I WAS A FOLLY
Muriel George (1883-1965)
(Written between 1941 and 1957)
Quoting from the BBC's Scrapbook for 1912 ...'The year was famous for King Edward's death, the arrest of Crippen and Muriel George singing "My Moon".'
I started writing this autobiography during the bombing of 1941 and 1942 - and should never have finished it except for listening to a programme on the wireless 'Write it down, a plea for memories' - so I am going to talk away about talented and kindly people I have met and with whom I have worked.
I have been on the stage over fifty years and am glad to say I have done everything - stage, films, broadcasting, television and twelve years of Music Hall work, and appeared at all the big Ballad concerts, Boosey, Chappel and Cramers, and have enjoyed it all. Don't imagine my story is a press-agented tale of a glamorous burst from obscurity into the limelight in a single night - or one of virtue rewarded after years of work in the provinces. I never really learnt to sing, dance or act - I just went on the stage and did it all.
It was the home influence that prepared me. I suppose all our lives are shaped by what we saw, heard and learned from our parents. My mother, Isabel George, had a lovely voice, and was also a very fine pianist. She sang all over the country in oratorios and was one of the first people to sing for the National Sunday League. My father, Robert George, taught singing at the Royal Academy of Music. Mother was one of his pupils and so they were able to keep watchful critical ears on me, and as so much singing went on in the house it was no wonder I started doing a bit myself. The first inkling my parents had that I could sing was hearing me sing and play for myself 'Oh Rest in the Lord' when I was about eight.
I was born just off Oxford Street, in some mansions since destroyed, and when my brother was born we went to live at 14 Albany Street, Regents Park, where The White House now stands. It was very convenient for my father, and my brother and I had daily walks in and around Regent's Park. The Chinese Legation was near, and one of my earliest and pleasantest recollections is of one or two elderly Chinese, who gave us odd looking coins and waited to talk to us very seriously and charmingly and made me want to go to China. When I was ten, we moved to Bolingbroke Road, West Kensington, and I started school - a small private school in Holland Road.
Between the age of ten and seventeen I had three devoted boy friends. One of the trio always called to escort me to school and most nights they would come round with a banjo, a mandolin and a guitar! I used to play the piano. What a noise we made, but it taught me to read music. There were no cinemas in those days, and young people had to make their own amusements. If you had any parlour tricks how welcome you were and what excruciating moments you endured too. My school friends, the Weavers, were a large family and their father had a bass voice with a terrific tremolo. Every Christmas he shouted 'I am a Roamer Bold and Gay' or a song about being a 'Knight in Shining Armour'. His sister, with a steel aigrette in her hair that quivered with every breath, told us vocally she was 'a merry Zingara', and Pansy Weaver would recite an awful piece called 'Room for the Leper, Room'. Still we all enjoyed it; but I always feel The Follies' ought to have given a 'Family Evening'.
Every Easter my brother and I used to go to a little village called Harrington in Worcestershire. We were guests of a farmer and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Bullock. They were dear people and I used to sing at the annual concert and Lionel used to play the bones. I used to sing nearly every evening in the parlour and all the village lads used to sit on a low wall outside and listen to 'The Kerry Dance' and 'Robin Adair'. I remember the lavatory amenities were about one hundred yards away from the house, and one evening I slipped away with a lantern in my hand to one of the old fashioned kind with three seats. The lantern was blown out and in the ark there was a fearful commotion and squawking and I flew yelling to the house, only to find I had sat on old Blackie, a laying hen - who was more frightened than I was.
My first big concert was at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne, when I was twelve. I remember my songs - 'Bid me Discourse' (Bishop), 'Orpheus with his lute' (Sullivan) and 'The Bird that came in spring' (Benedict). After that I went on singing - St. James Hall, St. Martins Town Hall - both gone now. My boy friends bought a tandem bicycle and we used to ride down to Windsor and have picnics and come home to enormous suppers. And so I started to grow up.
