Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Will Fyffe (1885 –1947)

Will Fyffe was born in 1885, in a tenement at 36 Broughty Ferry Road, Dundee. He was the eldest child of John Fyffe (1864–1928), a ship's carpenter, and a music teacher, Janet Rhynd Cunningham (1858–1949). His father was interested in theatrical entertainment and operated a Penny Geggie (travelling theatre) and Will made his stage debut aged six.

In the 19th century, Penny Geggies toured small towns entertaining the populous. The cast was made up with out of work actors who performed in temporary tents often heated with charcoal blazers. The bigger tents might accommodate up to 400 seats. The structures were not especially stable and at least on one occasion Will’s father’s geggie was blown into the river at Perth. Young Will was on the roof at the time and fortunately managed to survive the incident. From these humble beginnings he travelled extensively throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK. Will not only sang and danced but also acted and when he was in his 20s he joined Will Haggar Junior's Castle Theatre company, touring the South Wales Valleys. Fyffe's screen debut was in 1914 when William Haggar, Will Junior's father and a pioneer silent film producer, made an epic 50-minute version of the classic Welsh Tale, The Maid of Cefn Ydfa.

Will Fyffe honed his craft and became a sought after character actor both in Britain and Hollywood and appeared in twenty-three major films. By the 30s he was a major star and on stage, screen, radio and vinyl. In 1939 Fyffe was the ninth most popular British star at the box office.

He toured as a straight actor in productions of Shakespeare, but by far, he became famous for his characterisations as a working class man on the Music Hall circuit. There he performed his sketches and sang his songs in an inimitable style.

Will carefully studied local worthies and took their demeanour and characteristics as inspiration for his many on stage creations. He narrated the stories of a succession of comic characters in his unique style. After beginning a song, he would sing a verse or two, then pause in the middle and utter a monologue providing additional detail to embellish the storyline. In 1921, Will wrote “I belong to Glasgow” the song after he met a drunk in Glasgow Central Station. Fyffe asked the man if belonged to Glasgow, the man responded that Glasgow belonged to him. The song proved such a favourite it was covered by Eartha Kitt, Danny Kaye and Kirk Douglas.

He was so popular that the Empire Theatre in Glasgow ran a 'Will Fyffe' competition, with dozens of entrants singing I belong to Glasgow. Heavily disguised as himself, Fyffe entered the competition for a bet, but he could only win second prize! By the '30s, Will was one of the highest paid musical hall artistes in Britain.

His last film was The Brothers, which was released shortly after his death.

Fyffe passed away in 1947 after a tragic accident following an operation to his right ear.

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