I never met my father-in-law. When I married his son Alan in 1987, James George Robins Millar would have been 98 years old. But I have always been fascinated by his life. He was a Glasgow newspaperman – columnist, feature writer, short story author, editor of the Evening News and respected theatre and music critic of the Scottish Daily Express, a playwright with successes on Broadway and in the West End, a poet and a cartoonist. A true polymath.
He was married three times and had three children, painted prolifically and was given to occasional bizarre behaviours – taking a spirit stove and leg of pork on holiday to a Parisian hotel immediately springs to mind. I wanted to take a close look at Robins, his life and work, and 2008 seemed to be a particularly fitting time. It marks the 40th anniversary of his death in 1968 and it is 80 years since the staging of his most successful theatrical production, 'Thunder in the Air.'
Robins was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, on 28 February, 1889. His father, the Rev James Millar, was the last Church of Scotland minister to be sent out to Vancouver Island, not as any sort of missionary but because a good many Scots were working in the coal mines there. His mother, Annie Ferries, trained to become a nurse when she knew her husband-to-be was to be sent overseas.
Their first-born was named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers but the name Robins – the one that was always used to prevent favouring the name of either grandfather – was the surname of a Nanaimo parishioner, Samuel Robins. Judging from the article written by the Rev Millar (under a female pseudonym), published in the Canadian Presbyterian of Toronto on 4 February 1891, Samuel Robins may well have been the only person in that bleak Canadian town to show the Millar family any friendship or charity.
After travelling from Scotland for more than a month, 'for three days we were left severely alone to wander round the place looking for the town and trying to pick up many things that would make our house look inhabited,' the Rev Millar wrote. Eventually, visitors did call at the manse 'though we had scarcely a place to receive them in, or a chair for them to sit on. These visits did their best, however, in one direction. They warned me against making friends of this one and that one in the congregation and city until almost everybody who had called had been held up as one to be avoided.'
Ultimately, the 'cold indifference' of the locals gave way to 'active opposition and open ridicule. They made things as unbearable as could be.'
A daughter, Nan, was born in Nanaimo in 1890 and then Rev Millar secured a posting to Buffalo, New York State, where Annie was born in 1892, followed by Mary in 1893. A further posting to Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) saw the birth of Bill in 1897.
In 1899, the family returned to Glasgow – the first time Robins had been to Scotland – and rented a house in Arundel Drive, Langside, on the city's south side. Their last child, Eric, was born there in October 1899. Just two months later, the children's mother was dead from TB, aged 39, and family life was shattered forever.
The Rev Millar returned to Georgetown with Mary, Bill and Eric. Nan and Annie went to live at a Church of Scotland home for the children of ministers working overseas and Robins went to stay with his uncle William.
Eventually, gradually, all the Millar children returned to Glasgow for their secondary education and were billeted with strict cousin Mary Goldie. Family rumours persist that 'Cousin Mary,' having been burdened with his six children, expected a proposal of marriage from the widowed Rev Millar. It never came. In 1903 he married Hannah Gibson and remained overseas. He died in 1914.
By now living in Alexandra Parade, Dennistoun, Robins attended Whitehill School. He also attended design, drawing, painting and life classes at Glasgow School of Art between 1911 and 1916, where he made a lifelong friend, painter Archibald McGlashan (1888-1980). By the outbreak of the first world war he was working in some administrative or clerical capacity within a hospital, probably Ruchill, and submitting stories to local newspapers. In 1914 he was also drawing cartoons for the socialist publication, Forward. (Robins was turned down for military service because of his poor eyesight.) In one of his diaries, he refers to a discussion with 'Johnston' about Forward's anti-war stance.
Johnston was Tom Johnston, who founded the weekly paper, the official organ of the Independent Labour Party in Scotland, in 1906 and edited it for 27 years. It was banned for a time in 1916 for alleged 'treasonable activity.'
At the end of his life Robins was a Tory voter. But the many cartoons he had published in Forward were left wing. Did these cartoons reflect the politics of his youth? Or did their commission simply offer him a creative outlet he could not refuse? There are no clues.
