Disrespecting the Genius of Dan Leno, or how to make a mess of a film out of a damned good book!

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When I was a teenager I was obsessed with the music hall clown of the 1880s, Dan Leno. I have no idea where I might first have heard of him, but by the time my friends were collecting bubblegum cards of footballers, I was seeking out photographs of Leno, along with any accounts of him I could lay my hands on.

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There was something in his images that struck the deepest chord in me. Let’s face it, no man can have played in pantomime for fifteen years for the Drury Lane producer Augustus Harris, without being a master of his art. Slim as a whip and with the exaggerated, elastic features of a born clown, Leno became for me a performer the like of which I aspired to: mercurial, fleet, funny and yet with comedic foundations firmly planted in the almost ludicrous tragedy of life, his skill was for creating characters that were both ordinary and yet compelling, with all the pathos of the downtrodden airing their hurts and grievances. It seems that like Victoria Wood, Leno had a practice of observing and listening, and then deftly reshaping the material of overheard lives into the monologues of his invented characters. His creations, like all the best clowns, were rooted in ‘everyman/woman’. He wore costumes with the serious actor’s aptitude for being at home in them. Had he been around in the age of television, surely he would have been a stalwart of BBC classic dramas. I can see him as any number of Dickens grotesques, male and female.

 

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Exhibiton 4

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Leno was celebrated, of course. The public adored him. There are postcards of him in costume, postcards of him in civvies, cigarette cards, caricatures, theatre posters, programmes and sheet music covers that indicate his immense popularity.

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There were even painted novelty ink-wells made in his likeness, en travesti.

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The character of Mother Goose, now a must-play role in any aspiring pantomime Dame’s repertoire, was originally created for Dan Leno.

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As a performer and as a young director I worked with several comedians who shared my passion for Leno. Roy Hudd, an enthusiastic historian of pantomime and music hall as well as being a genius performer, who in his salad days bore more than a passing resemblance to Leno, positions Leno and Grimaldi as the most significant antecedents of the British clowning tradition. I once played Dick Whittington’s cat in a pantomime starring Hudd, and we shared our enthusiasm for Leno. Back then Hudd, with his wide mouth, expressive eyes, mobile brows and lithe physical skills, had in abundance the qualities necessary to play Leno. Some years later I directed Ronné Coyles and Kenneth Connor in pantomimes. Alas both of them are now gone, but I recall vividly how their portrayals of Dames, though quite different to each other, consciously honoured Leno’s tenderness for women of slender means and heart wrenching aspirations that were doomed to disappointment.

Leno as Widow Twanky in Aladdin.

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Kenneth Connor played Mrs Crusoe for me at Eastbourne. His clown’s insight into the human condition could make audiences laugh and cry simultaneously, a deft and almost impossible to reproduce trick, and one that I know was the result of his admiration for the achievements of Dan Leno. Ronné too had the gift of investing his travesty roles with an underlying pathos, even when he was brassily strutting the stage and playing knowingly to the gallery. In these men’s performances, fragility and and the instinct to survive combined to wonderful effect.

Last night I saw the film The Limehouse Golem, directed by Juan Carlos MedinaThe reviews had been quite reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing it. Moreover I love the 1994 Peter Ackroyd novel on which the film is based, having read it several times, though I should perhaps have been forewarned by the jettisoning of the author’s original title, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. It proved not insignificant that my hero’s name had been dumped by the producers. Dan Leno is a central character of the book and remains so in the film. Here then was an opportunity to show something of what made the man the immense star that he was, though it would have taken an insightful script and the right actor to do so. On both these fronts the producers signally fail. The script is lacklustre and the actor doesn’t raise even the most wan ghost of Dan Leno. It’s a dispiriting spectacle for anyone who knows just how vivacious and imaginative the Victorian popular stage was.

When representing the music hall traditions of the 1880s, it would pay dividends to have a sound knowledge of the genre. Moreover it’s simply disrespectful and stupid –  and somewhat cruel – to put an unequipped actor into the role of a music hall star celebrated for his comic genius, musical aptitude and charismatic stage presence. I sat dumbfounded from the beginning of the film at the portrayal of Dan Leno. Things didn’t fare any better in the representation of a fictitious cross-dressing male impersonator of the day. Evidently the film’s producers/makers didn’t feel that specialised performance skills would be vital in order to conjure the world of the nineteenth century stage. The performers, as presented in the film, would have been booed off. Theatre goers back then were rowdy and took no hostages. Dan Leno, who once held audiences in the palm of his hand, must be turning somersaults in his grave.

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Leno was born into family of performers and had made a living on the stage from his earliest childhood. His had been a hard life and it had taken a toll. He didn’t make old bones. Like his father before him he became an alcoholic. His latter career was punctuated by outbursts of temper against fellow cast members, perhaps made worse by his increasing deafness and inability to remember lines. Despite his popular success, Leno became disappointed that he was not acknowledged as a legitimate  actor, having harboured aspirations to play in Shakespeare. He’d lobbied for serious roles, but the opportunities had eluded him. He died aged 43 after some years of declining mental health. Max Beerbohm said of Dan Leno’s early death:

“So little and frail a lantern could not long harbour so big a flame.”

 

George Wild Galvin, known as Dan Leno

20 December 1860 – 31 October 1904

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16 thoughts on “Disrespecting the Genius of Dan Leno, or how to make a mess of a film out of a damned good book!

