Haldane Duncan Part 8: The Audition 

1 October 2006 tbs.pm/2306

Haldane reminisces about the auditioning process in light Entertainment – at the BBC and STV

It’s a very strange thing, but there are very few television drama directors who regularly go to the theatre. Oh, there are plenty of excuses: “I never seem to have the time”. “There’s so much boring shit”. “What has theatre acting got to do with television acting?” and so on and so on. The real reason is that nowadays, few people in television drama have come from the theatre, and “after all, what do we employ Casting Directors for?”

The opposite applies to Light Entertainment. Seeing new acts is what the job is about. You either go out and see them or they come in to see you. The majority of the time one has to do both. Even if that means that you have to sit through the consternation of ‘The Audition’. Believe me it is as big an ordeal for those who have to sit through it as it is to participate. I assure you.

Iain MacFadyen held auditions at least every six months. He told me it was in the BBC Charter that anybody in the United Kingdom had the right to a BBC audition if they so wished. I never believed him, but neither did I bother to check up on it. All I did was arrange them when he prodded me with a stick. I thought they were a waste of time, but as he always reminded me, that was how Eddie Fraser found the fourteen year old Moira Anderson. So, you see, it was worthwhile.

These sessions were arranged to be fitted in during any slack period where one could persuade the department to make up a panel. In the beginning, I certainly took it seriously, but after hours and hours of sitting through the most godawful rubbish, the enthusiasm sure wanes. In an attempt to be fair I had a break every hour or so to go and listen to Frank Sinatra to remind ourselves what we should be looking for. Believe me, if you sit through crap for any longer, the first person to actually sing in tune gets your vote.

The auditionees mainly consisted of people who, on some distant ‘pre-karaoke’ night in the pub, had gone one sherbet too many; been persuaded by their pals to go in for the ‘go as you please’; and had, to their great amazement, won by pushing the spoon player into a close second place. The pals then shoved them that one extra mile – to a BBC audition. Turning up in all shapes and sizes, they were either confident no-hopers or embarrassed amateurs.

I got a bit nippy with one dame when I asked her for her music, and she handed me a torn out page from the Weekly News with the words of Release Me under a picture of Englebert Humperdinck. Her abrasive and cocky, “Ye must ken hoo it goes … Da…… da.. da..da.. Da… da.. da……” must have caught me on an off day, because I don’t think I was very tactful. “This is a professional organisation and we expect professional behaviour from our participants. If you can’t supply music for the accompanist that we have provided – at great expense, may I add – then you are wasting the time of the Corporation and yourself. Good day!”

Six months later as I passed through the early birds waiting to be auditioned, I was convinced that I recognised her fat coat. Billy Connolly has made this observation. Some wee women wear fat coats, and it is a mystery where they buy them, ‘cos you never see them for sale anywhere. The garments just appear in the streets tightly wrapped round a certain type of woman who seems extraordinarily attracted to fat coats. Mind you, you don’t see them all the time. This breed of woman is probably the opposite of the common tortoise: she hibernates in the summer.

It was her. She saw my face and was waiting for me, prepared for whatever cynicism I might throw at her. She was ready. This time I thought I might try charm. “Good morning, and what is it you do?” I inquired in my most obsequious tone, trying to give the impression that I’d never seen her in my puff. “I thought I’d gie ye a song. Ye ken. Release Me by Engelbert Humperdinck.” “Fine,” I said, as confirmation of her identity set in “And do you have your music?” I didn’t even bother pointing out what would have been completely lost on her, that although Humperdinck was a composer he sure didn’t pen Release Me. With a confident flourish – she was ready for me this time – I was handed a paper bag containing a piano copy of the song. The bag had ‘Biggar’s Music’ printed on it and the music, in pristine condition, had never been laid flat since it came off the shelf. “There,” she said, taking the rolled up music from me and handing it to Peggy O’Keefe, the pianist, “Gie it laldy hen.”

Back over at STV, auditions were not so common. The tendency was only to hold them if there was a specific show where new acts could get a chance. Showcase was such a show and Clarke Tait, STV’s Head of Entertainment, set a few days aside at the Gateway studio in Edinburgh to audition singers, comics and speciality acts. Tony Firth had taken over from Francis Essex as Controller of Programmes and had come straight to Scottish from ATV where he had been a producer.

Although Tony was a very bright man, he was perhaps not the most obvious choice to head the Programme Department of a commercial television station in Scotland, especially as his appointment made him the youngest controller on the network. Whilst an undergraduate at Cambridge he had been Secretary of the Union, usually the reserve of future Prime Ministers at the very least, and his interests were on an altogether different plane from the rest of his staff and colleagues. He had one redeeming side to him, however, and that was a wicked sense of humour that – more often than not – could be a teensy bit cruel.

To Tony, Clarke represented a side of life he knew very little about and at least as far as work was concerned, he was determined to assimilate as much as he could. To this end he invited himself to sit in on part of a morning session at Clarke’s Gateway auditions and within an hour or two began to appreciate why there was such a dearth of good variety acts on television.

