Dress circle

Second Innings

Source: Neville Cardus, Second Innings: Autobiographical Reminiscences (London: Collins, 1950), pp. 23-34

Productions: Robinson Crusoe, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1902/03?; Aladdin, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1900/01; and Mother Goose, Theatre Royal, Manchester, 1904/1905

Text: I was not more than twelve years old when I first entered a theatre. It was one of Robert Courtneidge’s Christmas pantomimes in Manchester, Robinson Crusoe, I think, with Vesta Tilley as the principal boy. I was not ‘taken’ to this pantomime; I went by myself and watched from the highest gallery in the world. After long waiting in a queue until you would hear the lifting of a bar at the door, you placed your six-pence under a wire-netting, from behind which the girl or woman in charge pressed a lever, and a heavy square deposit of lead came out of a slot. That was your ticket.

The climb to the gallery was arduous, even to an eager boy. Round and round, with acute angles all the way; at every step upwards one’s body became more bent on the purpose, the knee action more deliberate, the breath more sternly drawn. Then, at the top of the steps was a dark refreshment bar (not yet opened) to pass through, and now at last the theatre itself was attained. At great distance below was the stage, the curtain alluringly down. To find a front place in the gallery involved some agility and nerve; there were no seats, only long rows of wooden ledges, and to save time and to get there first we did not walk gingerly down a central staircase but leaped from cliff to cliff. We would lean over the rail of the gallery and watch the stalls and pit assembling. Sometimes a programme fluttered down, like a visitant from another hemisphere.

When I write that ‘we’ would lean over the gallery rail, I am using the ‘we’ metaphorically; for I went alone to the theatre in my boyhood, as indeed I went alone everywhere, walking through the city streets reading a boy’s paper and by some instinct always coming out of my enchantment just in time not to bump against a lamp-post. I do not know how I contrived to get money for admission to the theatre gallery week by week; on one occasion at least I committed petty theft. I stole a volume out of the limited and discursive family library, which comprised East Lynne, the Bible, somebody’s Dream Book, and one other novel, this by Marion Crawford. The volume I stole was a collection of poems by Coleridge, and I am at a loss to this day to understand how it came to find a place in the household. I took it to a second-hand bookseller’s in Oxford Street owned by a man of immeasurable age, who made me think of the Old Testament. His clothes were shiny and he smelt; his name was Coleman; and in his front window, amongst a ruin of ancient literature, was a phrenologist’s bust, the head marked into squares like the counties on a map. The interior of the shop was gloomy; piles of books, and the odour of damp and slow decay. There was another Coleman, reputed to be a son, with skin of vellum and eyes tightly stuck together by what my fearful imagination visualised as blindness.

Coleman senior looked at the Coleridge, rumbled in his stomach, and offered me a shilling. I took it and fled straight up the brow of Oxford Street, under the railway arch, past the corner shop with birds in cages around the door and gold-fish in globes in the window. It was Saturday afternoon; there was a pantomime matinee. It may have been the sale of Coleridge that enabled me to see Ada Reeve as Aladdin, G.P. Huntley as Widow Twankey, and Horace Mills as Abanazar. I did not go to the pantomime in the innocence of most boys of ten or eleven years old. In those days boys and girls were not encouraged to enter a theatre at all in a provincial English city; the pantomimes of the period were severely sophisticated in their outlook both towards the particular theme of Cinderella or The Forty Thieves and towards life in general. Maggie Duggan and George Robey occasioned much concern in the councils of the Manchester Watch Committee, protectors of public morals. There was also a suspicion in many families that theatres were peculiarly combustible and likely to catch fire; in brief, for a boy to set foot in a theatre alone was thought a certain means sooner or later either of going to the devil or of being burnt alive. The danger to my morals seldom occurred to me, but frequently I felt a vague apprehensiveness when I stood looking down over the gallery rail on the delights below, forbidden delights, delights deceitfully enjoyed; for I always lied whenever I was asked where I had been when I got home again. Electricity was more or less a new and experimental department of science forty years ago; and Robert Courtneidge invariably brought the first part of his pantomime to an end by a long ‘transformation’ scene, in which furnaces of magnificences were unfolded as one flimsy gauze curtain after another ascended on high, beginning with the narrowest strip of the stage on which the Fairy Queen stood, in company with the principal boy; and she would wave her wand saying:

And now Aladdin take me by the hand
And I will show you all the joys of Fairyland.

