Category Archives: Theatre

Queensbury rules

The Victorian era produced some real bastards, I think you’ll agree. However, many of them were simply ill-served by history – while we’d now consider them dreadful examples of humanity, they were perfectly acceptable by the standards of the society they lived in. The ninth Marquess of Queensbury (1844-1900) was not one of those people. No, by the standards of any era, the Marquess was an utter shit.

These days, he has two major claims to fame. Firstly, he invented the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of professional boxing. And secondly, it was Oscar Wilde’s libel suit against him that resulted in the writer’s trial and imprisonment, an important event the history of LGBT culture in Britain. It’s a strange pairing of claims to fame, but then, Queensbury was a strange man.

Queensbury, or John Sholto Douglas, to use his name, was defiantly nonconformist in his outlook. For one thing, he was a proud atheist before such beliefs were widely accepted. Unfortunately, he was the sort of atheist that tends to shame other atheists by being a bit too outspoken. He refused to sit in the House of Lords on the grounds that the oath of allegiance was Christian in nature. Well, that’s not entirely unreasonable. I mean, the oath is meaningless if you don’t believe in the thing you’re swearing on. He also got chucked out of a performance of Tennyson’s The Promise of May at the Globe Theatre because one of the characters was an atheist and also a villain, and Queensbury felt this demanded that he kick up a ruckus.

But I mean, the fact that he was an extremist doesn’t make him a bad person, right? I mean, every cause has its extremists, doesn’t it? Maybe he was just responding appropriately to the times and he’s a misunderstood pioneer? Well, maybe, but how about we look at one of his other obsessions, namely homosexuality?

Homophobia was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was, after all, still illegal. Queensbury, however, took things a little further. He believed that homosexuality was literally contagious. You might have guessed that he wasn’t exactly flying the rainbow flag from his part in the Wilde trial, but there were certain other dimensions to his gay-bashing that are perhaps worthy of note.

To start with, we need to look at his relationship with his sons. Let’s just say that it was strained at best. One of his favourite taunts to use against them was to claim that he wasn’t their real father (maybe he wasn’t – his second marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation) and therefore they could expect to inherit nothing. It’s a historical irony, therefore, that his eldest son Francis was granted a seat in the House of Lords – the same one that Queensbury had refused to take an oath for. Rather than shrug his shoulders, Queensbury had a fall-out with Francis.

Francis had been backed by Lord Rosebery, whom Queensbury decided was “a snob queer.” Therefore, of course, his motivation was obviously to corrupt the lad with gayness. Queensbury decided that the remedy to this was to start stalking Rosebery, which he did all the way to Germany, where he threatened to give the Lord a damn good thrashing if he didn’t stay away from Francis. The Prince of Wales himself had to intervene, and Rosebery subsequently referred to Queensbury, not unreasonably, as “a pugilist of unsound mind.”

And this is where the Wilde business comes in. Like most conspiracy theorists, Queensbury wasn’t going to be put off by a lack of evidence or, indeed, logic. And when he found out that his youngest son, Alfred (or “Bosie” as he was nicknamed) was bonking one of the leading playwrights of the day, it was clear what had happened – Rosebery had set his homosexual sights on another member of the Douglas family.

Queensbury didn’t publicly pursue Rosebery this time, perhaps because batshit insane though he was, he knew when he was beaten. However, he infamously left a visiting card at the Albermarle club describing Wilde as a “posing somdomite.” You’d think an obsessive homophobe would learn to spell “Sodomite,” but I digress.

This being a fairly serious matter, Wilde sued for libel. Unfortunately, the problem with suing someone for libel is that there has to actually be an element of falsehood. What this meant was that by suing Queensbury, he was basically saying, “Prove I’m gay.” Which he was. Queensbury had plenty of testimony from London’s rent boy community to back this up – homosexuality seems to have been something that was fairly openly discussed provided you weren’t actually caught doing it. Anyway, having got lots of evidence that Wilde actually was as gay as a tangerine, he turned it into the police and Wilde was sent down.

Queensbury was undoubtedly the villain in this, and of course I’m not going to condone the laws against homosexuality. But why would Wilde have embarked on such a course against his self-appointed enemy? He wasn’t stupid – maybe arrogant, but even that shouldn’t have blinded him to the fact that it would put him in a perilous position. One popular interpretation has it that Bosie actually put him up to it. Maybe so – romantic feelings can make one do stupid things. And God knows Bosie had the motive to seek revenge against his old Dad.