One cartoon, published in Forward on 8 August 1914, has the title 'Death and the Profit Ghouls.' It depicts a battlefield strewn with the dead, the dying and the trappings of war. A huge spectral figure of a soldier dominates. Nearby two well-padded, pinstripe-wearing, top-hatted gents are chatting. The caption reads: 'The workers of Europe are being slain in their thousands while devastation, famine and pestilence overshadow their families in a war entirely directed for the benefit of wealthy exploiters.'
In another, published on 5 December 1914, an enormous moustachioed man, again in pinstripes, and clutching a union flag, sits in a chair and observes a poorly-dressed, desperate-looking couple with child clinging to them. Behind the portly toff is the skeletal figure of death – with scythe – and the word 'Famine' emblazoned on his chest. The caption says: 'Working men are being hounded on to sacrifice their lives by men who have no intention of doing it themselves. Meanwhile, owing to the miserable pittance they are offered, the spectre of famine menaces the families they leave behind.'
In 1915 the Glasgow Evening News was launched and Robins became a reporter on the paper. In 1917, aged 28, he married 21-year-old Edith Gordon and, after the birth of their first child the following year, the family moved, initially to a rented flat in Renfrew Street and later, with his mother-in-law in tow, to a rented flat on the second floor at 9 Park Quadrant, a prestigious address overlooking Kelvingrove Park and Glasgow University. Ultimately, he was able to buy this property although another family rumour persists that, at some point in the 1930s, during what would appear to have become an increasingly sterile marriage to Edith, he rented a pied-a-terre somewhere in town in order to enjoy some extra-marital comforts.
The marriage produced two children, Gordon in 1918 and Joyce in 1926 but eventually Edith left him for John Fletcher, an English army officer whom she met when houses in Park Circus were commandeered by the army during the second world war. Edith's kitchen overlooked these houses and the romance between her and John started with surreptitious waves from their respective windows.
Edith must have often been left alone, for the 1920s and 30s were Robins' most productive decades in terms of his playwriting. Among his personal notes is a list of his plays – there are over 50. Next to a handful he has written 'not acted' but others bear various legends: acted by the Masque Theatre at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow; acted at the Curtain Theatre, Glasgow; the Duke of York's, London; the Lyceum, Edinburgh; the Lyric, Glasgow; the Citizens', Glasgow; the Casino Theatre, Monte Carlo.
His first plays were written in 1921 – 'Let Greytown Flourish' (acted by the Scottish National Players in the mid-20s) and 'The Shawlie.' In his foreword to 'The Shawlie,' which is set in Glasgow's Cowcaddens, he states the year the play was written. 'The point is not of any importance,' he writes, 'except for the chance that one of these years a spendthrift collector of curiosities may pick it out of the twopenny shelf and, finding it about Cowcaddens, may visit the locality; and then may be disappointed to discover that it has become a garden suburb, all tennis lawns, geranium boxes and chaperones. These changes occur in time.'
His aim in the play, he states, is 'simply to picture a slum whose residents are real enough to like it; who find it rich in the warmer amenities; who are also so exasperating as to have no longing to leave it.'
In her book 'The Activities of Popular Dramatists and Drama in Scotland: 1900-1952,' Linda Mackenney describes' The Shawlie' as 'a lively and stimulating piece' which, although it never quite escapes 'the middle class writer's obsession with personal morals,' can be seen, she suggests, as a precursor to Glasgow Unity Theatre's post-war plays including Robert McLeish's 'The Gorbals Story' (1946) and Ena Lamont Stewart's 'Men Should Weep' (1947).
However, it was his third play – 'Thunder in the Air' – which built his international reputation as a playwright. Written in 1928, the play, about a young man killed in the first world war who reappears in various guises before several people who had known him when alive, was launched with great success on 5 April 1928 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. Among the cast members was Margaret Scudamore, the mother of Sir Michael Redgrave and progenitor of the Redgrave dynasty of actors.
