Moultrie Kelsall

From Scotland On Air
Jump to: navigation, search
Moultrie Kelsall MA, LL.B
File:Moultrie Kelsall.jpg
Born Moultrie Rowe Kelsall
(1901-10-24)24 October 1901
Bearsden, Glasgow, Scotland
Died 12 February 1980(1980-02-12) (aged 78)
Blair Logie, Scotland
Other names Moultrie R Kelsall
Alma mater Glasgow University
Years active 1949-1980
Spouse(s) Ruby Duncan

Moultrie Rowe Kelsall, (MA 1925; LL.B.) (24 October 1901, Bearsden, Glasgow—12 February 1980, Blair Logie, Scotland) was a Scottish film, television and radio actor, as well as a producer and writer. In charge of the BBC's Aberdeen radio station from 1931–1937, he was credited with re-invigorating a moribund operation.

Early life

As a law student at Glasgow University in the early 1920s, Kelsall penned poems for the University Magazine (GUM) under the pen name 'Mouldy'. While he would never practice law, he later used his knowledge to keep drama producers right about the representation of Scots Law.

Early acting

By the mid-1920s Kelsall was acting with the Scottish National Players, and, when Tyrone Guthrie was the Players' producer, he became business manager.

He went on the Scottish National Players' summer tours for many years. He recalled the first tour in 1927:

In [1927] the summer tour went out for the first time. Tyrone Guthrie was leader of an expedition of eight (six players, a stage carpenter and a driver), doing three weeks of one night stands with a bill of three short plays, and song and mime sandwiched in between them. The entertainment was popular — even Scots songs performed from a step ladder had novelty appeal — expenses were low (the company lived under canvas), and the venture showed a profit, so the summer tour became an annual fixture, making money every time.

In 1927 he took part in the early productions of Bertha Waddell's Childrens' Theatre.

He was in The Glen is Mine, presented by the Scottish National Players at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead in 1930.

A year later he joined Tyrone Guthrie for the opening production at the Westminster Theatre. The play was James Bridie's The Anatomist. It was here, as Moultrie himself recalled, he learned his craft as an actor.[1]

For several years he acted as adjudicator at the Scottish Community Drama Association festivals, and was a producer of stage plays in Glasgow and Aberdeen.

BBC Aberdeen Representative

In 1931, while working at the Westminster Theatre in London and not particularly happy there, Kelsall received an offer from David Cleghorn Thomson, the BBC's Scottish Director, to join the staff and revive the Aberdeen station. "The station’s moribund," Thomson told him, ‘try and revive it.’[2] Kelsall jumped at the chance, becoming Aberdeen Representative at the end of 1931. He would later describe his time there as his happiest at the BBC.

Kelsall took a particular interest in north-east matters, especially folk song and folklore. Thomson's successor as the BBC's Scottish Regional Director, Melville Dinwiddie, said that Kelsall, more than anyone else, had put that part of Scotland on the broadcasting map, making real and vocal something of the splendid individuality and vitality of that area. Dinwiddie also claimed that Kelsall had put on the air some of the best programmes in the history of Scottish broadcasting.

One of Kelsall's first finds was the jazz pianist Jimmy Ross. Ross knew a fellow jazz pianist he could work with called Ruby Duncan and they became part of a series of revues, 'The Silver Citizens', which also included sketches and songs. The Radioptimists in Glasgow were using two pianos, so the Citizens' had to go one better, and Bill Thompson joined them on a third piano. Unfortunately, no recordings were kept. Kelsall went on to marry Ruby Duncan in 1934.

At 2BD Kelsall wrote his first play, This Day, which was performed several times purely because it had been written for radio, which was something of a novelty at the time. He also encouraged plays by Aberdeen authors, such as George Rowntree-Harvey and Marris Murray (daughter of the poet Charles Murray), but complained that playwrights were thin on the ground. A three-act comedy which Kelsall wrote, Brief Harmony, was successfully played on tour by the Scottish National Players. Kelsall also discovered actors such as Arthur Black, whom he became close friends with.

John R. Allen, superb journalist turned farmer. The Farm Year was a landmark in broadcasting. The whole hour-long programme was done as a live outside broadcast. In the pitch darkness of a winter night. John Strachan was greatest character I've ever known. Utterly natural and unaffected, he was a huge success. <CLIP>

Every part of his farm was used. The farmyard was a cat's cradle of wires. Scenes in stable and byre. In the yard where cars a motorbike and a farm bell. Not only did scenes start in an instant.

