Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

Dubious Claims To Fame – 14

When I was a kid, I was involved in a handful of local youth theatre groups. I remember vividly the time I auditioned to join one based in a nearby church, gathered with other young hopefuls in a side room by the main hall. The group’s founder and director was conducting various singing and acting exercises, partly done as groups and partly on a one-to-one basis, as I recall. I was accepted to join, and began rehearsals for a production of “Bugsy Malone” (in which I was cast as gym owner Cagey Joe – despite having rather have had the role of Leroy Smith), but shortly into the process the director had to abandon his beloved theatre group because of the pressure of continuing work commitments with the BBC, and he left.

I remember that first evening of auditions, that as I was leaving a couple of girls went up to the director and asked for his autograph. I had no idea who he was, or why they would do that, but when I went home I read for the first time the plea for cast members that had appeared in the local paper. It turned out he was in a programme that I was then too young to have ever seen, called Rab C. Nesbitt.

Years later, and I mean decades, when I mentioned to my then-flatmate that I’d been in a youth theatre group run by Eric Cullen – Wee Burney in the first few series of that famous Scottish sitcom – she made a disgusted face, as if (to keep it topical) I had just told her that I’d once appeared on an episode of Jim’ll Fix It. I protested to her at the time, that he was never convicted of child abuse or paedophilia, wasn’t charged with rape, and didn’t spend a long time in prison or die there. I remembered the case – it was so widely publicised in Scotland at the time that I think most people still do – but since I did have the vaguest of personal involvements with the man concerned, I had kept reasonably abreast of developments. I googled it then for my flatmate, and found this very clear and concise site, written by a close friend of Eric’s, which sets the record straight. As does the wikipedia page.

On that first site, from an interview conducted and printed by The Big Issue, I quote:  “In his summing up at Hamilton Sheriff Court, sheriff Alexander MacPherson stated that extensive investigations into all aspects of Cullen’s case established beyond doubt that he was not involved in child abuse of any form.”

It was a massive circus that engulfed him, and everybody had an opinion or a rumour or a joke about it. He was cleared and released from jail on probation, but his reputation took a while to begin recovery. If you have the time, I recommend you read some of the facts and interviews from that case. It is tragic reading, that someone who finally stood up to his abusers (and ultimately got them convicted) was instead initially tarred with the same brush.

I saw Eric a couple of times after he had left the theatre group – he had come back to see our show, and I got him to sign inside the back page of my script. I still have that page in storage somewhere, and drew a border around it with a yellow highlighter I was testing out (and which I later regretted), but I think I lost or binned the rest of the book – when we read it in English class in second or third year, I looked for my own copy of the edition we were reading from, and couldn’t find it. It was just by chance that, a few years later and while at a park/zoo in East Kilbride, I saw and walked past Eric in the car park. He was with friends, and looked happy, but I doubted he would remember me – I had only met him half a dozen times, and I’d barely started acting in his theatre company before he moved away. Rather than go through the rigmarole of interrupting him and reintroducing myself in order to merely say hello, I just kept walking. It was a week, if that, before he died of a heart attack.

If you have the time or inclination, read some of the first-person witness statements, evidence, and interviews about what happened. It’s also mentioned in a more recent article about the return of Rab C. I didn’t know him well, but I remember him fondly – perhaps even moreso now that the facts of his case and troubled life are established.

 

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