In the World's Press News of 24 August 1956, theatre critic Hannen Swaffer recalls reviewing it at the time of its launch and describing it as 'badly staged as it was, better than (J M Barrie's 1920 play with a similar ghostly theme) "Mary Rose."' Barrie, apparently quite disturbed about his future, dashed along to the second night to make sure – which explains why, at home, we have an autographed copy of Barrie's 'Auld Licht Idylls' inscribed 'To Robins Millar with kind regards from J M Barrie, "Thunder in the Air," 2nd night, 1928.' Afterwards, Barrie invited Robins back to his Adelphi flat for a long talk. 'Do you really think my husband's play is better than Barrie's?' Edith Millar asked Swaffer, who replied: 'Yes, before they murdered it.'
The American premiere of the play took place in Chicago in the autumn of 1929. The front page of the Chicago Daily News of 11 October ran an interview with Robins under the headline: 'Scotch writer here to see play open,' then beneath: 'Robins Millar, amazed by the US, will watch premiere then speed home.'
Robins stayed at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago and, while there, sent a telegram to his sister Annie, living in rural Canada, saying he would try to telephone her the following evening. Her response to him vividly illustrates how different were the worlds the siblings inhabited. While Robins travelled thousands of miles to be present at the American premiere of his play, Annie's plans were to drive the eight-and-a-half miles into her nearest town 'in the old buggy.'
'It takes about two hours each way with our slow horses so picture me getting home in the dark,' she wrote, 'rather stiff and cold with a lot to talk about if I really actually speak to you. I've been thinking of nothing but your play all this month.'
As Charles Hart, from the Scottish Society of Playwrights (SSP), points out in an article he wrote for the SSP's newsletter in 1979, 'Thunder in the Air's' premiere coincided with the devastating Wall Street Crash. Nevertheless, the play ran for four weeks at the Princess Theatre, which had an audience capacity of almost 1,000. The Billboard newspaper reviewed the play as 'a great success,' adding: 'At the end of the play there was a lengthy ovation punctuated by calls for the playwright, although he did not appear.'
'Thunder in the Air' also appeared at the Wieting Theatre in Syracuse, New York State, prior to its transfer to the 750-seat 49th Street Theatre, part of New York's glamorous Broadway theatre circuit, on 11 November 1929. The Syracuse Journal's review said the play's 'greatest moments contain both poetry and pathos' and urged theatregoers 'who want to see a play which brings a lump to the throat and which will bring enormous satisfaction' to go and see it.
It ran on Broadway for 16 performances and then played at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and in Paris, as well as in regional theatres in Penzance, Plymouth and Newcastle. At the same time, rehearsals were going ahead for productions from Melbourne to Philadelphia. In the 1940s and again in the 1970s 'Thunder in the Air' was also broadcast on radio.
By the late 1920s, Robins was editor of the Glasgow Evening News, where he also wrote a regular Tuesday short story under the title 'The Redoubtable Bella.' His last-ever Bella column, written on 26 October 1937, read: 'Young Aleck [Bella's little brother] is at the age when a birthday is an event. So it is for all of us, but a time comes when we get past hoping for anything much more than a ninepenny tie and a sixpenny pair of suspenders. Not so Aleck. He was an optimist. He wanted rabbits…' The story continued but that was the last anyone heard of Bella and her fictional family. The column never appeared again.
Robins' playwriting career continued alongside his 'day job': 'The Colossus' was written in 1928; 'Dream Island,' 1929; 'Throwing the Dice,' 1930; 'Wellington', 1933; 'Franz Liszt,' 1935. His most creative years happily coincided with a period of remarkable expansion in the theatre industry in Scotland, as David Hutchison points out in his chapter in Bill Findlay's book 'A History of Scottish Theatre: 1900-1950.'
In 1928 the Masque Theatre (which premiered 'The Colossus' at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow that year) was founded under Robert Fenemore and the Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA), formed in 1926, saw entries for its one-act play festivals soar from 35 in 1926-27 to 307 by 1932-33. By 1937 there were more than 1,000 amateur clubs in Scotland, all hungry to perform. The Scottish newspapers of the 1930s also all had regular weekly columns on the amateur scene and carried reviews of productions.
