Sir Compton MACKENZIE OBE (1883-1972)

Compton Mackenzie
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THIS IS YOUR LIFE – Sir Compton Mackenzie, writer and Scottish nationalist, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith.

At times an actor, political activist and broadcaster, Mackenzie is best known for his writing, in particular two comedies set in Scotland, Whiskey Galore and The Monarch of the Glen.

“a most agreeable occasion...I marvel at the accomplished presentation”

Compton Mackenzie

Compton Mackenzie and guests of This Is Your Life, on the stage of the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith

Sir Compton recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography My Life and Times, Octave 10 1953-1963.

He had been led to believe that the production team were planning a This Is Your Life surprise on his sister, the actress Fay Compton - this seemed to be the only way to coax Sir Compton to travel to London from his home in Edinburgh. His account of the lead up to the tribute includes records of various letters from the BBC team...

“On December 5th I wrote to Faith (his wife):

Fay (without knowing it) is to be ‘This Is Your Life’ on TV on December 10 at 7.15. I’ve asked her to meet me at 13C Sheffield Terrace at 5.30. I’ll be along before she arrives. It’s a nuisance to come down to London but I didn’t like to deprive her of the opportunity and they wouldn’t do it unless I agreed to come down...I must get back that night because I have to do another broadcast here next day. Phew!”

“Little did I know when I wrote that letter to Faith that on November 19th Leslie Jackson, the producer of This Is Your Life, had written to her from the Television Studios at Shepherd’s Bush:

“Dear Lady Mackenzie,

As producer of the television programme ‘This Is Your Life’ we have for some time been attempting to present the life story of Sir Compton as a long overdue tribute to him. We plan that this broadcast should come as a surprise to him, and we hope to produce it, should you be good enough to approve of the idea, on December 10th.

I should very much like to come and talk the matter over with you some day next week, and Mr Christopher Stone, who is helping us in this venture, will be telephoning you to explain the nature of the programme.

It is, of course, vital that Sir Compton does not hear of our intentions, and I would ask you to keep the matter entirely secret from him. This, I fear, sounds very mysterious, but I hope that Christopher Stone will explain everything to your satisfaction.

Yours sincerely, T. Leslie Jackson

Nor did I know that Peter Moore of This Is Your Life team had written to Chrissie:

“Dear Miss MacSween,

As Sir Compton has as I expect told you, I shall be travelling up to Edinburgh on Thursday, to keep an appointment with him at 4 o’clock. No doubt he will also have told you that he intends to travel up to London on December 9th to take part in a television programme on the evening of the 10th, so I am writing to explain to you our plans.

With the backing of Lady Mackenzie, Christopher Stone, Mrs Viola Crocker, Mr Martin Secker and others, we are hoping to present Sir Compton as the subject of a ‘This Is Your Life’ programme on December 10th. At the suggestion of Fay Compton we have adopted the simple subterfuge of inviting Sir Compton to participate in a similar programme with her as the principal subject, in whose life story he would naturally take part. When I see Sir Compton on Thursday, I shall do my best to maintain this subterfuge, (despite, no doubt, a searching inquisition) but in addition, I am most anxious to talk to you, who have also played an integral part in his life story.

I hope to fly up during the morning, and wonder whether it would be possible for you to have lunch with me, or for me to see you during the afternoon, other than at 31 Drummond Place, because, of course, Sir Compton must not know that I am also interviewing you, and hoping to persuade you to appear in the programme about his life.

Yesterday, I saw Kenny McCormick and Mr John Hope-Johnston, who will also be appearing, so I am sure you will agree that already we have a number of pleasant surprises for Sir Compton.

I shall be most grateful if you will let me know whether we may meet on Thursday before 4 o’clock. As a confidential secretary this must, I am afraid, trouble your conscience, but I am certain of persuading you of the worthiness of the cause!

Yours sincerely, Peter Moore

And I am amused to read now the letter that Chrissie wrote to Faith on November 27th:

“Peter Moore is coming up her on Thursday about this programme – not telling him of course that it is a surprise for himself – but working on the assumption that it is all for Fay. He has written to me telling me of those taking part and says I must do so also. C.M. has actually just said to me ‘I hope they are not going to spring anything on me pretending it is for Fay!’ to which I’ve replied ‘Oh no! I don’t think so for surely they would have asked me too.’ So I shall have to go on pretending not to know much about it which isn’t ever easy with him as you so well know.

Peter Moore is going to have a hard task – he doesn’t begin to know what he is up against. But that is their funeral. So I expect I shall see you next Monday week – I had no intention of coming to town at all for a very long time. There seems such a lot to do and we are getting on well with all sorts of jobs – book cataloguing, press cuttings, etc., etc. I am glad that Lily will soon be coming up.”

I was concentrated on the Winston Churchill obituary for the East and Far East which I was going to record on the day after the ‘This Is Your Life’ programme. Peter Moore had arranged with Chrissie that she was to come down to London by the night train and I upset all the arrangements by refusing to go down to London in the morning.

