Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Wee Coat Sparra

I, like everyone else, am gazing up at the Saint Pancras information board hoping that by some miracle it might bestow on us some information that may get us home a little quicker when it quietly occurs to me that I recognise the young man in the parka next to me. I roll through my mental rolodex (first pubs, then gigs, never, curiously, places of work or education) trying to put a name or at the very least a place to the face. Within seconds, to my quiet horror, I see that the chap is Serge, guitarist of pop band Kasabian. Its with no small alarm that it becomes quite clear he has caught me looking and has taken me as a fan. He waits, smiling gently at me, presumably waiting for me to ask for an autograph or, god forbid, a selfie. We stand in awkward silence for what probably adds up to a minute but feels like about ten years when, to my utter relief Serge turns to walk off. Still thinking me a fan, and an intensely shy one at that, he racks his brain for some sort of compensatory departing words. “Nice coat mate” he says patting my on the arm. He then slings his holdall on to his shoulder and peacocks away to platform four.

The truth of the matter is I've never been one for cutting a dash style wise. Indeed, at 6ft6, it's something of miracle if I find something that actually fits me. Shirts tend to cover my torso well enough, but not the cuffs and trousers, almost without president, cover either my hips or my ankles, seldom both. Off the peg suits or the worst, the jacket always a little small and the trousers have to pulled down to cover my ankles, thus leaving the crotch somewhere halfway down my thighs. The result leaves me looking like a cross between Rodney Trotter and MC Hammer. When I gave my sister away at her wedding, I was wearing a properly measured hire suit, my tears at the nuptials 90% sibling pride and 10% relief at finally wearing a pair of keks that actually fit.

Serge was right about the coat though. It's an absolute beauty. Purchased from Ebay (I'm under no obligation to tell you other auction sites are available bit will do so anyway) after putting 'old long coat' in to the search. My coat, a beautiful green tweed number, was the first one that came up. I was the only bidder and for the bargain price of £25 the coat was mine. The auctioneers had put some bumpf on the sale blurb about the coat being made for a Scottish actor who was in a Bond film. Quite naturally I suppose, my eyes rolled with pound signs like a fruit machine while I daydreamed of bids for Sean Connery's coat going higher and higher into the air at a posh auction house. When the coat arrived in the post, all this was forgotten immediately after trying it on. It fit like a dream. A little loose on the shoulders perhaps but other wise could have been made for me.

When I say forgotten, I mean the coats previous ownership didn't enter my mind until three years later. Sadly, the coats lining had started to come away from the inside. It had come off to such a degree that my left arm would no longer, without manipulation, go through the sleeve. My partner Rachel had decided enough was enough, and demanded that rather than watch me go through this sad pantomime of trying to get my hand to magically appear from my sleeve (thus delaying our exit from a pub or restaurant by at least 6 minutes) like a train coming out of a bunged up tunnel, she would take it to her mums for repair. We were talking quite casually a couple of days later when Rachel said that her mum had done a fine job on the repair, and she was a but upset about how the coat had been treated until she saw the label and realised how old it was.

What label? I replied.

I didn't know this, but anyone (like Rachel's mum) who knows anything about the making of clothes, especially old clothes, will tell you if you need information about your garment, always look inside the inside breast pocket. Mine told me that my coat had been handmade by B.Green and Sons of Glasgow in February 1959 for a J.D.G Macrae. Rachel's mum had indeed done a fine job, and was glowing in praise for whoever made the coat. It was clearly handmade and was put together by a real craftsman. I wondered if this JDG Macrae fellow could be this actor the sellers were talking about.

The first stumbling block was the name. The only Macrae involved in a Bond film was a Duncan Macrae, and he was in Casino Royale (though so low in the castings he fails to make the Wikipedia entry at all) which is more like a spoof of Bond film. Had I got all excited about a bit part player who may or may not have owned the coat? JDG, was Duncan a middle name?

Then came my first breakthrough, from the Oxford Dictionary of Biography

Macrae, (John) Duncan Graham (1905–1967), actor.