It was the usual pile of poo, but at least, unlike the BBC open auditions, there was a semblance of professionalism among the participants. It was not the custom for acts to put on costume or make-up for these bleak mornings, but singers at least had their music, magicians their props and ventriloquists always had their dummies (or ‘dolls’ as they preferred to call them)

As Clarke scrawled a large “No” on that morning’s ninth contender’s form, he turned to Tony and said, “Half way: do you fancy a coffee?” Tony managed a nod during his stifled yawn. “See if you can rustle up some coffees, Morag,” Clarke asked his PA, “And on your way out, send the next one in, .” Clarke felt a tap on his arm. He looked up at Tony and noticed the change in his expression. Responding to his nod, turned to the door and saw a sad couple standing before them. From a distance they looked like dress extras on The Gay Divorcée, only as they got closer the image evaporated. The threadbare and unwashed appearance of their costumes did not sit kindly beside the dyed hair and false teeth. The lady’s’ dress had obviously originated as a white sleeveless number, but had now yellowed and had a piece of skin-coloured plain lace sewn over the top part. This buttoned behind her neck and extended further to make sleeves. No doubt this was a feeble attempt at covering up the wrinkly bits.

Tony thought they were going to be an undiscovered Scottish Burns and Allen, but Clarke knew better as he saw them approach the rehearsal pianist with their band parts. The familiar strains of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow floated from the piano as our dauntless couple positioned themselves. Although he had always wanted to, Clarke hadn’t the heart to shout “Next”, but before they had got to “Vilja… Vilja…Witch of the wood…” he had written a very bold ‘No’ in the remarks column of their application form.

Tony’s anticipation faded as the Lehar repertoire was further explored. They went for the big finish with one final loud attempt at vibrato, but unfortunately they could only wobble to a halt. Clarke couldn’t wait to deliver the time honoured, “We’ll let you know,” and get to the next one. After all, time was marching on and he still hadn’t found anyone worth considering.

Instead of thanking him for taking the trouble to see them, which was the usual sycophantic mumble heard on these occasions, the couple approached the table where Clarke and Tony were sitting. The lady gave her partner a nudge.

“I know it is slightly out of order to ask this”, the old man mumbled as Clarke stiffened, “But could you let us know now how we got on?” If they had been a lot younger, or had been in any way brash and confident Clarke would have simply said that they had failed to come up to the required standard, but as they were well past it and may have seen better days in the time before television, he couldn’t think of a pleasant way of letting them down. “I’m very sorry, but I have still a number of people to see and it would be unfair if I made a decision before I’ve seen everyone.”

The old trouper went on to explain, “Well I’ll lay it on the line for you Mr Tait. You see we’ve got the chance of entertaining on a cruise this summer but we’ve got to let the booker know to-night if we will be able to fulfil the engagement.”

“If you’ve got a firm offer, I think you should take what is on the table,” advised Clarke, “After all, ‘a bird in the hand’ and all that.”

There was nothing for it but their trump card had to be played. They looked at each other and he nodded. It was the lady’s turn to plead.”We know that, Mr Tait, but that’s how it’s been all our lives. We’ve always been careful. I’ve told Father here that we have to take a chance. Your show is important to us, you see. If only we could get seen on television, there is no knowing where it might lead.”

Clarke didn’t know where to look, but letting them down now was becoming even more difficult. “It’s not as simple as it seems,” lied Clarke, “There’s lots of things that have to be considered, and I’m afraid I can’t be pressured into making a decision now.” The man took charge again. “I appreciate what you are saying, Mr Tait but as a gesture of how important this job is to us and our future, we would be willing – and I have to say, we can’t really afford it – but if you were to book us, we would to do it for nothing.”

Tony, who had been enjoying Clarke’s unease, took a deep breath and, in his waspish way, said, “You drive a hard bargain…”

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5 responses to this article

Neil Vassie 16 November 2014 at 2:56 pm

Hey Hal,

Tony Firth was alright to George Windram and I when in the loo we were discussing ‘Dodens Triumf’ (danish ballet). He overheard us and requested a special playout on transmission rpt transmission just for his favourite V.T. guys. Bit of class Hal!!

Best regards,


Christine Armstrong 26 January 2019 at 11:05 pm

Hello Neil,
George Windram’s daughters Christine and Hazel here. Nice to find a wee mention of Dad’s name after all these years!

Robert Scott 23 July 2019 at 10:35 pm

Hi Christine & Hazel,
Your dad was Head of VT when I was a young father to be in 1980. I was explaining that I would need two weeks leave around the beginning of September as I wasn’t entirely sure when baby would arrive. “Sure no problem” he said, ” but have you any idea how this happened?”
He was a lovely man.
Kind regards
Robert Scott

Neil Vassie 6 September 2019 at 7:31 pm

Hello Christine and Hazel,

Saw your message only today Fri 6th September. 2019. Such a nice surprise. George and Olive were great friends,
Seems such a long time ago, but still a lovely memory of George and I having a fag in the Gods of the Theatre Royal after lugging heavy camera up umpteen flights of stairs. Still we could listen to Scottish National Orchestra in rehearsal – and George so loved classical music.
Take care both,

Neil Vassie

Christine Armstrong 17 September 2019 at 9:51 pm

Hello Gents,
Just found your messages. Thanks for your kind comments about our much missed and loved dad!


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