Haldane Duncan Part 9: Chic Murray Remembered 

19 October 2006 tbs.pm/2305

Chic Murray

Charles Thomas McKinnon Murray
(6 November 1919 – 29 January 1985)

Haldane Duncan remembers perhaps the most original comic talent ever to have emerged from Scotland.

Walking up Byres Road one brisk Glasgow morning, Chic Murray happened on one Finlay Welsh, a well kent actor. “Well, how are you today?” inquired Chic.”Not bad,” replied Finlay and they continued to pass the time of day. As people do, they had talked about this and that, and as Chic was a party to the the conversation it would obviously be mostly this. During their discourse a small girl, dressed in her white confirmation dress, passed by with her family. Chic broke off the conversation, looked at the girl, turned back to Finlay and said, “It may be just me, but they seem to be getting married younger these days.”

Perhaps the most original comic talent ever to have emerged from Scotland was in his element. Chic lived in a world of comedy, much the same as Superheroes live in the world of Gotham City. It didn’t matter whether he was on stage or off – comedy was comedy as far as Chic was concerned, where the laugh was king. Revelling in the real life sketch, Chic looked at his watch and said, “Oh, by the way Finlay, when we met just now, was I coming down Byres Road or was I going up?” “Well, as I’m on my way up to the BBC to do a voiceover, you must have been coming down.” “Oh that’s good,” said Chic, “I’ll have had my lunch then.”

Chic will be remembered more with a glass in his hand than with a knife and fork, but food does seem to have been involved in the world of Chic Murray. He often utilised the Glasgow Underground in the days when they had a woman stand on the platform to collect the tickets from the passengers alighting at each station. Waiting for a train one day, he spotted a wee dumpy woman on duty on the platform at Hillhead station in Byres Road and inquired, “Excuse me Madame.” I’m sure that if she had been a New York ticket collector she would have told him, “First of all I ain’t a Madame”. But as this was Glasgow in the late 60’s, all he got was, “Whit?” “I was wondering if the next train ran a restaurant car,” inquired Chic. Nonplussed, the wee ticket collector looked at him and gave him another “Whit?” “The next train – does it have a restaurant car – you know, a buffet – somewhere where one can partake of a refreshment – a meal perchance?” This enticed an even more doubtful, but equally short retort, “Naw”. “Why not?” returned the baffled Chic. “Cos it’s a train, that’s why. It’s just a train. We dinnae serve food on oor trains.” “You mean I’ve got to starve all the way to Merkland Street?” retorted the incredulous Chic.

The reporter Tom Grant was staying in Aviemore covering the CBI conference for the Daily Record and came down for breakfast to find Chic sitting by his own and, knowing him of old, asked if he could join him. The waiter took Tom’s order of the full fry up: bacon, sausage, black pudding and two fried eggs. Chic shook his head disapprovingly and asked if the waiter could provide him with some marmalade to accompany his delicious brown bread. The waiter returned with one of those ubiquitous plastic, individually wrapped containers but, in this case, not of marmalade. As he placed a portion of honey in front of Chic, he apologised, “I’m sorry Sir: we seem to be out of marmalade, but can I offer you this beautiful Aviemore honey?” Chic looked at Tom and with a resigned look, turned to the waiter and said, “I see you keep a bee!”

At Firhill, the home of Partick Thistle, Glasgows’ “other” football team, half time had arrived. Chic spotted what must have been the Hillhead ticket collector’s sister, another wee woman. Only this one wasn’t quite so wee and had a face like a torn accordion. Polite as ever, he inquired as to what selection she had on offer, by way of refreshments. Now this woman had not been to the charm school to which the Transport Department sent its staff. This woman only dealt with football supporters. “We’ve only got pies and Bovril,” she growled. Slightly taken aback, Chic asked, “Well, perhaps you could then give me a pie and a cup of Bovril, and while you’re at it , a kind word wouldn’t go amiss.” She gave him a look. You know, one of yon looks, as she handed him the pie. “That’s yer pie – a shullin’, and that’s yer Bovril – suxpunce” “And what about the kind word?” inquired Chic. “Don’t eat the pie,” was her helpful suggestion.