I belong to the era of long skirts, large flowered hats, hair done up in puffs and curls, voluminous taffetas, petticoats that rustled grandly when we walked, horse omnibuses and hansom cabs. In my young days girls on the stage were romantic, beautiful and charming in their femininity. Actresses like Lily Elsie, Lily Brayton, Lily Hanbury, Zena and Phyllis Dare, Isabel Jay, and Gertie Millar and adorable Ellaline Terriss. The actors were handsome he-men like Lewis Waller, Bertram Wallis, Henry Ainley, George Alexander and Gerald du Maurier - and comedians we revelled in were Dan Rollyat, George Grossmith, William Berry and George Graves, and we delighted in the songs of Guy d'Hardelot, Lisa Lehmann, W.H. Squire and Wilfred Sanderson. Not only the personalities but the world they graced has gone. The foreign element has cheapened Piccadilly and Leicester Square, a noisy succession of amusement arcades, where Philistines licking ice creams push you off the pavement. When I walked there a little while ago, a sort of caravan with fruit for sale was just opposite where Daly's stood. 'Buy a bunch of grapes Ma?' the stall holder asked me. 'No', I said. 'Wot don't you like fruit, dear?' 'Yes, but not in Leicester Square' I said huffily.
When my brother and I were children we were always taken to Drury Lane. Thank God we were! It is extraordinary how vividly I remember Dan Len and Herbert Campbell as 'The Babes in the Wood'. I remember little Tich as Humpty Dumpty and Cinquevalli juggling and Dan Leno playing the harp and falling through the elastic strings. It may be that I was at a most impressionable age, from about six to ten years old, but I prefer to think they were such great artists. I even remember the words of a song Herbert Campbell sang:
You'll never be an angel Daddy
With wings up in the sky,
You'll never be an angel Daddy
Along with Ma and I...
When I joined The Follies long afterwards Herbert Campbell was on the bill. Being very young and silly I was annoyed because the dear old man made kissing noises at me and he sought out Harry Pelissier and asked if I was offended. A am glad to say Harry gave me a good lecture and told me not to be such a little snob. Unfortunately Herbert Campbell hurt his eye, and it gave me the opportunity to knock timidly at his dressing room door and hope he was better and not in any pain. He was so pleased when he saw me, shy and smiling; a bottle of champagne was opened and after that I learnt not to take office easily and be glad anyone noticed me at all.
I was lucky in having such a loving and devoted Father and Mother. Mother lived with me all her life till she died at the age of 82 just as the 1940 war started. My Father died at 56. His great friend was the father of Siegfried Sassoon. He was a sculptor and artist and I still have a bronze plaque of Father that he did, very true to life and much loved. Sassoon was a dear man and I always knew I had a treasure hunt after one of his visits, a bottle of Wincarnis if I'd been ill, a box of paints or sweets, but best of all when, with a red blanket over his head, he read Kipling's Mowgli stories. He and Father liked to cook their own supper, leaving us to clear up in the morning. Very pan and saucepan used and spaghetti on the ceiling!
Later on there were lovely evenings at The White City and Earls Court Exhibition; joys the present generation has never experienced. There were good bands and we sat on seats in the open air, watching the people go by and listening to the splash of water and the screams of terrified delight from the water chute and swing boats. The scent of sandal wood from the Indian stall is wafted down the years to me now, as I write this. I can sit back and still see the women as they pass. It could never have been very windy in those days for they wore great bunches of hair and great hats with flowers, fruit and feathers trimming them. The air would have been black with hats in a gale. I used to be very proud of a feather boa I had, and a parasol with a cherry stick handle - but I will say today's fashions are much more sensible, tho I cannot think of anything more hideous than the half trousers and half knickers so many girls wear - invented by a woman hater.
My girlhood was the time of the ugliest age of art and furniture. I remember our drawing room, a double room, had a greenery yellowy carpet, hideous green serge draperies over the mantle piece, and one or two horribly painted tambourines painted with daffodils and narcissi, and pictures painted and given to Father by loving pupils who could not pay their fees.
My Mother used to take me at an early age to interminable recitals of the violin and piano and I had to sit still for hours with drawers trimmed with broderie anglaise; the longer I sat the more it cut and chafed me and gave me a distaste for classical music that lasts till this day.
My Mother at this time was in great request at At Homes and city banquets, and on Ladies nights came away with a box of gloves from the Glove Makers, a fan from the Fan Makers or big boxes of chocolates. I never heard of the Vintners giving a pipe of wine, though!
She used to tell the story of a Mansion House reception at which she sang in the reign of a very uneducated Lord Mayor. For once there was no food prepared for the artists, so Mother decided to go and get a cup of tea for herself. On the way downstairs she met the Lord Mayor himself. She explained the position and he said 'That's right m'dear, go down and enjoy yourself. Just be'ave as if you was one of the guests.' As Mother looked more like a duchess than any of the quests she must have laughed. She was very pretty and jolly and my young life was soured by the constant remark of friends and relatives 'Yes, you've got very pretty hair, my dear, but you'll never be as good-looking as your mother.'
