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.
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.
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.
There were even painted novelty ink-wells made in his likeness, en travesti.
The character of Mother Goose, now a must-play role in any aspiring pantomime Dame’s repertoire, was originally created for Dan Leno.
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.
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 Medina. The 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.
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