Chic was one of those rare old time comedians who wrote his own material and, as I’ve said, led his life as just one big comic sketch. I was amazed the first time I worked with him. Iain MacFadyen, BBC-Scotland’s Head of Light Entertainment, had invited him to appear on ‘The Lena Martell Show’ and had asked him to do some of his early material – the vintage, “I opened the door – it saved me knocking down the wall,” type of thing.

The problem was, Chic couldn’t remember any of it. Fortunately, one of the Assistant Producers in the department, Ian Christie, had a tape of an early radio broadcast. Ian has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish show business and a hoarder of ‘Burrell’ proportions. When Stanley Baxter first returned to BBC Scotland in the late sixties, Ian thought he would make him welcome by putting an old “Five-Past-Eight” poster up on the back of the door.

Stanley had co-starred in this Glasgow Alhambra Spectacular along with his ex- “It’s All Yours” radio partner Jimmy Logan. Ian waited for Stanley’s delighted response to this reminder of one of his great triumphs, only to be shocked when Stanley erupted and ripped the poster from the door. Although Ian knew the two radio stars weren’t the best of chums – after all they came from entirely different disciplines, Jimmy from the traditional showbiz Variety family and Stanley from the legitimate stage at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, Ian hadn’t expected his genial gesture to cause such a reaction.

What he didn’t know was that Stanley had only agreed to share the bill with Jimmy on the understanding that he would get Top Billing. This was probably a throwback to the days of “It’s All Yours” when Jimmy was given top credit. When the ‘Five Past Eight’ posters were first issued, with Jimmy top, Stanley went, contract in hand, to the front office and showed them the agreement where he had Top Billing. He told them they’d better get the posters changed forthwith, or there would no show. “No show?” said the management,” There’s no breach of contract. You’ve got Top Billing.”

The one thing he hadn’t asked for, but Jimmy had made sure of and was in his contract, was that he had to be billed Top Left – an example of showbiz knowhow coming before legitimate talent.

When Ian Christie brought in the tapes of early ‘Worker’s Playtimes’ and played them to Chic, he laughed away at the jokes along with the rest of us. It was as if he was listening to another comic. He had genuinely forgotten the set, and spent the rest of the afternoon writing it down to use as his spot on Lena’s show.

Chic worried about appearing on TV and, knowing that he only had a three-minute spot, didn’t want to make a mess of it. I was working as Floor Manager on the show and I was about to cue him for his entrance when I noticed him writing some gags on the back of his hand. I thought, “Comics only do this in daft films, but on the other hand, why not? At least he won’t dry.” But dry he did. We stopped recording and I asked him what went wrong? He told me that he was that nervous, his hands sweated and smudged all his notes.

It wasn’t the only time he dried. The next time was a bit more embarrassing – this time it was live.

We were rehearsing a Hogmanay show, which was to go out live periodically through the evening and then the show itself from 11:30 – we were supposed to be eavesdropped upon by the network, to see how our preparations were getting on. This was looked on as a novel way of “trailing” the forthcoming show. The network could have come over during a tea break or a big sweary match in progress, so obviously these items were rehearsed. For the first “trail”, Chic had the idea that he would appear to be in mid-conversation with the star of “Dr Finlay”, Bill Simpson. Bill was between series of “Finlay” at the time and was sporting a beard.

As we came to a minute to transmission, I called for quiet and gave the count down. Got to “Five… Four…Three…” and gave him the hand signal to start. Nothing. Cued him again. The third time, in desperation I actually said “Cue”. All the time Chic was looking intently into Bill”s eyes. On hearing me, he turned and said, “Is that us?” I nodded and waved my hand like a Dervish on speed. Chic turned back to Bill and nonchalantly continued his so-called conversation, “So, what do you use for razor blades then?” By the time Bill got in his answer, we were off air. Viewers love to see cock-ups, and I’m sure our large audience was due to them tuning in to see if there were going to be any more of the same.

They had to wait several years to get the real treat – Gleneagles. I had left the BBC by then, but by all accounts this was Chic’s worst moment – a proper disaster. It must have been truly bad, as he died for real three weeks later.