One winter's night she was singing in The Messiah and wearing a lovely pale yellow brocade dress. She tripped on to the platform and suddenly realised she was still wearing her snow boots. Luckily dresses were long in those days. I had an embarrassing moment myself during my early days. I was booked to sing at Worthing one Sunday afternoon and evening. In those days the Pier was a long wobbly structure and Concert Party artists had been known to be sea sick on rough days. Well in those days I was very thin and Mother had made me a tussore silk dress gathered on the chest and hips to give me a bit more figure. Under it I wore a long full silk petticoat and a new hat with a little wing in it. I felt very proud and important as I walked up the Pier and suddenly a gust of wind hit me and the Pier and caught us unawares. I blew my hat straight out to sea, and my dress and petticoat straight over my head. There I stood, a small forlorn figure in my little drawers, shown of all dignity. Two of the Bandsmen who were coming up the Pier rushed to help me and pull down my skirts. But when I went on to sing 'Angles Ever Bright and Fair' the audience, most of whom had been sitting on the Pier, applauded and laughed a lot.
After four years of concerts, at the ripe old age of sixteen, I burst into the limelight of a West End theatre - The Palace in Shaftesbury Avenue. I was singing at a dinner at the Holborn Restaurant, with a girl called Evelyn Hughes, a mimic who was in The Follies. She told me Harry Pelissier was looking for a soprano and suggested I should go and see him at his flat in Church street, Edgware Road. I shall never forget the flat. It was full of theatre baskets overflowing with clothes, props, music and ruffles - and the accumulated dust of years. Luckily Harry liked my voice and I started rehearsing the very next day.
The Follies were in their infancy then. Today they are a legend. The Company consisted of Pelissier, Lewis Sydney, Dan Everard, Norman Blume, Evelyn Hughes and Ethel Allandale. Ethel was not at my first rehearsal, but she told me afterwards that when she asked Sydney what the new girl was like he replied 'A voice like Patti and a face like George Roby!'
Harry Pelissier was a young man then. He did not do a great deal in the show himself, as he was kept at the piano, but he wrote all the lovely tunes himself which after fifty years are curiously undated. He was rather stout, with deep blue eyes, thick lashes and lovely hands.
My first night arrived and I was too young to realise how important it was, so I was not a bit nervous. I remember I had to put my hair up for the occasion, and had such masses of it that I used about four packets of hairpins to keep it in place. We finished our turn with a burlesque of an Italian opera. I was the heroine, Lewis Sydney the heavy father and Harry was the hero. The father discovered me with my lover and seizing me by the hand proceeded to take me to the top of the tower - this was a chair - and we used to run like made, singing at the tops of our voices, with our backs to the audience, then I had to leap on to the chair. All went well on the first night till I started running, then the hairpins showered down, and so did chunks of hair till it was all down. Then I jumped on the chair and I went through. It did not matter and it went very well. The audience thought it was all in the show.
After that season at the Palace we went on tour and visited seaside towns up and down the country. I remember we were at Westgate and twice some very grand people came in and I had a big box of chocolates from them. One of them turned out to be Baron d'Erlanger - a great patron of music. He was very kind and interested a lot of people in me when I came to London. Years afterwards, when Butch and I were starring at the Coliseum, he gave a big party for all the people working for him and Butch and I were engaged to entertain them. After about a year of touring I left The Follies and joined another concert party called The Yashmaks, a Pierrot and Pierrette. It had the most extraordinary hodgepodge of clothes, and we had names like Eulalie, Lakme, etc. and wore horrible yashmaks over the lower part of our faces - all very uncomfortable - and if I took a top note the yashmak was sucked down my throat and had to be pulled out. The Pierrette was a pretty Irish woman and the Pierrot was Arthur Davenport, son of Francis Davenport, professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music. He married the daughter of Sir George Macfarren. So there I was, right in the middle of music again; because after three months of persevering courtship I married Arthur in Gurnsey where we were appearing. We were married at St. John's Church after the performance, and the entire audience followed us to Church and the next day we went home.
Arthur Davenport was a very good looking man, fresh coloured, wonderfully witty and with a marvellous memory. He loved the country and could tell every bird and every tree.
Father and Mother were delighted as Sir George MacFarren had been a great friend of Father's at the Royal Academy and when I was a small girl I was taken to see Walter Macfarren, Sir George's brother who was then almost totally blind but a wonderful pianist.
