“If I work, I take my life in my hands… I have been told by the doctors to take things very easy”
Illness & Forced Retirement
Throughout most of Andy’s adult life he had suffered bouts of illness, events dating back almost to the start of his career, and the time spent touring around the world was now placing extra strain on his health as the years passed. Warned by doctors more than once to ease up on his workload he was habitually unable to rest, finding the temptation to perform hard to resist.
The newspapers keenly reported on Andy’s health documenting every health scare and in-turn the public had a continuing interest in Andy’s well-being, as ill-health seemed particularly at odds with the bright, energetic, full-of-life professional image he displayed to the public.
“It all started when I was 20. I had been turning down offers of work convinced that I was going to do my national service bit. When the call up came, I was ready. I was very fit, did a lot of fencing and fancied myself specialising in Physical Training in the army.
I went through the basic IQ test and the cursory examination… all the Virgin Soldiers bit where they say “cough now.” When we went for an abdominal examination, they laid one hand on me and I turned green and vomited so I was sent off to the Southern General for barium meals, X-Rays, etc. They turned me down because I had a perforated eardrum and a duodenal ulcer. My health rating was 4G and I don’t think they went any lower than that.
I went in thinking I was in the peak of physical condition and came out thinking I was a wreck. I mean where do you go from there?”
Health Problems Begin
In 1962 Andy had an operation that dealt with his ulcer successfully and he enjoyed a period of good health for the next decade until 1973.
“In 1973 I was on holiday in Banchory and had been feeling a bit stodgy in the tummy, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. One day I played golf, but every time I bent down to pick up the ball I got this terrible pain under my ribs. Later that day it got worse, until I was prostrate with agony at home and had a raging temperature. A doctor came and diagnosed appendicitis. I was rushed into St. John’s Nursing Home in Aberdeen, where a surgeon also diagnosed the same.
I was on the operating table and the surgeon had actually made the incision to remove my appendix, when he discovered an abscess. So I had a hemicolectomy, which means I had my right ascending colon removed because of the huge abscess, then I took what they call obstruction in the tummy, and they had to open me up again and cut away the obstructions. Then I lost my gall bladder… Then I lost half my kidney… Then I lost all my kidney… I’ve had three transurethral re-sections of the prostate… It’s got so that I’m frightened to go to the doctor’s because every time they find something wrong with me!”
In And Out Of Hospital
In 1974 Andy was taken ill after a show at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow and admitted to the Western Infirmary. Six months later he collapsed on the way to a show at Dungarvan in County Waterford and was hospitalised in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin and his Irish tour cancelled. During the 1975 summer tour of New Zealand and Australia, Andy had to leave the rest of his company to complete the tour after receiving treatment in Auckland and being ordered to return immediately to Canniesburn Hospital in Glasgow for further stomach surgery (this would be his fourth such operation in the space of a year), and in November after a Canadian tour he was admitted once again to Glasgow Royal Infirmary with stomach problems.
His manager, Jimmy Warren, saw first-hand the problems that Andy had with illness, and the extremes that he went to, to please his fans and honour his contracts:
“The first particular tour where Andy was really bad with ill-health, we were in and out of hospitals more-or-less in every city. I would take him in maybe at 12 o’clock at night and collect him at six in the morning. I remember we got to Edmonton (Canada) and we all thought there’ll be no show tonight. They took Andy into hospital and they wired him up, he was like something out of The Bionic Man when I went in to see him. But he wanted to do the show. They unplugged him, they went up to the Edmonton Centre, he did the show, they took him back in the car, and plugged him back into the bed again. He wanted to do it, you know. I thought many a night, there’ll be no way, but no – once he got on that stage he came alive.”
Ian Powrie also recalled:
“He loved the stage. All our close associates will have seen him many a time before he was due to go and do his spot in the show, sitting on a chair or lying back not looking very well. And yet when he went sparking across the stage there, with the tackets glinting and all that, it was a different man you know? He just seemed to be a different being.”
April 1976 saw Andy admitted to hospital in Brisbane with stomach pains during a tour of Australia, and in September of the same year he was admitted to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for a gall bladder operation. In January 1977 he underwent yet another surgical procedure, this time a kidney operation.
Thingummyjig (STV 1980)
Still turning in good performances, Andy appears on Scottish Television March 7th 1980.
In 1981 Andy was taken ill at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness an hour before he was due to go on stage with Andy Stewart’s Show of The North. He was admitted into intensive care for observation at Raigmore Hospital and in the same year also underwent further surgery having a kidney removed. In 1984 another Australian tour had to be cancelled and an STV series was indefinitely postponed as Andy suffering with kidney and intestinal disorders was told to rest for six months. A year later Andy was taken ill on a Manx Airlines flight on the way to perform in the Isle of Man. He managed to appear in the first of three Sunday night performances, but the rest were cancelled due to stomach disorders.
After feeling particular strain during yet another foreign tour, Andy officially announced his intention to retire from show business on the stage of Ayr’s Gaiety Theatre in April 1985, telling the audience that they were witness to the last full theatre engagement that he would ever play; that he was retiring for his wife’s sake and for his own.
