Alex McCrindle, who was born on 3rd August 1911 in Glasgow, started work at the age of 10 years, delivering milk. At 15, he left school and got a job in a timer merchants’ office. He started his acting career playing heroes in plays put on by the Boys Brigade. Later, after moving to Glasgow and getting a job as a manager of a hardware firm, he joined the Glasgow Clarion Players. A pioneer Scottish theatre group with strong links to the Communist Party, this was a predecessor of Glasgow Unity and Glasgow Citizens.
McCrindle went to WEA lectures on drama at Glasgow University and had become so engaged in theatrical matters that he had to choose to give up his hardware career. He was lucky to be able to become an indentured apprentice at Queen Theatre in London, at the north end of Kew Bridge. He finished up as an electrician but became immersed in the world of theatre and actors along the way.
He eventually became a formable actor himself. In the period 1937-9, he appeared in a dozen plays on the first broadcasts of television, including `Juneo and the Paycock’, before the medium was closed down for the duration of the war, sometimes being credited as Alex McCringle or Alex McGrindle, as well as in his own name. he was also in the cast of the classic Hitchcock film, `The 39 steps’, although he was more proud of his nationwide tour of `Six men of Dorset’, about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, in 1937
McCrindle began a history of the actors’ union, Equity, but was unable to finish it due to being called up for the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He produced the first ever play performed on board a RN ship during war, `Androcles and the Lion’, transmitted over the Tannoy!
He starred in the British BBC radio show `Dick Barton Special Agent’ from 1946-51, which ran for 700 episodes and had 15 million listeners. Alex played the role of Jock Anderson one of Dick Barton’s key henchmen and was widely loved for the role and enormously popular in it. In 1947, he was producer of the TV programme `Larry the Lamb’.
The cast of Dick Barton Special Agent, from left: Alex McCrindle (centre) c.1948. BBC Photo Library
Although he also branched out very successfully into scriptwriting, McCrindle was effectively blacklisted because of his Communist and Equity activities for much of the important years of his career, especially from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. In the 1950s, he appeared – often uncredited to escape the blacklist – in a string of small budget movies as a character actor. But, in the main, blacklisting resulted in him devoting more time to building up Equity and securing improved pay and conditions for Actors, to meet this objective he was sent by his union to found Scottish Equity, which only had 15 members before he began his work. He worked at this full-time for the next seven years, leaving the union in a flouring position north of the border. In this period, he only worked in British television and then only twice during the early 1960s.
In the later stage of his career, he began to secure significant parts in films and TV programmes from `The Saint’ in 1965, and then through many other projects, with increasingly more significant parts, to `All Creatures Great and Small’ and `Taggart’ and then, in the 1977 first `Star Wars’ movie in which he played a rebel general.
George Lucas, short of capital, offered the actors on the movie "points" in lieu of salary. Big stars such as Alec Guinness, could afford to indulge in some capitalist speculation and take "points" and, in the event, the film proved to be the best move Guinness ever made financially. "Hollywood thought Darth Vader was a tough nut," one luvvie has recalled, "but they hadn’t met Alex."! He campaigned through Equity for bonuses for all actors in Star Wars, among them R2-D2 (who was played, or operated inside, by Birmingham-born Kenny Baker), who also took a working wage and contributed to the success of Star Wars.
Alex had a great love of Scottish poetry and regularly read it aloud to audiences. He produced and read his own selection of 37 poems by William Soutar (Glasgow, Scotsoun, 1989) and raised money for Brownsbank Cottage.
He was married twice, the first was Sandy, the second wife, Honor Arundel, the Communist children’s author and Daily Worker film critic. (See entry for Honor Arundel.) The home of McCrindle and Arundel in the fifties was always a hub of Party activity and organisation, as the writer Doris Lessing notes in her autobiography. Alex became close friends with Paul Strand, the famous photographer, and was a major asset to Strand in his `Tir a Mhurain’ photography project. He went onto become Strand’s agent in Scotland, negotiating with Compton Mackenzie and visiting the School of Scottish Studies in order to help set up the project.
In the 1980s, with US screenings no longer debarred to him, he appeared in dozens of major roles on television mini-series, including "Reilly: The Ace of Spies" and in film such as `Eye of the Needle’. As late as 1987 he played the role of a jailer in `Comrades’, the film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Alex McCrindle’s obituary in the Times was headlined "Communist stalwart" and stated that he remained committed to an "unrelenting Marxism which lost nothing of its purity and uncompromising severity". His daughter Jean also became involved in politics and an award for drama was named after him. Alex McCrindle died on April 20, 1990 in Edinburgh.
Sources: Morning Star 18th August 1986; The Times 28 April 1990; Michael Walker