Back in the 1950s, when I was a young feller me lad, I used to go on holiday with a great friend. We only knew the general direction we wanted to go in, but we set off in his llittle Standard 8 and took pot luck. In the West Country we had an argument with the landlord of a pub in Totnes who wouldn’t serve us cider as it was “too strong for us”. In the West of Ireland we were mistaken for priests, and were also attacked by a goose which was guarding the door of a house on the main street of Clifden. A favourite destination was Scotland, and it was on one of these jaunts that we discovered Inverness Empire. It wasn’t in pristine condition, and by its shape it had been a cinema at one time. But it ran a Summer Show each year, with a weekly change of programme. Heading the cast was veteran comedian Dave Willis, then sort of semi retired. He could still deliver the goods, even if some of his material wasn’t the freshest. (He was the father of Denny Willis, whose classic sketch “The fox has left his lair” is a masterpiece of timing and has been often seen on T.V.) There was also Billy Bowers, a good accordionist – all Scottish shows seemed to have one. Still it’s better than the bagpipes. There was a 7 piece band and a good supporting cast.
On the way home we stopped for the night in Workington, and discovered that the Opera house was running variety, headed by those two Chelsea Pensioners, Morris & Cowley, always good for a lot of laughs. Also on the bill was a little comic often seen in revues, Jimmy Charters. He turned out to be staying in the same hotel as us, and when he discovered we were heading to Yorkshire begged a lift as he was working in Leeds at the City Varieties the following week. He entertained us well all the way home, and enthused about a sketch he had often worked in called “The Musical Breach of Promise”. I noticed he had a fistful of cards with him, addressed to clubs, letting them know he was in the area. I don’t know [f they resulted in any bookings, but it’s sad to relate that poor Jimmy passed away a few months later.
Ralph and I both got married and went our separate ways, but always kept in touch until he died three years ago. Sheila and I visited Scotland several times, and started off big with “Five Past Eight” at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, a lavish production starring Rikki Fulton and Janet Brown. We next went a little downmarket to the Tivoli in Aberdeen for Johnnie Beattie in “Whirl of Laughter”. Reasonable if not imspiring, with not one accordionist but three of them, and the row of seats we were sitting in didn’t seem to be properly fastened down. Then it was up to Inverness again, where the headliner was young Andy Stewart, a real comedy “find”, though the B.B.C. might not have been so happy to use him in their annual Hogmanay jolly if they had heard some of his “Bothy Ballads”.
Another year a visit to Inverness had Donald Peers billed as top attraction, but he did not appear. In his place was a young Irish comedian virtually unknown over here – Frank Carson. He did well enough, though he was more subdued in those days. It never occurred to me that he would later attain the fame he has.
When we went back again some years later the Empire had gone, but in the town we found a show in what I can only describe as a cabaret room. It was well produced and beautifully dressed. I don’t think there was a programme. If there was I’ve lost it. The principal comedian certainly impressed me, a one-off, Johnny Bogan, very soft spoken as Highlanders often are, and very, very sharp and clever. He came from the Black Isle and was well known in the area. As one might expect, there was an accordionist featured, Raymond Chuchuk. He was brilliant, and had won awards galore. Not long ago, my wife and I were on our way to Shetland, and stayed at a hotel near Inverness. And there, providing the entertainment was Raymond Chuchuk. I had quite a chat with him, and he said that Johnny Bogan was still around, but was cutting his dates down to take things a bit easier following a heart attack.