I went to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Davenport who then had a charming house at Angmering in Sussex. It was full of lovely furniture and prints. I had never seen anything like it before - old Persian rugs, china and glass. My son John Davenport has all that now, except for the spinet left by Sir George Macfarren to the Royal Academy. Arthur was delighted with me,and I was made to sing (Lisa Lehmann, I remember) which of course horrified my mother-in-law: it should have been Bach. But I must own my father-in-law was delightful to me always, and my dear sisters-in-law always have been very fond of me. Until I married Arthur I did not know there were such things as good and had furniture, good and bad colours, etc. and I began to get educated.
I learned to read Dickens, Thackeray, W.W.Jacobs and lots of Kipling; but just to live with Arthur was an education. He had a wonderful sense of humour and when we got back to London I took him to see Harry Pelissier and at once sparks were struck and they started writing together.
A new Concert Party was formed - The Ragamuffins - and Arthur and I, Gladys Ward and Bernard Ansell went out in it for almost a year. During that time Arthur was writing lyrics and sending them to Pelissier and gradually The Follies built up a repertoire and reputation. Arthur Wimperis and Arthur Davidson (a lawyer in his serious moments) also joined the band of 'demon authors' as Harry called them.
Harry still had his flat in Marylebone and when we were in London we lived in a lodging nearby. How I hated it - I always wanted my own home. But we used to meet at Regioris for lunch, and so did Christopher Wilson, composer and Musical Director for Ellen Terry who was Arthur's cousin; Herman Finck, and Arthur Machen with his wife Purejoy. It was wonderful for me to sit and listen day after day to these brilliant men, giving out so much wit and nonsense. Arthur's memory was infallible and he seethed with new ideas. Among the many numbers he wrote were 'My Moon', 'Ypsilanti' 'I want Somebody to Love Me', 'James William McChonochie', 'Oh What a Happy Land is England', 'The Beverage Quartettes', 'Nicotine Quartettes', 'The Benefit Matinee', 'The Music Hall', 'The Pantomime', 'Potted Hamlet'. 'Love Garden' and many more.
Arthur was always hard up, so sold everything outright for a quarter of its value and so benefited little for his services. There was nothing of the co-optimists about us but I loved every minute of the work, and thinking about it now without that four years of variety of work, I should not have been able to accomplish half the things I have undertaken since.
The Glasgow Citizen once said:
'In the cast of “Goodbye to Yesterday” at the Kings Theatre this week is Miss Muriel George whom we have not seen in Glasgow since “Call it a Day”. As I watched this fine artiste playing the part of Mrs. Rawlins and looking exactly like Mrs. Rawlins, my mind went back to the past when I first saw Muriel George in that greatest of all Pierrot shows The Follies, run by that genius of burlesque Harry Pelissier. Good and all as the Co Optimists were - and they were goo - they never reached the same heights as The Follies. There Muriel George and her husband Earnest Butcher toured the Halls and the concert platform, singing folk songs and duets. Their turn was one of the most delightful I have ever known and now here is Miss George making a third reputation as a character actress.”
I have quoted that charming notice because it has brought in The Follies and our Music Hall success. I do not think there could ever again be a company like The Follies. They all had their own sense of humour, and the power to burlesque - and that is very rare. They did not suddenly burst on London a fully fledged company. I will give their history later on and for the first few years before I joined they were a sort of amateur show. I left and rejoined them twice but for all the support he received from the team, Harry was the guiding star and we loved him as much for his weaknesses as for his fine qualities.
I was very anxious to try my hand at Musical Comedy and so... I left my husband.
I left my husband working hard with Harry and I started out for more experience in Musical Comedy. Every week I used to go down to Daly's Theatre's voice trials.
'What are you going to sing this week?' the young Welsh accompanist would ask me. 'The Jewel Song' from Faust, 'Waltz Song' from Romeo and Juliet were all tried, but I was always passed over for some lovely creature who could hardly sing a note. I remember 'A May Morning' was very popular just then and every girl sang it. Also spotted veils were very popular and made a plain face provocative. One morning there was a call from George Edwards and about two hundred young women arrived. The Producer was dismayed and getting up on a chair called out 'All those with veils and “May Mornings” may go!'
Then I was sent to Charles Macdona. 'What parts have you played?'
'How can I play parts when no one will give them to me', I cried.