Opalescent deeps of the sea; caves of turquoise and rubies; apocalyptic sunrises and radiance of every boy’s dream of the Arabian Nights, all accumulating in a lavish expense of electricity. It was with an amount of relief that one witnessed at the apotheosis a temporary lowering of the fireproof curtain.

As I say, I did not attend my pantomimes in the innocence of childhood; the fairy-tale basis of a pantomime had for me but a secondary interest. I marked the distinction between Robinson Crusoe and the principal boy who happened to be playing the part; I knew that Abanazar was Horace Mills, and once when I saw Horace Mills walking in a Manchester Street looking exactly like any man of business wearing gloves and a bowler hat, I followed secretly behind him and laughed to myself at his every movement though he did nothing that was the slightest bit funny off the stage. Ada Reeve was Aladdin one year; I remember that when she couldn’t remember the world ‘Abracadabra’, and she realised she was locked in the cave more or less for ever, she immediately consoled herself and the rest of us by singing ‘Good-bye, Dolly Gray’, the popular song of the Boer War. But the point is that she didn’t sing the chorus but spoke it, in a husky dramatic monotone. This was revolutionary; this was new method. The cognoscenti in the dress circle, I was informed years afterwards, were taken aback, and they shook their heads until by force of art Ada Reeve conquered a lifetime’s principles. Round about this time of my life I saw Ada Reeve in Floradora [sic] the very week after the last performance of the pantomime; and pantomime ran from Christmas to Easter; and now she was a fashionable society darling, in a big brimmed hat, and she sang a song called ‘Tact’ in front of a row of long-trousered top-hatted young men with silver-mounted walking sticks. One week Aladdin’s cave and the splendour of the Orient, but in a few evenings it had all gone. Now, living and moving and having being on the same boards, walking in the same places where Widow Twankey and Abanazar had shaken the theatre into reckless and eternal laughter, were elegance and romance in a setting of tea-planters or what not; palm trees and deodar, and the melodies of Leslie Stuart. The palimpsest of the stage! I didn’t know of such a word but I remember a sudden feeling of sadness coming to my eyes when, once at a pantomime somebody sang ‘Is your Mammy always with you?’ and as I looked at the singer’s movements in the round circles of limelight that followed her, throwing two dancing shadows, the thought came to my mind that some day somebody else would perhaps be dancing on the same spot, and all would have become different; all would then be new and this would be forgotten long ago.

The old pantomimes observed a strict set of unities; the identity and comparative importance of the author of the ‘book’ – as it was called – was recognised. The ‘book’ was composed mainly in rhymed couplets, more or less heroic, uttered by the Demon (or Storm) King:

Ride on thou proud and saucy ship
But soon I’ll have this Crusoe in my grip.

These lines were invariably pronounced at the beginning of Act I in Davy Jones’s Locker, which was a drop-scene calling for merely what Mrs Gamp would have called a ‘parapidge’ of stage. The Demon King was a baritone, and the chances might be that we had last heard him on the pier in August at Southend singing the ‘Bedouin Love Song’ with the pierrots. Now in a more dramatic environment under the sea and in the dark he probably struck a deeper and more ambitious vocal note; ‘Rage thou angry storm’ from Balfe was not beyond the dream of possibility.

An inviolate decree held that in the programmes of classical pantomime the dramatis personae and the cast should be denoted and set forth in a running parenthesis of wit, such as:

‘Mrs Sinbad (who has sin-badder days) George Robey.’

