Sunday, February 26, 2006

Leslie Henson: England's Forgotten Buffoon

by Geoff Collins

Leslie Henson is haunting me. There's no doubt about it. He just keeps turning up, everywhere. As a bit of a collector - now there's an understatement - I occasionally find it necessary to browse through piles of old books and magazines at various fairs, or in junk shops or charity shops, and every single time, without fail, sooner or later I'm confronted by that face, that face, that wonderful face.

In It's a Boy, a hung-over Edward Everett Horton, playing the Romantic Lead [!!!], pulls back the sheets to investigate the mysterious lump in the bed, and finds it to be none other than Leslie Henson, flat on his back, fast asleep. Horton is puzzled, and asks "Is it a fish?"

That Queen of the Theatre Critics James Agate, a bit of an old trout himself, had quite an expressive range of expressions in order to describe Leslie's expressive range of expressions:
"Leslie Henson will, in moments of ecstasy, look at you out of eyes bulging like those of a moth which has eaten too much tapestry."
Perfect; and yet here's another one:
"Only, of course, the next minute he will be looking like a goldfish the maid has forgotten to put back into its bowl, or a tortoise imprudently come out ofits shell."
Shall we let the Yorkshire genius J. B. Priestly 'ave a go at describing our Leslie? Aye, 'appen we will:
"How to describe that face? I might say that it was a combination of the Frog footman and the Fish footman in Alice in Wonderland."
Leslie's unique facial equipment is probably the reason why, without any effort at all, I've managed to acquire a large collection of Hensonioniana... er, Hensonia... Hens... oh blow it. Henson Ephemera. Copies of The Play Pictorial, theatre programmes, magazine articles....amidst a sea of ordinary faces, he's suddenly there. He leaps off the page. In his all-too-rare movies, he leaps off the screen. And his recordings - yes, they turn up as well - are just as memorable because he also had That Voice. That Voice was perfect for That Face. It was upper-class, flat and very croaky; in fact, Henson's Throat was at one time the expression used in medical circles for a type of persistent sore throat. Leslie would have been the definitive Mr. Toad. Indeed, in many of his best roles he's an aristocrat, lawyer or man-about-town who's been thrust unwillingly into a predicament of spiraling embarrassment, from which he resourcefully tries to extricate himself - unsuccessfully - by a series of elaborate lies or cunning plans. His eyes bulge and roll around, and his voice becomes even croakier as he heaps one absurdity upon the next, sinking deeper and deeper into the morass.

In It's a Boy, for example, he finds himself in drag, pretending to be a lady author, and having to explain the plot of his/her latest book – which he's never even looked at, never mind written- to the guests at his best friend's wedding. Is all that clear? Don't ask! Leslie jabbers away and it's soon apparent that he's describing some sort of cross between Goldilocks and Cinderella. Would-be bridegroom Edward Everett Horton, who's in on the subterfuge, looks on in shocked amazement. Fortunately for Leslie, none of his listeners have read the book either.
Leslie: Well, in that case, I'll give you a rough idea of it. Let's see now...well, it's quite a simple little story, you know. It's all about a little maid who is the drudge in the Baron's castle. And one day she's picking up sticks in the forest, and she sees coming towards her in the distance three bears...

Horton: [coughs] Uh-huh!

Leslie: ...no, not three bears....her...her Godmother, who looks like three bears to her. So she says, "Good God mother, what big eyes you've got." And the wolf says...

Horton: [shocked] No!

Leslie: ...and the wolf says "No!" You see, he's quite a nice type of wolf. Not the type of wolf that would say yes...
And so on. Is it possible for me to get through an article without mentioning http://www.britishpathe.com/? Hardly. For on this wonderful website we have several examples of Leslie at his very best, most effectively in a 1937 "Camera Interview" in which he's being sketched by the artist Frank Slater, and he displays a couple of his best Faces. And who needs Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots, or Jack Haley in Follow Through, when we have film clips of Leslie in the London stage versions?

Although Leslie was primarily a West End theatre comedian, his movie career wasn't just restricted to brief newsreel clips of other comedians' film adaptations. He starred in several screen farces himself in the early thirties, although some have probably vanished altogether by now. It's a Boy (1933), a fast and funny version of his 1930 stage comedy, was available on VHS in the UK several years ago, and happily, as is the case with Joe Cook in Rain or Shine, it preserves the full range of Leslie's talents. Oh Daddy, made a year or so later, has recently been recovered and shown on British television. In this, Leslie plays Lord Pye, who is tempted out of the clutches of the League of Purity by glamorous night-club singer Frances Day. It's a delightful period piece with several beautifully-photographed musical numbers.

