AS with so many things in life, it started with a phone call.
In July 2012, I was directing a Fringe production called And They Played Shang-a-lang.
Despite the title, it had nothing to do with the Bay City Rollers other than that, during a scene set in a youth club, the DJ played Shang-a-lang. Cue a big musical number.
As opening night approached, the producer asked if I knew a celebrity we could invite along.
One sprung to mind, Alan Longmuir, co-founder (with his brother Derek), of the biggest band ever to come out of Scotland.
Which is where that phone call comes in. Alan was fresh in my mind as my colleague Sandra Dick had just interviewed him.
I called and asked if she had his number. She did and phoned Alan to see if she could pass it on. He said she could.
I called him and so began a friendship that over the next six years would see Alan return to the stage after a break of nearly 15 years and take us across the Atlantic to Toronto and back, twice.
Alan proved a gracious guest when he arrived with his wife Eileen for that opening night.
Quietly spoken, he had to be persuaded to sit in the front row seats reserved for them. Reluctantly he acquiesced, although it was clear he’d rather be hiding at the back, out of the limelight.
It was hard to believe this was a man who once had a generation of fans screaming for him wherever he went, not just here but in America, Japan and all over Europe.
At the end of the performance something incredible happened. As the audience was leaving, a man in his late-50s approached Alan.
“I’m really sorry to bother you mate, but my wife was a big fan of yours back in the day, would you say hello to her?”
“Of course,” replied Alan. The man called to his wife who came shyly towards Alan and then promptly burst into tears, much to her husband’s embarrassment.
“Oh, come on hen,” he said, apologising to Alan, “Sorry about this pal.”
“It’s fine,” said Alan putting an arm around her shoulders as she dried her eyes and smiled for a photo. In seconds he had put her at her ease.
That was the moment I understood not just the power of Rollermania, but the sheer charm and grace of the man who had started the tartan phenomenon known as Rollermania.
Afterwards, we chatted over a pint or two. By the time he had to leave for his train a couple of hours later, I felt like I’d known him for years.
He’d shared tales of that day’s plumbing job alongside memories from when he topped the charts.
When I broached the subject of a possible play, he simply replied, “It’s been done before, “they never really work.”
He also made it clear he had no intention of ever getting back on a stage: “Couldn’t do that now at my age,” he said, “those days are long gone.”
Over the next couple of years we kept in touch, catching up whenever he and Eileen were in town. Each time, I’d ask if he’d changed his mind. Each time he’d laugh it off.
Fast forward to 2014, a few weeks before the Fringe.
Local publican and hotelier Billy Lowe needed a show for Le Monde Hotel, which he owned at the time. He wondered if I’d write something for him.
“What if I can get you a Bay City Roller, and not just any Roller, but the original Bay City Roller?” I asked.
“If you can do that, I’ll produce it!” said Billy.
Another phone call. Alan had recently retired. Maybe he’d be at a loose end and say yes this time.
“It’s now or never,” I told him, we have a producer and a venue and we’re ready to go but there’s very little time to pull it all together.”
Again, he said “No”.
Then he called back and said, “I’m in.”
He’d spoken to Eileen who had told him: ‘If you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it... and it’ll get you out from under my feet.”
He later admitted to me Eileen had given him “the boot up the ar*e” he had needed.
Eileen, as I discovered fairly early on, was the love of his life.
The pair were almost inseparable and laughed a lot.
They were loved equally by the fans and I can not honestly imagine a better matched couple. Both down to earth with no airs or graces, they proved the perfect double act. Alan obviously doted on her. I can’t imagine how Eileen is feeling now and my heart breaks for her.
Ten days after telling me he was “in”, Alan and I sat in the Theatre Royal Bar at the top of Leith Walk in Edinburgh recording his life story on my phone.
The first draft of the script that resulted was called And I Ran With The Gang.
It was completed just five hours before it had to be delivered to the production’s director Wendy Seager for the first day of rehearsal.
