The Star of Christmas

The following article was originally published in December 1975.

 

The Star of Christmas
by Richard Findlater

In the weird annals of pantomime to date there have been two golden eras, dominated by laughter-makers of genius. First, the Regency harlequinade, in which Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) created a new species of clown, giving his name to generations of ‘Joeys’. Second, the late Victorian music-hall spectacular (where the harlequinade persisted only as a vestigial tail to a burlesque fairy-tale extravaganza), which still moulds the pantos of the 1970s. Here the key figure was Dan Leno, 1860-1904. (Appropriately, in view of pantomime’s traditional association with Christmas, both men were born just before the Day, Grimaldi on the eighteenth, Leno on the twentieth.) The most popular of theatre historians, W. MacQueen Pope, declared 25 years ago that Leno was ‘as much a part of England’ as Dick Whittington, Mr Pickwick, Sherlock Holmes and W. G. Grace, a significant coupling of fact and fiction. ‘His memory will endure, surely, for ever.’ Who now remembers Leno, over 70 years since his last appearance? Like all comedians he ‘worked in water’. His recorded jokes and songs yield up no proof that he was (as billed in New York) ‘the funniest man on earth’. Yet he left in other people’s prose (as Grimaldi did) a shadow of glory that may be recaptured. And ought to be.

Even GBS, an implacable enemy of the pantos in which Leno starred, echoed the talk of the comedian’s ‘genius’. There seems no doubt that he was precisely that, in his kind. But what kind was it?

Leno’s comedy, like Grimaldi’s, flowered from underdog experience: not only an early immersion in urban poverty, but an unhappy, emotionally insecure childhood. Born in 1860, in a working-class tenement where St Pancras Station now stands, his real name was George Galvin. His parents were ‘singing and acting duettists’ in the early music halls and the ‘singing-rooms’ and ‘free-and-easies’ attached to pubs from which the music-halls grew. Dan’s infancy was spent on the move, in lodgings around London and the provinces.

When he was four his father died and he was pushed on to the stage to supplement the family income. Grimaldi started before he was three: like him Leno was initiated into a kind of acrobatic torture, making his debut in a Paddington music hall as ‘Little George, the Infant Wonder, Contortionist and Posturer’. Later he was given the stage-name of his stepfather, William Grant, and was billed (at nine) as ‘The Great Little Leno, the quintessence of Irish Comedians’.

For nearly 20 years after his debut Leno worked with his stepfather and mother in pubs, church halls, music halls and even theatres, singing, dancing, acting, painting scenery, making costumes, writing their own sketches. ‘We performed everywhere and we did everything,’ but seldom far from the starvation-line in the lower depths of showbusiness, and generally in the North.

What pulled Dan Leno out of it was his expertise in clog-dancing, a Northern athletic pastime that had become theatrically profitable. He won a competition as ‘The Greatest Clog Dancer in the World’, successfully defended his title three times, and after one disputed defeat regained it in 1883 in a six-night contest. He kept his trophy, a £50 silver-gilt belt, throughout his life, and it is still lovingly preserved by his son Herbert at his Surrey home with other family relics.

The ‘world championship’ helped Leno to jump to the top of the bill on many Northern dates. Within two years he got his first London engagement. When he found to his chagrin that his fellow-Cockneys were not impressed by his title, his belt or his clogs, he concentrated on the comic songs and patter that made his fame and fortune in the halls. His panto career began in 1886 at the Surrey, and in 1888 he reached the Mecca of music-hall artists, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he starred nearly every Christmas for 15 years.

Although Leno played such male roles in panto as Idle Jack, he became a national celebrity in drag, by achieving the apotheosis of the Dame. The pedigree of this man-woman has been traced back far beyond the first English pantomime (1717) and the first permanent theatre (1576) to the May Games and mummers’ plays of early village life, and beyond them to ancient Saturnalia and fertility rites. But the antecedents of Leno’s Dames were more immediate: in the theatrical landladies, backstreet viragos, indomitable earth-mothers of the slum tenements in which he grew up. The Widow Twankey, Sister Anne, the Queen of Hearts, Mrs Crusoe and Mother Goose were all, despite their comic extravagance, rooted in reality and veined with pathos. And all, unlike the creations of such contemporary Dames as Danny La Rue, were strangers to the deep indigo joke.

Dan Leno’s salary at Drury Lane, where he had started at £25 a week, was £230. There was a brisk trade in Dan Leno tea-services, ink-wells, jugs and other industrial by-products. A Dan Leno Comic Journal was launched, with an initial sale of 350,000. He performed at Sandringham before Edward VII, who gave him a diamond tie-pin. (‘It was the greatest day of my life.’)

Leno was happily married, from 1883. He sired six children. He had a big house in Clapham Park – now a convent – with a coachman, two gardeners and four servants. And in the sitting-room, near the piano, he kept his clogs on display, ready for practice in the conservatory.