“This announcement is not a gimmick to herald a series of farewell tours. The decision is irrevocable.
I had a rotten night in New Zealand, and I thought, you’re not able to do this any longer. The doctor said “That’s it. You’re really asking for trouble”. You know you can be standing in the wings feeling terrible and the minute your music sounds there is definitely adrenalin somehow lifts you up. Mind you, this is one of the reasons why I’m going to stop this kind of life travelling round the world with a handicap of not just the best heath, because there’s no doubt about it the adrenalin may be going and you may give a performance and the audience may not realise that you’re not all that well (although I have given performances when the audiences have realised that I haven’t been too well) but the whole thing adds up to a big strain. But normally when I’m feeling fit and well, or even reasonably well, I don’t feel any pain at all on stage. It’s after I come off that I collapse.
It’s a kind of sad day when mortality catches up with you and you no longer say “If I die”; you say “When I die”. And eventually, you wake up one morning and say, “Well I’m not 25… I can’t do what I could do 20… 30… years ago.” It’s a very difficult thing for everybody to come to terms with. Half the books in the world would never have been written if it hadn’t been so difficult. However, there you are. That’s it.
I have had nine major surgical operations since 1973. The doctors said “Andy, you’ve only got one thing left, and that’s guts.”
Andy’s retirement plans were widely reported in the press and on TV. He gave an extended interview with Scots actress Hannah Gordon in a BBC TV special Andy Stewart – The Entertainer, and it was advertised that he would make his final public appearance, fittingly, on Grampian Television with A Happy Hogmanay! However, on the day it was to be recorded, at the Aberdeen Beach Ballroom, Grampian’s electricians went on strike and Grampian decided to scrap the whole programme and transmit The Hogmanay Show from Glasgow with Russ Abbot instead. Andy’s final stage appearance would be a live show in Liverpool 31st December 1985.
However, after his much publicised announcement, had he actually retired? Those closest to him were doubtful. Now into 1986, he was still seemingly treading the boards.
Shindig (STV Jan/Feb 1986)
For a man who was now supposedly taking things easy, these are remarkably energetic performances.
Andy appeared at a gala performance with Bill McCue, Mary O’Hara and The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, celebrating the opening of the refurbished Music Hall in Aberdeen, but in May 1986, one month before two planned shows at the HM Theatre in Aberdeen Andy Takes a Bow; he was admitted to Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen. At this point his wife stepped in:
“It has become clear to me that he is gradually doing a wee bit here and there and it is all building up again. So I have cancelled everything planned. It is really quite worrying. I really do think he must take it easy and not just say he is going to”.
In August 1986 Andy hit the news again after being admitted to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for a heart by-pass operation and – being told to “rest very quietly” – faced a long period of convalescence.
Back In Active Service
Astonishingly, after less than a year of “resting quietly”, Andy announces to the media in 1987, that he is coming back out of retirement and is busy filling up his diary again resuming performing in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; appearing on the TV comedy panel quiz Shammy Dab; accepting his award of the “Freedom of the County of Angus”; recording a new album Back to the Bothy and planning to welcome in the year of 1988 by entertaining at Andy’s New Year Party, a banquet at the refurbished Central Hotel, Glasgow in an event produced by Jimmy Logan.
“Medical advice was that in my state of health I should never set foot on stage again.
But then the doctor recommended that maybe I could try a little, otherwise I would die of boredom or drive the wife witless by being a nuisance about the house!”
Honorary Freeman of Angus
Andy’s Freeman of Angus acceptance speech, Webster Theatre, Arbroath 24 June 1987.
Work continued in 1988 with visits to Canada, more TV appearances, an Australian tour of his one-man show and a rare return to Pantomime in Paisley & Dundee. However Andy would not be “back in active service”, as he put it, for long as inevitably his health began to decline again. In June 1989 he announced that after all the years on the road he would be making his final road-trip back to live in his home town of Arbroath. The reason for the move was that this time his retirement really was definite, he said. As he recovered at home from further heart surgery in a statement he revealed:
“Ill-health has finally forced me out of show business.
The operation I had last Friday was very successful but to go on now would be like driving down the M1 on the wrong side. If I work, I take my life in my hands.
I have been told by the doctors to take things very easy.”
The root of Andy’s health problems was high cholesterol levels, levels which continuing to stay raised, proved difficult to treat, possibly down to something in his chromosomes, the doctors told him.
“My cholesterol count at one time was 21. The normal is four or five. I’m down to seven and I’m still working on it. I have to stick to what would nowadays be regarded as a healthy diet. Cut down on animal fats, not too much fibre… all that sort of thing. I’ve had 20 years of almost non-stop surgery. Right now I’m coping with a hiatus hernia.
I must stop pestering the NHS.”
At the end of the Eighties, Andy was probably at his lowest point ever health-wise. Over the previous two years he had suffered another two major “heart scares” and had undergone a further artery-widening operation. He needed 16 pills a day to keep him functioning and had an on-going problem with angina that saw him regularly in and out of hospital. It seemed that his life in the public eye was finally over – but the surprise reappearance of an old friend from the Isle of Skye was about to inspire him to make his final comeback.