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An Evening at Collins’s

Source: James Agate, ‘An Evening at Collins’s’, in Alarums and Excursions (London: G. Richards, 1922), pp. 153-164

Text:

Vulgarity is an implicit element of the true music-hall. . . . Out of the vulgarity of the people did the music-hall arise, nor will anyone be so foolish as to contend that, by tampering with its foundations, we shall go one step towards refining the people.

Max Beerbohm.

That delicate and penetrative writer, Dixon Scott, imagines in one of his playful essays the more than cosmopolitan Mr Walkley for the nonce desorienté. The Five Towns it is which bring to a disconcerting standstill this “picked man of countries.” “Where are they?” he asks wearily and a trifle shamefacedly, after the manner of a schoolboy stumped for the whereabouts of Carthage. I, in my turn, no “student of the drama” since there is little on the English stage left to study save Mr Oscar Asche’s sham orientalism and Mr Hichens’s real camels, must confess to a singular ignorance of theatrical activity outside the quarter-mile radius. “Where is Collins’s?” and “Who is Mr George Carney?” would therefore have risen naturally to my lips, and not at all in the judicial manner, pour rire, when a youth, engaged in mending my bicycle, hopelessly confused his tale of the machine’s defects with references to a place called Collins’s, that fellow Carney, and a certain history confided by some colonel to his adjutant. Would have risen to my lips, I say – but here some explanation is necessary.

I have from youth up cherished an extreme dislike for lack of definition in the things that matter, and an equal repugnance for a pedantic accuracy in the things which do not matter at all. I abhor all those befogged conceptions and blurred declarations of faith which are the stock-in-trade of half the philosophers and three-fourths of the clergy. Tell me definitely that Space is curved and I will believe it, though truth wear a German complexion. Deny that Space is curved, and certify the same on the Royal Society’s proper form for denials, and I will consider to which camp I will belong. But let there be no “iffing and affing,” as they say in Lancashire. It annoys me that people can turn the careless side of their intelligence to such fundamental affairs as Time and Space, the nature of matter, the impasse of a self-existent or a created universe, whilst taking the most passionate interest in such trivia as dates and places, the addresses of tradespeople and the hours of trains. I do not ever hope to remember the name or number of the street in which I live, nor have I for years been able to discriminate between the keepers of my lodging- houses. All landladies are one, co-equal, co- eternal and co-incomprehensible. I hate to decide what I shall do on Saturday, to determine whether the air will be fresher at Ramsgate or Margate, Southend or Clacton-on-Sea. I am in complete ignorance of the geography of London, and invariably take what is called a hackney coach from King’s Cross to St Pancras. I have for many years left the choice of place of amusement to the discerning cabby. “Anywhere you like,” say I, “except Chu Chin Chow. Wherever one may be set down, the prime condition of life will be fulfilled — to see yet more of an amusing world and its humanity. Few people have shown a more philosophic appreciation than Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue when they “oozed forth” into the streets. The phrase accurately describes my first attempt to find Collins’s music-hall.

I had always “placed” Collins’s as lying vaguely south of the river, somewhere between the Elephant and the Obelisk, Now the game of inattention to the trivialities of life has its rules, and one of them is that having made your intellectual bed so you must lie on it. You are to have the courage of your lack of mental industry. You have not attended to the lesson; you may not crib the answer. To dine at Princes’ and bid the commissionaire whistle an instructed taxi were outside the code. No; I had placed Collins’s near the Obelisk, and near the Obelisk I must find it, first dining befittingly and then oozing forth afoot. This may not be the place to describe a dinner “at the Obelisk.” Sufficient to say that if the cuts were not prime, the manners of my fellow-guests undoubtedly were. They did their meal the courtesy of being hungry; they ate, but not because it was the polite hour. They made no conversation, because they were not afraid of silence. My neighbour, an itinerant musician — in plain English he played a fiddle in the gutter — was, I judged, a man of uncertain character, but definite education. He forbore to relate his history. I discovered that he spoke French perfectly when, apropos of the oeillades of some poor draggle-tail at a neighbouring table, we fell to discussing the efficacy of the Duchess’s revenge in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s story — a good tale, but sadly lacking the American quality of “uplift.” I let slip, as they say, that I was bound for Collins’s, and my friend took occasion to point out that I was very much out of my course. I thanked him and listened to his indications for the following evening, it being a dispensation of the Inattentivists that you are not bound to reject information thrust upon you. We talked until the hour at which a paternal Government decrees that polite conversation in public places shall cease. And separated. But not before my fellow-artist had warmed sufficiently to me to hint that he was “doing well,” and that he hoped next year to enter his son for Eton.