Kelsall brought back an Aberdeen Children's Hour and invented a group of animals , with himself as 'Brer Rabbit', Addie Ross as 'Miss Mouse' and Ruby Duncan as Squirrel (CHECK). Their human friends included Granny Mutch (Christine Crowe) and, later and logically, Grandfather More (Arthur Black). The animals represented the children's point of view, with Brer Rabbit as the mischievous ringleader, Miss Mouse the capable if rather prim older sister, and Squirrel, the baby. The 'Aberdeen Animals' became hugely popular until their demise in 1939 at the outbreak of war.

Moultrie ingeniously adapted in terms of sound, the successful technique of popular comics of the day, like 'Puck' and 'Rainbow', where animals with human attributes were the central figures.[3]

Kelsall's first production assistant in Aberdeen was Hugh Macphee, then, from April 1936, Howard Lockhart. Lockhart said of Kelsall:

Working for Moultrie Kelsall was certainly never dull. It was, on the contrary, inspiring, exciting, exhilarating, exhausting, irritating and sometimes downright infuriating. Dynamic is the word for Moultrie. Always on the go. One thing I particularly liked about him. He didn't have moods. But, like most people with abundant energy and drive, he had little patience with those unable to keep up with him.[4]

With Moultrie, changes in the script during transmission were quite common. A hand, a pencil, would appear over one's shoulder, while one was standing at the mike, and a cut would be indicated with an arrow and some scores. Occasionally, new pages of script were being typed for the end of the show, while the beginning was actually on the air, and these would be handed, one at a time, to the performers at the microphone.[5]

The Director of Regional Relations, however, wrote that Kelsall "makes a rather uncouth first impression and, according to Cameron, he was ‘hopeless on the routine side of things’".

TV producer in London

Keen that one of his staff be trained in the new medium of television, in 1936/7 the BBC's Scottish Regional Director, Melville Dinwiddie, transferred Kelsall to the new BBC television service at Alexandra Palace, London.

But almost immediately he was loaned back to Scotland to undertaken a long-standing commitment: a programme on the Isle of Lewis. As Scotland's had no mobile recording unit at the time, one was sent from London. It was enlivened by the singing of Kitty Macleod, the doyenne of Scottish Gaelic singers.

During his short time in London, Kelsall amassed a considerable number of credits as a television producer, producing at least 19 programmes for the BBC. As the only Scot among the producers, Kelsall staged a lot of Scottish plays. James Urqhuart in Shoe Black, and Archie Hyslop's comic opera, Pride of the Green. Addie Ross was brought down to sing the lead, with Ruby Duncan on piano. They were amazed that an amateur was being brought down from Aberdeen. (No recordings exist.)

Suitably enough, his first was an adaptation of a one-act play by a Scottish author — J.M. Barrie's The Old Lady Shows Her Medals. His last production, based on the Harold Brighouse play The Happy Hangman, was aired just before the advent of the Second World War in 1939.[6]

Wartime in Glasgow

With the closing down of the BBC's fledgling TV service on the advent of war, Kelsall was transferred to Glasgow, initially to look after variety and programmes for The Forces.[7]

From 24 April 1940, he became Scottish Programme Director while Andrew Stewart was seconded to the Ministry of Information for 16 months.[8] As part of his duties Kelsall also announced and produced programmes.

He persuaded Ian Whyte and the management that a Scottish light orchestra would be a good investment, not only for variety programmes but also to go into the rotas of dance bands and the daily Music While You Work — neither of which Whyte wanted anything to do with! So Kelsall contacted Ronnie Munro, who had often conducted for him in London, sold him the idea and the BBC Scottish Variety Orchestra was launched, performing in Glasgow's big blastproof music studio. When Ronnie Munro went to London, Kemlo Stephen took over.

Slept in the building for fire duty.

A memorable production was his own play, Who Fought Alone, a moving, imaginative story with Gordon Jackson playing the lead of a young, poor Scottish soldier, cut off and dying in the Western Desert. He also dramatised J. M. Barrie's Farewell Miss Julie Logan and played in it himself.

