BILLY SUTER chats to seasoned Scottish comedian TONY STEWART, a stalwart of local comedy, long settled in South Africa, who many fondly recall from SABC television’s mid-’70s hit series, Biltong and Potroast. That show, which ran for five years, was devised to pit South Africa’s finest comedians against comics from Europe in an improvisational contest which saw host Clark ‘Clackie‘ McKay awarding points based on the quality of jokes on a series of randomly selected topics. Stewart is scheduled to perform at Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre in Cunningham Road, Umbilo, at 6pm on Friday and Saturday (April 7 and 8) and 2pm and 6.30pm on Sunday (April 9). Tickets cost R100 each (a special Easter Madness reduced price). Book at Computicket or phone Roland at 082 499 8636.
WHAT CAN FANS EXPECT OF YOUR SHOWS AT THE RHUMBELOW IN DURBAN?
They can expect a great, fun night of laughter centred on topics of everyday life.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU PERFORM THESE DAYS – WHAT SORT OF GIGS AND HOW FAR FIELD?
As often as I want to – I perform at everything from corporates and golf days to private functions, clubs and theatre. I have just returned from performing in the UK and Spain. My last show before returning home was entertaining ex-pats now living in the UK.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST PERFORM IN DURBAN… AND WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR HEYDAY AT THE CRAZY HORSE VENUES ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA?
I first performed in Durban at the Mayfair Supper Club, in 1970. The last time was in February this year, at Highfields House.
I appeared at the Crazy Horse venues from 1975, on numerous occasions. They were some of the best venues in South Africa. There was live backing and it was very professionally run.
People went out to be entertained and enjoy themselves with dinner, dancing and cabaret … times long since gone.
The Durban Crazy Horse was always my favourite. Karl, the maitre’d, just added that final touch.
WHERE WERE YOU BORN – AND ARE YOU FROM A SHOWBIZ FAMILY?
I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, at a time when there was no such thing as “texting”.
My father was a musician, my mother was a dancer and my grandfather was a singer who worked for music hall impresario Fred Karno, who discovered Charlie Chaplin.
YOU STARTED IN SHOWBIZ AT THE AGE OF 16 – IN A CIRCUS? PLEASE ELABORATE ON THAT… AND BRIEFLY EXPLAIN HOW YOU TRANSITIONED FROM THAT TO A CAREER IN COMEDY.
I was in the circus, yes. I worked with the clowns in sketches and was the youngest clown at 16. I enjoyed the laughter.
At night, after the show, circus folk would gather together, chat and tell jokes. That is when I realised I preferred the verbal to the mime.
At the age of 17, I started telling jokes in the working men’s clubs in the north- east of England.
WHAT, BRIEFLY, WERE SOME HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR EARLY SHOWBIZ DAYS ON STAGE AND TV IN THE UK?
Performing in some of Britain’s great theatres. Meeting the greats of the entertainment world. Being the opening act for some great stars… and working with great comedians of the day on TV.
YOU HAVE SHARED SPOTLIGHTS WITH CLIFF RICHARD, ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK AND JANE RUSSELL, AMONG OTHERS. TELL ME HOW YOU GOT TO RUB SHOULDERS WITH THESE THREE STARS IN PARTICULAR.
I was booked to appear on their shows. Cliff Richard was a real gentleman. Engelbert Humperdink was very down to earth. Jane Russell was a real star.
WHAT OTHER FAMOUS FOLK HAVE YOU RUBBED SHOULDERS WITH IN YOUR CAREER – AND OF THEM ALL, WHO STANDS OUT AS MOST MEMORABLE ?
I made friends with Cameron Mitchell (Uncle Buck from the western TV series, The High Chapparall) and met (Royal Air Force war hero pilot) Douglas Bader. I also met and had dinner with Ian Smith, former Prime Minister of the then-Rhodesia.
The one who stands out the most was Nelson Mandela. It was at the Kruger Park that I had the pleasure of shaking hands and speaking to Madiba.
