Harry Lauder

Indirect Journey

Postcard image of Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, 1906, from Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 55-58

Text: One of the great joys of my life occurred during that holiday in 1912. It came when my father bought me a good, strong walking-stick from a shop on the north side of the town, just opposite Peasholm Lake. This was the first tangible expression of the hope that some time I should be able to walk more or less purposefully. In fact, with this stick I found that I was able to walk for five or six yards provided that the road was perfectly flat. An immense sense of liberation flooded over me. Years later (at a party, of course) I saw Elizabeth for the first time. As she came down a few steps into the room in which I was sitting there flashed into my mind
Henry Esmond’s first Vision of the radiant Beatrix descending the staircase in the home of the Castlewoods. I felt then as if a new planet had swum into my ken, like Keats opening Chapman’s Homer. I had the same feeling when my father bought the walking-stick, the first I ever had.

It held a promise of a world which contained such marvels as the glitteringly white and elegant Spa; the fascinating display of all that Yorkshire held to be high fashion every Sunday morning in what was known in those days as the Church Parade, when the rich visitors to Scarborough slowly walked down the hill from church in their finest attire, whilst we lined up on the pavement to gape at them in wonder and envy; the daily concerts held on the Spa conducted by the flamboyant Alastair Maclean, who, in his cloak and wide-brimmed hat, rather resembled the Toulouse-Lautrec posters of Aristide Bruant, but who was not, if he encountered my wheel-chair in the streets of Scarborough, above gravely saluting me; and best of all there were Catlin’s Royal Pierrots on the south foreshore. What young Gibson had begun, Catlin’s Royal Pierrots continued, especially one of its members called McAllister.

It was said that Mr Catlin, who himself appeared with the company, and despite advancing middle age did a sensational somersault at every performance, had begun his entertainment career on the sands in a fit-up booth, but when I knew his magical organization he had his own splendid theatre. This was quite an inspiration to me. It told me what opportunities were open to talent, and it occurred to me even in that early part of my life that if Mr Catlin had been able to force the door of success in his most improbable ascension, I might be able to do something of the sort myself. Not for nothing was I the nephew of Jabez, Frank, and Tom.

The Catlin shows were, in the first half of the programme, played in pierrot costume: peaked hat and pom-poms. It was this that brought me to the height of ecstasy, for I did not like the second half, in which the men wore dinner jackets and the ladies long evening dresses, anything like so much. All the players were delightful; they could, it seemed to me, sing and dance with miraculous skill, but one of them, the McAllister (I think his Christian name was Andrew) whom I have already mentioned, particularly entranced me. I was already convinced that Martin-Harvey was the greatest of actors, but after all I had only seen his genius in the pale reflections of the amiable Gibson, whilst McAllister was there on the stage, alive, Vital, amusing and overwhelmingly pathetic. Vesta Tilley and Little Tich were far more famous than he, for they were London stars, and McAllister was only a seaside entertainer, but he was the first actor I ever saw who could bring a lump to the throats of the audience, and send that shiver down the spine which many years later A.E. Housman said was the only sign by which he recognized that he was in the presence of great poetry.

McAllister was, however, funny as well as sad. He did two turns, in the first of which he told Scottish stories that doubled me up with laughter. Long afterwards, also in Scarborough, I heard the great Harry Lauder. In comparison with McAllister I found him smug and patronizing, conscious of an eminence which it seemed to me nothing in his performance justified. But McAllister would also do another turn, this time in the King’s English. This was a very serious turn, and it was to me the very summit of McAllister’s achievement. He would work us up into a tremendous passion and excitement with a monologue like ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’, though this was probably somewhat later in his career than my first visit to Scarborough. On that visit he recited ‘His First Long Trousers’. It evoked the ending of childhood, the finish of innocence, the moment when the father ceases to be his son’s protector, and the son takes his first timid and uncertain steps in the world on his own. It was wondrously sentimental, and those who themselves have no capacity for touching the feelings of an audience may well despise it. In this I cannot but consider them unwise. It is foolish to scoff at a kind of theatre for which you have no talent. The simple fact is that when McAllister recited ‘His First Long Trousers’ not only did tears pour down my face, but I understood better both the danger and the excitement of life.

There was something else about McAllister that profoundly moved me and deeply influenced me when I became a drama critic: he was not only a powerful artist but he was also a delicate one. He used to deliver his comedy talk wearing his peaked hat, but he recited his serious pieces bareheaded. His taking off his hat and his removal of the black skull cap underneath it was the first piece of imaginative ritual I ever encountered. I was stirred by this simple gesture of respect for the seriousness and reverence of life: the moment when he doffed his cap was always to me one of the high points of his performance. When in Godspell at Wyndham’s Theatre the clowns did exactly this before representing the Crucifixion, all the emotion I had felt when watching McAllister rushed back upon me. This particular scene (there have been others in other plays) is one of those which my feelings will never allow me to describe in level tones. When I think of it my voice always breaks. McAllister, without knowing it, taught me to appreciate Godspell. That, I think, would not have surprised him. He might have been somewhat more taken aback had he known that it was partly his use of ritual that enabled me to understand Genet. The knowledge might, in fact, have made him sad.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned British theatre critic, whose childhood was spent in Scarborough. Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, led by Will Catlin (real name William Fox) appeared at venues throughout the UK in the late 19th/early 20th century. He became associated in particular with Scarborough, opening the Catlin’s Arcadia venue in the town in 1909. A. ‘Mac’ McAllister was a member of the all-male troupe. The religious rock musical Godspell opened in London in 1971.

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.