Spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know until you’ve seen it, click away now.
Dessert at Dan Leno’s House features Dan Leno, his wife Lydia and their children Georgina, John, Ernest, Sidney, Herbert and May [and the family dog].
It’s a glimpse into the life of a major star and influencer of so many contemporaries and later performers, and also a window into late Victorian social and family life and the fashions of the day.
We’re used to seeing stiff, formal unsmiling Victorian photographs and might be forgiven for imagining the Victorians were like that – dour, stolid and dull. Yet, the film proves quite the opposite.
We see Dan and the boys in suits and stiff collars, and Lydia and Georgina in long full skirts and high neck buttoned blouses. It’s an upholstered, tailored efficient look for the women, long hair firmly pinned up into a respectable 1902 birds’ nest and May in little-girl layers of flouncy petticoats and black stockings. Two daughters, one at each stage; Georgina a composed younger version of her mother having reached the age when the hair went up, the waist went in and the hem went down.
Knickerbockers, ties, starched collars, voluminous dresses and thick stockings for summer play, yet the behaviour could be any family today. Look at the illustrations in any of E Nesbit’s children’s books [Five Children and It, The Railway Children], written around the same time, and the fashions are exactly the same, and the children just as sparky.
Despite the clothes, the small boys are larking about all over the furniture causing mischief with their equally mischevious father, while John, gazing at the camera having lost the in-the-moment unselfconsciousness of his brothers and not yet acquired his sister’s adult poise, is forever captured in awkward adolescence.
Clearly they’ve rehearsed a routine to play out but it looks as if they’re getting spontaneous instructions from behind the camera, and Dan seems to be instructing the cast as they perform.
May tries to grab an apple, but we see Lydia laughing, perhaps telling Georgina to keep her under control because for the rest of the film Georgina has her in a headlock, firmly out of the thick of the action. But watch for the last few moments – May makes a break for it and is triumphant!
So in the end, are we watching a Victorian family and dog mucking about in the garden – or a well-rehearsed troupe of professionals giving the public exactly what they like in front of some cutting-edge technology – or both?