Everyone else shook hands and walked away. I took my hat off and greeted him: “Mr President, it’s an honour and a pleasure to meet you”. Looking at me, he said: “How can someone so young have such grey hair”. It is a great memory.
WHEN AND WHY DID YOU INITIALLY COME TO SOUTH AFRICA? ALSO, WHERE IS HOME THESE DAYS?
After the Mayfair gig in Durban, I returned to the UK to perform. Then, in 1975, I returned to South Africa to perform at The Gooderson Hotels. Home now is in Johannesburg – and I share it with my wife (a Durban girl), two dogs and 13 cats that are more vicious than the dogs.
HOW BIG A DEAL WAS ‘BILTONG AND POTROAST’ FOR YOU IN THE MID-’70S WHEN IT BECAME A TOP FAVOURITE WITH TV VIEWERS?
It was a very big deal. It put SA comedians on the map and made us household names. Others on the ‘Biltong’ team were Len Davis, Mel Miller, Cyril Green and Durban boy Noel Glover, sadly passed away. Also Dennis McLean, also sadly passed away. The ‘Potroast’ team included myself, Allen Field, Johnny Noble and Paul Andrews (also, sadly, passed away). I enjoyed them all!
WHAT DO YOU MOST MISS (AND MOST NOT MISS) FROM THOSE DAYS?
I will never forget the excitement of performing for the shows with the guys… and the one and only Clark McKay. I don’t miss the SABC censorship of those days.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON LOCAL COMEDY TODAY – AND THE MANY NEW COMICS WHO SEEM TO POP UP WEEKLY?
It’s easier for today’s comics. They have good sound and lighting, and no censorship. It’s a difficult career, but I wish them every success and to follow their dreams.
WHAT COMEDIANS DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
Comedy has changed so much and most of the comedians I enjoyed have since passed on. The comedy I enjoy most is joke-telling. On March 20, at Parker’s Comedy Club In Johannesburg, four of the original Biltong and Potroast comedians, including myself, had an outstanding reunion to a sell-out audience. We had a standing ovation that lasted two minutes!
YOU APPEARED IN THREE FILMS SHOT IN SOUTH AFRICA, WHAT WERE THEY AND WHAT WERE YOUR ROLES? ALSO, PLEASE ELABORATE ON THE FILM YOU DID IN WHICH YOU PLAYED A TOWN CRIER, OPPOSITE THE LATE OLIVER REED.
One was Agent Orange which, due to politics, was released as The Cane Fields. My part was that of a killer.
Another was Samantha’s Men, starring David Bradley, who also starred in the film Kez. I played the part of an eccentric professor.
The third was Dragonart, in which I played a town crier, and which saw Oliver Reed and I became friends. He was a really nice man, word perfect, never missed a cue and only drank after filming.
I had to borrow his pirate boots for the film, as the ones they gave me didn’t fit over my calves because of my body-building as a younger man. I kept building as a younger man.
I kept in contact with Reed whilst he was living in Germany, in The Channel Islands.
WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?
Well-dressed (on stage and off). Short-tempered (I am Scottish). Loyal. Animal Lover. Very nostalgic.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW?
I enjoy sketching. I also enjoy camping.
After an appendix operation I missed my summer season and ended up as box-office manager at the Lyceum Ballroom in London, where I assisted Eric Morley in the 1958 Miss World pageant.
YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENTS ON STAGE?
Going on stage unaware that my fly was undone… and getting laughs in the strangest places.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘VASTLY OVERRATED’?
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SURPRISING THING SOMEONE HAS SAID OF YOU?
Being called “one of the godfathers of SA comedy”.
WHAT IS THE WORST TROUBLE YOU HAVE EVER BEEN IN?
It was after dodging school for two weeks to go fishing… and having to face the headmaster – and the cane – on my return.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED – AND WHO GAVE IT?
Issy Bonn, who was my manager when I first started out, told me: “Be the best you can and treat every show as a first night”.