21 July 2018

Little Tich - best comedic performer in the world, from 1884 on!

Harry Relph (1867-1928) was the 16th child of a very elderly Kent pub­lican. Harry stood only 4’6” high, with dwarfish legs, and was born with six digits on each hand and foot. His deformities were emphasised for public­ity, although he never wanted to be seen as a handicapped person.

His earliest prof­essional perform­ance in 1880 was at a the Rosherville Gardens Gravesend, a favourite riverside resort. The 12 year old lad made his very first stage appearance with his own black-face comedy act.

Harry took his stage name from an infamous English court case against The Tichborne Claimant that lasted from Ap 1873-Feb 1874, when Harry was still a toddler. In this court case, a Wapping butcher’s son called Arthur Orton turned up from Wagga Wagga in rural Australia. He pretended he was Roger Charles Tit­ch­borne, lost at sea in Ap 1854, and heir to an ancient Hamp­shire baronetcy. Orton, who weighed 25 stones, did 14 years in gaol. He was re­leased on ticket-of-leave in 1884, and later appeared on the music halls, telling of his adventures and prison experience.

Dwarfish Harry Relph took his stage name in an ironic and comedic refer­ence to the huge Tichborne claimant.

Harry Relph, Little Tich, c1900

Arthur Orton, Tichborne Claimant, 
National Portrait Gallery London 

By the time of his solo London music hall debut in 1884 at 13, Harry had developed a special­ity dance in which he “defied” gravity, either leaning for­ward at a precarious angle or balancing on the tips of long shoes. This eccentric dance became his spec­ial­ty. In his famous flopping Big Boots, 30” in length, Tich danced, leant almost horizontal to retrieve his lost hat, and then rose on tiptoe to become over 7’ tall. Finally he took his bow with another quick horizontal lurch which knocked his bald forehead against the stage.

In Drury Lane, his next London home, pantomime audiences loved Little Tich in the 1891 Humpty Dumpty performance with Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. Then in 1892 with Hop on My Thumb. Three Drury Lane pantomimes, 1891-94, established him as one of Britain's foremost comedians. To see Harry walk on stage, with his burlesque evening dress, top hat, cigar and his silly smile, made people quickly laugh.

Tich’s music hall earnings made him rich. He loved to ride in a big car around London, and into Kent. But he never forgot his Kentish childhood, his early struggles as a poorly paid performer or his nights in a doss-house.

After succeeding in London, Little Tich went on to triumph over­seas. In 1896 Little Tich made his debut in Paris and became a good friend of very short Toulouse-Lautrec. He was also greatly admired by famous actor-manager Lucien Guitry and his actor-dramatist son Sacha. The young Charlie Chap­l­in, in Paris with Fred Karno's Troupe, saw Tich at the Folies Ber­gère and based his walk on the music hall star  (even though Chaplin became the more famous man).

Also in 1896 Tich app­eared at the Alhambra Theatre London and the Olympia Music Hall in Paris.

Little Tich sang comic songs & was a skilful instrumentalist, but his greatest successes were energetic dances in which he often par­odied artists like Loïe Fuller. Soon Tich was made an officer of the Académie Française for services to French music-hall.

1905’s biggest star on the Australian Tivoli Circuit was Little Tich. This comic little showman commanded a salary that was double the largest sum theatre proprietor Henry Rickards had ever paid to previous stars!!

For 17 years the performer was the toast of the old Tivoli Theatre in Lond­on’s Strand. In an unforgettable show in 1907 Tich was one of the Five Harrys: along with Harrys Laud­er, Tate, Frag­son and Randell. The show was bill­ed as a sensational success.

He was enticed by an American prod­ucer to the USA at 3 times his British salary. Phineas T Barnum was a great show man. There Tich developed a series of hilarious sketches of suburban charact­ers: a love-sick tram conductor, sea-sick sailor, incompetent black­smith and a succession of ecc­entric elderly ladies. He was most famous for his Spanish Senorita, Tax Collector, the Gas Inspector and Little Miss Turpentine.

Famous at home and abroad, his highly vis­ual comic rout­ines inf­luen­ced both stage and early film per­formers. Victorian Cinema reported that the surviving film of the Big Boots dance, made by Clément-Maurice for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre in 1900, was a piece of comedic genius. And fans could see Georges Méliès' Le Raid Paris - Monte-Carlo en Deux Heures (1905), Pathé's Little Tich (1907) and Gaumont's Little Tich, the Tec (1909).