The verdict against Wilde wasn’t universally popular, and though there were plenty of moral guardians who praised Queensbury for removing this menace to society, there were plenty of literary followers who cursed his name. Theatregoers, literati, Christians, Members of Parliament, his own family – it seemed that there was no one he didn’t annoy one way or another. The Marquess stipulated in his will that he wanted to be buried upright, and his request was granted at his death at the age of 55. Well, apparently. Rumour has it that the gravediggers, no fans of Queensbury, buried him head-first. And really who can blame them?


1 Comment

Filed under 19th century, Crime, History, Literature, Notable Londoners, Politics, Theatre

Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

Leave a comment

Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Covent Garden, History, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Theatre, West End

Great balls of fire!

The midweek post comes a little early this time around, chums. Allow me to explain.

You see, once again, Yr. Humble Chronicler is doing a show. But no ordinary show. This time, Youth Action Theatre is spreading its wings somewhat and going for an all out, high-camp, rock ‘n’ roll musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet! Wooo!

If you don’t know the show, it’s… well, how can I describe it? It’s a spoof of sci-fi B-movies which is based loosely on The Tempest, set to a track of classic tunes from the 1950s and ’60s. It owes more than a little to Forbidden Planet, as you might imagine from the title, but also borrows liberally from just about every terrible science fiction film of that era. As well as pretty much everything Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s complicated.

The basic story is that the spaceship Albatross, under the command of the heroic Captain Tempest, makes the mistake of going on a routine survey expedition. As you know if you’ve watched any episode of Star Trek, in the future the word “routine” means exactly the opposite of what it does now, and the ship gets diverted to the mysterious planet of D’Illyria. There, they are greeted by the mad Doctor Prospero, his beautiful daughter Miranda and their camp robot Ariel. And then things start to go wrong. What is the terrible secret of D’Illyria? Who is the enigmatic new science officer? Where did Prospero get that outfit? All this and more will be revealed…

(By the way, I’m playing Doctor Prospero. Yeah, I do have to sing. Yeah, I am slightly bricking it.)

If science fiction campiness is not to your taste, I should mention once again our extremely rocking soundtrack. Good Vibrations, Shakin’ All Over, All Shook Up and Shake, Rattle and Roll are in there, along with a variety of songs that aren’t about vibrating at all, like Teenager in Love, Mr Spaceman, Great Balls of Fire, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Wipeout, The Monster Mash, The Young Ones… and that’s just the ones you’ve heard of. All live, performed by an awesomely talented cast, and also me.

Our production is going pretty all-out. We’ve got the Mill doing our special effects – that’s the Mill, as in, the people who do Doctor Who and Torchwood. I know, right? We’re going to have a live band on stage. We’re transforming the Hampton Hill Playhouse into a spaceship (not literally). It’s all going to need a lot of work, so Yr. Humble Chronicler intends to be mucking in tomorrow evening.

Anyway, if you’re looking for something fun to do next week, something that’ll put a spring in your step, the show runs 9th-12th November inclusive at the Hampton Hill Playhouse in West London. To book tickets, kindly click on this link. Blast off!

Leave a comment

Filed under Current events, London, Music, Suburbia, Theatre

Mine eyes dazzle

Now, I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit rubbish over the next two weeks, chums. The reason for this is that, as I have previously said, I’m going to be in Youth Action Theatre’s production of The Duchess of Malfi, this week in London and next week at the Edinburgh Fringe. This will, I fear, make updates on this blog sporadic at best.

Of course, if you’d like to see this play yourself, you’d be most welcome to come along. This week – from Tuesday 9th to Thursday 11th August – we will be performing at the Hampton Hill Playhouse as part of a double-bill with a rather exciting devised piece called Lost and Found. It’s a world premiere sort of thing, so I must confess to not knowing a huge amount about it – however, I can vouch for the talent of the author, cast and director. It’s made extra-exciting by the fact that Yr. Humble Chronicler is supplying some of the props.