Frances is blonde, sexy, heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and she purrs her lines like Fenella Fielding. Leslie, for once a bit shy in the presence of this goddess, growls his lines like, well, like Leslie Henson:
Frances: So you're Lord Pye. This is a surprise!

Leslie: Am I? I mean...is it?

Frances: [turns on the charm] Yes, I expected someone... much older.

Leslie: Older?

Frances: And less, er...military-looking.

Leslie: Military-looking? Huh... yerse. [He preens a bit and twirls the ends of an imaginary waxed moustache] Well. Tell me... [coyly] how old do you think I am?

Frances: 30!

Leslie: No.

Frances: No? Er... 35?

Leslie: No.

Frances: Oh you can't be 40!

Leslie: Certainly not. 38 last Februrur... last Februrur... last F.... last June!
In one of the musical numbers, Leslie wears Bobby Clark's satyr costume from Cochran's 1931 Revue. [This is an educated guess; how many satyr costumes are there?] Was he always borrowing things from legendary Broadway comedians?

Leslie was clearly legendary himself in the 1930s, and he was held in high esteem, one of the few comedians considered "important" enough to be listed in national biographies and contemporary encyclopaedias. Yet nobody's heard of him now. Why did this ebulliant, vibrant comedian slip away so suddenly?

Actually it wasn't that sudden. He entertained the troops in World War Two (and is represented doing so in The Demi-Paradise, raspingly introducing his interpretation of RacHHHHHHmaninoff's Prelude); and he had several post-war stage successes in Bob's Your Uncle, And So To Bed, and the Grossmith Brothers' classic Diary of a Nobody, for which he would have been ideally cast. Yet J. B. Priestly has noted, in Particular Pleasures, that something strange and alarming seemed to be happening inside Leslie. He just wasn't funny any more. Not at all. Other great comedians have been afflicted in this way: Charlie Chaplin (controversial!); and Bob Hope and John Cleese (not controversial at all) and it usually has something to do with becoming The Management. Having to deal with meetings and committees and figures and auditions destroys their sense of the ridiculous. They still walk around but they're dead on the inside. That this should happen to a joyously free-spirited droll like Leslie Henson is a major tragedy; and yet it did happen. He visited Brian Rix backstage during the London run of Dry Rot: Rix, in his fine book Life in the Farce Lane, records with some poignancy Leslie's distress that no West End manager would employ him. He didn't need the money, but he wanted to work; and yet they all sensed that something was missing.

After this he had a supporting role in his friend Stanley Holloway's film Home and Away (bits of this can be glimpsed in Pathe's Film Fanfare no. 22) and he died at the end of 1957. Only a couple of weeks before his death, he had appeared briefly in another Pathe newsreel, a colour item about the re-building of the Gaiety Theatre bar. Leslie and fellow legend Lupino "Nipper" Lane struggle to get through a door too narrow to accommodate both of them. It's an old gag and Leslie looks tired - and the narrator considers it necessary to identify him "for the benefit of any children present" - but, thank God, in his last movie appearance, he's funny.

Fortunately for posterity, the period of his decline coincided with his absence from the screen; so when we get a rare chance to see a Henson movie we can enjoy Leslie at his best, with that incredibly mobile face and that rich fruity voice. At the time of his death, his obituarists called him "old-fashioned", a pre-war comedian - as if this is some sort of failing. The Marx Brothers were pre-war comedians; it never did them any harm. And Leslie's son is Nicky Henson, so there are still Hensons around to make us laugh.

Leslie Henson, in my humble opinion, has true Third Banana status. He deserves a re-appraisal; and judging by the number of times he pops up in my collecting expeditions, it looks as if he's asking for one.So keep watching this site, readers, as we will occasionally unload choice bits of Hensoniana onto you; and enjoy Leslie's drolleries on http://www.britishpathe.com/. They don't make comedians like this any more.

Leslie Henson : August 3 1891 - December 2 1957.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Chandler said...

Although a serving British soldier at the time Leslie Henson entertained the troops in World War 1 as well with his variety troop the Gaity Players. He had some tremendous adventures that included hanging onto the back of a speeding train for dear life. He was arrested by the British military for that escapade but managed to get off both the train and all charges.He also wrote and put on the panto Aladdin in approximately two weeks in Lille at the closing stages of the war. It was a huge success.

1:59 AM  

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