  1. Clive – a fascinating post. Dan Leno sort of rang a bell, but that was all. But looking at the pics I could recognise transition into early film clowns ( particularly Charlie Chaplin and the thin one from Laurel and Hardy – as you can tell I am no expert here) and I always understood their roots were in the British Music hall tradition. 43 is no age at all but he looks older in the pictures. It must have been a life that took its toll.

    If you were directing pantos at one time did you ever come across John Baker ( I think his equity name is John David)? He was married to the actress Sue Edmonstone. When I knew him he was writing and directing provincial pantomimes, just wondered as I was a friend of Sue and used to babysit their daughter.

    On the matter of films and books I can tell you I have never seen the film of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin. This is a deliberate choice. I so loved the book I knew the film would never be as good and I did not want to loose my own images conjured from reading. But on the other hand another favourite book, The Crow Road by Ian Banks, I only got to read because I was gripped by the TV adaptation ( which I used to watch while babysitting young Flora Baker mentioned above). I thank the TV for bringing that to my attention. Another absolute favourite.

    I might seek out that Ackroyd book, I could do with a good read, but will probably give the film a miss. (I never go to the cinema now anyway.)

    • Hello Hilary. I didn’t know John Baker, or not that I can recall. It was all a long time ago, and while some things stick in the memory, others have evaporated, many names among them. I have never been good with names.

      I never read ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, but I did see the film, and I can tell you that you haven’t missed much there! I love cinema and I have no problems about the transition of the printed page to the screen, though the art forms are so different that comparisons are not always favourable. These days I would much rather see a James Bond film than read one of the incredibly dated novels, though Jane Austen for me remains an experience best enjoyed on the printed page, even though there have been good adaptations to film. (The voices are always so much better in my head.)

      I must now go back to the Ackroyd novel to reacquaint myself with the feelings I had when I read it, and to attempt to vanquish all memory of the film. I’ve resolved never again to suffer a film with a script by Jane Goldman. Just last week Peter and I went to see the execrable ‘Kingsman 2’, also scripted by Goldman, and it was as much as I could do to stay in my seat until the end. I can forgive being conned into sitting through one crap film, but two from the same writer in as many weeks is taking the piss!

  2. Oh dear, what a shame, and a great opportunity missed! Reading reviews of the film, it seems that it is nothing to do with music hall, but murder and sleuthing! I have ordered the book, thank you for passing that on. Did not know of it.

    • Lorrie, the book is a murder mystery, and Ackroyd knowingly dips his nib in blood to conjure the spirit of the Penny Dreadful and grand guignol. However, the film by comparison is a poor thing. Ackroyd is a master magician and knows how to conjure. The film makers are clumsy, without refinement and unable to pull off the translation.

  3. As long as theatre lives and those of us who respect and have had the good fortune to see and or be part of scenes that can move an audience, as long as that…Dan Leno’s name will be revered; just look, Clive, at what your understandably pained reactions, have already produced.
    Exit Bern. (Trailing memories of laughter behind her!)
    XXX

  4. I doubt the film you went to see will get this far west Clive, but I’ve tracked the Peter Ackroyd book to the local library, so I must follow this up and read it as it is totally new to me.

    When I was a child I had a passion for old music hall acts and my Dad used to say I was born a few decades too late as I loved stories about Vesta Tilley and Little Tich et al. I am so surprised that Dan Leno died at 43 as he looks so much older in the photographs. It must have been a tough life, perhaps a result of the alcoholism and mental health issues.
    I was very keen on Bud Flanagan at one point and contacted Roy Hudd, who, I have to say, was a fount of information and was most charming and helpful to me. This post has rekindled lots of memories and reminded me why I loved learning about these great entertainers. I shall order that book from the library and get reading!

    • Gird your loins, Lesley. It is a gruesome read, steeped in the traditions of the Penny Dreadful. But Ackroyd pulls it off with aplomb, and the world of the nineteenth century London stage is a wonderful setting for a tale of dark horrors.

  5. As I was beginning this piece I was thinking ahead “Oh I must mention Peter Ackroyd’s novel which I read and re-read”, and then there it was, in your own words! Thankyou for sharing this info Clive; fascinating as ever.

  6. Wow. This is the first I’ve learned of Leno. And now I can’t help but realize where my favorite clown/actor must have surely taken much of his inspiration. Are you familiar with the work of William Mills “Bill” Irwin? I first saw him perform as “Mr. Noodle” on Sesame Street, and was launched into total fandom of his very broad range of work. Unlike Leno, Irwin has enjoyed a successful career in dramatic roles as well. I could spend hours watching Irwin in video clips and never be disappointed. IMHO, Irwin would have been the perfect actor to play Leno in any vehicle.

  7. Thank you for this Clive. Dan Leno has been on my “to do” list for some time. I first heard of him at my convent school (I know!) in Clapham when I was fascinated to hear one of the big old houses that made up the school had been his home and that he (according to our French teacher) haunted the building. Unfortunately we never saw him, not for want of looking out for him!

    • Amanda, back in the 1960s I was a pupil at the Italia Conti Stage School, which at the time was located in Landor Rd, Clapham North.

      I have a photograph of Leno in civvies, standing in what appears to be a conservatory. I wonder if it was taken at his Clapham Park house. I’ve added the photograph at the foot of my post, so that you can see it.

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