In 1933, the Curtain Theatre was founded in Glasgow by an amateur group led by Grace Ballantine, with the aim of encouraging Scottish playwrights. The theatre was situated in a large, L-shaped drawing room on the first floor at 15 Woodside Terrace and could seat a maximum of 70. Many of the productions were so popular that they had to transfer to the larger Lyric Theatre on Sauchiehall Street. Well-known actors such as Duncan Macrae and Molly Urquhart, who both went on to help form the Citizens' Theatre Company, starred in Curtain Theatre productions.
Robins' play 'Once a Lady' was premiered by the Curtain at the Lyric in January 1936. The Daily Record preview said: 'It's a comedy and we who know Mr Millar's dry wit are really expecting something very entertaining and exceptionally outstanding.'
His involvement in the world of theatre always extended beyond playwriting and reviewing. In the early 30s there was a movement in Glasgow to establish a permanent 'experimental theatre' for both amateur and professional productions. A former church building in Berkeley Street, Charing Cross – previously the Ritz Palais de Danse – was purchased at a cost of £5,000 and the experimental theatre founders – Norman Bruce, R F Pollok and D Glen Mackemmie (chairman of the Scottish Community Drama Association until 1934) – intended the new theatre to have a modern revolving stage and an audience capacity of 700. It was also suggested that the experimental theatre would test out the theories of stage production promulgated by R F Pollok, who had devised a system of registering the movements and gestures of actors by assigned numbers.
Following a meeting at the Scottish National Academy of Music in March 1930, however, a report in the Daily Record notes that 'Mr Robins Millar suggested the three founders should accept temporary election – his amendment along these lines was put to the vote and defeated by 29 to 22 votes on a show of hands. Mr Robins Millar suggested that, since the movement was to be run by three dictators, it would be a good thing to have, after the productions, meetings such as this at which the rank and file could express their more or less "bolshy" opinions as they wished.'
'If they knew,' he said, 'that they were going to be allowed to say exactly what they thought, it would be a great comfort to them during performances.' It would also, he suggested, be of great benefit to the producers and the actors.
Robins' play 'Wellington' toured for 12 weeks in 1933; 'Franz Liszt' was staged at the Theatre de Casino, Monte Carlo in 1935; 'Studio Party' opened at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, in 1937 and also played at the Lyceum, Edinburgh; 'There’s Money In It' was part of the Lyric Theatre season in 1938, while 'Day In, Day Out' and 'The Sell Out' played at the Citizens' Theatre in 1945 and 1955 respectively. 'Royal Scotch,' also originally produced at the Citizens', was performed at Perth Theatre as late as 1959.
The review of 'The Sell Out' by Alexander Reid for Scotland's Magazine, May 1955, says the 'farcical comedy' is, 'at the bottom, a cry for independence, for the right to nonconformity, for the individual against the gang, for the family business against the combine.' He says the play had 'a thick crust of comic lines and comic incidents' and that it was enthusiastically received by the first night audience.
'Mr Millar provided good opportunities for nearly everyone (in the cast) and almost all were exploited…Fulton Mackay's serious-minded Highland assistant-in-the-ironmongery department and Madeleine Christie's henna-haired 'modom' being particularly funny.'
1937 was a particularly auspicious year for Robins. The Evening News had previously been owned by Allied Newspapers, formed in 1924 by the three Berry brothers, later enobled as Viscount Camrose, Viscount Kemsley and Lord Buckland. But in that year they split their interests into Camrose, the Amalgamated Press and Kemsley Newspapers. This period of uncertainty unsettled Robins and he left the Evening News to become feature writer, theatre and music critic on the Scottish Daily Express. (The Evening News finally folded in 1957.)
He took over the daily 'Talk of Glasgow' column and his first, published on 3 November 1937, included a colour piece about waiting in the St Andrew's Halls for the results of the municipal elections and an item on gas masks, beginning: 'Gas masks will add nothing for personal beauty.'