Back in Australia Tich told the audience that he was used to play­ing to ladies and gentlemen, not to a mob of hooligans. Then he walked off. After the afternoon papers’ headlines screamed, ‘Little Tich Insults Australian Audiences’, Tich had misgivings about what sort of reception he would get in later perform­ances. But Little Tich was 60 and his big boots and silly songs were no longer univ­er­sally loved. Australians broke his heart. He had come on the stage cocky and energetic; he left it a shaky old man. Tich returned to London but his spirit was never the same again.

Relph was married to three professional entertainers; a] English dancer Laurie Brooks in 1889, b] Spanish dancer Julia Recio in 1898 and c] act­ress Winifred Ivey in 1926. Harry and Winifred’s daughter Mary went on to have a successful stage career of her own.

Ealing Hippodrome,
starring Little Tich 1907

His final performance was at the London Alhambra Theatre in 1927, then he died in 1928. Buried in East Finchley Cemetery, Little Tich’s tomb­stone says: le plus petit et le plus grand comique du monde.

See the V&A Theatre and Performance Department collections, including the biographical, productions and photographs files, the library holdings, the Richard Findlater Archive and a pair of the famous Big Boots. Read Little Tich, Giant of the Music Hall by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater, 1979 and Little Tich – Music Hall Star by Gordon Irving.

17 July 2018

Can a great book be made into a very good film? On Chesil Beach

I had good reasons for seeing the 2017 film On Chesil Beach. Firstly Ian McEwan is one of the most intriguing modern novelists I have read, espec­ial­ly his 2007 novella of the same name! Secondly the brilliant film Atone­ment was based on Ian McEwan's 2001 novella Atonement and starred, amongst others, Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan. Thirdly Chesil Beach was set in 1962, an intriguing time that came just before my personal “Golden Era” of 1965-1970. Finally the book was quite rightly shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, my best guide for selecting novels to read every year.

Author McEwan did the screenplay adaptation, and the film was dir­ected by Dominic Cooke.

The newlywed stars on their honeymoon were both anxious virgins. The new wife was Florence Ponting, a talented and ambitious viol­inist, and the new husband was Edward Mayhew. I remember my grand mother talking about the dangers of sex before marriage, but who discussed the terror of sexual intimacy after marriage?

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, the young stars of Chesil Beach

I assumed “Chesil Beach” was a fanciful location for the film's honeymoon hotel .. because I had never heard the name outside McEwan's novel. Now it turns out that the 18 miles of protected pebble beach along the Dorset coast is real. And famous! What an appropriate and moody location for a brief marriage that ended after a night of disast­rous non-sex. Florence and Edward Mayhew, who came from dif­f­erent backgrounds, had an idyllic courtship. But they never got to consum­mate their marriage, breaking up in tears before doing the deed.

Saoirse Ronan (born 1994) was an inspired Florence, daughter of a wealthy but icy cold family. The Irish act­ress knew how to express an innocence and repress­ion, while rem­aining outwardly charming. The actress herself expl­ained that she had been too young to read McEwan’s book when it had first been released. She was also too young to deal with this very intimate topic and acknowledged that it had to be told in a delic­ate way. Perhaps Ronan didn’t even know about the societal pressure that could accompany physical intimacy back in 1962.

Theatre actor Billy Howle (born 1989) played a character whose work­ing class father was a teacher, while his mother was damaged in an accident; their home was more informal and closer to nature than Florence’s posher background. Edward was a recent university grad­uate (in history) and had decided to become an author. 

Looking down from Abbotsbury Hill onto Chesil Beach, Dorset
Photo credit: The Guardian

Transmission gives a synopsis with extra information that I could not have elucidated myself.  It was a gripping, heart-rending account of a loving relationship battered by outside forces and influences first formed in child­hood, in a society with inflexible rules about uniformity & respectability. They married as virgins: two very different people, but deeply in love. Only hours after their wedding they found themselves at their dull, formal honeymoon hotel on the Dor­set coast at Chesil Beach. They dined in their room, and their conversation became stilted and nervous. 

The consummation of their marriage was fast approaching, and while Edward welcomed the prosp­ect of sexual intimacy, Florence was scared by it. The tension between them boiled over into a heated argument as Florence tried to repel Edward’s advances. She dashed from the room, out of the hotel and on to Chesil Beach, with Edward in pursuit. On a remote part of the beach they had a blazing argument about the profound differences between them. One of them made a startling decision that would have life-long consequences for them both.

But as often happened in the film world, it took a long time for the book to make the transition to the big screen. Yet producer Elizabeth Karlsen had been interested in a film adaptation of the beaut­ifully written novel, even before the On Chesil Beach book was first published.

