Betty Clarkson (1920-2020), recounting tales of her days in Variety Theatre as part of the 2019 live production with Paul Matthews
Clarkson & Leslie
Just before the year was out, Elizabeth Gemmell Leslie Clarkson (nee Wemyss) was born in Gayfield Square, Edinburgh, on the cusp of December 31st, 1920. She was the eldest of three Wemyss children, with two brothers Tom and Bill, and before stepping foot into the schoolyard, Betty was taking dance classes just before her fifth birthday as a local dance school run by her mother’s cousin.
Growing up in a boarding house named The Wemyss Theatrical Boarding House, the adoration for the theatre was evident, with both of her parents and grandparents being avid fans of the arts. One of these kind lodgers staying in the house taught Betty the art of tap, on the Edinburgh Empire stage no less. Soaking in the culture, she gathered tips, tricks and was lucky enough to accompany many more to the stage door, and occasionally backstage. Desperate to have her time in the light, the shining appeal of London, and the bigger auditions, crossed Betty’s thoughts.
At the tender age of fifteen, under the illusion of a holiday with her cousin, Betty was secretly auditioning for productions without her parent’s know-how. A mere week later, she was touring and performing with the Danny Lipton Trio as a tap artist, performing three shows a day – pray for those tired feet. Over the following decade, this was Betty’s life with the Trio, which later became The Liptonettes, where she would meet lifelong friends and performers Marie and Mina.
Then it happened, the inevitable. The roguish charm of a young dancer and musician called George caught her attention, whose fate had already crossed Betty’s after once staying at the boarding home with his father George Clarkson Sr., a prestigious Variety act in his own right. The two kept in contact during their touring years, and just as George was called up during the war, the two married on April 12th 1944 at Robbs restaurant Motherwell.
After George had served two terms for his country, the pair were inseparable and formed a double act, with George choreographing the routines and providing the musical composition. They dubbed themselves Clarkson & Leslie, Betty taking the stage name Gail Leslie. Performing together for years, not only in the UK but across the globe, the pair acted independently, and similar to Marie and The Raymond Sisters, on the Moss Empire circuit.
First, though, they were signed to tour the far east with Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) for a year, which propelled the two across Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Burma. For much of the forties through to the early sixties, Clarkson & Leslie continued touring, often with CSE, and spending numerous summers at British favourite Butlins. Here they would strike friendships with a variety of household names: Morecambe & Wise, Terry & June and dear Ol’ Des O’Connor.
And if you’re lucky enough to stay at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, you may just spot a photograph of the pair in their Scottish dress mid-performance – a reminder of the legacy the pair would weave. It would be the sixties when the pair would enter into a touring partnership with Moss Empire, but still ardent travellers Betty found herself performing in Europe, Canada and the States.
Then, the show had run its course, and reality was knocking on the door, Betty and George called it a day and halted their dancing over continents to begin a larger, arguably more daunting task, raising a family. A change in career, and of course they couldn’t help but travel once more, Betty and George emigrated to Manitoba, Canada to open a restaurant. With Betty in the kitchen, George returned to his roots and performed piano, singing and dancing for the customers. Like many though, it didn’t take long before Caledonia was calling, and homesickness set in.
There’s No Place Like Home
Returning home, Betty would return to the arts, this time backstage but prominently featured all the same. As a dresser for the BBC, the costume creations she helped stitch and maintain would appear on some of the channels landmark productions: The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Blue Peter, and Terry & June. George meanwhile was also working with previous Butlin’s Redcoat veteran Des O’Connor, becoming his road manager and musical director. They both found a place in life, with a family, each other and an industry where they worked alongside old friends. At the age of fifty-two, George sadly passed from a heart attack, and Betty would miss him every day.
A profoundly strong woman who took life as it came, Betty continued to live her life and in an act of kindness and a recognition of her merit, Des O’Connor persuaded Betty to work with him as his secretary. For five years Betty would terrorise the streets of London in a mustard coloured mini, dealing with fan mail, Des’ engagements and assisting his family, but another old friend would beckon. Auntie Beeb, the very same BBC she had worked for previously welcomed Betty back.
Never one to remain stagnant, following her retirement from the BBC Betty would take up a variety of pastimes and activities, including joining the Scottish Music Hall Society and the Grand Order of Lady Ratlings, where her dedication to remaining turned-out and dressed to the nines served Betty to dazzle at the balls, parties and events she attended to raise money for charity.
In Betty’s later life, after being contacted by Doreen, she would gracefully join our community here with An Audience With…. An invaluable talent, Betty’s vivid memories enabled her to pass a life’s worth of experience onto younger generations, and trading stories with other variety performers of the era. Just before her 99th birthday, Betty would don her tap shoes once more with Katie, whom she would teach her trademark steps that would be performed as part of a routine in the live show.
Aunty Bet, as she would be known by her family and close connections, or Gail as her name had once been to her theatre friends, lived into her hundredth year, a fantastic accomplishment, and with how much she packed in, she lived every second of it.
“You gain knowledge every time you perform: you gain knowledge of some kind.”.June Don Murray- An Audience With…