In February 1937, his three-act play 'There's Money In It' was performed at the Lyric Theatre with amateur actress Elvira Airlie in the role of Ethel Deacon. This may have been the first time Robins and Elvira met. She then worked at Govan Harmony Row School although later she taught elocution, giving private lessons to, among others, Gordon Jackson, then an aspiring actor with a strong Glasgow accent. She was to become Robins' second wife in 1943, following his divorce from Edith.
Robins' niece, Evelyn Lennie, says Elvira was 'quite conventional, pretty and very well-liked,' but her health was fragile. She was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, which later largely confined her to a wheelchair and resulted in her needing lots of care and assistance, including being carried by Robins to and from their second floor apartment. 'She could hardly move,' Mrs Lennie recalls. 'Her sister, Doris, was there a lot. I used to go regularly on a Sunday to see them and Robins would always be painting.'
Evelyn and her cousin Will were also regular beneficiaries of Robins' largesse when he would offer them his excellent critic's seats at various plays and operas. However this was not without strings. The productions they went to see were invariably ones with which Robins was extremely familiar and which he felt he did not need to see one more time. His young relatives were given strict instructions to enjoy themselves but also to telephone him should anything untoward happen, such as cast changes or scenery collapses, so that the event could be incorporated into his review.
In 1952, Elvira died aged just 43 – records give the cause as rheumatoid arthritis and an abdominal abscess. The following year Robins, now 64, met and married his third wife, 33-year-old Agnes Stevenson Barrie (whom he always called Steve), my mother-in-law. Steve was a teacher at Drumpark Special School in Coatbridge and, by April 1954, the mother of Robins' last child, Alan.
Robins' love letter to his wife, written on the day his infant son was born, says he is sure the new baby 'will make the bonds that unite us stronger and give new happiness to our marriage.'
'In these months you have been wonderful and have warmed me continually to admiration of your qualities. While we were comrades before, your sweetness and your kindness, your forbearance and readiness to adjust yourself have been greater than I could have expected. In all these things you have been the perfect mate. The trying days are over. Now there is joy for you and, sharing your pride in the boy, I shall help you all I can. There will be amusement, laughter and the thousand interests of parenthood. It will be grand having you both at home.'
Subsequent letters – to celebrate a wedding anniversary and Christmas – further reveal the depths of his affection in this late marriage. 'You are quite a wonderful woman, so it is only natural that my affection and admiration and love increase as time goes on. To me you are comrade and lover,' he wrote. 'May the good luck that brought us by chance together so fortunately always be with you.'
But though his spirit was clearly willing, it did not always translate into actions. Alan remembers he and his mother being instructed, one summer holiday, to take themselves off to Kelvingrove Park each day to learn to play tennis, so that Robins could have the flat to himself and paint or write totally undisturbed. Robins refused to have any mod cons such as central heating installed to warm the chilly, cavernous rooms at Park Quadrant and totally forbade the introduction of television to the home.
Holidays involved, on more than one occasion, carting a spirit stove all the way to the continent, along with joints of meat to be cooked on it. However, Robins had travelled often in Europe during the period of great privation between the wars, having been in Poland with Compton Mackenzie, and in Florence, so perhaps past difficult experiences encouraged him to make sure there was always going to be food available.
On another continental venture, in the mid-1950s, Robins, a non-motorist (though he had driven in the days when no licence was needed and knocked down a pedestrian, at which point he relinquished the steering wheel), instructed his three-years-younger father-in-law to take the family on a tour of Europe. Alan remembers this as a 'tour of the bomb sites of Europe,' although he still boasts that he took his first steps in Baden-Baden. His grandfather, the reluctant chauffeur, refused to accompany Robins ever again on such an adventure.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, Robins continued to fulfil his role as theatre and music critic of the Scottish Daily Express, although he no longer wrote plays. After briefly giving up painting, declaring he was 'a total failure,' he resumed it enthusiastically when his sister Mary gave him a birthday bouquet, the colours of which he simply had to capture.
His sister Annie kept a diary of her visit to Scotland, from Canada, in 1950 when Robins took her to the Daily Express office to show her the five paintings of Scottish lochs and mountains he had completed to decorate the canteen. 'That will immortalise him,' his sister believed. The Express building was demolished and has recently been redeveloped for housing. The paintings had probably gone by the time the Express vacated the offices in 1974.