JDG Macrae. We had found our man.

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Duncan Macrae was a fine actor. These are not my words, but the words of anyone who worked with him. Every search of Duncan Macrae actor came with the same words 'wonderful' 'incredible' 'gifted'. 'Greatest Scottish actor' crops up again and again. It was quite obvious he was adored. A portrait of him by William Crosbie hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It's possible, however, that the source of this love was not his acting at all.



He started of as a comedien on the post-war Scottish stage, his 'angular face and lantern jaw' and broad shouldered lankiness (He was 6ft1, which may explain why the coat fits me so well) providing the perfect foil for his 'glaikit' comedy, which means essentially being bumbling and playing the fool. He was no idiot mind, the son of a sergeant of the police force and a trained engineer before becoming a school master. Acting was his passion however, joining the  Citizens' Theatre company in Glasgow. As well as his comedy roles, he was well known on the stage for his more serious acting roles, particularly his performance as King James VI in Jamie the Saxt by Robert McLellan. It was his comedy roles that lead him to the screen though. Indeed, perhaps is his most recognised performance is the reading of the traditional Scottish song Wee Cock Sparra, which was televised in the 50's and 60's as part of the Hogmanay celebrations. Not that he was best pleased with it. Comedian Johnny Beattie, who worked a lot with Macrae, put it ''Big John, as we knew him, was just a naturally funny man. Yet he couldn't tell if any comedy scripts sent in to him were funny. He would call us into his dressing room and ask: 'Is that funny?' without realising that it was his personality that would make it so. 'In the end, he got fed up with The Wee Cock Sparra. Everywhere he went, people were asking for it, forgetting about his serious work. He said it had become like an albatross around his neck.''
Though his influence cannot be denied. “Duncan Macrae used to sing this brilliant wee song.” Says actor Alex Norton of Wee Cock Sparra “I used to perform it (to great acclaim, it must be said) for my relatives when we would gather together each Hogmanay.”



Though essentially a list of bit parts, Macrae's screen appearances are to be envied. From the 60's hip (appearances in The Avengers and The Prisoner) to the steady (after years of bit parts, a proper series' in Kidnapped and Para Handy. The latter filmed around the time the coat was made) to the huge (Casino Royale also featured Peter Sellers, Ursula Andrews, David Niven, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen).


It's difficult to imagine Our Duncan mixing it with the stars however. He is often described as 'eccentric', but I can not find any evidence to back that up. It simply seems that he was quiet and reserved. That little about Duncan Macrae outside his work can be found is a testament to what a private man he was. Heartbreakingly, his family have struggled, and family tree type website begging for information about him (I presume you are referring to Duncan Macrae the actor who featured in films like The Kidnappers, Tunes of Glory, Whisky Galore, etc. If so, I understand that my father was a cousin of this Duncan and I, too, would be interested in any info you get on him which might also relate to our family.(My father's name was Colin Macrae and he came from a little place called Culkein in north-west Sutherland.” writes one “We had no contact with Duncan or his family (I believe he had two sons). Apart from the fact that they lived in Glasgow and we were in Edinburgh, my father's family (he had five sisters) were all rather religious, being Free Presbyterians, and did not associate with folk who worked or travelled "on the Sabbath Day".)



In fact (And I promise I'm not making this up) it was an autobiography by Nicholas Parsons that was the greatest resource to writing this). He writes Macrae as being a quiet but brilliant man who tried to work in London but didn't like and moved back the Glasgow.

One thing that is documented is his love of the Scottish Island of Millport. He even ended up buying a holiday home there. It's not difficult to imagine him on a film set somewhere miles away from home, writing to his wife Peggy about how he couldn't wait to take her and the children (two girls in fact, not boys) to Millport.
The Macraes at Millport

Christine Caldwell, grand-daughter of Duncan Macrae, unveiling a plaque to him 

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As I wrote this, I found some amazing pictures of Duncan Macrae, this tiny one I found in an autograph catalogue is my favourite, not because of the size (it's tiny) or the pose (it's formal) but because of the fact he is wearing my coat.



































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