Fulton Mackay

Fulton Mackay

Remembered by Brian Slade

Sometimes in comedy the authority figure to create conflict is as key to a successful sitcom as the leading comic role. Never was that truer than in the Ronnie Barker classic sitcom, Porridge, where Fletcher was constantly rubbing up against the snarling prison warder Mackay. The man behind the warder, Fulton Mackay OBE, gave sterling service to top comedy performers in a sadly brief television career, despite being a highly trained thespian.

William Fulton Beith Mckay, as his surname was originally spelt, was born on 12 August 1922 in Paisley but raised by an aunt in Clydebank with his father in the NAAFI and his mother dying when he was just an infant. He surrendered a career as a quantity surveyor to enter the RAF, but a perforated eardrum scuppered any such plans. Enlisting instead with the Black Watch, Mackay would spend five years in the army, perfect training for the uniformed figure that would bring him such notoriety opposite Barker.

After the Second World War, Mackay trained at RADA allegedly having seen that Charles Laughton had been trained there. What followed was an extensive run on stage in Glasgow, ten years in total, by the end of which he knew his trade inside out. That resulted in a steady run of heavyweight stage roles in such productions as Peer Gynt, The Alchemist and Nicholas Nickleby, also finding time to become a director of the Scottish Actors’ Company.

Fulton Mackay
Mackay in Private Potter (1963)

On the small screen, Mackay was struggling to make an impact. He had a semi-regular role in the sitcom Mess Mates in the early 1960s, plus the obligatory stint on Coronation Street along with uniformed roles in Special Branch and Z Cars. In 1969, he was cast as Detective Chief Superintendent Inman in Special Branch. These figures of authority, rather than leading to more heavy drama instead lead Mackay into his career defining role – prison warder Mackay in Porridge.

Fulton Mackay
Mackay in Doctor Who in 1970

Mackay the Porridge character was a former drill sergeant in the army now intent on making life a misery for everybody in Slade Prison. ‘I want you to know that I treat you all with equal contempt,’ he said when introducing himself to Richard Beckinsale’s Godber, which was as likeable as the character got. With his angled grimace and squirming neck movement tick, warder Mackay trusted nobody, liked nobody. In Ronnie Barker’s Fletcher he had his ultimate Nemesis. Barker and Fulton Mackay worked perfectly together on the three series of Porridge and the 1979 movie, also appearing in the first episode of the follow-up Going Straight.

Fulton Mackay
Richard Beckinsale, Ronnie Barker and Fulton Mackay in Porridge

Dad’s Army came calling twice, further cementing Mackay’s powers to hold authority with anger, but his career’s greatest success in volume at least came in the most unlikely of forms – a string of appearances in Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock as The Captain alongside puppet dog Sprocket. But it was comedy where he was at his best. He played an exasperated RAF aptitude tester trying to make some level of progress with Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, proving hysterical as his temper flares at the incompetence Frank offers.

Fulton Mackay
Mackay in Crown Court

Mackay appeared on The Morecambe and Wise Show in the later Thames years, also taking a principal role in their somewhat doomed television film, Night Train to Murder. He even had his own attempt at sitcom stardom in 1985 in Mann’s Best Friends, a short-lived series in which Mackay played another authority figure, Hamish James Ordway. His character was given free room and board in return for trying to help landlord Henry Mann (Barry Stanton) regain control of his chaotic guest house. With Roy Clarke penning the series on the fledgling Channel Four, it was somewhat surprising that it didn’t get past its opening series, especially with the great Bernard Bresslaw among the supporting players.

Fulton Mackay
Mann's Best Friends with Barry Stanton and Fulton Mackay

Away from the camera, Mackay was a very private man. Although married, he had no children, but did a great deal of work for children’s charities. His privacy aligned with the quiet life. He was a painter in his own time and also turned his hand at writing, but like his Porridge pal Ronnie Barker, took a different pen name when writing for the BBC. As Aeneas MacBride he wrote two playhouse plays for the corporation, Girl with Flowers in her Hair in 1976, and Dalhousie’s Luck four years later. Mackay died of stomach cancer on 6 June 1987. He was 64 years old.

Fulton Mackay was one of those actors so good at what they did that the bigger names alongside them shone that much brighter. For all the entries on his extensive CV however, it’s his snarling namesake that patrolled Slade Prison for which he will be forever associated. And while maybe that could be seen as a classic piece of typecasting, being the perfect bad guy in a sitcom some see as the finest in British television has offered, it’s a guarantee that both Mackays will be forever remembered.

Published on March 12th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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