Islington I found to be perfectly well informed both as to the locality of Collins’s and the reputation of Mr Carney. If not within a stone’s-throw of the Angel, the hall yet contrives to be at so nice a distance that one may transfer oneself from one house of entertainment to the other without, as old Quex has it, the trouble of drawing on one’s gloves. There is nothing of listless, well-bred indifference in a visit to Collins’s; you must be prepared to take the red plush benches by storm if you would be in at North London’s taking to heart of that rarity among comedians, an actor with a comic sense. I like to watch the curtain go up, having first enjoyed my fill of its bewitching advertisements. I like to watch the musicians file in, to see the flute-player put his instrument together, and that honest workman, the double-bass, spit on his hands, as all honest workmen should. I adore the operation of tuning-up, the precision of those little runs and trills executed in as perfect light-heartedness as the golfer’s preliminary swing. The conductor at these places is a captivating personage; he epitomises the glory of suburbia — dinner jacket, “dickey,” and white, ready-made bow. The overture at Collins’s, perfunctory, gladiatorial, had a familiar air about it, although the programme was not helpful. I should hate to think that a piece with which I am familiar can really be The Woodbine Willie Two-Step. Followed turns of which, or of whom, the chief were a juggler striking matches on his skull, a stout lady with a thin voice, prima donna of some undisclosed opera company, and a Versatile Comedy Four having to do with bicycles. At length and at last, Mr George Carney.

The first of his two “song-scenas” is a study of grandeur and decadence, of magnificence on its last legs, dandyism in the gutter, pride surviving its fall; in plain English, a tale of that wreckage of the Embankment which was once a gentleman. He wears a morning coat which, in spite of irremediable tatters, has obviously known the sunshine of Piccadilly, has yet some hang of nobility. The torn trousers still wear their plaid with an air. Enfin, the fellow was at one time gloved and booted. There is something authentic, something inherited, something ghostly about this seedy figure. Trailing clouds of glory does he haunt the Embankment. The ebony cane, the eyeglass with the watered ribbon, the grey topper of the wide and curling brim — all these fond accoutrements of fashion bring back the delightful nineties, so closely are they the presentment, the counterfeit presentment, of the swell of those days. “Bancroft to the life!” we mutter. And our mind goes back to that bygone London of violet nights and softly-jingling hansom cabs, discreet lacquer and harness of cheerful brass—nocturnes, if ever such things were, in black and gold — the London of yellow asters and green carnations; of a long-gloved diseuse, and, in the photographer’s window, a delicious Mrs Patrick Campbell eating something dreadfully expensive off the same plate as Mr George Alexander; of a hard-working Max with one volume of stern achievement and all Time before him; of a Cafe Royal where poets and not yet bookmakers forgathered; of a score of music- halls which were not for the young person. … But I am getting away from Mr Carney.

The matter is not very much above our heads — something about a Count who has “taken the count.” The purest stuff of the music-hall, as a music-hall song should be. “There’s a n’ole ‘ere!” pipes with fierce glee the cherub boot-black, bending over the broken boots and abating the deference to the broken swell no jot of his Trade Union rate of “frippence.” How it hurts, the contempt and raillery of this pitiless infant? Enfant goguenard if ever there was one, a capitalist in his small way, and with all the shopkeeper’s scorn of failure. “There’s a n’ole ere!” he insists, and we are reminded of Kipps’s tempestuous friend, “a nactor-fellow.” “Not a n’ole — an aperture, my dear fellow, an aperture,” corrects the noble client, “the boots were patent, but the patent’s expired.” Here the Count drops his cigar and indulges in unseemly scuffle with the urchin. “No, you don’t,” says the riper smoker, regaining possession, “that’s how I got it.” But the child has yet another arrow. “Landlady says as ‘ow you’ve got to share beds wiv a dustman.” But the shaft fails to wound; clearly our hero is of the Clincham mould to whom social distinctions are as “piffle before the wind.” “Want a pyper?” goads the boy, and his client lays out his last remaining copper. He unfolds the sheets and instinctively his eye runs over the fashionable intelligence. “Know Colonel Br’th’l’pp at all?” he inquires. This one recognises as the delightful touch of the man of the world anxious to put a social inferior at his ease. Something after this manner, one imagines, Royalty. “Doing very well in Russia. Was up at Cambridge with his brother, the elder Br’th’l’pp, don’ cher know.” And so to babble of the day’s gossip to the scornful child at his feet. The courtesy, I submit, of one man of polish to another.

