Will Fyffe, actor, singer and comedian, died on the 14th of December, 1947.
Will Fyffe will be associated with Glasgow forever, because he has been immortalised for his rendition of the song ‘I belong to Glasgow’. The song, which is memorable for its lyrics as well as Fyffe’s own renditions, was his own composition. And the eponymous Glasgow anthem, sung many a night in the pubs and on the streets of Scotland’s second city, is synonymous with Will Fyffe even though he was born seventy miles away in Dundee by the silvery Tay. The song has been covered by the likes of Danny Kaye, Eartha Kitt, Dame Gracie Fields, Andy Stewart and Kirk Douglas, for goodness sake. Its lyrics celebrate the working man and describe one who has had too much to drink, which is exactly how Fyffe appeared so often in his characterisations, staggering about the stage with a muffler at his neck and bottle in his pocket. With those lyrics, Fyffe was having a go at the anti-drink campaigners, prevalent in the day, but it was fondly satirical; jist a wee bit o’ fun. Fyffe wrote and recorded over thirty popular songs, including ‘She was the Belle of the Ball’; each one a witty masterpiece with an engaging melody and delivered with his own unique style.
Will Fyffe was a major star of the 1930s and 1940s; an entertainer who appeared on stage, screen and vinyl as well as on radio and the sma’ screen. Fyffe even toured as a straight actor in productions of Shakespeare. His fame equalled that of his contemporary, Sir Harry Lauder, but Fyffe was also known for the breadth of his characterisations such as the Engineer, the Bridegroom in his 90s, and of course, the Glasgow working man. As a character actor, he was much in demand in Hollywood and Britain, and he starred and co-starred in twenty-three major films of his era, alongside the likes of John Laurie, Duncan MacRae, John Gielgud, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Margaret Lockwood and Charles Hawtrey. In ‘Owd Bob’, which was released as ‘To The Victor’ in America, Fyffe plays McAdam, a “likeable old curmudgeon” and the ‘New York Times’ described his performance at the time as fitting “snugly …under the heading, ‘great performances’”. Fyffe also played the music hall circuit, where he performed his sketches and sang his songs in an inimitable style, and he appeared in five Royal Variety performances.
Fyffe specialised in Scottish characters, and he had the ability to create and then seem to be that character on the stage. He carefully studied a variety of local worthies and of his many fine inventions, mention must be given to Dr. McGregor, the Gamekeeper, the Shepherd, the Railway Guard and one of his most popular characters, the village idiot, Daft Sandy. The drama critic, James Agate, one referred to Sandy as “a masterpiece of tragi-comedy”. On stage, Fyffe narrated the stories of a succession of comic characters in his unique style. After beginning a song, he’d sing a verse or two, then pause in the middle and utter a monologue providing additional detail to embellish the storyline. Fyffe was so popular in his day that the Empire Theatre in Glasgow once ran a ‘Will Fyffe’ competition. Dozens of hopefuls entered, to sing his famous composition about the city and Fyffe, being a bit of a joker off stage as well as on, also entered. Heavily disguised as himself, he came second!
The story of how ‘I belong to Glasgow’ came to be has long since entered folklore, but the gist of it is that late one night at Glasgow Central Station, Fyffe met his greatest inspiration. Albert Mackie wrote in ‘The Scotch Comedians’ that Fyffe’s drunk was “genial and demonstrative” and was spouting off “about Karl Marx and John Barleycorn with equal enthusiasm”. Fyffe asked him, “Do you belong to Glasgow?” and the drunk replied – you can almost feel his concentration in uttering the city’s name – “At the moam’nt, at the moam’nt, Glasgow b’longs tae me”. The story also goes that Fyffe offered the song to Lauder, which he is said to have refused on the grounds that it glorified drink. There is a famous rejoinder attributed to Lauder after it was pointed out that his song, ‘Just a Wee Deoch and Doris’ was also about the drink. Sir Harry retorted, “It was just a wee deoch and doris”. However, the likelihood of Will Fyffe offering Lauder a song he’d written for himself is slim, as Ian Jack of ‘The Guardian’ has suggested.
In comparison to Lauder, Fyffe was a far more subtle and wittier impersonator. Lauder’s ‘Scotchman’ was a parody of the denizens of yore, an exaggerated version of ‘scottishness’ that was largely responsible for how Scots were seen abroad, whereas Fyffe was alive to the present in all its subtle variety. Fyffe first introduced his famous anthem at the Glasgow Pavilion in 1921 and apart from London, and Aberdeen’s ‘Northern Lights’, citizenship of no other British city has been so celebrated around the world. Even the Taggart theme, ‘No Mean City’, sung by Glasgow’s Maggie Bell, must take second place to Fyffe’s possessive lyric. Here’s a lyric from Fyffe’s ‘The Wedding of Marie MacLean’ in the Scottish universal phonetic language (SUPL):
“Oe! Sich a niys wadin yi nivir did see
Nae wundir that ah hud a teer in ma ee
Ah wiz greetin bikoz thi briydgroom wiznae mee
Oen thei nicht o thi wadin o Maerae MacLaen”
William Fyffe was born on the 16th of February, 1885, in a tenement at number 36 Broughty Ferry Road in Dundee. His dad ran a ‘Penny Geggy’ and Will’s formative years were spent gaining valuable experience as a character actor, and touring around Scotland in productions of Shakespeare. The name ‘geggy’ derives from a Glasgow word; the verb to ‘gag’ and it came to describe a makeshift tour of small towns, undertaken by actors who were between seasons at the major Scottish theatres. The ‘Penny Geggy’ developed from the booth theatres that crowded round Glasgow Green each July during the Glasgow Fair, the annual, West of Scotland holiday for industrial and agricultural workers. The ‘Geggies’ were constructed of canvas and wood, like circus tents and were heated by charcoal braziers. They were erected and dismantled in each new town visited, and seated an audience of around four hundred. They were also vulnerable to the elements and Fyffe once recalled his father’s ‘Geggy’ being blown into the river at Perth, with Will on the roof. To Will’s consternation the company seemed more interested in saving the ‘Geggy’ than his rescue.
In his twenties, Fyffe joined William Haggar Junior’s ‘Castle Theatre’ company, touring the South Wales Valleys from its base in Abergavenny and Fyffe, together with his wife, featured in an advert for the theatre in the 1911 ‘Portable Times’. Fyffe later switched to comedy and music hall, and became a headline act throughout Scotland. His screen debut was in 1914 when William Haggar Senior, a pioneer silent film producer, made an epic fifty-minute version of the classic Welsh Tale, ‘The Maid of Cefn Ydfa’. William Fyffe died in a local cottage hospital on the 14th of December, 1947, from injuries sustained in an accidental fall from a hotel window in St. Andrews, after being stricken with dizziness following an operation on his right ear. He was buried in the Western Necropolis, in his adopted city of Glasgow, on the 17th of December.