She noted the simplicity of narrative and the clarity of emot­ion that was already visible. Finding Dominic Cooke, one of Britain’s most eminent theatre directors, Artistic Director at the Royal Court and Associate Director at the National Theatre, was inspired. Cooke was impressed by how the film conveyed the importance of how people talk, or don’t talk about sex, and how people are affected by their upbringings.

Ian McEwan and some of his most famous novels,
Wall St Journal

In 2008, after weeks of concentrating on the job at hand, I created a list of my most loved novels. If I was asked to re-create a favourite list a decade later, it probably would not be very different. But I would certainly have included an Ian McEwan novel or two.

And yes, great books can be made into very good films!

14 July 2018

The late Thelma Webberley, a very fine journalist

Thelma Komesaroff (1923-2015) was a student at University High, a selective school in Melbourne that encouraged its students to stay at school, even throughout the Great Depression and the 1939-45 World War. At a time when most girls and some boys were encouraged to leave school at the minimum legal age, Thelma finished Matricul­ation and was offered a place in the prestigious University of Melbourne. Her passion was English and Russian Literature.
Thelma and Les, post retirement

The University did not close during the war, but students whose husbands, fiancés and fathers were recruited into the Armed Serv­ic­es felt obligated to get paying jobs. Thelma married Lieutenant Les Webb­erley (1922-2015) in 1945; she continued working in a city bookshop when Les returned to University after demobilisation, to finish his engine­er­ing deg­ree. 

Once their babies were out of napp­ies, Thelma bec­ame a journalist at The Australian Jewish Herald, pub­lished weekly in Melbourne. After 18 years of columns on music, the arts, travel and community organisations, Thelma took the opport­un­ity to go back to Melbourne University, this time to earn a deg­ree in Journalism. And this time with her daughter (me) on the same campus!

I have already documented Thelma’s community work. Courage to Care offered workshops, presentations, exhibition viewing and facil­it­at­ed discussions designed for high school students. And one section of Bnai Brith Victoria provided scholarships for teach­ers to travel to Israel and to learn in in-depth teaching programmes.

But I have not discussed the rest of Thelma's professional career, intended to be spent as a journalist in tertiary educational institutions.  Only one mid-career move was a surprise, still as a journalist but not in a tertiary educational institution. Thelma was given 3 years to write a history of the Victorian Chamber of Manu­fact­urers in Melbourne, starting in the 1870s in Melbourne. In August 1881 it became the Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers/VCM. It remained an unincorpor­ated association until 1922, when it was incorporated under the Victorian Companies Act. VCM played a role in Australian industrial relations and within a couple of years the Australian Chamber of Manufactur­ers formed the Manufacturing Grocers' Section.

The VCM wanted a book that could be published in time for the cent­ury anniversary of the organisation. The final version of the book ENTERPRISE, 100 Years of the VCM was written by Thelma Webberley, edited by CF Sullivan and published in 1979.

The Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers
across the state of Victoria

Book Orphanage says the book is a hard­cover, 10½" x 7½", with dark-blue cloth-bound boards with gold title to spine, 218 pages, photo­graphs and a foreword by the Premier of Victoria. This book traces the first century of the VCM, which started in one hotel room and, at the time of writing, had 6,000 members and wide influence in industrial matters in Victoria.

Now to the book launch itself. Printed sheets were added inside the book saying Many people contributed to the preparation of this history of the first 100 years of The Victorian Chamber of Manu­factures. Among the members of VCM staff who cont­rib­­ut­ed to the production of the History, were Mr CF Sullivan and Mrs T Webberley. Mr Sullivan was resp­onsible for guiding the com­pilation of the material included in this work while Mrs Webb­erley, in writing the text, did so with great enthusiasm and dedication.

The Foreword was written by the Premier of Victoria, the Honourable RJ Hamer. I was particularly interested to hear the premier say inter alia that the Chamber was interested in technical education, being part of the Administrative Staff College, Council of Public Education, Council of Melbourne University and its Faculty of Economics and Commerce, Victorian Institute of Secondary Education, Victorian University and Schools Education Board.

There are 17 chapters in the book, covering the era of the first men with the first visions (eg Robert Harper, the Chamb­er’s first president) until the completion of the Chamber’s an­n­iversary and its plans for the future. My personal favour­ites were the chapters set in the post-war years and the 1950s, discus­s­ing the Prime Min­is­t­er, The Right Honourable Mr Chifley, socialism, unions and indust­rial­isation. This was a very influential era for my family, and for the primary schools we all went to. 

