FIONA Clyne was a successful Scottish theatre and film actress whose talent suggested that she could have gone on to reach even greater heights, according to a major film magazine of the period.
Clyne, who enjoyed hugely successful stints at the likes of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, appearing alongside such names as Duncan Macrae, Fulton Mackay and Stanley Baxter, became a rep theatre stalwart in venues across the UK.
At one point in the Fifties, she landed a contract with Ealing Films, and had roles in such hits as The Maggie (1954, directed by Alexander MacKendrick) and The Bridal Path (1959, Frank Launder). Indeed, there was a perception that Hollywood would come calling.
Yet in a tale that was so much of its time, the Wick-born performer chose to put family before personal success, having already broken free of the expectations placed upon her.
Clyne was born Euphemia Margaret Clyne in the Noss peninsula near Wick, in Caithness, a remote area with a wildly dramatic landscape. The Clynes were a local success story; Fiona’s grandfather had been a butcher’s messenger boy who was left the shop in a will and went on to develop a successful farm and business interests.
Her parents, gentleman farmer George, and Caroline (nee Doull, a former nurse who met her future husband after she treated him for glandular fever) were devoted to their children. They never, however, imagined a life for Fiona and her brothers, Alister and Noss, beyond rearing livestock and growing farm produce.
Young Fiona dreamed of a world beyond Cheviot sheep. Her portal to another more exciting, adventurous life was the cinema in Wick. “My mother was obsessed with the movies, and Shirley Temple films in particular,” recalls her son Colin Gilbert, who created Scotland’s Comedy Unit TV production company. “However, she and Alister had to persuade Noss to hitch up the pony and trap to take them into Wick to see the films because Noss wasn’t that interested.”
Though she “adored” her parents she was desperate to get away from the farm. “Any daughter in this sort of world was treated as an unpaid skivvy”, says Colin. She joined the Wick Players and evolved a plan to study at RADA and move to London. Coincidentally, fate was to deliver a young man into her arms who shared the same dream.
Jimmy Gilbert was an RAF airman from Edinburgh, stationed in Wick. One day, he and a fellow airman took a fancy for fresh eggs and decided to brave the blizzards. They landed at Noss Farm, where Jimmy’s eye was caught by the teenage girl who had been sent into the hen house to fetch the eggs. “In came Fiona, the hen girl”, he recalled many years later. “A bit not too keen to pass eggs onto these RAF people.’
The dashing young airman concocted a plan to woo her, borrowing a copy of J.T. Calder’s History of Caithness from her father as a ruse, in order to return it. His scheme worked: “Later I heard her rehearse her lines for the RADA audition by this ruined castle, down by the cliffs. It was very romantic”.
Gilbert himself contrived to go to RADA with a view to training as a film director. It worked perfectly. On graduation in 1948, the pair found themselves at the Citizens. “The Gorbals had a terrifying reputation at the time,” says Colin, “and my parents were told to be worried about the local gangsters. But the reality was that the gangsters looked after the actors. They adopted a responsibility for them”.
Fiona married Jimmy in 1951 and worked with a range of rep companies, including Dundee and Perth, and starred in productions such as Bunty Pulls The Strings, by the Glasgow-born playwright Graham Moffat. “She worked in rep in Stockport at one time,” says Colin. “One morning she woke up in her digs and heard the sound of a loud rattling outside. It was the local men going to work in their clogs.”
Clyne made newspaper headlines in 1954 when she landed a key role in the Ealing production, The Maggie.
Jimmy’s own career, however, was progressing even faster. In 1956, he wrote a substantial West End hit, Grab Me A Gondola, and he went on to became a hugely successful TV producer and director, launching Stanley Baxter onto television in 1959. He later developed talents such as David Frost and the Python team, and Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, in a range of TV revue shows and sitcoms.
Fiona settled in Richmond, Surrey, with three children, Colin, Susan (who became an actor) and Julia (a TV scriptwriter). But her career slid to a near-standstill. “My father wasn’t available to help with childcare,” says Colin, “although my mother was quite feisty about men doing their share of housework, because of the experience down on the farm.”
There is little doubt that Fiona could have achieved career success. A film magazine of the time headlined a ‘What could have been’ article about her ‘The Star They Left Behind.’
She moved away from the spotlight and went on to run a children’s playgroup. But would she have been happier acting? “I asked her about that and she pulled out a scrapbook, with cuttings about her career,” says her son.
Did this indicate she really missed performance? “Perhaps, but when you have children it’s hard to make the 5am calls at Pinewood. And of course, my father’s career had taken off, with the likes of The Frost Report and The Good Life.”
Fiona, who was described by friends as “a force of nature”, never gave up her love of watching theatre. And family life was near-perfect.
“I heard my mother boss my father around at times,” says Colin with a smile, “but I never heard a full-scale argument. And there was a great group of ex-pats who used to spend weekends with us such as John Grieve, Fulton Mackay, Paul Curran, Joe Brady and Roddy McMillan. She was also used to famous people like Ronnies Barker and Corbett coming to dinner, just another couple of pals”.
Jimmy died in 2016, and Fiona moved to Rodborough, Gloucestershire, to be near Julia’s family. “She had a great life,” recalls Colin. “It’s hard to feel sad for her because she enjoyed so much almost right up to the end, fading out at the age of 94.”
Her love of a party was reflected in her instructions: “She didn’t want a funeral. She wanted the family to have champagne and remember her that way.”
She was a great encourager, believing that you should follow the dream – even if you deviate along the way. “The best piece of advice she gave me was, ‘Don’t become a farmer’, Colin says with a smile. “My mother thought because I’d spent so much time in Wick I may consider it. She thought television would be far more civilised.”