But he had scant leisure to spend with his family. On stage he showed a ‘driving urgency’, as one critic noted, and he kept up an unrelenting pressure. During the pantomime he appeared twice a day, with arduous acrobatics, dancing and horseplay. When the long season was over he worked three or four music halls a night, performing maybe four numbers in each. Offstage, too, he was hard at it. Sir Seymour Hicks wrote, ‘Leno was killed by his friends. He paid the penalty of genius by becoming an all-day show.’ He gave away his money with as much brio as his talent. A founding father of the Water Rats, he was irrepressibly generous in private. He never forgot his own early privations. Poverty scared him to death – literally.

Early in the century Leno had a breakdown. He went back too soon into harness, and another breakdown followed. Stories about his ‘madness’ circulated. But he was suffering from chronic overwork and a tumour on the brain, from which he died on 31 October 1904. He was 43.

His death was marked by an explosion of public affection and admiration. The funeral procession was estimated to be three miles long. Shops closed all along the route. Among the scores of his fellow-artists who sent wreaths were Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Gordon Craig, whose inscription was ‘In remembrance of the work of a great creative artist’. Sir Max Beerbohm wrote that ‘no actor of our time deserved immortality as well as he’, and he wrote that not long after the death of Sir Henry Irving.

What was his secret?

First, his looks. ‘The moment Dan Leno skipped upon the stage, we were aware that here was a man utterly unlike any one else we had seen,’ wrote Beerbohm. He was just over 5ft 3in., but nobody could take their eyes off him, as he darted about with staccato movements and furious energy.

Leno had deep-set, bright, piercing eyes, framed by heavily blacked-up, semi-circular eyebrows, later adapted by George Robey. His mouth was unusually wide and straight, and he stressed its drooping corners in his makeup, with all the greater effect when the angry misery that fermented inside many of his characters turned into an all-embracing grin. His wrinkled face looked tragic, ‘with all the tragedy that is writ on the face of a baby monkey’, and his comedy was grounded in observed suffering. But he deployed nothing of the stock underdog pathos of, say, Norman Wisdom.

Far rarer than his physical equipment was his comic intelligence. As The Times said, ‘He could hardly walk, and certainly never dance, without raising a smile, but he had a hundred different ways of walking and dancing, each appropriate to the person he was representing.’ Although he was a brilliant verbal improviser (at his worst on first nights) he was far more than a gagman. Leno got inside the skin of every character: not only the panto queens and washerwomen, but his most successful grotesques such as a railway porter, a Beefeater, a huntsman and a shoe salesman. He created every one from observation, fired by imagination. To quote Beerbohm again, ‘It seemed miraculous how Dan Leno contrived to make you see before you the imaginary persons with whom he conversed. He never stepped outside himself, never imitated the voices of his interlocutors. He merely repeated … a few words of what they were supposed to have said to him. Yet there they were, large as life, before us…. Never was there a more perfect technique in acting.’

Leno had, too, a gift for wild fantasy and ‘sheer irresistible nonsense’ in the English tradition of which the Goons and the Monty Python set are the latest outcrop. But he would suddenly puncture the balloon, bringing the audience down to the world of squalor, poverty, cruelty and endurance, mocking it, turning it into jokes, but deeply minding, radiating kindness and compassion.

Long after the squalid poverty of Leno’s London has been destroyed, the Widow Twankeys and Baroness Stonybrokes of contemporary panto are still often fixed in the world before the welfare State. Leno’s eyewitness detail and living sympathy have been replaced by a stylised pathos and a perfunctorily signalled poverty (a few coloured patches on a Dame’s skirt). And though he was succeeded by many fine Dames, with several different approaches to the techniques of seasonal sex-reversal, none has imposed himself on pantomime as an art-form as Grimaldi and Leno did, leading to new dimensions of theatrical experience.

True, there is nothing like a Dame. But maybe the regeneration of pantomime will come from a different quarter when, as William Archer predicted, the English Aristophanes for whom we are still waiting takes over this ‘infinitely flexible, expansible framework for all sorts of . . . delightful developments – for poetry, fantasy, parody, satire, sense, nonsense, the most ingenious nursery babble and the most penetrating criticism of life.’

Richard Findlater.
December 1975

 

Richard Findlater (1921 – 1985) (Kenneth Bruce Findlater Bain) English theatre critic and historian.

One of Britain’s most respected writers on the theatre. His drama criticism for a number of publications, and for the BBC, was admired inside and outside the profession. As well as biographies of such luminaries as Redgrave, Ashcroft, Olivier, Richardson, Lillian Baylis, and the clown Grimaldi, his eighteen books include a definitive history of stage censorship, Banned, and an account of contemporary British Theatre, The Unholy Trade, which made his name. He edited the arts pages of the Observer newspaper, and became its assistant editor in 1963.