Night falls, the river puts on its jewels, the result of a cunning arrangement of n’oles and n’apertures in the back-cloth, it draws very cold. More pitiful than the accustomed heir of destitution, but with stiff upper lip, our déclassé shivers, draws his rags more closely about him and moves on.

But it is the second song which brings down the house. Here the actor appears as an Army cook, and at Islington we have all been Army cooks in our time. A couple of dixies, the stew in which is discoverable last week’s “Dickey Dirt,” talk of “jippo ” and “the doings ” — all the familiar traffic of the camp rises to the mind’s eye and sets the house in a roar. We are not, we gather, in any theatre of war, but safely at home in halcyon, far-off training days. Almost you can hear the cheerful clatter of the canteen, the thud and rattle of the horse-lines. The wording of the song is in no sense precious.

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?”

There is a chorus, also serving as corps de ballet, and consisting first of the inveterate grumbler who objects to the presence in his coffee of so harmless a beastie as a “drahned mahse “— the accent is a mixture of Devon and Berkshire with a dash of Cockney. Then comes the superior youth of ingratiating, behind-the-counter manner, the proud possessor, we feel sure, of a manicure set in ivory — does he not abstractedly polish his nails with the end of the towel? After him the “old sweat” who will neither die nor fade away, and lastly our rosy boot-black, now the dear brother-in-arms of the immortal Lew and Jakin. This nucleus of an Army has but a single mind: to know what has become of its blinking dinner. Many and various are their ways of putting it, and it appears that they are no more than Messengers or Forerunners of the cohorts pressing on their heels. But the orderly beguiles their impatience.

“What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.”

The orderly is the slipshod, inefficient, imperturbable “bloke” we know so well; with him we are to rise to what Mr Chesterton calls “the dazzling pinnacle of the commonplace.” I am not sure that this is not the best of all this author’s fireworks; it is so stupendous a rocket that the stick has cleared the earth, never to return but to go on whirling around us for evermore. Mr Carney is the embodiment of the commonplace civilian turned warrior. He is the cook who will drop into the stew all manner of inconsidered [sic] trifles: cigarette ash, match ends, articles of personal attire. He is the hero who will be up to all the petty knavery and “lead-swinging” that may be going, who will “work dodges ” with the worst of them, and, on occasion, join with the best in such deeds — he would still call them “dodges” — as shall put terror into the hearts of a ten times outnumbering foe. Of that order of heroic cooks which held Ypres. But it is part and parcel of this actor’s generalship that he will have no truck with heroics. Tell Mr Carney that he raises tears and he will make a mock of you. Or more probably he will continue his song.

“What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears;
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

Have I over-glorified my subject, whose talent is not more remarkably expended than on a dixie and a soldier’s ration of stew? Ah, but was not always one of the great tests for comic acting the power to throw a preternatural interest over the commonest objects of daily life? “What,” say you, pricking your ears at the familiar phrase, “surely at this time of day you are not going to dish up that old stuff about kitchen tables and constellatory importance, joint-stools and Cassiopeia’s chair?” Oh, but I am, and let appositeness be my apology. “So the gusto of Munden antiquates and ennobles what it touches. His pots and his ladles are as grand and primal as the seething-pots and hooks seen in old prophetic vision.” Why should I not elevate, an it please me, Mr Carney’s pot and ladle to the same high category? I do not ask you to see in this actor an image of primeval man lost in wonder of the sun and stars, but I do ask you to believe that a tin of “bully” contemplated by him amounts, or very nearly amounts, to a Platonic idea. Grant at least that he understands a dixie in its quiddity. It may be that in my estimate of this conscientious comedian I have overshot the just mean. Well, granting that my little appraisement is an error, it seems to me to be an error on the right side. I have a comfortable feeling that Islington at least is with me, that I have a solid popular backing. Collins’s pit and stalls, circle and gallery would have borne me out that the actor diffused a glow of sentiment “which made the pulse of a crowded theatre beat like that of one man”; would have probably agreed that he had “come in aid of the pulpit, doing good to the moral heart of a people.”