From the murky element of the Storm King we would be changed in the twinkling of an eye to Pekin (maybe); or if the pantomime were of the occident the scene would be the village green outside the ‘Bull and Bush’. It was in Scene 2 that the pantomime really began and the stalls filled up. The Storm King didn’t appear again for hours, or the Fairy Queen. I often wondered what they were doing all the time. In Scene 2 the important personages of the pantomime made their appearance in order of renown. The Baron (or the Emperor) was allowed to hold the centre of the stage for a few minutes; perhaps he was even given a song, but nobody listened to him; he was merely a part of the connived plot of suspense. First came the principal girl – Amy Augarde or even Gertie Millar; then the more substantial principal boy (the best of all was Ada Blanche); and the principal boy would dash down the footlights and embrace the principal girl, kicking his left leg backwards as he did so.

At last, when the ‘House Full’ boards were put up in the theatre’s main entrances – terrible to see if you were outside in the fog trying to catch a glimpse of something behind the brilliant lights of the foyer – now was the moment: the stage was left significantly vacant for a brief pause. From the wings came sounds of brawl and derision and racket. And the Dame would arrive in some state of dishevelment, out of breath, having, for some reason never explained, been chased. Dan Leno or Robey or Harry Randall or Wilkie Bard – it might be any of them! – in elastic-sided boots, hair parted straight down the middle and tied in a bun, towards which the right hand would absent-mindedly stray when she came down the stage and spoke to us intimately about ‘Her First’ and of the vicissitudes of matrimony. An incomparable school of great English comic-actors created a Dickensian gallery of Dames. The greatest of them was Robey’s ‘Mother Goose’, who swerved from the unities of pantomime in her entrance to that most matchless of all pantomimes at the Manchester Theatre Royal, Christmas, 1904; and I saw it many times before it vanished into air the following March.

The scene was Mother Goose’s cottage, and the Landlord had called for the rent. George Bastow was Mother Goose’s son, and he endeavoured to keep the enemy at bay. (All landlords in our pantomimes and melodramas were enemies, as a matter of democratic course.) ‘The rent was not paid last week, or the week before, or the week before,’ raged the tyrant; ‘this is the last straw and final notice. Into the streets you all go!’ At this moment George Robey appeared, bland, with kindly recognition, wiping imaginary soap-suds from the hands on an apron. ‘Ah, there you are, landlord,’ said Mother Goose in Robey’s fruitiest voice; ‘there you are – such a lot wants doing to the house!’

It was in this same pantomime that George Robey held the stage for half an hour (while the scene-shifters were noisy and active behind a drop-scene, often causing it to bulge from contact with some royal dome or pinnacle) and created the immortal Mrs Moggeridge, a next-door neighbour, who, because never seen, has lived for ever. Robey came on from the side of the stage in a condition of agitation, fingers twitching, nose sniffing. He cast glances to the direction whence he had entered; they were glances poignant with contumely and injured pride. Simmering a little, but still on the boil, he folded arms, gave another toss of his head sideways and said, simply but obliquely. ‘Mrs Moggeridge!’ Nothing more than her name to begin with, but the intonation, with a descent of pitch at ‘ridge’, was contemptuous. Then he bent to us over the footlights, and in a sudden hysteria of ridicule, stated (or rather he conveyed) this information: ‘Fairy Queen in a Christmas pantomime!’ After another snort and a pause he added, in a voice pitched to a deeper note of irony, ‘Her.’

Satisfaction and triumph here became evident in Robey’s eyes and gestures; but suddenly he stiffened, and the neck was thrust again towards Mrs Moggeridge’s garden wall, whence obviously some Parthian thrust had been aimed. ‘And what of it?’ asked Robey, the voice rising in mingled menace, disdain and clear conscience. ‘What of if?’ (pronounced ’What arvert’).

