Lee Mack, creator of Not Going Out, has long been drawn to the figure of his great grandfather, Billy Mac. Autographed photographs and mementoes reveal that Billy was also a comedian and that he performed at the ‘Chic’ Casino in Lee’s native Southport – can Lee find out more?
“As I get older, I’m getting more curious,” Lee says of researching his family history. He begins by ordering up Billy’s birth certificate, which show that William Alexander McKillop was born in 1889, which means he was 25 years old when the First World War broke out. In August 1914, Billy volunteered for the King’s Liverpool Regiment as part of the first-ever Pals Battalion.
As he follows Billy’s wartime odyssey through training at Lord Derby’s estate, Knowsley Hall, and then to northern France, where Billy advanced in the third wave of troops on the first day of the Somme, it emerges that Billy performed with a concert party, The Optimists, while in the military. Lee learns how the troupe even performed straight after taking part in a brutal battle at Ypres. “That’s unbelievable to be actually shot at, or perhaps to kill someone, and then to walk on stage,” marvels Lee.
In the wake of the conflict, Billy carried on performing, but by 1922 he was working in the “wireless apparatus” industry. But there’s one last twist. Lee was curious as to why the family has publicity photographs of Billy that have been autographed. It turns out that he “ended up marrying an autograph hunter”, Lee’s great grandmother, Gladys.
Next, Lee researches the life of his maternal grandad, Joe, whose mother went to Canada and left her son to be raised by his grandparents. “It does feel a bit cold,” says Lee after visiting his aunt in Southport and hearing her memories of a worrier and a “very money-conscious” man.
In Ballina in Ireland, Lee learns more. Joe was born out of wedlock at a time when there was huge stigma around illegitimacy. His mother, Delia, would have struggled to find work, making her decision to go Montreal, her passage paid by a domestic agency, far more understandable.
He also learns about Delia’s parents, Thomas and Mary Farrell. Thomas was a labourer who lived in a two-room house and had a sideline in selling unlicensed booze in a ‘shebeen’. He was often fined for his activities. Then, in 1922, he made an insurance claim after the doors and windows of his home “were wantonly and maliciously damaged or injured by rifle fire”.
This was the time of the Irish civil war when family fought family, but it may be the Farrells were simply caught in the crossfire. Whatever the truth, Joe’s worrisome nature is now easier for Lee to understand. His forebears, he says, have gone from seeming “abstract” to being “real people.”