James Cairncross


Born: 21 December, 1915, in Dunfermline.

Died: 17 December, 2009, in Edinburgh, aged 94.

JAMES Cairncross was an actor of much style and elegance, blessed with a fine baritone singing voice, who was seen in Scottish theatres for much of the second half of the 20th century. He was also a gifted lyricist, as evidenced by his contribution to the hit musical Salad Days. Cairncross also appeared in classic productions south of the Border; his associations with the Bristol Old Vic date from his earliest days in the theatre.

James Cairncross was born into a medical family and educated at Dunfermline High School. After a few years at medical school he studied for the theatre with the director Michel St Denis and during the war served with the Royal Artillery.

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But Cairncross's roots remained firmly in Scotland and he was often seen at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. He was a great friend and champion of the artistic director Stephen MacDonald, who ran the theatre from 1975-79. Indeed, in his first season MacDonald scheduled the world premier of Hector MacMillan's Royal Visit, in which Cairncross played Walter Scott. Other notable productions included Ghosts (1974) with Edith MacArthur; Shaw's Apple Cart (1975) with Rikki Fulton, directed by Tom Fleming; an adaptation of Crime and Punishment (1979) directed by MacDonald with Maureen Beattie and Patrick Malahide; and The Tempest with MacDonald, bidding farewell to the Lyceum as Prospero. Many will recall Cairncross in Leslie Lawton's wonderful production of Guys and Dolls at the Lyceum in 1980.

Cairncross was a devoted member of the Lyceum company and is remembered with much affection by all those who worked with him. He served on the board as the actors' representative ("the token actor", he used to joke) and discharged his responsibilities with a keen eye on improving the actors' conditions while the theatre was being refurbished.

Cairncross made 16 appearances at the Edinburgh Festival. Perhaps most memorable were in all three productions of The Thrie Estates (1949, 1951 and 1973). Other highlights included the epic 1953 Glasgow Citizens' production of The Highland Fair and the world premier of John Osborne's Luther (with Albert Finney) in 1961. Among his many excellent afternoon readings was a recital of Robert Fergusson's poems with Tom Fleming.

In 1952 Cairncross was at the Bristol Old Vic and joined Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds in volunteering to write a Christmas musical called Christmas in King Street. It was the start of a remarkable partnership as Cairncross was to work with the couple often, especially in Salad Days, which was slotted into the Bristol schedule for a three-week run. The show, a light-hearted musical with some thoroughly joyous tunes, opened in Bristol in 1954 and transferred that year to London's West End. It became the longest-running show in musical history until overtaken by Oliver!. Cairncross contributed to the witty and insouciant lyrics and his singing of Cleopatra was always a show-stopping success.

The Christmas show was expanded in 1960 into Follow That Girl, starring Susan Hampshire and Peter Gilmore. In it Cairncross and Patricia Routledge performed an hilarious duet called Waiting For Our Daughter that nightly brought the house down.

Cairncross appeared in British films of the 1960s and 1970s such as Tony Richardson's 1963 classic The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and, the following year, the glorious cinematic romp Tom Jones, in which Cairncross played a delightfully confused Parson Supple. Television work included Kidnapped (1956), The Borders, Edna the Inebriate Woman, Sutherland's Law and Taggart. Perhaps his best known TV role was in Dr Who. Back when Patrick Troughton was the Doctor, Cairncross played a scientist saving the world from the deadly Krotons.

His versatility as an actor was admirably displayed in such prestigious Shakespeare productions as Ian McKellan's Hamlet for the Prospect Company in 1972 and on television as Alonzo in Twelfth Night with Michael Redgrave. He was also a regular at the Open Air Theatre in London's Regents Park. But Chekov was a playwright with whom Cairncross had a particular affinity. He was in a memorable production at Pitlochry with Edith McArthur of The Cherry Orchard and in 1967 both at the Edinburgh Festival and in the West End with the ebullient Lila Kedrova. Then he joined Frank Hauser's Oxford Playhouse for The Three Sisters with Dame Judi Dench – the two became firm friends and toured Africa performing what he called "just bits and pieces".

At the end of The Cherry Orchard, when Firs, the butler, is left on the stage – the family having deserted the house and the cherry orchard – Cairncross's Firs brings down the curtain with the forlorn comment that he would just lie and await their return. He is meant to fall asleep as the curtain descends. In the dress rehearsal at Pitlochry Cairncross added (in a loud stage whisper) "in a spotlight, please". It was typical of his sense of fun.

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While writing an obituary of Stephen MacDonald for The Scotsman last year, I spoke to Cairncross. His memory was sharp and his comments precise and humorous. He was a man of much energy, wit and flair.

For many years Cairncross, a devout Catholic, lived with his sister at the top of an elegant town house in Edinburgh's Palmerston Place. The steep staircase never presented any problem for this most generous-hearted and kindly man. One friend of many years simply said of Cairncross: "Jimmy was one of the kindest and most genuine people I ever knew. He was a true gentleman."

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