Speculation sought in vain to deduce the nature of Mrs Moggeridge’s innuendo that it should have compelled this final bridling and this unanswerable fiat. Enough to say that after the pronouncement of it Mrs Moggeridge was heard no more. It is hard to believe we did not actually hear her or see her; there wasn’t never indeed ‘no sich a person’; it was a conjuration of comic art.

Robey was a master of tantrums, or in other circumstances, of spasms. In Jack and the Beanstalk, when Jack returned home with beans for the sale of the cow, Robey as the Dame achieved an awe-inspiring expression of twitching incredulity, woe and mortification, all evenly blended. He (or she) hurled the beans through the window, and at once the stalk began to grow upward. Robey caught sight of it out of the corner of his eyes as he was suffering another wave of distress. And he began to giggle, to experience hysteria but no words can describe this masterpiece of comic acting. It was done by imaginative absorption into a character and a scene; and here is the difference between the old great pantomime comedians of my youth and the comedians of to-day, who get their laughs by the things they say and are not funny in themselves, and are certainly not actors. Robey and Leno and Wilkie Bard and Little Tich and Harry Weldon were most nights in the year performers in the music hall, red-nosed and holding an audience for three-quarters of an hour, holding the theatre single-handed, with song and patter; and from time to time they would leave the stage to return as a new character – Robey’s Lord Mayor of Muckemdyke, Leno’s pathetic little Cockney just married, the victim of a building society; he had bought a house, and he leant over the footlights to tell us in husky confidence of his pride of possession. It was a nice house, with the river at the bottom of the garden; that is, when the garden wasn’t at the bottom of the river. But I must use a platitude now; it was not what these old drolls said, it was the way they said it. Little Tich, breathing on his tall hat before giving it a rub round with his elbow, made a noise that emptied his lungs, fraught with bronchitis. Gusto and faith in a complete surrender to extravagance; no smart-cracks but natural nonsense – as when the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, having been refused admission at the ball, Tom Foy said to Malcolm Scott, ‘Let’s walk in backwards and they’ll think we’re coming out.’ It was these comedians of the music hall who peopled our memories of pantomime with a gallery of Dames, each as rich in identity as Betsy Prig and Mrs Camp and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

The convention of pantomime persisted that the Dame and her son should begin poor and end wealthy. All the good characters, in fact, shared ample fortune as a reward of virtue; and during the last scene they came before us most opulently garbed – Robey’s magnificence was like a fantastic dream or apotheosis of a riotously lunatic Schiaparelli. The lesser male luminaries of the show, Idle Jack or Sinbad the Tailor, would wear terrific check suits with huge buttons of gold, and their choice in walking sticks was rococo. Nobody was harshly treated in this last of all the pantomime’s consummations of glory and electricity; even the Demon King received a burst of applause when he appeared, apparently a reformed character, in morning-coat and grey topper. And the children crowed their delight as the Cat came on for his share of the general recognition and acclamation, wearing a fur coat most likely.

Then the final chorus and the last ruthless descent of the curtain. Nothing left but the return to the world, to find oneself again in the streets outside, where life had been going on just the same on a winter day; it was dark now, with the gas-lamps burning, and when we had entered in realms of gold it had been afternoon and broad daylight.

Comments: Neville Cardus (1888-1975) was a British cricket correspondent and music critic. His impoverished childhood was spent in Manchester. Robert Courtneidge was a theatre producer, actor and playwright, and manager at this time of the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester. The production of Robinson Crusoe Cardus recalls was probably that of 1902/03 (it did not star Vesta Tilley). The Aladdin that he saw opened at the Prince’s Theatre on 22 December 1900, with Ada Reeve, G.P. Huntley and Horace Mills. The 1899 musical comedy Florodora was written by Owen Hall, with music by Leslie Stuart.The production of Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal opened in December 1904, starring George Robey, one of the great figures of English music hall and variety.