A chain smoker, rarely without a cigarette between his lips until he took to snuff in the 1960s, Robins' health nevertheless remained robust until an unexpected heart attack in 1967, which hospitalised him for a short time. When out of hospital he resumed his work as before.
He died, of a second heart attack, on 12 August 1968, while planning a three-week stint at the Edinburgh Festival. An obituary, written by friend and colleague Mamie Crichton in the Scottish Daily Express of 13 August, said: 'His silver hair and bespectacled face, unchanged as long as most of his colleagues can remember, were familiar in theatres throughout Scotland. He had almost certainly seen more plays and stage entertainments than anyone in the whole country. His opinions, highly regarded by public and theatrical professionals alike, were often expressed with wry wit that stemmed from long experience and great breadth of outlook.'
A couple of reviews very late in his career – from 1967 – reveal the disparate activities he was required to cover. 'Harry Secombe managed to appear at the Alhambra, minus his singing voice. He just croaked a little into the mike, with a laryngitis wheeze. And gallantly tried a cartwheel. I am sure against doctor's orders.' On the same programme were 'the Bachelors...come from London to supply star appeal. They have a pleasing liking for old lyrics. I have never heard "Danny Boy" more fearfully assaulted. But I'd forgive these boys anything for their Irish exuberance.'
'Challenge to opera lovers is made by Sadlers Wells in setting up a season of four weeks at the King's,' he wrote later that year. 'A further challenge is that instead of "playing it safe," unfamiliar and even new operas will test how loyal fans really are.'
On 'The Magic Flute,' he added: 'Stilted and clumsy it may be, with its naïve fairy tale mixed with Freemasonry, which meant a lot politically in 1791. But always when the plot gets boring, Mozart pours out a stream of exquisite music to ravish the ear.'
At his funeral service at Maryhill Crematorium (he had no religious convictions), just two days after his death, luminaries from the theatre world – including Jack Short (Jimmy Logan's father) from the Metropole, Edward Ashley from the King's Theatre and Alex Frutin of the Frutin Organisation, mingled with newspapermen – including Ian MacColl, editor of the Scottish Daily Express, William Steen, editor of the Evening Citizen and Sandy Trotter, chairman of Beaverbrook Newspapers in Scotland, and personal friends, including Dr Tom Honeyman, director of Glasgow Corporation Museums and Art Galleries from 1938 until 1971 (and the person responsible for bringing Salvador Dali's 'Christ of St John of the Cross' to Glasgow) and former Glasgow Lord Provost Dr James Welsh.
Ian MacColl, in his announcement of Robins' death, called him 'the doyen of theatre critics in Scotland. His notices were models of clarity and preciseness, yet he was never uncharitable or unkind.'
Arthur Boyne, deputy editor of the Scottish Sunday Express, in a letter of condolence to Robins' widow, said: 'Robins was unique. The years, time itself, did not seem to touch him. He was a grown-up youth. And it can only be those who did not really know him who use the adjective cynical about him. There may have been just a little protective veneer of worldliness there to keep the bores at bay but he had what cynics never have, enthusiasm. And he was the most professional newspaperman in the business. He made the whizz kids we have to tolerate now look infantile.'
Robins was a regular attendee at the Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA) divisional and Scottish final festivals from the 1930s so, in his memory, a Robins Millar Award was established in the early 1970s by the western division of the SCDA, with an initial donation from the Daily Express. His widow also made a contribution and now, 34 years later, the award fund stands at over £16,000, with £1,800 given to members of the SCDA's western division in 2006. Murray Thomson, the current western division treasurer, describes the fund as 'a great success story.'
I never met my father-in-law. I will always wish I had. But the final paragraph in his life story should be his. In a letter to his sister, Annie, written just a few hours before his death, he said:
'On the whole, I deter myself from looking back – so many mistakes and indeed unkindnesses to admit, yet sometimes I do reflect on what different turnings I might have taken, that would have led to disaster of one kind or another, quite likely to early death, and I am glad to be living, especially to be living happily.'
This article first appeared in 2008