The problem, it would appear, was that the BBC had not bought the venue over for their exclusive use. Real people had paid real money to eat, be entertained and bring in the New Year at one of Britain’s top five-star hotels. Wealthy patrons who have come a long way and are looking for a sophisticated and luxurious break, don’t want to be tripping over camera cables, frying under television lights and sharing tables with what to them are red nosed comics. Also, when you go live at Hogmanay, and you rely on ‘real’ people for your audience, you’ve got to realise that they might partake of a wee refreshment or two.

I used this scenario as a basis for a recorded Hogmanay Show for STV. It was set in a fictional Highland Hotel, the ‘Heidrum Hydro’. If you were to view that show at any time other than New Year’s Eve, I’m sure you would find it very funny. But it didn’t work when it was transmitted at midnight on the 31st December 1991. Although the viewers thought it was a genuine cock-up, the real difficulty was that you can’t make comedy out of the genuine emotion people experience at New Year. As the bells chime, a genuine feeling exists and it can not be sent up. This faux pas could not have happened on a live show, because everyone’s instinct would have stopped it, but with a recording, it seemed all right at the time.

Chic was often funnier off stage than on, although, as I’ve said before, you could be excused for confusing the two. While everyone remembers how great he was, let’s not forget that he could be less than good on occasions. These occasions were usually restricted to the television Variety appearances, where he had to condense his act to the allotted two or three minutes .

Talent like his needs room to breathe and, like Billy Connolly, he was particularly good on chat shows. He was memorable on the BBC Saturday tea time show, “Dee Time” with Simon Dee. The not-terribly-good presenter fell into Chic’s trap when he tried to repeat the name of the French Polishers that Chic said he had once worked for: Hunt, Lunt & Cunningham.

Iain MacFadyen decided to televise a Gala Night With The Stars from Her Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, and succeeded in attracting every Scottish star apart from Andy Stewart and Stanley Baxter. I was the Production Assistant on this extravaganza and well remember trying to convince people who were accustomed to the Star Dressing Room that it would be all right to share the dancers’ room two flights up. On the night of the recording I ran ‘the corner’, and when it came to Chic’s spot, the whole of Scottish show business was in the wings waiting to see a triumph or a turkey. He worked on a knife edge, where it could go either way. On this occasion he gave the best television performance I ever saw him give, and I’m sure it was due to the theatrical environment where he was oblivious to cameras and my feeble attempts to wind him up.

The only connection Chic had with Princess Anne, as far as I know, was that in the early 70’s they both drove the same type of car, a Scimitar. Only I’m sure the Princess Royal didn’t drive about with the lingering stink of a pint of milk spilt down between the gear stick and the hand brake. This was the same car that featured in the case of the Crown v Charles Murray. Although in no way addicted, it could be said that Chic was fond of a drink. The drinking, that is – certainly not the paying. It was inevitable that one day day, he would eventually get done for drink-driving, and done he was. As many a man before him, he made a visit to the famous Glasgow lawyer, Joe Beltrami. The plea was not guilty to the charge of being drunk in charge of a vehicle. After all, Mr. Murray was an itinerant entertainer whose car was not only a method of transportation, but served, among other things, as a store for his files and scripts. Therefore on the evening in question, he was not in charge of a vehicle, but merely visiting his office. No need to guess what happened – he got off.

I don’t remember it being part of his stage act, but my favourite Chic gag was when he had gone to the doctor who diagnosed a very rare illness that could only be cured if the patient drank a quantity of fresh mother’s milk. When he got home he asked his mother but she told him not to be daft. However the girl upstairs had just given birth to a wee boy and his mother told him that as her husband was away at sea at the moment he could to go up and ask her nicely and see if she would give him some. The girl was just about to go to bed when he arrived but agreed to his request and with a mischievous smile, invited Chic through to her boudoir. She told him that he couldn’t get it any fresher as she presented her left breast to his lips. He felt a bit awkward but after all he was only following doctor’s orders. Persevering with his medication, he was unaware of the soft moans emitting from his benefactor. She gently pulled his head away from her breast and looked at him and murmured, “Is there anything else I could offer you.” Overwhelmed by her generosity he wiped his lips and shyly said, “Well a wee Abernathy biscuit would be very nice.”

