Fred MacAulay | Creating His Own Luck
Golf-mad comedian Fred MacAulay was proud to be at Gleneagles last September when the 40th Ryder Cup teed off. This once-in-a-lifetime event was unmissable for the star.
Not only that, heading to Gleneagles was like going home for Fred, who was born and raised in Perthshire.
“Yes. PerthSHIRE. My old man always got on to me for saying I was from Perth.”
Growing up was a bit of a whirlwind tour through the area for the MacAulay family. While his mother was pregnant with Fred, his father became a policeman. This led to a move to Callander when he was just a baby.
By the time he started school they had graduated to Killin, then another posting took the family to Rattray, where Fred started secondary school at Blairgowrie High.
“We were only there for my first couple of years at high school,” he says, “then my dad was transferred to Scone, so I finished school at Perth Academy.”
The mainly rural upbringing did provide Fred with two of his great loves – golf, as we have seen (playing and watching), and skiing.
“My dad was really keen that we did sports,” Fred adds. “He didn’t get the chance to do anything like that himself and thought it was an important part of our lives. “My uncle introduced me to skiing actually, and I’ll always be grateful for that. I must have only been about ten years old. We weren’t exactly kitted out in the best of gear, though. I wore denim hipster jeans on the slopes. My mum sewed elastic into the bottoms so they looked more like ski pants and wouldn’t ride up.”
Fred gets quite emotional when he recalls the effort that his father would make to ensure that his equipment was as good as it possibly could be.
“My heart aches just thinking about that”
“I had wooden skis with painted soles. Every week he would screw in new edges and fill in the holes that were made by hitting stones. He would then repaint them and wax them and always made sure that they were ready for the weekend again. It was a real labour of love. My heart aches just thinking about that.”
Fred also recalls a trip to Switzerland with the Scouts. Every other boy had a rucksack, but he was dragging a suitcase with wellies tied to the handle by his dad.
“I’m sure he thought that I would need them when we went up the Jungfrau – it was never less than about 95 degrees, of course.”
The rural idyll also involved some work during the school holidays, however. Living at the heart of Scotland’s soft fruit county, there were days spent at “the berries”, picking raspberries and strawberries. Later in the year, it was “the tatties”, but Fred not only had a hand in picking – or tattie howkin’ – but roguing in the summer, examining the plants and disposing of weeds or anything else that might jeopardise the crop.
“We liked the hard labour,” he laughs
“I was a good berry picker. I liked the rasps but not the strawbs so much… that was back-breaking work. I see they have them up on tables now. Ach, we liked the hard labour.” He laughs.
“The roguing was much more refined, usually the job of sons of Perthshire farmers – apart from those who were away at boarding school. They became tattie inspectors!”
The reward came at the end of those weeks of labour. “You’ll not believe this. We were taken to Perth and were allowed to make a contribution towards our new school uniforms. We got to keep some of it, but most of it went towards a new blazer!”
Although home life involved watching the same classic TV comedy as the rest of the country, Fred’s interest in performing comedy came later.
“We did watch Porridge, which I did as a specialist subject on Mastermind at Christmas, but stand-up didn’t really exist on TV in the same way as it does now.”
Like any future comedian, Fred studied accountancy at Dundee University, where he later became rector.
“I took four years to achieve a three-year degree, but university is more than that. The first year was learning how to get drunk. It didn’t happen too often. I was an immature eighteen-year-old who still looked fourteen.”
Apart from a fondness for Mennie’s pub (Speedwell Bar) on the Perth Road, mince rolls in the Tav Bar on the Hawkhill after the football on Saturday, and watching a band called Skeets Boliver featuring a young musician by the name of Michael Marra, Dundee also introduced him to Aileen, often referred to on-air as “Mrs Fred”. Thirty years and three grown children later, they are still a devoted couple.
“We corresponded by letter – that’s unthinkable now”
“Aileen was the sister of a girl I was at university with. We corresponded by letter for a long time – that’s unthinkable now – because I moved back to Perth for work after graduation. I was really touched to find out, quite recently, that she still has letters from that time.”
Royal Mail cashed in when Fred moved to work as an accountant with the Cairngorm Ski Lift Company in Aviemore – quite the opportunity for a keen skier. During his three years here, his stand-up education really began with a collection of comedy LPs.
Finally, the time came for Fred and Aileen to be together. The move to Glasgow and a job with Pitlochry Knitwear (in East Kilbride, confusingly) coincided with the decision to try out this stand-up thing.
“I entered a competition but didn’t even get placed”
“The question was how? Where do you do it? How do you go about it? I entered a competition in Glasgow in 1988 called So You Think You’re Funny? I didn’t even get placed but I knew right away it was what I wanted to do.”
A first paid gig came in October of that year and soon he found himself in something of a comedy collective called The Funny Farm, with stand-ups such as Bruce Morton and Stu Who.
“Scottish TV came along and said they wanted to put on a show called The Funny Farm. That was our name so we negotiated with them. They could use the name if they donated £5000. We used that to buy equipment so we could put on gigs ourselves.”
Putting in the hours and the miles, with gigs at London’s Comedy Store from the early 1990s, Fred was pretty quickly in the position where he could pack away the calculator and make a living as a full-time comedian.
“The bosses didn’t fall off their chairs – they had been at my Profit and Loss accounts for years.”
Building an audience takes time, but after his 1994 Fringe show, Fred was asked to perform in Australia for two months – so of course, Aileen and the kids went too.
“It was 1995 that started the real break into telly. I had been doing the warm-up spot for Have I Got News For You for a couple of years, but that year I was asked to be on a team. From there I was asked to do a lot of Radio 4 shows like Just A Minute and The News Quiz.”
One of the biggest changes he has seen is the coverage of stand-up on television
Fred admits things have changed. “They used to try to recreate the feel of a comedy club but it doesn’t work. The big theatre with bright lights and a huge audience seems to work – and has created a load of multi-millionaire stand ups.”
With a hunger for watching comedy, Fred says there are many stand-ups out there writing better material than those who are selling out stadium tours. “It’s a combination of material and stage presence, but also – and there’s no other word for it – luck.”
Let’s hope Fred continues to create his own luck for a very long time to come.