“You know perfectly well,” I said to Chrissie, “that I never travel by day if I can help it. You’d better ring the Savile at once and tell them to cancel my room. I don’t know why you booked it for the night of the 9th. I will be there on the night of this confounded business and I shall come back on the night of the 11th.”

When I got to the Savile I found a note from Faith to ask me not to come to Sheffield Terrace but to meet Fay at the flat in Emperor’s Gate where Lily was living with Jean and Arthur Howard. Supposing as I did that Fay was to be the subject of the programme I went on wondering why the BBC wanted her and me to go to the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, and then presumed it was because it was going to be Christopher Stone’s life.

“And where’s Jean?” I asked.

“She’s with Faith,” I was told.

When a car called to take me to Hammersmith I expected that Fay was coming with me and was surprised when Arthur Howard told me that he would be driving Fay and Lily to the theatre. I shook my head over the muddled way in which everyone was behaving and went off in the car sent for me.

Just before we reached the King’s Theatre the chauffeur turned off to the right. I asked him where he was going to which he replied "The King’s Theatre”.

“But you’re going in the wrong direction,” I protested.

“No, sir, it’s round here.”

“I know every inch of the road between Hammersmith Broadway and Addison Bridge. I could find my way blindfold to the King’s Theatre. You evidently suppose we’re going to the TV studios in Lime Grove.”

With splendid tact the chauffeur, realising that I knew where the King’s Theatre was, said quickly.

“What was I thinking of sir? I had got into my head we were going to Lime Grove.”

Whereupon he turned and we arrived at the stage door of the King’s Theatre where I was taken up to a dressing room. There I was told Eamonn Andrews would be along very soon.

“I hope he will,” I said, “I want to go through my bit about Fay before the show starts.”

Eamonn did not arrive and I began to grumble in spite of an assurance that he would soon be with me.

“Extraordinary lot of amateurs you still are at the BBC,” I grumbled. “You’re as amateurish as a film studio.”

At last Eamonn Andrews arrived and I reproached him for giving his instructions so late.

“Now, what is the first question you are going to ask me about Fay?” I said as I took my seat in the chair to which he pointed. The curtain went up and Eamonn was saying, “This Is Your Life”.

I was taken aback for a brief moment, but having been taunting the amateurishness of the BBC I had to behave professionally and I was immediately at ease. One after another of the ‘Cast’ came in – Faith, Viola, Fay, Jean, Christopher, Hope-Johnston and, to my astonishment, Chrissie whom I had left behind in Edinburgh the night before. She had flown down next morning.

To my pleasure Faith had a great success. I have beside me as I write of that December evening thirteen years ago the notes scribbled by Faith for her piece with Eamonn Andrews:

Yes. At Oxford when he was an undergraduate and a very alarming young man he was.

But you married him none the less? Despite parental opposition?

No, they had no chance of opposition. How could they? We were secretly married in church.

He had a passion for living on islands?

A passion which I shared and would again. But it has meant that in all those years we have never lived for more than seven years in one home. We lived in Capri before it became the Isle of Capree and lost its character. Then the Channel Islands, Herm the haunted and its beloved little neighbour Jethou, and then Barra in the Hebrides. Wonderful!

Happily married to a human earthquake? How have you managed it?

Well, perhaps I might quote from a poem I like very much which goes:

“Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping,

And stand together, yet not too close together,

For all pillars of the temple stand apart

And the oak and the cypress do not grow in each other’s shade.”

That’s all but I might put it more simply. Love and let live. Is that enough?

Faith had a heavy mail from viewers, many of whom asked where they could find the words she had quoted. They come from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran published by Heinemann. I have not read the book myself.

Faith had such a success with her part in This Is Your Life that the BBC asked her to repeat her extract in another programme they were doing. I have never heard of any other extract from This Is Your Life being given an encore.

I have been in the lives of three or four other people since then not to mention various others of Eamonn Andrews' programmes, and I record now my admiration for his unique gift for putting people at their ease under the lights of television, and also my affection for him.

In the show’s Flashback programme broadcast in June 1957, Lady Mackenzie reads an extract from Gibran’s The Prophet, originally read to her husband, Sir Compton, on his ‘Life”

programme details...

  • Edition No: 21
  • Subject No: 21
  • Broadcast live: Mon 10 Dec 1956
  • Broadcast time: 7.15-7.45pm
  • Venue: King’s Theatre Hammersmith
  • Series: 2
  • Edition: 6

on the guest list...

  • Fay Compton
  • Viola Crocker
  • Martin Secker
  • John Hope-Johnstone
  • Christopher Stone
  • Faith Mackenzie - wife
  • Chrissie MacSween
  • Eric Linklater
  • Jean Howard

external links...

production team...

  • Researchers: Peter Moore, Nigel Ward
  • Writer: Gale Pedrick
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
names listed in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
Series 2 subjects: Peter Scott > Ada Reeve > Peter Methven > Susan Ryder > Harry S Pepper > Compton Mackenzie > Maud Fairman > Billy Smart > Brian Hession > John Barbirolli > Duncan Guthrie > Esmond Knight > Sammy McCarthy > Edwin Madron > Diana Dors > Parry Jones > Percy Flood > G H Elliott > Stuart Hibberd