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2018 – “From the Balcony” Frank McGarry

“From the Balcony”
Frank McGarry

As a lad I went to St Mary’s and when I look back at old school photographs I still find it hard to believe that I had around forty class mates. Maybe this is why I was never anything at The Fair, at least that’s what I tell myself. The McGarry household still enjoyed the excitement of having a Fair character though as my sister Margaret was both a flower girl and a presentee over the years.

When I lived in Grangepans one of my neighbours in the flats at Dower House was Ruth Grant who was elected by her peer group at The Grange School as Chief Lady. It was an occasion that brought everybody in the building together with the wives gathering to make crepe flowers whilst the men built the large arch over the entrance to the car park in front of our flats. Joe Cassettari, another neighbour, captured the excitement on his cine-camera and it was footage that I have enjoyed looking at over the years, especially the short scenes where I make a cameo appearance. I even had hair at the time.

Going to the school on the Fair morning was always something I looked forward to. At the time everybody went, unlike today, something that I shake my head at. Why wouldn’t you want to go with your school and be an integral part of the day? The atmosphere was always electric especially when the Queen and retinue were from St Mary’s – something I only experienced once when Marjory McLean was the Queen in 1968. Another highlight was receiving my ‘Fair Shilling’ from Willie Power the English teacher.

Once I started working it was sometimes a challenge to get the Fair Day off and on a couple of occasions I had to miss it. I remember the hollow feeling as I made my way out of the town, heading for Edinburgh, knowing that I was going to miss all the fun.

I genuinely think that as I get older I actually appreciate the Fair Day more and more. Not only is it the glue that keeps the fantastic community spirit in Bo’ness together but is also a huge economic boost for the town. The Fair Committee once carried out an exercise to understand how much money is spent directly because of our big day and it easily runs into millions. The cost of those costumes, arches, showings, presents, carry outs and of course the all-important ‘Fair clothes’ all mounts up.

In more recent years I was asked to join the Fair Committee and it’s something I have never regretted. I had always felt that it would be good to get involved and to help to genuinely make The Fair the best day of the year. Initially I got involved as a steward and then I was asked to be the master of ceremonies at the Royal Variety Performance in the Douglas Park.

I often hear the expression ‘Don’t work with children or animals’. Personally I’ve never had any problems with the children although from time to time I have had issues with parents, especially when the weather is poor. We always try to ensure that everyone is safe and in recent years we have introduced facilities that will help if it rains, but will ‘Wee Jimmy’ really catch pneumonia if he stands in a shower for five minutes?

A lot is said about the school teachers and head teachers but my own experience of working with them over the years is that they first of all want the children to be safe and looked after and to enjoy themselves. Yes some of them have absolutely no interest in The Fair but those that do often go the extra mile to make sure The Fair is a success.

I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve found speaking in public fairly easy and I was completely over the moon and honoured when I was asked to become the Fair commentator. Following in the footsteps of Douglas Snedden, ‘The Voice of the Fair’, who had made the job sound so easy for 32 years was a hard task to follow but when I asked him for advice he told me, ‘Frank, don’t try and imitate my style, go and put your own stamp on the day but most of all enjoy yourself’. I told myself that it would just be an extension of what I had done before but I can honestly admit that when I stepped out on the balcony at just after nine o’clock on the Fair morning in 2011, I suddenly realised I had found a cure for constipation!

The view up there is terrific, you can see for miles, but nothing prepares you for the amount of people who are crammed into the park. A cacophony of sound comes up to meet you and the atmosphere is just unique, even when the weather is bad. Over the years many of the parents of the Queen, Queen Elect, Chief Lady and the Champion, who are all invited guests on the balcony, have said that they would love to watch The Fair from there every year.

I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had Marion McKay alongside me to help with the many messages we receive from people all over the world as well as describing the dresses and outfits of the main characters. One lady, who is blind, told me that Marion’s descriptions help her to enjoy her Fair Day to the full.

The big screen that was introduced last year was an instant hit and its role on the Fair Day will no doubt evolve in time. Most of my colleagues on the Fair Committee are of a similar age to me and what we really need is the injection of youth to bring new ideas, especially around the use of social media. Sanctus Media have been a joy to work with over the last few years and their Fair Day production last year and their final DVD were outstanding pieces of work. I know that the online streaming is enjoyed by those too frail to attend the crowning ceremony and by the many Bonessian’s around the world. I have also been fortunate that our sound system has been in the safe hands of Steedsy and his team.

I know that on the Fair Day all eyes are on the Queen Elect and she, quite rightly is the main focus of attention. However, my trust lies firmly with the Chief Lady who plays such a pivotal role in the crowning ceremony and over the years I have been lucky enough to have the help of seven fabulous young ladies so far, Jessica Kelly, Carla Hogarth, Faye Pullan, Freyja Nash, Leoni Temperley, Emma Scotland and Reese McBlain. My sincere thanks to you all.

The most difficult conditions in the last seven years was undoubtedly in 2012 when Nicole Bell was crowned in a monsoon but in true Bo’ness fashion the show went on. I think that year we all realised that the fairies, flower girls and the retinue want to stay outside if at all possible and they are quite happy to put up with a bit of discomfort to enjoy their big day.

By the time the presentee’s come on I can start to relax knowing that the more technical parts of the crowning are past and that hopefully we have dodged the inevitable threat of rain. When was the last time we had a Fair Day without the threat of rain? I love innovation and over the last few years we have had some tremendous examples of this with our presentee’s. New ideas keep things fresh and Pauline Burns’ idea of having the Grange presentee’s up the stage steps was one I shall always remember.

Last year was extremely special for me as Queen Andrea lives right next door to me and I was able to witness first-hand the teamwork, camaraderie and skill that it takes to design, build and decommission a truly wonderful house frontage. The Fair E’en, weather wise, was not the best of evenings but it didn’t stop the crowds coming out as usual. My drinks cabinet certainly took a hammering. I must admit that like her Mum and Dad I had a tear in my eye as she approached the stage on The Fair Day looking so radiant and happy. She is a credit to her family.

This year will mark my eighth year as the Fair commentator. It is a job I thoroughly enjoy but I’m certainly not going to come anywhere close to matching Douglas Snedden’s tenure. As I said earlier The Fair needs the youth of the town to come forward and to take an active part in producing what is invariably a magnificent spectacle. Don’t be shy – I can assure you that you will be welcomed with open arms.

Frank McGarry

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