'All right, let's year you sing.' So opening my little music case I brought out Poor Wandering One and the office boy tried to play for me, but when I came to the runs and twiddly bits he lost me completely. So I swept him off the stool and played for myself. Macdona laughed and gave me Edna May's part in 'The Three Little Maids'. So on tour. Jose Collins played Ada Reeves' part, but she didn't know how to get laughs and she had not yet started to sing, but I could always get laughs without any trouble. I had only one song and I always got two or three encores for it. Jose complained and word came down from London that I was not to take more than one encore. We were playing Ramsgate and that night after my one encore the audience refused to let the show go on till I had sung again.
The Stage Manager asked me to go on again and I said primly 'I was told only one encore'. The audience stamped and cheered and finally a message came from the front of the house ordering me to sing again. Of course I obeyed and was allowed as many encores as I could get after that. But at the end of the week dear blue-eyed Macdona came down himself.
'You've been a very naughty girl you know,' he said. My heart went into my boots. 'But,' he added, 'I'm going to take you out of this and put you as lead in The White Chrysanthemum.' And so, soon after I was twenty I was a leading lady. My salary was £4 a week. It was a grand part and an exceptionally nice company and I had a heavenly time.
We ran for a year and I enjoyed myself and was spoilt to my heart's content. Clarkson Rose, who besides being a fine comedian, used to write every week in The stage, saw me in The White Chrysanthemum, also George Baker and dear Charles Heslop, and talked about it, speaking very kindly of me. The leading men were Robert Langdon Bruce, H.E. Garden, son of E.W.Garden who used to act with Toole, and Jimmy Dallas, a real cockney if ever there was one. I am sometimes referred to by my friends as the 'Mu Bird' but the men in The White Chrysanthemum called me 'the Gleam of Sunshine' which was quickly shortened to G.O.S.
One day Jimmy said, 'I can't think why you call the Mu Bird the G.O.S.' 'Oh go on, use your brains,' they said, 'Gawd's Own Soprano'', so after that I was always the G.O.S. We played Scotland one winter and I shall never forget it; Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Kirkuddy, Ayr, Paisley and Stirling. At the latter place snow was in great drifts in the street. Going into my dressing room on the Monday morning I found a fire blazing; flowers on the dressing table. 'Aha' I thought, 'They've heard of me.'
'Quite comfortable, dear?' said the S.M.
'Everything all right, G.O.S.?' asked our Manager.
'Anything we can do to make you happy?' said the local manager who looked a bit anxious.
'Is this a gag?' I asked, but it turned out that Fred Kitchen's brother had died the week before and they didn't want to get the theatre a bad name!
Another time during the run I got a bit run down and bought a large bottle of iron pills. On arriving at Southport on a sunny Sunday evening, watched by all the local youths, I stepped down from my railway carriage, assisted by the three leading men, who helped me to find my travelling basket, when I was terribly mortified to see the porter tip it on end. It seemed to me that thousands of Blauds Iron Pills were rolling all over Southport. The stopper had come out of the bottle and so put an end to my impressive entrance.
When one went on tour like that in the old days, one had the same coach on the train for weeks; I had my own carriage and good rooms booked for weeks ahead. If you lived with another girl, it was a very expensive week that came to more than 16s. All told. I lived with Dolly Sephton and we had good times. One set of rooms I remember were marvellous - they looked wonderful. I know I sank gratefully into an armchair in front of the fire only to be flung on my knees onto the hearth rug. It had only three legs and had to be propped up. The poker came in half in my hands. The bedclothes did not reach the end of the bed. There was no bathroom, only a basin standing on a three-legged stand and nothing to put in it! However we were able to laugh over it and thank goodness our landlady could cook.
There was a group of young men in Glasgow who used to put a white chrysanthemum in their buttonholes, and right up to twenty years ago they did it, but I have not been north for a long time. I always found a Scottish audience very kind and intelligent.
I played Glasgow in A Trip to the Highlands, The Follies, the Music Halls, Call it a Day and a play with Gladys Cooper. It was Glasgow who spoke of Butch and me as 'The Mr. and Mrs. Kendal of the Halls' and Glasgow again who applauded me when I started to act in comedy parts.
In those days I had wonderful presents from people in the audience, who just wanted to show their appreciation and did not even expect to meet me. And doctors! How very kind they are to professional people. They know the show must be kept going and so they turn out at all hours for a wheezy pro, and stand by them till they are better, and seldom send in a bill. Of course all professionals do a great deal for charity and if you are popular, it is very difficult to get a Sunday to yourself.