The Duchess of Malfi follows, and in accordance with the limitations of the Edinburgh Fringe, is pared down to an hour long. What this means is that you can tell everyone you’ve seen Webster’s masterpiece, but you haven’t had to sit through the full-length version which is like six weeks long or something.

If this all sounds like your kind of thing, and frankly why wouldn’t it, more info can be found here. Or if I’ve excited you sufficiently with this blog entry alone, you can book tickets here.

Of course, it might be that you’re in Edinburgh the following week, in which case why not come to see us up there? We’ll be at The Space (venue 36) from August 15th-20th, and you can book tickets here or here.

So there we are. I hope you’re as excited as I am, and I hope to see you there. Until next time, chums.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts, Current events, Literature, London, Meta, Suburbia, Theatre

Would you Adam and Eve it?

There’s a quote by P. G. Wodehouse that I think sums up my situation today. It goes thus:

I was left in no doubt as to the severity of the hangover when a cat stamped into the room.

Despite a substantial breakfast at the excellent Mike’s Café in Notting Hill (in my not inconsiderable experience, the severity of the hangover increases with the amount of time it’ll take you to get home), despite a long nap, despite having as many painkillers as is considered sensible for a person to have, it’s still with me. I choose to blame everyone except me. Particularly those damn bar staff, forcing me to buy Jägerbombs by having them there, all for sale and that.

Hold, let’s rewind and examine how I got into this situation in the first place. Along the way we will learn about some interesting bars in the West End.

You see, a friend is over from Germany, and therefore Becky B suggested a trip to the Adam and Eve in Fitzrovia. I was a little suspicious of the place (it describes itself as being based in “Noho” rather than Fitzrovia, a forced neologism that sets my teeth on edge) but was willing to bow to Becky’s recommendation. When I got there, the others were late. Curious, I asked the barman where the reserved table was. He said there was no such reservation. This was strange to me. I got a call a little later from Seb saying that they had arrived and had an entire area reserved. Now, okay, possibly the barman wasn’t aware.

However, the bar staff continued to fail to impress for the rest of the evening. One of them seemed very angry at my chums for showing up late – well, granted, it’s not great if we’re late for a reservation, but this fellow was complaining that they had turned people away because they were expecting us on time. Now, this was, I’m sorry to say, utter bollocks. The place was half empty, which for a bar off Oxford Street is amazing. If they were turning people away, that was stupid of them. And if it was really such a problem to keep the place reserved and empty, they could have un-reserved it. In either case, it’s not considered the done thing to berate your customers in such a fashion.

Another member of staff also complained to some of our chums having a smoke outside that the other staff had got the ashtrays messed up, which again is not the done thing in a customer service environment – it reflects badly on the venue as much as on any individual.

The place stopped serving at 10.30. This is strikingly early for a pub, particularly in the West End, but it’s their venue I suppose. Except that one of our party went up to get a round of drinks at 10.20 and was told that he couldn’t. When we went to investigate this strange state of affairs, for we had received no indication of last orders, the barman (the same one who told me they didn’t have our reservation) said, and I quote, “What’s in it for us if we do serve another round?” The correct answer to such an insolent question from a bartender is, “By god, you whelp of a diseased whore, I don’t know whether I’m more inclined to whip you for your impertinence or your master for his negligence, you will fetch me my drink or feel the toe of my boot up your backside!” but I restrained myself.

We did, with no end of complaints from the staff, get our drinks in the end. If it was really such an issue, they should simply have not served us. To serve us and complain and give us lip is quite beyond the pale. In conclusion, the Adam and Eve is shit.

Fortunately, Becky had an ace up her sleeve, and we went on to a basement cocktail bar on Rathbone Place rejoicing in the unusual name of Bourne and Hollingsworth. This was much more up my street. It’s a small venue, the preferred term I think is “intimate,” and the decor is very eclectic. More than one reviewer (and a member of our party) described it as being “like your grandmother’s house.” How they know what my grandmother’s house looks like is a mystery to me. The cocktail menu was superb, I am told by my cocktail-drinking friends. I stuck to beer myself. It did suffer from that cocktail bar disease of charging the price of a pint for a bottle, but the selection of lagers was suitably offbeat without being controversial. Oh, and kudos to the DJ for his taste in retro music.