There was a massive attendance for Iain McFadyen’s funeral, and it wasn’t even a case of give the people what they want and they’ll turn out for it. No, it was a major shock. He’d only gone into hospital to get a boil lanced, for heaven’s sake. It wasn’t even a case of one of his pan drops getting stuck in the back of his throat. The shock of Iain’s death affected no one, of course, more than his family. When the funeral service finished, Chic and I, who had been at the back of the congregation, led everyone out to do the usual handshaking bit with the main mourners. When we got to the door, what we witnessed was the convoy of Daimlers disappearing out of the Crematorium. Understandably, the family didn’t want to stand in line and receive what to them would have been a mob of virtual strangers: Iain kept his private and his professional life fairly much apart.

As Chic and I stood wondering what was going to happen next, he said, “Terrible thing, eh? Hell of a sudden too. You know, I took the opportunity to nip into the funeral parlour before I came up here, to pay my personal respects, you know. They had him done up very nice: you know, the blue suit, the Sunday one: I always thought he looked awfully smart in it. Anyway, as I was admiring the layout, my eyes alighted on a small bulge in his right hand jacket pocket”. At this point, Chic took my hand as if to shake it, and held on to it as he said, ” I know how close you two were and I know that he would want you to be a recipient of one of the last fourteen”. He let go of my hand, and lying in the palm was a pan drop.

Chic’s own funeral was something else. There wasn’t the massive turnout that you might have expected, especially as it was held in his home town of Edinburgh. He wasn’t part of a large family and I don’t think they were particularly close.

On one of the many occasions when Chic had gone AWOL on his nomadic travels, he discovered that Iain and I were going through to Edinburgh and cadged a lift from us. As we were driving through he asked if we had ever visited his Hawaiian Bar. This was part of the hotel he ran with his wife Maidie. We hadn’t, so he invited us along. I suspect that this was to ensure a lift to the door.

We arrived just before lunch and he took us through to the bar and called across to a young man behind the bar for service. “Barman, three whiskies please… thank you… how much is that?”. After we sat down, he excused himself and left to go up stairs and freshen up. When he’d gone Iain told me that the barman was his son. Not so much as a, “How’s it going? Your Mother all right?” Only “Barman, three whiskeys please”.

At the funeral, I was at the back of the chapel as the funeral director indicated that we should all rise. I glanced across and noticed that as the coffin passed the end of my row, lying, strangely alone on top of the casket, was Chics’ tartan bunnet. I’d never seen anything like this before at a Scottish funeral and unsuccessfully tried to stifle a laugh. Not that I am a great church goer, but there is still a residue of my Presbyterian upbringing that says you don’t laugh in church, especially at a funeral. My discomfort was ameliorated as I watched the cortege make its way down the aisle. Every respectful glance towards the coffin resulted in a dose of the Edward Heath shoulders. The funeral director indicated that we should be seated and we waited for the Minister. There seemed to be an unnaturally long pause when all of a sudden, out of the congregation, up popped, to my narrow-minded surprise, Johnny Beattie, and announced that although this was a funeral it didn’t have to be morbid. He reminded us that Chic wasn’t morbid. He was about laughter, and laughs we were going to have.

To prove the point he began to reminisce about the man and asked the audience (we were no longer a congregation) to join in. Johnny recalled one night when he and Chic sat up to the wee sma’ hoors and drank the night away. “You must have been paying” rejoined Maidie. Jimmy Logan put in his tuppenceworth, as did several others. Johnny wound up, “Not long ago a guest on the Michael Parkinson Show was asked who was the greatest influence on his comedy and, without a pause, said Chic Murray. That man is here now – Billy Connolly”.

Billy then gave what ‘Variety’ would have described as a ‘socco’ ten minutes. Half way through his “Ojokeary” the Crematorium organ burst into life. A totally baffled organist, accustomed only to conventional funerals, felt he had to do something, and did. Billy’s command of “Shut up!” fell on deaf ears.

When it came to the final goodbye, Billy pressed the button that conveyed the coffin off backstage and encouraged us put our hands together and give one last round of applause to a great and unique comedian. As Billy moved to take his seat, to what must have been the first sound of applause ever heard in a Scottish crematorium, he suddenly remembered Chic’s last request and immediately returned to the pulpit, centre stage. Chic had recently portrayed Bill Shankley, the Scottish manager of Liverpool Football Club, and as Billy sat back in his seat, the tune being thumped out by the insensitive crematorium organist had begun to penetrate. It was “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the theme song of The Cop. Billy now remembered Chic’s last request – “Get them all to sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at my funeral”.

