Obituary: Andy Gray, Scots actor who became panto legend
For 16 winters Andy Gray had appeared in the pantomime at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, playing, as he put it, “the idiot” in such perennial favourites as Aladdin and Cinderella. But after contracting a rare form of leukaemia he underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant and was forced to miss the 2018 production of Beauty and the Beast.
He did, however, make a brief appearance on stage one night, prompting the audience to rise to their feet to applaud an entertainer who Nicola Sturgeon this week described as a “legend” and who originally established himself with a nationwide audience in the 1980s in Naked Radio and the television shows Naked Video and City Lights. More recently he was a regular in River City.
On the stage at the King’s that night regular co-stars Grant Stott and Allan Stewart were in tears, along with many of the audience. Clear of cancer, he made a “triumphant return” the following year in the role of Andy McReekie in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
“Few could have expected just how warm and joyous that return would be, as he stepped out from behind a wall of pink feather fans to announce in his warm, lugubrious tones that he has been “no very well,” said the review in The Stage.
“We are part of the end-of-the-year celebrations for a lot of people,” Gray said in a YouTube interview in the Scottish Memories series last August. “We are a bit like the Christmas log fire and the Christmas tree and the selection box. And there’s us… The Edinburgh audience are just wonderful. They are so loyal.”
A genuinely popular figure in Scottish showbiz, Gray was looking forward to this winter’s panto and had been working on a Fringe production, which would have starred him and Stott. Entitled Chemo Savvy, it was about two brothers and would have drawn on his recent experience of chemotherapy. He treated being ill like a role in a play, creating the character of Cancer Boy – he was a big fan of Batman, superheroes and villains. But both productions were postponed because of the pandemic. Gray had been shielding through the worst of it, but contracted Covid-19 on a work trip to Milton Keynes in November and died in hospital in Dundee after two weeks on a ventilator.
Although he became an Edinburgh institution, many people assumed he was from Glasgow. His character of Chancer on City Lights embodied a certain Glasgow personality, with a market stall on Sundays, a scrap metal business during the week, regular trips to sign on at the dole and definitely no time for a more regular job.
A quarter of a century after the final series of City Lights, people would still greet him in the street with “You alright Chancer?”, such was the enduring popularity of the character. Fans would engage him in conversation and then ask the big question: “Are you Celtic or Rangers?” It prompted some confusion when he revealed he was a St Johnstone fan.
He was born Andrew Dennis Gray in 1959 in Perth, where his father owned and ran a kilt shop. Gray said that helping out in the shop and listening to the banter between his father, grandfather and customers provided the foundation for his own comedy.
When he saw his first pantomime at Perth Theatre he decided that that was what he wanted to do for a living. “Any ideas of playing Hamlet or James Bond or anything went out the window,” he said. “I wanted to be the idiot in panto.”
He attended St John’s Primary, St Columba’s Secondary and Perth Academy and studied Drama at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh. He began his acting career with Perth Theatre before establishing himself as part of a group of Scottish comic actors, including Elaine C Smith and Gregor Fisher, who made their mark in Naked Radio, Naked Video and other shows produced by BBC Scotland’s Comedy Unit in the 1980s.
City Lights ran for six series between 1986 and 1991. As well as Naked Video and City Lights, Gray had a recurring role in the comedy-drama series Two Thousand Acres of Sky and turned up in guest roles in Taggart, Rab C Nesbitt and many other series.
More recently he played another lovable rascal, the would-be rock star Pete Galloway on BBC Scotland soap River City.
Gray also did a lot of theatre, beyond panto, and was a regular on the Edinburgh Fringe, often working with Grant Stott. They would subsequently tour their shows around Scotland and Gray enjoyed the chance to visit so many different towns. But he remained passionate about panto and he, Stewart and Stott formed a particularly close team. He and Stewart shared a running off-stage joke. Stewart enjoyed a Tunnock’s teacake at the interval and at the end of each run would dump the wrappers in the dressing room of the fastidiously tidy Gray, who in turn would keep them in storage at the theatre and return them the following year.
When Gray had to miss a year because of his cancer treatment, he sent Stewart a box of teacakes made by the famous old Scottish company.
Gray took a great pride in his country, he enjoyed the countryside and was a passionate supporter of Scottish independence. Although he had periods living in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, he returned to his native Perthshire and most recently had been living in Scone.
In 1987 he married Annie McCredie, a stage manager, and they had one child. They separated ten years later, though they remained close. He is survived by his partner Tamara Kennedy and daughter Clare, both of whom are actresses, and also by his granddaughter Anna.