But his outstanding work was with Edwin Muir in 1941/42 in a series, The Book of Scotland. Professor Peter Butter, in his biography of Edwin Muir, wrote:

The seven programmes dealt with high points of Scottish history and literature from St Columba to Scott. Even the scripts convey the sense of a great and tragic story. Some of those who heard them brought to life still remember them as inspiring — and true; for they encouraged no false hopes.


In 1947 Kelsall resigned from the BBC to pursue a freelance career in theatre, film, radio, and television. On his leaving note, programme director Andrew Stewart wrote: "He would maintain and argue a point of view in which he strongly believed — always useful in focusing attention and discussion: when a decision was reached, however, he would always carry out an adverse ruling."

Through his enthusiasm, an attempt was made to revive the Scottish National Players, but its time had passed and the revival did not succeed.[9] However, he pursued similar aims through his involvement with the Gateway Theatre from its first production in October 1953. The company's policy was to "present plays by Scottish dramatists, classics and English or foreign plays of interest". Kelsall recalled that the "policy was very definitely to include a large proportion of Scots plays", adding that in "that aim we were the lineal successors of the Scottish National Players".[10] Kelsall acted in one production, The Switchback, and was chairman of the Council from 1960–1965.[11]

He also continued his involvement with Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre and Bertha Waddell's Children's Theatre.

Film acting career

Kelsall's movie career began in a 1949 film called Landfall, which starred Michael Denison. It recounted the story of a pilot [Denison] who sinks a German U-boat, but which is believed by other officers to be a Royal Navy vessel. Kelsall played Lieutenant James, the commander of a coastal defence vessel.

He was also cast in the 1956 Second World War film, The Man Who Never Was, in which he played the father of the 'man', asked to let his son's dead body be used on a top-secret mission to delude enemy intelligence. The part was just two minutes long but his performance was described as "heart-rending and unforgettable" and, after the film's release, he was immediately offered three big parts.[12]

He was never type cast, but in later years he had many lawyer/minister parts and was a familiar and distinguished figure on the small screen.

The Laigh Coffee House

In 1956 Kelsall started a coffee shop with his wife in Hanover Street, Edinburgh. 'The Laigh' was designed as a meeting place for city housewives and the artistic community alike. It became a rendezvous for professional people, artists, and actors. Its customers included actors such as Sir Sean Connery, Tom Conti, and Bill Paterson, comedians such as Billy Connolly and Rory Bremner, and the actress Miriam Margolyes.

As Moultrie's son, Robin, later explained "my father decided there was a niche in Edinburgh for good, honest food at a good, honest price and he was on to a winner". The venture proved wildly successful and nearby premises at 121/117 Hanover Street had to be bought in 1957 and turned into a bakery and overflow coffee house. Robin Kelsall told the Scotsman:

The show-stoppers for most were the chocolate or coffee cakes, the hazelnut meringue and, of course, the shortcake. Samples of these, notably the latter, regularly found their way, via the diplomatic bag, to places such as Moscow, Ankara and Washington DC - to the White House itself, allegedly.

Indeed, American president John F Kennedy's Scottish housekeeper is believed to have been regularly dispatched to the cafe to stock up on its famous shortcake and post it to Washington DC in a diplomatic bag.

One former customer wrote:

I found 'The Laigh' to be very welcoming. It was in a basement, a few steps down from Hanover Street, between Thistle Street and Queen Street, with several small inter-connected rooms and a variety of seating. We used to try to get a seat beside the open fire on a cold winter's morning. I remember there being a large table in the room with the open fire, often occupied by a group having a lively conversation about music and the theatre.[13]

Another recalled:

The Laigh was a wonderful place, especially during the Festival. We had late night porridge, topped with whisky on occasions. If Moultrie liked you, he would give you a key to the Bakehouse, run by Nan. We had lunches at a common table, tuna mayonnaise salads and shortbread. We always picked up fresh bread for the weekend.