Now, there is nothing more nerve-wracking than hearing any play coming off the page as the actors read their lines for the first time, multiply that by million when the subject of the play is a pop legend who happens to be sitting in the room.
Looking back, Alan was more nervous than any of us. He was bemused to find himself back in the spotlight after 14 years plying his trade.
“I’m just a plumber from Edinburgh,” he would say over and over after the play had opened. “I can’t believe this is all happening again. I’m a grandad now.”
On the opening night, a packed house roared their approval as he walked up the aisle and on to the stage.
Moments before he’d been shaking with nerves and pacing the floor.
When the lights hit him, he smiled that bashful smile and every tartan-clad woman of a certain age in the audience became a teenager again.
The love in the room for him was staggering and at the end of that first night he spent another couple of hours greeting everyone as they left the venue, signing autographs, chatting and posing for selfies.
Alan loved his fans, though was less keen on what he called “his fannies” – the ones who impinged on his privacy.
Despite the fact that many stars now make a lot of money from photos and autographs, he was horrified at the thought of charging.
“Without these women, the Rollers would never have happened. They made us what we were, why would I want to charge them?” he’d say.
Over the four years we did I Ran With The Gang at the Fringe, Alan remained amazed that people still wanted to come and see him.
Many flew in from as far away as Australia, Canada, the USA, Japan as well as all parts of Europe. There were also many old faces from Dalry, where it all started.
When, in 2015, a message arrived from a Canadian fan called Kat Connor asking if we’d like to take I Ran With The Gang to North America, Alan was gobsmacked and adopted his long-held mantra, “I’ll go with the flow...” Which is how we ended up in Toronto.
A one-night gig as part of a fan celebration, they flew the entire company out for week during which Alan was in great demand.
He was interviewed on every radio station in the area and even appeared on Ontario’s Breakfast TV show. By popular demand we returned again in 2016.
Every afternoon, at 3pm, Alan and I would meet outside the hotel where we were staying to indulge our mutual love of hot dogs, bought from a street vendor and smothered in every conceivable topping.
It became a tradition. No fine dining and posh hostelries for Alan, he was always at his most comfortable sitting quietly in a local bar, having a pint, watching the world go by.
In Edinburgh, that bar was Ryries at Haymarket. Having a pint in Ryries was something he’d done since being an apprentice plumber in Dalry.
He’d tell me tales of how his dad would stand with his mates at one end of the bar and send pints down to the young Alan, who stood with his apprentice plumber pals at the other end.
Alan’s stories were legion, always funny and never malicious. They were told with a self-deprecation that endeared him to everyone.
One of the most gentle, generous and kind-hearted people I’ve ever known, he touched the lives of everyone he met with his smile and the twinkle in his eye that made them feel special.
Theatre companies, like pop groups, are like families.
In a business where you are in the public glare every night, everyone becomes very close and protective of each other.
Alan and Eileen were the “mum and dad” of the I Ran With The Gang family, affectionately known as Shang’s Gang.
We nicked that from the regulars in Alan’s Bannockburn local, McQ’s, where his nickname was Auld Shang and where fans often turned up for a chat.
Over the years, Alan would phone at random hours for a blether that always ended up with a thank you. “I still can’t quite believe everything we’ve done. I never thought any of this would happen to me again. Thank you.”
Actually, it’s I who should thank Alan, not just for trusting me to tell his story but for allowing me to become a part of his life, both as a pop star and a plumber (retired) from Edinburgh.
He once told me that during the Fringe he liked nothing better than sitting beneath the 10ft image of himself that hung outside Le Monde, pint in his hand, cap pulled down, as he read his paper.
He’d secretly watch and listen as people pointed to the poster and talked about him, oblivious to the fact he was right there beside them.
It made him chuckle.
I hope that’s exactly what he’s doing now. Looking down, having a chuckle at all the fuss.
Miss you pal.