I do not think that in expanding Islington’s approval I have misread it. Its ecstatic hand-clapping and shouts of “Good ole George! Good ole George!” cannot deceive an ear attuned to shades of applause. The civilian on my left with the wound-stripes on his sleeve is dumb with appreciation. His lips are parted, his breath comes in short gasps, his eyes are fixed on the stage seeing and not seeing, his whole soul in some setting of the past. I am sure he hears once more the clatter of the canteen and the cheerful rattle of the horse-lines. The soldier on my right, still in the Army’s grip and not yet victim of the nostalgia to come — a very small fly in demobilisation’s ointment, but there it is — is drunk, simply, uncomplicatedly drunk, with the lilt and swing of the tune. He rises half out of his seat, puts a steadying hand on my arm, and with the other wildly conducts the house now singing in chorus:

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant?
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?
What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.
What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears,
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

There is a limit to the number of recalls even the most grateful servant of the public may permit himself, and at last Mr Carney is allowed to retire in favour of the next turn. But my friend on the right takes some little time to simmer down. “Good ole George!” he continues to mutter under his breath. “Oh, good ole George!” And as the tumblers who come next are a dull pair, I wend my way out.

Comments: James Agate (1877-1947) was a British theatre critic, essayist and diarist. George Carney (1887-1947) was a British music hall entertainer and film actor, particularly known for his portrayal of working class characters. Collins’s Music Hall was located in Islington, London, and had a history going back to 1794. It ceased operating after having been damaged by fire in 1958. Mr Walkley is the theatre critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue are characters from Daisy Ashford’s juvenile novel The Young Visiters, as is the Earl of Clincham. Bancroft refers to the Victorian actor-manager Squire Bancroft. Lew and Jakin are drummer boy characters in Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 113-116

Text: [I]t was Jim who introduced me to the music hall, a process which involved deception at home. I forget what the pretence or deception had to be, but my mother in particular would never have allowed me to go into a music hall. I had never been inside a theatre, not even to a pantomime. I had wondered why we were taught at school to revere the plays of Shakespeare but were not allowed to see them performed in the places built for them. I pondered about the play-titles on the hoardings and on the sides of buses. Martin-Harvey in The Only Way, Are you a Mason?, The Blue Bird; there must have been something sinister or indecent about these. A young woman who lived across the road had given a song and dance at a Scouts’ concert (we were not there) and a neighbour had told my mother in a low voice that she had ‘tights right up to her thighs’. Harold and I thought they wouldn’t have been very interesting any lower down, but we had come to understand how it was that there were Two Worlds, to be acknowledged and talked about only on rigidly separate occasions and in separately recruited company.

I simply could not understand what could be evil about a hall with music in it. I did understand that the music halls had bars where you could drink during the intervals or (if you preferred it) throughout the evening; and my mother had sad memories of what drunkenness had meant to some of her childhood friends. It was her belief, and Grandma Speed’s, that the theatre and the music hall were mere devices for encouraging people to drink. Charlie Chaplin records in his autobiography that every music-hall entertainer, after his act, was expected to go to the bar and drink with the customers – and would get no further engagements if he didn’t. Many of the Fulham pubs advertised ‘musical evenings’, and those with gardens made a special feature of open-air concerts in summer. My mother thought this was where a great number of young people began a lifetime, usually a short one, of drunkenness. And she was probably right.

But the music hall, having begun as a sing-song in a pub, had already become the Palace of Varieties, and its progress from drunken knees-up to theatrical respectability was nearly complete. Charles Booth had written as early as 1889 in his Life and Labour of the People in London that ‘the story of progress in this respect may be traced in many of the existing places which, from a bar parlour and a piano, to an accompaniment on which friends “obliged with a song”, have passed through every stage to that of music hall; the presiding chairman being still occasionally, and the call for drinks in almost every case, retained. But the character of the songs on the whole is better, and other things are offered: it becomes a “variety” entertainment.’ In 1912 King George V decreed (or perhaps merely acquiesced in) the first of all the Royal Command Performances. But if this was intended as the music hall’s final accolade of respectability it was not so regarded in our house, and indeed it may well have been that the reputation of royal households was such that even a King of England couldn’t decree anything into respectability.

