Tom Gallacher: A Particular Man

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tom_gallacher420NOT many people can be described as ‘a one-off’, but that description certainly applied to Garelochhead playwright Tom Gallacher.

Tom was very particular that it was Gallacher with a ‘c’ and not a ‘g’, but then Tom was a very particular man and he had very special talents. Let me give you a flavour . . .

It was in the first week of my journalistic career in the mid-1960s, as a part-time reporter at the then Helensburgh and Gareloch Times that I met Tom — at the old police station in Sinclair Street.

I can picture him clearly, wearing an immaculate green suit, as often as not a green tie, and a small green pork pie hat. He was the ever-so-courteous reporter for our ‘deadly rival’, the Helensburgh Advertiser, and we met each morning to be told by bar officer Bill Williamson all that had happened in the town and district in the previous 24 hours.

That was in the days before computers, of course, and the boys in blue wrote or typed details of everything on sundry message pads. Bill, or colleagues such as John Stewart or Duncan McAuley, would leaf through these pads and give us all the titbits.

Well, almost all; some were deemed too sensitive, and reporters rapidly became adept at reading message pads upside down at five yards. We also established long-lasting friendships with these officers based on mutual respect — today in the computer and mobile phone age such personal contact is a rarity.

Despite our rivalry, Tom and I got on well from day one. Raw and clutching a traditional reporter’s notebook, I was enormously jealous of Tom, who used what I think was a gas meter reader’s leather-bound folder and pad to take his notes, which looked so professional.

He was very much a mentor to me, not only in extracting minute detail from the police, but also in the many other places we met.

Sitting in a quite enormous carved wooden chair in the corner of what was then the Helensburgh District Council Chamber in West King Street, he introduced me to such formidable characters as the chairman, Max Wilkinson, and the indomitable duo, Miss Ellis Napier and Mrs Marie Dick, then guided me through the intricacies of the council, and of the Helensburgh Area Education Sub-Committee, which dealt with local school matters.

On another day it would be Helensburgh Town Council in the Municipal Buildings, where Provost J.McLeod Williamson and Bailies Alex Gillespie and Jimmy Urquhart presided over a dozen-strong and very independent and non-political council. Five of them had been colonels.

We also made a regular trip, which I particularly enjoyed, to a wee room at the top of Cove Burgh Hall for the always entertaining if sometimes none too proper meetings of Cove and Kilcreggan Town Council which, led by Provost James M.Roy and colourful ex-Provost Billy Cowan, presided over Scotland’s smallest burgh.

This excellent introduction to local journalism only lasted for 18 months before Tom decided to leave the Advertiser, talked me into succeeding him, and went to seek his fortune. His regular anguished cry of “Stories? Don’t tell me any more stories!” was heard no more.

But for this former draughtsman at Denny’s Shipyard in Dumbarton and keen amateur actor, a third career and professional theatrical fame lay just around the corner.

The amateur side of his later career in drama also emphasised the particular nature of the man. He was a stalwart actor, writer and producer with Dumbarton People’s Theatre, and also on occasion with Helensburgh Theatre Arts Club, and was very highly regarded by his peers.

He held very strongly to the view that, as the public paid for tickets to amateur productions, therefore they must be of the highest possible standard.

On one occasion this belief resulted in him being involved in a storm of controversy. In a crit of a Helensburgh Amateur Operatic Society show in the Victoria Hall he remarked on what he considered to be a below-par performance from a member of the dancing troupe.

In fact this dancer had overcome great personal difficulties and it was a triumph that she should perform on a stage at all. Tom was totally unrepentant, maintaining that as the majority of the paying audience did not know this, the quality of the production suffered.

He was every bit as firm with professional theatre companies who performed his works, and as one of the most prominent members of the Scottish Society of Playwrights he campaigned vigorously for fair treatment for his fellow writers.

There was another unusual way in which Tom demonstrated his single-mindedness. When an amateur company puts on a play, it generally involves the producer holding auditions, selecting the cast, and conducting some eight weeks of rehearsals as the production takes shape.

After the final dress rehearsal, most producers then watch each actual performance and afterwards smooth out any difficulties or suggest possible improvements. Not Tom, however. He considered that his job as producer was done by the time the curtain rose on the first performance, and rarely attended.

In 1997 Tom sent me a short story he had written entitled ‘Remembering Clare’, as we were toying with the idea of a fictional local series featuring real local people. That never came to fruition, but its opening two sentences tells much about the author . . .

“If you wait long enough, everything falls in place. Of course the completed platform may not be one you would have chosen — or even guessed at — but there is great satisfaction in having proof that life sometimes imitates art.”

  • Tom Gallacher died in October 2001 at the age of 69.