When this place closed, Becky once more led the way – this time to an utterly charming place on Charing Cross Road, a members-only theatre bar known as the Phoenix Artist’s Club. I fell in love with the place instantly, it’s a proper boho old-school West End boozer. I’d love to say something meaningful about it, but by the end of the night I was utterly trashed and dancing like a twat. I should apologise to everyone who was forced to listen to me singing along to ‘Stars,’ as I recall my justification at the time was that Les Miserables is fucking awesome.” 

When the bar closed, the survivors staggered through the ruins of the Gay Pride event to get a cab back to Becky’s place in Notting Hill. I forget exactly how things ended, although I did wake on the floor, staring at a bra (I don’t think it was mine). Hungover as all hell, we grabbed breakfast at Mike’s Café on Blenheim Crescent. Mike’s is an extremely old-skool place that offers a very hearty breakfast at a very reasonable price – I accessorised mine with one of their gorgeous milkshakes. With Notting Hill increasingly falling prey to chains, it’s good to know you can still get something really special.

Now I’m off back to bed. Goodnight.


Filed under Arts, Booze, Clubbing, Current events, Fitzrovia, Food, Geography, London, Notting Hill, Soho, Theatre, West End

“Let not poor Nelly starve…”

Something that always vaguely depresses me about society is the fact that, for all we claim to be right-on and politically correct, there is still this very old-fashioned view of the place of women in society. Namely, that any woman who sleeps around or even acts in an overtly sexy fashion must be dubbed a “whore.” Optional: throw in unwarranted speculation concerning said whore’s sexual health and anatomy. You don’t get the same kind of condemnation for a man who shows off his body or sleeps around – the closest you get is the term “man-whore.” The fact that the term has to include the word “man” shows the problem here.

Being sick of this strangely Puritanical double-standard, I have to say that I rather like Nell Gwynn. Gwynn, pictured right, was the most famous of King Charles II’s many, many mistresses. Charles, whatever his virtues as a monarch, had something of an eye for a pretty young lady, and upon his accession to the throne an attractive mistress was regarded as a must-have accessory for any courtier. Not that extra-marital shenanigans were anything new among kings – half the aristocracy owe their origins to the bastard offspring of the reigning monarch. Charles, though, turned it into something of an art form.

Nell Gwynn, meanwhile, came out of nowhere. Much of her early life is obscure, but it would appear that she was born in 1650 to a Covent Garden brothel keeper, her father disappearing at a young age. By thirteen, she was working in the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane as an orange girl. Although these days such a title would merely imply an over-reliance on fake tan, the orange girls of London’s West End had the job of going among the rowdy theatre audiences selling China oranges (as in, oranges from China, not oranges made of china, that would be silly). They also supplemented their income by selling a little more than just fruit, if you catch my drift.

Young Nell was highly popular among the orange girls for her good looks and brazen wit. It wasn’t long before she found herself on the stage, where she was highly suited for the comedies of the day – Samuel Pepys in particular raved about her performance in The Maiden Queen. His enthusiasm may have been augmented by the fact that this play required Nell to dress up as a gentleman in an extremely flattering costume.

In 1668, word of this dashing young lady reached the King’s ears, and he had a special performance laid on by the company. Afterwards, Nell suggested that His Majesty should leave a substantial tip for the company. The King explained that he didn’t carry any money himself, prompting Nell to reply, “Odd’s fish, what kind of company have I got myself into?”

The affair between Charles and Nell would last seventeen years, resulting in two sons. However, Charles was not a one-woman man, or even a two-woman man, and so Nell had to hold her own against a number of rivals. The most famous of these was Louise de Kéroualle, created Duchess of Portsmouth by the King. Louise was a French Catholic, and as such not exactly popular with the public as Nell was. On one famous occasion, a mob at Oxford shouted abuse at what they thought was Louise’s carriage, calling her a “Catholic whore” (there’s that word again). To their surprise, Nell leaned out of the window and replied, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

See what I mean about the brazen wit? She even managed to win over her former enemy, the appalling John Wilmot. On another occasion, the Duchess tried to one-up Nell with a display of snobbery. She condescendingly said to Nell, “Nelly, you are grown rich, I believe, by your dress. Why, woman, you are fine enough to be a queen.” Nell’s retort was, “You are entirely right, madam, and I am whore enough to be a duchess.” Zing!