By 1911 the ‘presiding chairman’ was a thing of the past; and for my part, far from being seduced into drunkenness, I never even saw the bar. (Jim was a non-drinker.) I think the biggest surprise of my first music-hall visit – at the Hammersmith Palace of Varieties – was the orchestra. I was accustomed by this time to the sound of a band or orchestra tuning up, and to me it has always been a strangely pleasant and exciting cacophony, full of mouth-watering promise and chaotic splendour. The orchestra at the Hammersmith Palace spent less time over this than I had expected, but it was still effective enough as a musical aphrodisiac. And then it played! Its speed was ludicrous, maniacal, contemptuous. The raucous ‘Overture’ lasted about thirty deafening seconds and ended with an irrelevant crash of cymbals. I was extremely disappointed and scornful, but I was to discover that all music-hall orchestras did it; and that, indeed, these places were not halls of music but theatres where entertainers told funny stories, enacted funny sketches, abused each other, conjured, juggled, contorted themselves, sang and danced, performed highly dangerous acrobatics and – very occasionally – played popular classics on piano, violin, trumpet, or mouth-organ. I thought they were all utterly enchanting.

Fred Karno was then at the height of his fame as producer of the ‘Birds’ series of comedy sketches – Early Birds, Jail Birds, Mumming Birds, and others; and on these he constructed a huge theatrical empire of over thirty companies, fostering such outstanding performers as Charlie Chaplin, George Graves, Harry Weldon, and Billie Reeves. On that first evening at the Hammersmith Palace we saw Bransby Williams in a series of the impersonations for which he was renowned – Uriah Heep, Micawber, and the Abbé Liszt. In the last-named, for some reason, he staggered about the stage playing a concertina, and someone in the gallery threw a coin on to the stage. A dropped coin in those days made a bright and unmistakable ringing sound. Bransby Williams stopped playing. ‘That’, he shouted, ‘is an insult, and I’m not accustomed to insults.’ I was petrified. He strode off the stage to cries of ‘Come back Bransby’, ‘Come on mate, get on with it’, ‘Good old Bransby’, etc. And after a while, encouraged no doubt from off-stage, he graciously came back to complete his act.

On other Saturday evenings in those exciting years I was taken to the Granville at Walham Green, the Putney Hippodrome and Shepherds Bush Empire, seeing the same variety artistes (as they liked to be called) time after time: Ernie Mayne, Sam Mayo, T.E. Dunville, Ernie Lotinga, and a host of less famous names. I have before me a Granville Theatre of Varieties programme for 18 August 1911, in which Fred Karno presented ‘Mumming Birds’, with a caste including the now forgotten names of Fred Arthur, Wheeler and Wilson, The Martins, Terry and Birtley, Arthur Clifton, Madoline Rees (most of whom I saw on other occasions) and ‘The Cinematograph Showing New Pictures’. Seats in the Orchestra Stalls cost one shilling, Pit Stalls ninepence, Circle Sixpence, Gallery threepence. ‘Mumming Birds’ was the mildly bawdy sketch in which, three years earlier, Charlie Chaplin had played, at the age of eighteen, the part of a comedy drunk in a highly individual way that ensured his future and his fortune. But I never saw Charlie Chaplin on the stage.

I remember being astonished at the coarseness and the sexual innuendos of T.E. Dunville and Sam Mayo; I could outdo them both (I believed) in suitable company, but it was probably because of them and their imitators that, while I was uncomfortable when female artistes were on the stage (I suppose I didn’t like to think they had to associate with the Dunvilles and the Mayos), I positively hated the females who impersonated males, the Vesta Tilleys and the Hetty Kings. I was unable to see why all comedians couldn’t be as unembarrassing as Billy Merson. I never saw pantomimes until I took my own children to them, and even then they were spoiled for me by the transvestite principal boy and pantomime dames, theatrical eccentricities I have simply never understood. To this day Danny La Rue, gifted as I’m sure he must be, makes my flesh crawl. George Robey was reputed to be the supreme pantomime dame, but his double handicap was that I regarded him anyway as a self-satisfied bore. And although I saw Harry Lauder only once, I thought him a bore too: his success and réclame have always mystified me.

Comments: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.