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Derek Watson - An obituary

Derek Watson – musician, author, actor, lecturer, book shop proprietor

Born November 6 1948; died September 17, 2018

Derek Watson, who has died aged 69 following a short illness, was a man of many parts and arts. Those who knew the Edinburgh-born renaissance man as an actor performing under the name Derwent Watson at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow may not have been aware that Watson began his relationship with the Citz as a musical director on Christmas shows, becoming forever known thereafter as Uncle Derek.

Similarly, the youngsters watching Uncle Derek won’t have known of Watson’s passion for Wagner and other composers he was an authority on, penning several biographies on them, and slipping little classical passages into his compositions for the Citz’s festive fare un-noticed. Nor might those who heard Watson give lectures on Wagner and others be aware of his long-standing role as proprietor of a bookshop in West Linton where he lived for more than twenty years, with both he and the shop immortalised in a novel by Alexander McCall Smith.  

Watson straddled these different worlds with an infectious charm and wicked sense of fun as he revelled in seemingly contrary passions. On one hand Watson was a life-long socialist and one-time member of the Communist Party who taught at the Workers Educational Association in Edinburgh. At the same time he loved to lunch at the Garrick Club. In his adoration of the music of Wagner, the circle was squared by what Watson recognised as a revolutionary and transcendent force for good that was the opposite of what he saw as its hi-jack by more reactionary forces.

Watson wrote and lectured with authority, but in company was an impish presence with a schoolboyish giggle who loved to hold court, enjoying everyday gossip as much as the stories he told about the lives of the great composers. Above all, Watson hated to be bored, and relished everything he did with unabashed gusto.

Watson was born in Edinburgh, where he shone academically at the city’s Royal High School, where classmates included actor Ian Charleson and creator of Taggart, Glenn Chandler. With his father singing in a male voice quartet and both parents enthusiastic members of assorted local opera companies, Watson was also exposed to music from an early age. He saw his first piece of theatre, a production of Peter Pan at Edinburgh’s Empire Theatre, now the Festival Theatre, aged four.

Watson composed his first musical work, a symphonic poem based on the Battle of Bannockburn, aged eight. He was sent to piano lessons, and by the time he was eleven had composed his second symphonic poem, The Romans in Britain.

Between 1967 and 1971 Watson studied music at the University of Edinburgh, where he became president of the University Music Society and wrote his dissertation on the songs of Franz Liszt, whose reputation as a serious composer he did much to retrieve. He was organist and choirmaster at Newhaven Parish Church in Edinburgh between 1968 and 1970, and performed one of his earliest compositions, Concert Study for two pianos (1970), at the Reid Concert Hall.

Watson went on to the Royal Academy of Music, and other compositions followed for the likes of Lothian Collegiate Trust and the Yehudi Menuhin School, Haddington, and for the Saltire Society. For the latter, Watson wrote In These Gold Pavilions (1980), the performance of which was broadcast with composer Ronald Stevenson playing piano. Stevenson became a pivotal influence, with Watson championing what he saw as a neglected composer. It was Stevenson’s presence in West Linton in Peebleshire that was one of the main drives for Watson to move there from Edinburgh in the mid-1980s.

Watson started at the Citizens in 1972 as musical director of that year’s Christmas show, Puss in Boots. He was brought in by the three-way artistic directorship of Giles Havergal, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse. Between them the trio defined the Gorbals emporium as a powerhouse of European classicism mixed with healthy irreverence and bags of old-school style to go with it. All three qualities made Watson a perfect match for the company, and he became something of a fixture, so much so that Prowse drafted him in to play M. Verdurin in his production of A Waste of Time, adapted from Proust. All Watson was required to do for the play’s full three-hour duration was to feign sleep.

More active roles came in Di Trevis’ revival of Shawn Lawton’s play, Desperado Corner. In the original production Watson played a sleazy-looking fellow in a flasher’s mac and steamed-up specs. In the revival he was made up in Hilda Ogden rollers, head-scarf and fag to play a woman at the bus stop.

Watson's first speaking role was in Brecht's Puntila and his Servant Matti, and he went on to appear in more than sixty shows, Highlights included the original production of Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt, adapted by Havergal for four actors all dressed in uniform jumpers and slacks to play multiple parts. For Watson, this included a free-spirited young woman on the hippy trail.

In Arsenic and Old Lace, Watson dragged up as the murderous Aunt Martha, while in Prowse’s production of Private Lives, as the maid Louise, sporting black leather biker’s jacket and crash helmet, he was encouraged to upstage a cast that included Rupert Everett, with whom Watson also appeared alongside in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as a bee-hived Italian housekeeper. Watson also appeared on the West End in Prowse’s production of Noel Coward’s The Vortex. Watson’s final role at the Citz was in Prowse’s swansong at the theatre, a typically sumptuous production of Thomas Otway’s bloody tragedy, Venice Preserved, in which Watson played a cardinal.

As an author, Watson contributed several volumes to the Master Musicians series of books, including definitive tomes on Bruckner (1975) and Liszt (1989). He also wrote a major biography of his beloved Wagner (1979) and the chambers Dictionary of Music Quotations (1991) as well as numerous articles and pamphlets on music and opera.

As a lecturer Watson began giving classes on opera at the Workers Education Association in 1971, taking over from Stevenson. This led to Watson holding regular summer schools from 1984 right up to this year, first in Newbattle Abbey, Dalkeith, then Carberry Tower near Musselburgh, and finally at Gartmore House in the Trossachs. The locations allowed participants the space to devote themselves completely on detailed musical analysis of works by Wagner and Strauss, brought to life musically and verbally by Watson. Watson never held any formal academic post, and was proud of his independence, both in thought and spirit.

On radio Watson gave regular interval talks on BBC Radio 3, and between 1981 and 1990 was a regular presenter on BBC Radio Scotland’s the musician in Scotland programme.

In 1984, Watson founded what was then a Scottish Branch of the London Wagner Society. As chairman, Watson oversaw a declaration of independence in 1996 that saw the organisation become the Wagner Society of Scotland. Watson remained in post as Chair until 2013. During his tenure he invited a veritable Who’s Who of guest speakers, including Dame Gwyneth Jones, Sir Roger Scruton and James MacMillan.

 Watson also oversaw the establishment of a Bayreuth Scholarship Fund that enables a young singer, instrumentalist or someone otherwise involved in theatre work to attend performances at Wagner's own festival theatre in Bavaria. Watson saw this as fulfilling a direct wish of the composer.

In 1994, having been a resident in West Linton for a decade, he opened Linton Books. Once he had retired from the theatre, the shop provided him with an alternative stage, ‘playing’ the proprietor of the shop to entertain customers. Book signings by authors included Alexander McCall Smith, whose second novel in the Sunday Philosophy Club series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, published in 2005, found the book’s heroine Isabel Dalhousie visiting Derek in his capacity as bookseller. The shop itself featured during the unravelling of the story’s mystery. Being immortalised in such a way was the perfect compliment to Watson, who retained a curiosity for the finer things in life that went beyond his considerable intellect to draw out the fun beneath, transforming everything he did into an adventure.

Watson is survived by his partner, Will Scott.



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