The Laigh's shortbread was quite famous amongst Edinburgh shortcake aficionados. It was reckoned to be the best you could get. It is mentioned on various websites if you Google Laigh coffee house. I seem to remember that it was made by Nan who ran the Laigh bakehouse just down the street from the coffee house. It opened at lunch-times on weekdays and admission was restricted to key holders [...] The shortbread was apparently so famous that it would be sent to President Kennedy in the diplomatic bag — or so it was rumoured.[14]

The celebrated cafe and bakery closed down after its manager of 40 years, Joan Spicer, retired in 1999. The furnishings were sold off at auction in 2002 by Robin Kelsall with the help of Lyon and Turnbull auctioneers:

It was a very hard decision to close The Laigh. I think my father was ahead of his time — you now find coffee houses on every corner of every street in Edinburgh and it was time for The Laigh to move on. By selling the contents at auction I hope to give our customers the chance to buy something from the place.[15]

Life outside broadcasting and film

Meanwhile the Kelsalls acquired a derelict cottage in Stirlingshire village of Blairlogie, which they restored and made their permanent home. It was from this point that Moultrie developed his passion for the preservation of old Scottish houses. A leading example was his successful campaign to salvage and restore nearby Menstrie Castle in Clackmannanshire, between 1951 and 1964. He also campaigned successfully for the rehabilitation of Provost Ross's House in Aberdeen, which was restored in 1954, and won the fight to stop the demolition of the seventeenth century tenements in the Royal Mile. In 1961 he co-wrote a book with architect friend Stuart Harris on the restoration of stone built houses, A Future for the Past.

As the years passed Kelsall became increasingly perturbed by the slide to permissiveness and the debasing of standards on television. He stood by the Reithian doctrine that there were decencies to be observed in what broadcasting put into people's homes. In the Church of Scotland Women's Guild magazine in about 1972 he besought the Church to give a lead in opposing the moral anarchy promoted by "a vocal minority of nihilists" who "extol a freedom which is licensed anarchy, equating censorship with the police state, decency with hypocrisy, modesty with prudery". The Church, he said, should "get down off the fence".[16]

Death and legacy

Kelsall married Aberdeen-born Ruby Duncan and they had a son, Robin Kelsall, who became a musician.

Partial list of stage plays

Kelsall's stage plays included:

  • Stage manager, It Looks Like A Change by Donald Maclaren, a four-act play performed at Glasgow's Lyric Theatre, 5–9 March 1929.
  • Actor, The Ancient Fire by Neil Gunn, October 1929.

Partial list of radio plays

  • Kelsall's first broadcast was in 1924 with the Scottish National Players in a one-act comedy called A Valuable Rival.[17]

Two early radio plays included:

  • Actor, The Long Lost Uncle, a Scots comedy by Arthur Mack, broadcast 20 December 1926.[18]
  • Young Heaven by Jean Cavendish and Miles Malleson, broadcast 2 February 1927, made by Jean Taylor Smith and Moultrie Kelsall.[19]

Partial list of TV appearances

  • Played Dr. Mitchell on Coronation Street occasionally between September 1972 and October 1973

More information

The papers of Moultrie R Kelsall are held in the National Library of Scotland, ACC 7716.

External links


  1. Obituary, The College Courant: The journal of the Glasgow University Graduates Association, No. 65 (September 1980), 47.
  2. Aberdeen Celebration, BBC Scotland Radio 4, 7 October 1973.
  3. Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 29.
  4. Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 28.
  5. Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 28.
  6. See the list of Kelsall's TV producer credits at
  7. 'Scottish Region Staff', circa January 1940, BBC WAC R13/372.
  8. 'Scots programme director', Press and Journal, 25 April 1940, 2.
  9. Scottish National Theatre Venture, 32.
  10. The Twelve Seasons of the Edinburgh Gateway Company; 1953–1965 (Edinburgh: St Giles Press, 1965), 41.
  11. Marshalsay, 247.
  12. Obituary, The College Courant: The journal of the Glasgow University Graduates Association, No. 65 (September 1980), 47.
  13. Peter Stubbs, 'Edinburgh history recollections', EdinPhoto, 22 September 2013.
  14. Norman Smith, 'Edinburgh history recollections', EdinPhoto, 24 January 2017.
  15. 'Your chance to buy a slice of coffee culture', Scotsman, 31 August 2002.
  16. Obituary, The College Courant: The journal of the Glasgow University Graduates Association, No. 65 (September 1980), 47.
  17. Autograms, BBC Radio 4 (Scotland), 6 March 1973.
  18. Radio Times, 17 December 1926.
  19. Radio Times, 28 January 1927.
Media offices
Preceded by
Ian Whyte
Aberdeen Station Director
Succeeded by