Kevin Brannigan: East End drag artist on his battle to make his mark
ADVERSITY is chicken soup for the soul of the performer, we are continually told. X Factor contestants tell us they feed off it, it gives them the strength to cope with the ravages of showbiz.
But how much adversity do you need to help form a character act that will sustain?
When you hear Kevin Brannigan’s story there’s a sense the young man from Barrowfield in the East End of Glasgow has had more than his share of difficulty. In recent times, Brannigan’s drag act Big Angie has sold out the Edinburgh Festival, he has staged his own sell-out shows at St Luke’s in Glasgow and been offered a development deal with STV. He’s also in talks with BBC Scotland about producing his act as a comedy special.
Yet, considering the level of hardship and duress Brannigan has had to endure, the gods should have working in Hollywood anytime soon. Brannigan, who has a social media following of 30,000, could well have done without his dad being sent to jail for seven years.
We discuss that later, but first Brannigan highlights how growing up in Glasgow’s East End district of Barrowfield) (Google the word and it comes up attached to ‘murder’, the next phrase you’ll see is ‘drug gangs’) was traumatic. But perhaps not for the reason you’d expect.
“Other people knew I was gay before I did,” he recalls, with a considered smile. “When you are called names as a young boy you don’t really know what ‘gay’ means. I didn’t really know I was gay until I was 15, until the hormones had kicked in.
“And when you grow up in a place like Barrowfield and you’re camp you’re going to be a victim. But I decided to own my sexuality, to tackle it head on. I’ve never been in denial. When I got criticism from the hard men I used to get up on a snooker table and dance. I was saying ‘This is me!’ I wanted to make them laugh. When I would go to parties I would sing and tell jokes. I didn’t apologise for who I was and at the same time I had that need to perform. And the performance worked.”
Brannigan became accepted in his world. Sort of. “I had more a problem with some of the teachers at my school,” he says of his years at St Mungo’s Academy. “I loved drama. I lived for drama classes. It meant everything to me because as a teenager I knew I wanted some sort of career in showbiz. But one teacher, who was also my Form teacher, told me I had to ‘straighten out’.
“I don’t know if this was because he thought I was too camp, or too exuberant. And he vetoed me doing drama completely. Then my drama teacher contacted my mum and said the decision was ‘probably for Kevin’s benefit.’ This derailed me at school. I really wanted to perform with all my heart. I felt robbed. This need to perform was rampant. And by third year I had lost my way.”
What sustained Brannigan through adolescence was the support of his parents, particularly his dad, Anthony. But disaster struck at the heart of the teenage Kevin. “When I was 17 my daddy was sent to prison for seven years,” he says, his voice revealing a tremble echoing his torment of the time.
“When he went away the wind in my sails went with him. He was a man’s man, yet he was so supportive of this gay, camp son who needed to perform. And it was quite unique. A lot of gay guys of my generation were brought up to feel they should apologise for their sexuality but my dad made me feel like a king every day.”
He adds: “A lot of people around me slagged me off, but he always said ‘You can be anything you want to be Kevin, because you’re mine’.”
Kevin’s world collapsed. He left school, even though teachers were convinced he should go to university. “I read to escape this new reality,” he explains. “I worked for a kids’ charity, I took a Creative Writing course, mentored my writers such as Des Dillon.”
Then he took to stand-up. “I tried it once at the Courtyard Bar in Glasgow, and I did well. But I didn’t know how to follow it up. Although I wanted success so badly, on another level I didn’t think it could ever come to someone like me. My daddy wasn’t there to push me forward. Yet, at the same time, I couldn’t get to sleep at night without thinking about it.”
He smiles; “I used to watch Madonna’s concerts and my eyes would pop out of my head imaging that would be me one day.
How did his mum cope with the imprisonment? “She didn’t. She took it terribly. And it had a real effect on the family unit.” (He has a younger brother.) “I felt needed at home. My heart was in a career, but my head was at home.”
Why did his dad go to prison? Brannigan becomes silent for the first time during the interview. He waits for the longest time before answering. “My mum was attacked and my dad reacted,” is all he’ll say. Newspaper cuts reveal more. His mum was caught up in a gang feud. His dad and cousin Paul, the one-time actor who starred in The Angel’s Share film, sought revenge (both armed) and a gun went off. The result, for both, was jail. “I don’t want to talk about my cousin,” says Brannigan in pleading voice. “That’s not a world I’m part of.”
Understandable. Why should an entertainer be made to carry around the sins of others? It wasn’t until his dad came out of prison in 2011 that Brannigan began to move forward with his life.
“My dad grew up in real poverty but he believed in me and when he came out of prison he pushed me forward. At the time I had been working with a kids’ drama club in the East End, and we got about 3000 youngsters coming along in two months. I was doing something right. Yet, at the same time, there I was talking to them about realising the dream – and I hadn’t realised my own.”
How to do it? He recalls; “I got together with a few friends and played out the role of a woman and felt it had comedy possibility. So what to call her? Well, my granddad gets called Big Archie and my gran Big Ann so it sort of made sense I called myself Big Angie.
“We put her out on social media and I was so nervous, really worried about what people think. So was my mum. But my dad was so encouraging. After two months I got a call from STV asking me to go in and make a pilot.”
He turned it down. “I felt I wasn’t ready for television. So I started working with the likes of playwright John Binnie and actress Maureen Carr. In 2016, we took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe – Big Angie’s Guide to The Gallowgate – and sold out every night.”
The confidence grew. Videos appeared on social media. Brannigan was mentioned in the Scottish Parliament by MSP David Linden as being a great role model for East End youngsters.
This year the performer teamed up with actress/director Sarah McCardie to take Big Angie to St Luke’s hall in Glasgow. He sold out in 29 mins.
What now? Is he ready to dive into the world that is television? More shows?
“One of my teachers came to a Big Angie show and said I was born to play the character, which was a great boost. What I plan to do is keep writing, keep working on the act and getting more gigs and then think about television.”
The 35 year-old adds, smiling, “It’s taken me a while to get to this point. And I’ve had to climb a few mountains, but I know I’ll get there when I’m ready.
What of life outside of performance? Seems that’s a silly question for Kevin Brannigan. “I don’t have a partner, I’m single!” he declares in loud voice. “I’m married to my work. I’m married to Big Angie.”
He adds: “She’s the future. She’s what it’s all about. And I’m so determined to make it.”