After the formal speeches in front of Victoria’s dignitaries at the book launch, Thelma Webberley gave the best speech of her profess­ional career. And no time before or since had she ever had three State Ministers shaken her hand on one day!

A separate letter to Thelma Webberley was written directly from Brian Powell, Director of the VCM. Mr Powell’s inv­it­ation to the function on 2nd May 1980 was to thank Thelma in front of the VCM staff, for her writing of the book. That function would mark the internal release of the VCM history “Enterprise”.

The books, printed sheets acknowledging the authorship and editor­ship, and the Director’s personal invitation to Thelma all came to me in my late mother’s library. They are treasured items. Plus I was delighted to find a Victorian Chamber of Manuf­acturers’ Certificate of Membership at the National Wool Museum in Geelong.

 ENTERPRISE, 100 Years of the VCM

A Decade of Achievement: Phillip Ins­tit­ute of Tech­nol­ogy

As I said, Thelma intended to spent the rest of her career as a journalist in tertiary education. And she did! Phillip Institute offered Arts, Commerce, Business, Engineering, Social Work and Youth Work. Readers can enjoy Thelma’s career at PIT in Brian Car­r­oll’s A Decade of Achievement: Phillip Ins­tit­ute of Tech­nol­ogy. Starting his history in 1982, Carroll documented the important contributions made by Thelma's closest colleagues Professor Don Edgar, Betty Churcher (Head of the School of Art and Design) and Henry Talbot (Senior Lecturer in Photography). Carroll highlighted the quarterly magazine Upfront that was written by Thelma, the means by which the Institute reached out to the local community and northern suburban newspapers.

Later Thelma worked with students and wrote journal artic­l­es, books and newspaper columns at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technol­ogy (now RMIT University). In preparation for RMIT's School of Media and Communication to be developed within the College of Design and Social Context, the journalists and publishers had to work very hard. The School event­ually hosted advertising, audio-visual, communic­ation, creative writing, editing and publishing, film and television, journalism, music industry, photography and public relations.

10 July 2018

Bruges, a perfectly preserved medieval Belgian city

Bruges (pop 120,000) was founded in the north of Belgium in the C9th by Vikings who settled locally. A town developed around the fort­ress that the Counts of Flanders built in the area and the young settle­ment worked hard to acquire city rights. In fact a very prot­ective city wall was built around Bruges, with solid gates.

The settle­ment very quickly became an imp­or­tant har­bour close to the North Sea. Inside the city, the river and canals became the vital communic­ation links. By the C14th Bruges was the starting point of a commercial transport road to the Rhineland; traders from all over came to sell their pro­ducts and to buy Flemish cloth.

Markt Place, outdoor coffee shops and sculpture (top)
The Beguinage  (second photo)

Growing from a few North German towns in the late 1100s, the Ger­man Hans­eatic League dominated Baltic maritime trade for three cent­ur­ies along the Northern European coast. Bruges bec­ame a port of even greater importance when it joined the Hanseatic League.

St Saviour’s Church was founded in C10th and added to later eg the high alt­ar is C17th. Serious fires may have been the result of wars, accidents or iconoclastic de­struct­ion. But some lovel­y part of this church still stand: C15th choir stalls with the Knights of the Golden Fleece’s arms, or­g­an, clois­ters and treasury.

The Beguinage was founded by Margaret of Constantinople, countess of Fl­an­ders in the mid C13th. Some women were the bereft widows or daughters of knights killed in the Holy Crusades, women who did not want to be secluded nuns but who wanted to do good works. The Beguinage is still a green space and lovely white­washed hous­es; the Beguine Museum enables visitors to feel the C13th.

Markt Place is a central, large square used for all social and political act­iv­it­ies. On one side, the med­ieval bel­fry looms 272' over Markt Place, the proud symbol of the wealth of Bruges since 1282. And there were renovations added during C15th glory days. Inside the belfry, see the trea­s­­ury room; then up 366 steps, past the C18th car­il­l­­on and onto the roof. The 47 bells chime each day.

On the east side of the square is the neo-Gothic Provincial Palace. From 1850, it was used to house the provin­cial govern­ment meetings. Then it became a government meet­ing hall and now a ceremonial building-exhibition space.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood (mid C12th) was built on the site that the First Count of Flan­d­ers built his fort. It did­n't become a chapel until the bones of St Basil the Great AND Holy Blood of Jesus Christ were brought from the Holy Land or Constant­inople (C12th). The ground floor of this double church has its original darkish Romanesque character, while the upper chapel is a totally Gothic storey built in the C15th.

