Obituary - William M Graham - 1936-2006

Bill Graham, who nurtured the talent of thousands of stage-struck youngsters in Central Scotland and founded in the early 1960s what was later to become Tryst Theatre, has died following a short illness.

Bill, from Grangemouth, passed away on December 30. He was admired throughout the British amateur drama world and beyond for his vision, creativity and innovative productions.

But it is for his work with Falkirk Children’s Theatre that he will be chiefly remembered with affection and respect. For thirty years Bill was the director of their annual Christmas show, bringing high-quality entertainment to the stage of the Town Hall. Featuring a huge cast of local children who filled the stage with colour, energy and enthusiasm, the shows were eagerly anticipated by Falkirk audiences and were always sold out. Standing ovations were not uncommon, and the show always ended with “Holly Jolly Christmas”, with mums, dads and grandparents joining in the fun. Scottish Television recognised the outstanding quality of the shows and broadcast many early in the New Year, putting Falkirk on the map and underscoring Bill’s reputation as Scotland’s foremost director.

It was fitting that in 1998 Bill should receive a “Great Scot” award from the Sunday Mail for his services to Scottish theatre, with particular reference to his work with Falkirk Children’s Theatre. The trophy proclaimed him as an “unsung hero”.

His talents were seen in many other ways. Falkirk District particularly benefited from his enthusiastic participation as an actor, adjudicator, speech and drama teacher, producer of Larbert High School Former Pupils’ Dramatic Society and Tryst Theatre.

Born in 1936, Bill made many notable stage appearances from an early age. Receiving the Edinburgh Schools’ Festival “A.B. Harley” Trophy in the mid 1950s alongside other illustrious actors including Alastair Sim and Betty Clark clearly demonstrating his exceptional talent for performance.

From St Andrew’s Day, 1959, when he joined the staff at Larbert High School as Drama teacher, Bill was committed to promoting the dramatic arts. His first full-length production in Larbert High, at Christmas 1961, was “Charley’s Aunt”, a resounding success.

Thereafter, year on year, the Larbert public was assured that their Christmas festivities had the best possible start by their attending the annual LHS December production. His role expanded to include involvement in Falkirk District Council’s “Accent on Schools” and Forth Valley Music Festivals, culminating in his appointment as Honorary Vice-Chairman, all of which contributed to the rich tapestry of theatre in Falkirk District and gave generations of local young people the self-confidence to perform in public.

In 1985 he reunited many Larbert former pupils for a very successful Review to celebrate the School’s Centenary.

Shortly after he joined the staff at Larbert High School, Bill founded and directed the Former Pupils’ Drama Society and within a short time the club was winning festival awards across Scotland. In 1979 the club was re-formed as Tryst Theatre, and it is still going strong today.

The following year Bill’s production of “Equus” won the British one-act Festival and further success - at the SCDA one-act Scottish Finals - was achieved with “Childhood” (1987), “Teechers” (1991) and “September in the Rain” (1995).

Bill encouraged the club to widen its horizons and participate in festivals across the UK; Welwyn, Dundalk and the Isle of Man were among the audiences who enjoyed Tryst’s productions. In 1991 he travelled with Tryst to the IATA World Festival in Halden, Norway, to perform “A Night in the Ukraine” and a few years later toured Israel with the full-length production of “September in the Rain” to great critical acclaim.

Before he founded Larbert HSFPDS, he was an active actor member of Laurieston Players, Erskine Players and Falkirk Theatre Arts, and in 1976 he appeared on the Edinburgh Fringe with SCDA Edinburgh District alongside Marilyn Gray in “The Warld’s Wonder”.

Bill’s early talents as a producer were demonstrated in the 1960s, when, with Bob Tait as Musical Director, he ventured into musicals with Bo’ness Amateur Operatic Society in “The Desert Song”, “Oklahoma” and “King’s Rhapsody” in which he also played the lead.

During his time as a long-serving member of SCDA, Bill was chairman of Falkirk District and, at the time of his death, was Honorary President of Falkirk District.

No Burns Supper was complete without Bill performing “Tam O’ Shanter”. His performance of Burns’ most famous poem was a memorable tour de force – not just for his astonishing ability to remember all the words, but because he acted out the narrative so vividly that the audience felt they were actually there with Tam and Meg!

In his role as a gifted teacher and mentor, Bill has left not just a huge legacy, but a living legacy. Around the world today there are many people who, entirely as a result of his inspired guidance and encouragement, have made the stage and the performing arts a large part of their lives on both an amateur and professional basis.

Bill truly was an “unsung hero”, Falkirk’s irreplaceable “Mr Drama”.

Jim Cairns - Tryst Theatre is a registered Scottish charity, No SC003303