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Ian Pattison, Andy Gray and Grant Stott - Willie and Sebastian

Willie Donaldson and Sebastian Horsley were two of a kind. So much, in fact, that it was inevitable that the one-time co-producer of the Beyond the Fringe revue and the dandified artist who cut a decadent dash through Soho society would become friends. For a while, at least, these self-styled – some might say self-invented – gentlemen of leisure found common ground in their mutual love of excess in pretty much everything. When Horsley fell for Donaldson's girlfriend, former topless model Rachel Garley, however, things changed.

With the world a less colourful place following Donaldson's passing in 2005 and Horsley's suspected overdose five years later the day after the premier of Tim Fountain's stage version of Horsley's memoirs, the tellingly named Dandy in the Underworld, a new play looks set to continue this free-spirited pair's flirtation with immortality.

Willie and Sebastian is Rab C Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison's latest dramatic vehicle for Andy Gray and Grant Stott following the success of their last stage collaboration with Kiss Me Honey, Honey Honey! If that play was an expectation-confounding side-step from Gray and Stott's regular double act as comic foils in the King's Theatre, Edinburgh's annual pantomime, Willie and Sebastian finds the pair pushing the boat out even more.

“We'd had a great time with Kiss Me Honey,Honey!,” says Pattison, and I knew Andy and Grant were looking to do something else. I was writing Willie and Sebastian at the time, but I didn't make the connections with the fact that Sebastian was over six feet tall and so is Grant, stuff like that. Then when I showed them the script both Grant and Andy got quite excited about it and it all seemed to make sense.”

The allure of playing such fascinating real life characters as Donaldson and Horsley proved as irresistible to Gray and Stott as they were to many they charmed into their assorted circles. As Stott makes clear, however, “I think there's an element of responsibility to what we're doing. Sebastian seems to have been a well-liked, popular character, and as soon as I put it out on social media that I was doing this I got all these responses from people who knew him. One said to please do him justice, because Sebastian was their friend and hero.”

In the course of writing Willie and Sebastian, Pattison too was approached by those who knew his subjects intimately or otherwise.

“Someone said that to me that what people never realised was how sweet Sebastian was,” he says.

Donaldson also has his fan-base, whether as the pseudonymous author of The Henry Root letters, which collected a set of very English missives sent by Donaldson to people in power alongside the responses they solicited, the man who gave Monty Python's Terry Jones and Michael Palin their first gig, or someone who threw Bob Dylan out of his office for wasting his time.

“They're both very salty characters,” observes Gray, “but they both have this inherent likeability that charmed a lot of people.”

Pattison met someone who'd heard about the play and knew both men.

“They said to me to please cherish their memory,” he says.

Despite Horsley living in Edinburgh for a time in the 1980s and 1990s when he imported champagne with Jimmy Boyle, neither Gray or Stott came into contact with him or Donaldson. This is partly the reason why at time of writing Pattison and Gray were planning to meet up with Garley beside the Soho flat where Horsley once held court.

“Rachel's seen the script,” says Pattison, “and she's okayed it. I haven't got any new information that might upset or offend. It's all out there, and if there was anything new I would contact the appropriate people for approval.

“What we're left with is part of the mythology that we later create. These two characters both came from very wealthy backgrounds, both spent vast fortunes and both were emotionally impoverished, I would say, and we recognise the human frailties behind the bravado. We like to be entertained by Willie and Sebastian, but we wouldn't want to be them.

“I think you could probably write several plays about Willie and Sebastian, but we decided to focus on this classic love triangle that happened. You have to remember that some people who come and see the play will know a great deal about Willie and Sebastian and some will know nothing. The trick is to not bore those who know everything about them and not obfuscate those who don't.”

One thing Pattison is adamant about following his researches into Donaldson and Horsley is that they shouldn't be fetishised as bohemians.

“Bohemian is a much abused word,” says Pattison, and it's not a word I would attach to Willie and Sebastian. People who call themselves bohemians these days dress like beach bums but work in the civil service, whereas Willie dressed like he was in the civil service but led a life that was far more interesting. If anything, Sebastian's role models were the likes of Quentin Crisp, people who were pioneers rather than bohemians.”

Stott observes that “both men were complete one-offs, and what's interesting about Sebastian is that you wonder how much of the real Sebastian Horsley did anyone know, because he became his own artwork.”

Given this new artwork that Pattison, Gray and Scott are creating, one wonders too what Donaldson and Horsley might make of their efforts if they were still around to wax lyrical about them.

“I'm not so sure about Willie,” Stott muses. “He could be a very difficult character, but I'd like to think Sebastian would approve. I think he would've giggled that it was on at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Gray concurs.

“I think Sebastian would've turned up every night in his finery.” he says, “and I think Willie would think what we're doing is a pile of s***, but he'd charge us an arm and a leg for any of his material we used.”

Willie and Sebastian, Gilded Balloon, Aug 5-16, 18-31, 8.15-9.15pm
www.gildedballoon.co.uk

The Herald, August 11th 2015

ends

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