The relic of the Holy Blood is always in the upper chapel, in a tiny cryst­al phial with a golden stopper hung with silver chains. Only on May’s Ascension Day does it move around the town in proud process­ion. The re­l­ic is the respon­s­ib­il­ities of the Con­frat­­ernity of the Precious Blood, town worth­ies celebrated in Pieter Pourbus’ Triptych of the Broth­erhood.

By C14th, Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were the three centres of Belg­ium's amazing cloth trade, using first class raw English wool, ideally suited for weaving Flanders’ lux­ury cloth. Banking and mer­ch­ant houses from all over Europe thrived in Brug­es. The population boomed!

Joined to the Holy Blood Basilica is the old Town Hall. It was built from light cream sand­stone in the Gothic style in the late C14th. The facade has octagonal tur­rets, arched and ribbed windows, and statues of all the counts of Flanders. The Gothic Hall above has stunning mur­als depicting the major events in Brug­es’ history.

Basilica of the Holy Blood, exterior (top) and 
Gothic upper chapel with blood relic (below)

Next door is the more cl­ass­ic­al Palace of Justice. Except for the Magistrates’ Hall, the first building was destroy­ed. The Palace was rebuilt in the 1528-81 per­iod. Other buildings in Burg Square are the Prov­ost's House and the Old Recorder's House, a fine renais­s­ance building topped with statues repres­ent­ing justice.

And see the Church of Notre Dame. Work began on the nave and aisles in c1230 but, typically, more changes were made in the 14th and C15th. The huge tower is 122ms high! Inside Notre Dame Ch­urch is Michelangelo's only known scul­p­tural piece in Belgium, Virgin and Child 1504 in marble. It was brought from Tuscany by a Flemish merchant.

Opposite Our Lady Church is St John’s Hospital, founded in 1188 and one of the oldest in Europe. It still funct­ions as a hospital tod­ay, but a dispensar­y and an old ward have been fitted out as they were back then. In one of the hosp­ital’s old chapels the Hans Mem­ling Museum is located. This artist spent most of his career in Bruges.

Among the amazing coll­ection of Mem­ling paint­ings to be found in Bruges is the altar­piece called The Mys­tic Marriage of St Cath­erine 1479, painted for the Hospi­tal of St John chapel, as was the Mad­onna and Child 1487 and the Hospitallers of St John. The wood­en Rel­iqu­ary of St Urs­ula 1489 is a portable Gothic shrine to Ursula’s 11,000 martyred virgins, covered with exquisite panels.

Bruges was THE creative centre for many of the great Flemish paint­ers, especially when Duke Philip the Good (ruled 1419-67) was com­miss­ion­ing art. Hans Memling, plus Jan van Eyck painted his stun­­n­ing al­tar­piece Adora­t­ion of the Mystic Lamb in Brug­es (1432). Hugo van der Goes (1440-82) also worked in Bruges and left his Portarini Al­tar­piece c1475, paint­ed for a rich Italian banker working in Bruges. Groen­in­ge Museum is a 1930 build­ing with a fine collec­t­ion of Flemish Old Masters: Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Pet­rus Christus, David Gerard, Pieter Pourbus and Hieronymus Bosch. And some C17th Dutch art.

St John's Hospital and Memling Museum along one of the canals

St John Altarpiece by Hans Memling

The decline of Bruges' wealth started in C15th: terrible silt­ing up of the Zwin meant that ships could no longer transport goods to and from Bruges. Plus competition with the bigger harbour of Antwerp resulted in less comm­ercial act­iv­ity. Sadly the coun­try's wealth­iest merchants left Br­ug­es and took their business to An­twerp. The only building flourish were houses and ware­houses with step­ped gables that were built along the canals throughout the C17th.

Today this economic failure to thrive has had an ir­on­ic effect. Bruges was snap-frozen in time and is the best preserved medieval city in western Europe. Even the solid medieval town walls were only torn down in the mid C19th.

The C20th has brought new life because tourists love the medieval heritage, and chocolate. The new harbour of Zeebrugge, 16ks from the city, also brought new industries. Bruges is also home to many interesting art galleries eg The Absolute Art Gallery which promotes the artwork of young and talented Belgian artists, and of international artists - paintings, sculptures, installations and photographs. But the greatest modern fame came from the film, In Bruges (2008), that starred two Irish hit­men, filmed across the city’s iconic cityscape.

The Bruges Triennial 2018 | Liquid City will gather artists and architects from around the world  to leave their mark on the city's public space. From May-September 2018, impressive constructions of contemporary artists and architects will appear in the historic heart of the city.