Nell’s story was, to use a hoary old cliché, the archetypal rags-to-riches tale. By the time of her death she had amassed several houses and her son, Charles Beauclark, had been given the title of Earl of Burford (remember what I said about the British aristocracy?). Famously, before his death, Charles II implored his brother James to “Let not poor Nelly starve,” and accordingly James paid granted her a pension of £1,500 a year, about £150,000 in today’s money. This was jolly decent of him, given that James had often been the butt of Nell’s jokes – she nicknamed him “Dismal Jimmy.”

Sadly, though, Nell was to die only three years later of a stroke at the age of 37 (it’s also been suggested that syphilis may have had something to do with it). She left a legacy to the prisoners of Newgate and was buried at St Martin-In-The-Fields, not far from the place of her birth.

So next time you read some embittered rant about how this or that celebrity is a whore, remember – it’s not always a bad thing.

1 Comment

Filed under History, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, Theatre, West End

Brush up your Webster

I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned that I’m doing another play. We’re currently in rehearsals for John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. I do like me a bit of Jacobean tragedy, particularly when it’s as stabbalicious as this.

The play is a highly abridged version, for the simple reason that we’re taking it up to the Edinburgh Fringe, where performance slots are short. I went up there back in 2005, and I therefore speak from experience when I say that the chance to go to the festival is not to be passed up. It was a haze of bohemian drunkenness and attacking Vanessa Feltz in the street (long story). The play that time was Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, which is right up my street, and we were honoured to have Mr Ridley himself attend some of the rehearsals.

One of my enduring memories was when our extremely drama-student-stereotype lead actor attempted to grovel to Ridley, saying “I feel a bit weird with the author here, like there’s this little dwarf of authorial intent saying, ‘That’s not how it should be performed!'” Ridley’s reply, with an entirely straight face, was, “Yes, but what you have to remember is that you can rape the dwarf.” Good times.

But enough wallowing in the past. The Duchess of Malfi, or Malfi as it’s known to friends, is a rather splendid tale of forbidden love, greed, corruption, Machiavellian plotting and lots of imaginative death, with undercurrents of incest and xenophobia. Everything you’d want from a Jacobean tragedy, really. It’s also notable in that the best lines go to the Duchess, which is rather unusual for the era – women in Jacobean drama either tend to be boring or evil. Yr. Humble Chronicler is playing the Cardinal, brother of the titular Duchess and mastermind of the various plots. Once again, I’ve been cast as the psychotic agent of a corrupt theocracy. There’s obviously something about me that suggests that quality. Maybe it’s all the blasphemy.

The play was premiered at some point in the early 1610s at the Blackfriars Theatre, one of Wm. Shakespeare’s old stomping grounds – indeed, the company that staged it, the King’s Men, was Mr Shakespeare’s. And speaking of Shakespeare, it was apparently also performed at the Globe.

 Unfortunately, we can’t be too precise about the dates. One of the most irritating things about Jacobean drama is how very little we know about some of its key figures. Even the life of Shakespeare is heavily based on speculation, educated guesses and the study discipline that historians call “making shit up.” About Webster, who is one of the best-known and most highly regarded Jacobean dramatists after the Bard, we know very little indeed. We think he studied law and we’re pretty sure he was born and raised in London, but a lot of this comes from survivng documents from about the right period that feature the name “John Webster.” According to T. S. Eliot, “Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin,” but no surviving documents indicate that he had any form of X-ray vision, so Eliot’s sources for this frankly astonishing claim are unclear.

Still, as Bill Bryson notes in his highly-readable Shakespeare, even Webster has been fortunate in historical terms. A lot of dramatists are only known as names on posters. Some of them, not even that. There are plenty of authors whose identities have been lost to us – we can only speculate educatedly on the authorship of my favourite Jacobean work, The Revenger’s Tragedy, for instance. Sucks to be those guys.

Webster’s best known plays are The White Devil and, of course, the aforementioned Duchess of Malfi. These are both rather grim and stabtastic, regarded today as outstanding examples of their genre, so it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the vast majority of his work was actually comedy. I suppose Webster gots to pay the rent.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how it goes. Hurricane Jack is coming over for beer and movies, so I must depart.



Filed under Arts, Current events, History, Literature, London, Theatre