A 19-year-old Alan Cumming makes his first television appearance in a BBC TV Director’s training course in 1984.
Never intended for broadcast, this is probably Alan’s first performance in front of a camera, though he did have a very fleeting appearance in episode 6 of Traveling Man the same year. However, he is billed here, along with his fellow performers, Forbes Masson and David Lee Michael, as final year students at Glasgow’s Royal Academy of Music and Drama.
Here Cumming is cast as one of 3 dead (or possibly war-weary) soldiers, where he lip-synchs pop songs and recites a poem by Wilfred Owen. This was Justin C Adams’ Final Project for his director’s course. Adams went onto a career as a director of quiz shows at BBC Scotland, before establishing his own highly successful production company.
I was in drag the last time I did stand-up, about twenty-five-years ago, in a crowded bar at the Tron Theater, Glasgow. It was a return appearance, on a ‘gong night’ bill that included Craig Ferguson, who was starting out with his comic character Bing Hitler.
In some respects I was amazed to be asked back, and was certain my invitation had been a clerical error. The first time I’d tried to be Lenny McBruce and was full of misplaced energy that led me to telling the audience to ‘fuck off’, whilst reading a copy of the Sun, riffing on its headlines, horoscopes, interviews and adverts. I’d got as far as Princess Diana and Pete Sutcliffe jokes, when the howls of abuse proved too much, I was gonged quickly off.
Other gong nights had seen a generation of new and original talent: a duo called Victor and Barry - Alan Cumming and Forbes Mason - those erstwhile founders of the Kelvinside Young People’s Amateur Dramatic Art Society (KYPADAS), who performed camp musical numbers, in slick-backed hair and monogramed smoking jackets.
And then there was Jerry Sadowitz, who was incredible, and still is. His humor was unpredictable, relentless and much in the spirit of Lenny Bruce - nothing was sacred, no subject off limits. When menaced with the gong, he pulled out a joke pistol and threatened to shoot the compere, John Stahl.
Amongst such talents, I was just a daft, wee laddie, who wanted to succeed more than I wanted to perform.
So, on my return, I revamped one of my old drag characters, Bessie Graham, a mistress of the single entendre. I went through the rehearsed material and it seemed to be working well - at least for half the audience, those nearest to the stage that is. But for anyone beyond row 4, I appeared as an indifferent mime artist, with a basic grasp of mime. Later, I was told my mic had not been working.
Afterwards, watching Craig Ferguson perform, I decided to give it all up. Over 2 years of performing, on-and-off, I’d found out I was fine at comic characters and sketches, but hadn’t grown-up enough to have my own voice, and know what I wanted to say. And without that, I would never be any good.