'The NHS saved my life... they are f***ing brilliant' - Edinburgh panto legend Andy Gray on his cancer battle
THE out-pouring of love that greeted Andy Gray when he made a surprise appearance on stage at a performance of last year’s King’s panto was unconditional.
It took the actor, who not long before had been given the news that without a bone-marrow transplant he had only two and half years to live, completely by surprise and left his panto co-stars, Allan Stewart and Grant Stott in tears.
Sitting in the Empire Room of the Festival Theatre, after his first full day of rehearsals for his 17th King’s panto, Andy, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2018, is back after a year away, looking leaner and in fine fettle.
“I wasn’t all that great that night,” he recalls, “Just before I was due to see the show, I was taken in to hospital for two or three nights with an infection. I was petrified I’d miss the show but got out the day before. I loved watching the panto and when I went down to the wings I didn’t really think about it. I was just excited to be there. It wasn’t until I stepped on stage and got that reaction that I thought, ‘Oh, my god...’ At the very same time I realised how much I had missed being there.”
Andy was greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation, which left him visibly moved. “It was lovely. I don’t think you ever realise just how much love is out there until something like that happens. It was overwhelming.”
It was in July 2018 that Andy, who turned 60 earlier this year, was given the devastating news that he had cancer. Having felt tired for sometime and suffering from shortness of breath, it was an outbreak of psoriasis that finally convinced him to see his doctor.
He reflects, “In Cinderella, the previous year, we did the wall routine which I had done twice before.”
The slapstick routine involved Andy, Allan and principal girl Gillian Parkhouse, falling backwards off a wall onto crash mats.
“When you do it twice a day it usually gets easier and easier as the run goes on,” explains Andy, “but that year, it was never getting easier. Allan and Gillian were up and away back to their dressing rooma and I was still lying there trying to get my breath back - I knew there was something up.”
Describing it as “complete fatigue,” he says, “It’s like, you go for a nap but when you wake up you’re just as tired.
“I kept falling asleep. I was tired all the time.”
He remembers, “It was that lovely summer and I’d just moved to a house with a lovely garden. I’d sit in the garden but then have to go in for a nap. I just assumed that, because we’d not had such lovely weather in Scotland for a long time, that I had heat stroke because I wasn’t covering my baldy head.Then I got psoriasis on my legs... it was itchy, a nightmare, I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the doctor.”
Blood tests revealed something was wrong, though not exactly what.
“The psoriasis was a warning, it was my body reacting to the cancer,” he says, not that he was aware of that at the time. More blood tests followed.
“I’d actually delayed a blood test because of rehearsals for the Fringe. Then they phoned to say they needed another one... the roller-coaster had started, but you’re not really thinking that at the end of it they are going to say you’ve got blood cancer.”
A bone-marrow biopsy came next after which Andy was called in for a chat.
“I was told I had Myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of leukemia... I was very calm. I was going, ‘Right, right, yes... is that a fact?’ and then I asked, ‘What about work?’
“The Doctor said, ‘I don’t think you can work.’
“I was like, ‘Oh. Okay, fine.’
Eventually, the Doctor said, ‘I must admit Andy, you are being very stoic about this.’
“I said, ‘I am just now because I’m concentrating on what you are saying... but I guarantee that when I get outside, I won’t be. As soon as I got outside that was it...”
Immediately the actor, who plays Pete Galloway in River City, told his partner Tamara, his sisters, family and close friends and producers.
“When you have to say it, it becomes real. I didn’t know what was going to happen, only that I was under the doctor’s treatment. So you get very pragmatic, strangely pragmatic.”
The news, he admits, made him face his own mortality to a degree. You don’t expect something like this. My mum, my dad, my friend Gerard Kelly all crossed my mind, people that I’ve lost, but in the end my reaction was more prosaic, I was just going to do what I was told.”
As Andy became more and more ill, he had to factor chemo and ultimately the bone-marrow transplant into the equation and he reveals that he approached his illness as he would any other role, creating a character to help him through. Knowing his love of Batman and his wicked sense of humour, it comes as no surprise to learn that character was called, Cancer Boy.
“I took it as a role. I was now someone who had a disease that had to be treated.”
His sense of humour proved an important part of his recovery too, laughing, he recalls, “Whenever I made a mistake and Tamara picked me up for it, I would say, ‘I’ve got cancer, you know.’ My warped sense of humour certainly helped me get through it. I would joke about it and still do, humour is a big help and keeping a healthy disregard for it was an essential thing.”
The humour is still evident as he continues his story, “When they pinpointed that my treatment should be a bone-marrow transplant, they found a donor in my sister who was 100% match, a very lucky thing that doesn’t usually happen." He quips with a grin, “My other sister, for example, was only a 50% match, so she only got half her Christmas presents.” Before the transplant, however, there were two bouts of chemo to get through. “I knew I was getting more and more ill when they started looking at my bloods and saying, ‘We need to transfuse you’ and then they needed to transfuse me more and more regularly.”
Despite “feeling sh*t” much of the time, Andy had Christmas to look forward to and while his panto pals were on stage in Beauty and the Beast, he was with his family.
“My first Christmas off for years, I had my sisters there and my grand-daughter and daughter came up. It was a great, really nice, although I was knackered and just collapsed after Christmas until the New Year and beyond - I had no energy at all.”
The transplant earlier this year, changed all that and Andy is keen to pay credit to those who looked after him.
“Throughout, I was in such good care. I have always been a supporter of the NHS but my god they are f***ing brilliant. The medical staff, the care assistants, the cleaners... the cleaners saved my life in isolation because they came to chat every day. There is no doubt about it, the NHS saved my life and I’ll tell you, my treatment - two bouts of chemo and two and a half month stay in hospital for the transplant - would have cost a couple of a million dollars in America."
Thanks to the NHS, today Andy is much better and looking forward to being back in pantoland in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
“My hospital appointments are getting fewer - they were every week, but now it’s every four weeks,” he reveals.
“I’m still on lots of meds and have what I call ‘little niggles’ as my body adjusts to the transplant and I’m getting all my jags again,” he says, chuckling, “So this year, I can genuinely say ‘Oh ma BCG’ when Allan bumps my arm.”
“Actually, I was really nervous before my first day back. I had the clinic first and at the back of my mind was, ‘What if they’ve found something and say that I can’t go back?’
“But my blood count had gone up, so yesterday I was as high as a kite and when Allan and I got up to do a routine, it was just like I’d never been away. That is what I have missed.”
He thinks for a moment before he adds, “I don’t want to get all thingy and emotional because my emotions are very high just now, but if it wasn’t for the people that I work with and the people who are our audience, I don’t think I would have had a goal to get better. To get back to do the panto this year has been my goal since before the chemo and the transplant, that is because of the pull of the wonderful audiences at the King’s.”
His voice cracking, he reflects, “I’ve said this about my partner, my daughter and my granddaughter, it’s quite literally a reason to live, and basically, for me, it has been. I’m lucky because I’ve got this to do.”
Goldilocks and the Three Bears opens at the King’s Theatre on Saturday 30 November