hamilton.

He still loved his stage appearances. He wallowed in the applause, achieved in the likes of his starring role in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.  But did he have any career regrets? Just one. “I wish I had done more straight plays,” he admitted, envying his pal Jimmy Logan’s performance in John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Rikki Fulton’s Moliere-adapted A Wee Touch of Class. 

Did he regret not earning the astonishing amounts picked up by the likes of Kevin Bridges? “Good luck to him,” he said with a generous smile.

During a chat just a few years ago we spoke of the legions of comedians who had dark personalities; Hancock, Cooper and Connolly, for example. I asked (the impossible question) if he’d had a darker personality, more, more edgy, would he have been more successful as a comedian? “Perhaps,” he mused, politely running with the abstract thought. “But I wouldn’t have lasted as long.”

It says a great deal wheny Beattie’s most “controversial” moment on stage came in 1973. Britain had just entered the EU, and while starring in panto Beattie changed the song sheet – to have the audience sing Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Aff the Bus – in German.

The truth is Johnny Beattie didn’t want to be a darker person. He wanted to remain the nice guy that he was who would play a part in creating a nicer world for people to enjoy.  

“And he managed that,” says showusiness legend and chum Stanley Baxter. “He was a very good comic about whom no one in the business had a bad word to say.”

Johnny Beattie is survived by daughters Maureen and Louise and sons Mark and Paul.