Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dead Old Comedians

by Geoff Collins

The dreaded IRS strikes again! Fear not - this has nothing to do with taxation. I refer to Insufficient Research Syndrome, that embarrassing condition that banishes even the most diligent writers and researchers to Outer Gaffe-Land, due to their reliance on previously-published misinformation. In an article on the deliciously perverse Houston Sisters (see our Archive) I stated that Billie died in 1955, purely because I trusted an earlier researcher. It turns out that the poor lady lingered on, in poor health, for another eighteen years, so 1973 would be a more likely date, based on page 156 of Don't Fence Me In, by Renee Houston (Pan Books, 1974). But don't quote me!

Speaking of quotes, this is from Tom Hickman's excellent book about BBC radio during World War Two, What Did you Do in the War, Auntie? (BBC Books, 1995), page 54:
"Wartime broadcasting revived the careers of a number of fading troopers like Marie Lloyd, Little Titch [sic] and Dan Leno."
Wow! They must have needed some reviving. By mid-WW2 Tich had been dead for about fifteen years, Marie for twenty and Dan for forty. At least he's right about the "fading". I sent an e-mail to Mr. Hickman along the above lines but received no reply. Hopefully by now he's not in need of the same kind of reviving.

Here's my guess at what happened: in the course of his research Mr. Hickman must have waded through endless copies of Radio Times. He probably found details of one of Leslie Baily's Scrapbook programmes and didn't realise that the list of historic names were on old records instead of the real thing. It's true that some of the old music hall stars did get a brief shot at a comeback, notably the ebullient Cockney singing comedian Harry Champion (1865-1942; dates double-checked!) All movie clips of Mr. Champion seem to have been lost. He's nowhere to be found on www.britishpathe.com, and the portions of his act that he filmed for British Lion seem to have vanished along with most 'thirties British Lion material. (Readers, now's your chance to prove me wrong again - and while you're at it, find Sandy Powell's feature films!) At least Mr. Champion made around a hundred and sixty recordings, all of which capture his breathless energy as he rattles off songs about food and drink. One of my favourite quotes of all time comes from Kindly Leave the Stage! by Roger Wilmut (Methuen, 1985), page 139, and it gives us a flavour of what's been lost by the absence of film of Harry Champion. This is acrobat Bob Konyot describing Harry's appearance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in the early part of the war:
"Gracie Fields was supposed to get £500 a week - she was the highest paid star; our springboard act was getting around £75 a week; and some of these old-timers like Harry Champion were lucky if they could pick up £40. I went down to see his act; they played his signature tune - and no Harry Champion. They played it a second time - no Harry Champion. They played it a third time - still no Harry Champion; the boss of the show said, "All these old-timers do that, to create an atmosphere before they go on." And it was true that Harry Champion went on that stage - and Whoomph! - you know, that man couldn't sing, that man couldn't dance, he looked like a cabbie and he danced like Donald Duck... he couldn't do nothing; but he had the audience in the palm of his hand, and they loved him every minute of his act. He didn't do anything, but he was one of the greatest performers I've ever seen."
For an idea of Harry in action, his 1940 record of Any Old Iron can be heard on www.britishmusichallcds.com.

Sorry, readers, no bells and whistles this time. The recently-recovered clip of Dan Leno - "An Obstinate Cork" - in the form of a Kinora flip-book, has yet to be issued to the public. (Why??? By "recently", I'm talking about seventeen years) Two of Dan's records can be enjoyed on rfwilmut.clara.net, and there's a fascinating and thorough biography on billgreenwell.com. The glorious Marie Lloyd is sadly under-represented by nineteen scratchy 78s and a short silent clip of about 1920 (from the Topical Budget newsreel?) in which she looks frankly decrepit, totally worn-out at fifty. Little Tich's thirty 78s are mostly thudders. Unlike his contemporary Dan Leno, he comes across as self-conscious and a bit smug; but his immortal Big Boots dance was filmed twice, the most easily-accessible version being on www.britishpathe.com (clip number 2845.04). The 1900 version Little Tich et ses Big Boots, filmed in Paris by the photographer Clement Maurice, has been cited by Jacques Tati as "a foundation for everything that has been realised in comedy on the screen". Praise indeed!

(In case any Will Hay fans are reading this, the Big Boots dance in Those Were the Days is performed by Sammy Curtis. He's a bit too tall but at least he was still alive!)

By now you may be wondering "what's the purpose of all this?" but to elaborate on Tati's point, all styles of comedy have to start somewhere. It's all about influence: in the baggy-trousered grace of Little Tich we can see Charlie Chaplin; Harry Champion's chirpy optimism is discernible in Tommy Trinder and that spectacular peacock Max Miller; Marie Lloyd has been portrayed with consummate ease by Barbara Windsor and, most recently, Jessie Wallace; and Dan Leno's plaintive London-Irish surrealist patter, decades ahead of its time, is a direct forerunner of the grotesquerie of Max Wall and the Goonery of Spike Milligan. I'd happily trade any number of 1940s Columbias by Certain Psychopaths Who Shall Remain Brainless, for more - or indeed any - film clips of Leno, Marie Lloyd, Tich or Harry Champion, or the other early stars who departed too early or left us too little. But even if their work only exists in rare bits and pieces, let's enjoy what we have.

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