Billy made the mistake of thinking he was dealing with a fellow musician when he tried to communicate with the organist. The man had been paid his ten guineas to play at the funeral service, and play he would. This musical jobsworth seemed to be oblivious to the service going on below. We have to concede, in his mitigation, that he obviously had never experienced anything like this before, and his motor reactions went straight into reverse. Fortunately, Billy’s voice was louder than the noise from the dummy upstairs in the organ gallery, and he got us to overcome the reedy cacophony with a raucous “When you walk down the street…”

Unfortunately, neither he nor the rest of the mourners had much idea where the words went after that. Even more lamentably, the peabrain in the organ gallery went on relentlessly, and as our singing petered out he ploughed on to the end and beyond. He was still going when I was shaking hands with the line-up at the door, all of whom were helpless with laughter. To paraphrase one of his own immortal lines, it was “The only way to go.”

For a biography of Chic Murray and some of his classic one-liners, see this Wikipedia entry.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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3 responses to this article

Eugene 21 August 2014 at 2:24 pm

I actually remember seeing that
Hogmanay show at the time it was originally broadcast. Around the mid 80s? – if memory serves.
I still recall Chic staring blankly into the camera as somebody (was it you?) was urging Chic to speak his lines. The other thing I remember was some famous actor burping
loudly and apologizing profusely as he sat drinking champagne(?) at a table with others. The poor guy was mortified. The camera was panning the seated guests and just happened to catch this. I can’t remember his name but he was a well known Scottish actor.
I seem to remember that Chic had been flown in by helicopter having just appeared at some theater in Glasgow or somewhere. I got the feeling that Chic looked foundered with the cold and out of sorts.
I suppose the helicopter ride did
that. It’s a pity there is no footage of that Hogmanay night available. It was hilarious for all the wrong reasons!!

Thanks for your article on Chic!!

Slàinte mhath!!

Tom Mc Shane 18 September 2014 at 10:44 pm

Chic what a star, funny, funny man. Delighted to have stepped into his world. Would meet him in Byres Road, with Una Mc Lean, who had just gone out to get a pint of milk, for the kids cornflakes. Again I met him in full swing with John Grieves ( The quality actor who forgot his lines at Gleneagles)
I worked in a Theatre on the south coast of England and Chic was supposed to be there for a Band Call on a Sunday afternoon @ 2pm – band call starts, no Chick – theatre manager who would much rather have a day off, than put up with a troupe of Scottish entertainers starts Band Call – Band do their stuff, Dancers mark their opening routine, with full cast on for the opening, still no Chick – Stage Manager closes Tabs for Comic’s warm up spot – play on music, no Chick, giggles from gathered cast, Theatre Manager twitches, play on music starts again and on Shuffles a tall figure wearing a tartan bunnet, the gathered cast muffle their laughter, the tall man starts into his act, topping and tailing as they call it in the business. By this time The Theatre Manager is confused by what is going on and the tall man shuffles off to great laughter. The run through comes to a end. Meal break and show times is looming. Front of house staff open front door for public to enter Theatre, first in is Chick Murray who has just arrived in town – so who was the tall man in The Tartan Bunnet? Another legend of Scottish Entertainment Billy Thom – drummer in the Band. – to say that The Theatre Manager was confused when The Real Chick Murray walked on to the stage was a understatement

Can I just say I was in charge of the dancers on The Gleneagles Hogmany Show in 1984, Chick did not arrive by helicopter. He was there all day, the Ballroom was intimadating. Moira and Bill Mc Cue opened the show, couldn’t hear the music, Bucks Fizz had called off due a road accident and replacement group Modern Romance were “oh so last year” Johnny Grieve froze, with no BBC prompt and a guest slid along the floor to look up Maggie Moones dress on live TV. Chick sadly lost the plot as our First Foot – Great guy, Great comedian but it was sad to see such a great figure melt before our very eyes. – well written Hal Duncan – you were also a very funny man

paul sealey 19 April 2016 at 3:50 pm

chic bounded onto an empty stage at the end of one hogmanay show saying he was first-footing.with just a twelve inch ruler in his hand! end of joke!.what year was that?

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