Peter Kelly

Born: October 1, 1941;

Died: March 14 2024

Peter Kelly, who has died aged 82, was an actor of sophistication, sensitivity and boundless wit, who went from his early forays on stage as a teenager to become an elder statesman of Scotland’s theatre fraternity. In-between, Kelly became an integral part of the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow’s loose knit 1970s ensemble. He also appeared at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in the premieres of Tom McGrath’s Jimmy Boyle inspired play, The Hardman (1977), and new works by C.P. Taylor.

Kelly performed in a succession of musical revues, devised with novelist and playwright Archie Hind. These included a solo turn in I am Cabaret, in which Kelly played a version of Kander and Ebb’s Emcee character, who he would later play in the musical itself. There were stints as a TV and radio presenter, and Kelly became one of the finest dames in pantomime, first at the Citz, then at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, working alongside the likes of Jimmy Logan.

Latterly Kelly appeared in several shows by the Glasgow-based theatre company, Vanishing Point, touring the world with the company’s production of Interiors (2009-2022). Kelly was an explorer in every way, whose travels took him across the globe, while his career on stage, TV and film took him on myriad artistic adventures over more than half a century.

Peter Kelly was born in Glasgow, one of three children with his sister Jean and brother Ian to Elizabeth (nee Pencovitch) and Patrick Kelly, a chef at the Whitehall restaurant. He grew up in Maryhill before the family moved to Priesthill, where he developed a love of song from his mother, and a yearning for the world beyond from endless trips to the cinema. His love of music came from learning piano after sitting in on his sister’s lessons.

Kelly went to St. Charles’ Primary School in Kelvinside Gardens, then to Holyrood Secondary School. By the time he was a teenager he already had dreams of stardom. Encouraged by a classmate, he visited Morrison’s Theatrical Agents, and quickly found himself sharing bills with comedians and jugglers singing at afternoon concerts for pensioners.

By the time he was 17, Kelly was living in London, where he saw Liberace and Judy Garland perform live. Bit parts on TV and rep seasons in Carlisle and Cheltenham followed. In 1962 he was cast in the world premiere of Arnold Wesker’s play, Chips with Everything, first at the Royal Court, then on the West End.

Returning to Scotland, Kelly gravitated towards the Citizens Theatre, then under the artistic directorship of Michael Blakemore, and appeared in Hugh Leonard’s stage version of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Kelly also worked extensively at the Citz’s studio club space, The Close, where he appeared in Charles Dyer’s Rattle of a Simple Man and Moliere’s School for Wives.

Kelly co-devised a late night show based around the songs of Rodgers and Hart, and a season of fact-based dramas. These included one about Red Clydeside that featured musical accompaniment from folk singer Matt McGinn and the Humblebums, featuring Billy Connolly.

Kelly also appeared on TV in plays produced by STV, and presented a series called Contrast, introducing a compendium of interviews, sketches and songs based around the virtues and follies of the human race.

Kelly joined Iain Cuthbertson’s company for a season of Scottish plays at Perth Theatre, and presented another STV programme, Look, there goes baby!, a ten-part educational series on how to make home movies. The programme also enlisted what aimed to be a typical family to embark on their own filming. The family came in the form of comedian Johnnie Beattie, his wife Kitty, and their daughters Maureen and Louise, both of whom went on to become actors.

At the Citz, Kelly appeared in the premiere of C.P. Taylor’s play, Bread and Butter (1966). With Archie Hind, Kelly devised a late night revue, Hindsight. This was followed by several more collaborations with Hind, which played on the Edinburgh Fringe and the Clyde Fair International.

Kelly’s first film appearance came in John Dexter’s version of Leslie Thomas’s novel, The Virgin Soldiers (1969), which saw him spend several months filming in Malaya.

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On BBC Radio Scotland, Kelly joined its magazine programme, 12 Noon, playing the part of Simon, a trendy young Glaswegian reporting on ‘cool’ things to do in the city. In 1971 he was invited by Giles Havergal at the Citz to play the dame in Puss in Boots. One review described Kelly’s turn as Mrs Muffin as being ‘like a pint sized Lauren Bacall with a Glasgow accent’.

Kelly continued at the Citz in Robert David MacDonald’s production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, then to the Traverse with a double bill of C.P. Taylor plays, Allergy (1973) and Next Year in Tel Aviv (1973). Back at the Citz, Kelly appeared in Camille, and Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, and for Arthur Kopit’s play, Indians, learnt to ride to play Buffalo Bill. In Philip Prowse’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, Kelly played Disco, a character not in Williams’ original, which he played as a hunchbacked, club-footed waiter serving drinks from an old pram.

At the Traverse, Kelly caused a sensation in The Hardman, playing the incarcerated killer based on Jimmy Boyle. Kelly visited Boyle in Barlinnie, and the two kept up a correspondence. The play transferred to the ICA in London before a run at Glasgow Pavilion. A radio version saw Kelly nominated for a Pye radio best actor award.

Also at the Traverse, Kelly appeared in the premieres of two more plays by C.P. Taylor, Getting By and Going Home, presented together as Walter. Kelly played Emcee in Cabaret in Watford, and during the Pavilion run of The Hardman filmed a scene with Harvey Keitel for Bertrand Tavernier’s Glasgow set film, Death Watch (1980).

With the Traverse, Kelly was cast in Animal (1981), a new large-scale play by Tom McGrath, in which a cast of 16 played apes. Kelly played Spike, an aggressive leader of the pack.

Walter was produced for BBC Radio Four, and Kelly went on to play the title role of Macbeth for Radio Three. At the Traverse, Kelly appeared in Marcella Evaristi’s play, Hard to Get, directed by Michael Boyd, with whom Kelly would later work at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

At the Citz he played the dame once more in a new version of Babes in the Wood by John Byrne. On television, Kelly appeared in The House with the Green Shutters (1980), and in The Amazing Miss Stella Estelle (1984), the last ever edition of Play for Today. The same year, Kelly played Prokofiev in Masterclass at the Old Vic in London

For several years Kelly lived in Italy. On returning to Scotland he went on to appear in John Byrne’s new version of The Government Inspector (1997) at the Almeida. At the RSC, he was Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2001), and also appeared in Antony & Cleopatra and Timon of Athens. He appeared in new musical The Sundowe, and John Bett’s new adaptation of Para Handy (2011) at Eden Court, Inverness. At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh he appeared in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (2012), and at the Citz, in a 2016 production of Endgame.

Kelly teamed up with Vanishing Point for a revival of Interiors, and ended up taking part in tours of the play that visited South America, China, South Korea and Europe. He also appeared in Vanishing Point’s productions of Tomorrow (2014-16), and The Dark Carnival (2019), and became a company associate, providing a voice of wisdom and experience to proceedings.

One of Kelly’s final performances was for the National Theatre of Scotland, when he gave an online rendition of Strawberries (2020), one of the late Edwin Morgan’s most intimate poems. Strawberries spoke of love and passion, and Kelly’s tender embodiment of Morgan’s words evoked a rich and colourful life that reflected Kelly’s own. Kelly was a maestro who relished every moment on stage, where he gave his all.

Kelly is survived by his sister Jean, his brother Ian, and his nieces, Mags, Liz, Sharon, and Michele, and his nephew, John.