I have met with very little jealousy; and then not from women. Men do not like women to get a laugh as a rule and most women on the Halls have to work so hard it makes them kind and generous to others. In fact I admire working women wholeheartedly, women who keep a house going and can cook and clean and still keep their end up on the stage and screen. Things are very much more difficult today, with little or no help in the house and having to carry most of the food home in baskets. I miss the kindness and courtesy of the old days, but I am luckier than most as shopkeepers and bus conductors recognise my face. Once seen it is never forgotten! And I am very grateful for the way the General Public remember it.
Moon, Moon, serenely shining -
Don't go in too soon,
For you've such a charm about you -
Feel I cannot live without you,
And so Moon, dear Moon, my Moon
Serenely shining -
Grant us this one boon -
Keep your light for every shining
Moon, my Moon!
IT ISN'T LOVE - IT'S BACCHUS!
For many a deed is Cupid praised
That Bacchus has effected,
It's high time that the point was raised,
The error was corrected.
Love may be sweet, but with distress
And jealousy 'twill rack us;
And when man's found true happiness
It isn't love - it's Bacchus.
'Love makes the world go round', they say;
How can they be so stupid?
As though this massive lump of clay
Could get pushed round by Cupid.
But, crawling homewards on the ground
Lest lamp posts should attack us,
We know what makes the world go round,
It isn't love - it's Bacchus!
How oft a young man at a ball,
Who's got a weak digestion,
Will take his partner to the hall
And pop the fatal question.
Says he: 'I will be true, eh, what?
Howe'er the Fates may whack us!'
What is it makes him talk such rot?
It isn't Love - it's Bacchus!
What is it makes us take a wife,
Though we may learn to rue it!
Through many years of weary life?
It's Love that makes us do it.
But when she's dead and reached a clime
From where she cannot track us,
What makes us wed a second time?
It's isn't love - it isn't Bacchus -
Then at the finish of The White Chrysanthemum I found I was going to have a baby. He was a May baby and weighed over 9 ? pounds. My son, John Davenport … golden hair and hazel eyes. Arthur Wimperis used to call him the infant Hercules. As soon as I was able to get about again, I rejoined The Follies in a short tour before we opened in London at the Apollo Theatre 1908. Arthur Davenport had sent Harry a lyric called My Moon and we tried it out in Glasgow. It went very well, but we had no idea it was going to be such a success. I shall never forget that opening night at the Apollo. It was nearly six years since I had appeared with this company and in the meantime I had gained a lot of experience, knew what to do with my hands and how to move across the stage, and what is more how to stand perfectly still. We had rehearsed for three weeks and all that day, and had not seen half our props and it was the most ambitious programme The Follies had ever attempted. There were The Beverage Quartette, a burlesque of Faust, and a small operetta called Loves Garden. Also I sang My Moon.
I was very tired and very nervous, none of us had had any time for food. But Harry came round with a big jug of Black Velvet (champagne and stout mixed) before the curtain went up and I at least went on in a dream. It was a great success. There was never anything like The Follies first nights. The entire stalls and circle in evening dress and the season went on without a break for four years, except for a fortnight's holiday in the summer, and broke in the new show on tour for a month. We saw the same faces again and again in the stalls and smiled at them as old friends. After that wonderful first night we woke next morning to a chorus of praise. Referring to My Moon, the Daily Telegraph said: 'Miss Muriel George sang in a voice as soft and beautiful as moonlight itself.' It was a charming notice and I have always blessed whoever it was who wrote it. I sang it for four years, but if I tried to sing anything else the audience wrote and grumbled. The company joined in the chorus in the middle of the song, and when Mother heard it she said she noticed a noise like an animal in pain. We finally identified it as Morris Harvey who had no singing voice and he was instructed to work his mouth as if he were singing and he always pretended to be terrified if Mother was in front. Our work in The Follies was very hard. Only seven of us. The first half hour devoted to songs and duets. These were followed by Quartettes and Potted Plays and the last half consisted of a big Burlesque of Pantomime, Music Hall or whatever was topical and it meant at least twelve changes a performance. Pelissier had by this time emerged from his shell and this is how it happened.
A short time before we opened at the Apollo, Lewis Sydney had left the Company for a period and Harry had pulled up his socks, announced items, sung songs and gradually changed from the rather heavy goose into a rare swan. It was wonderful what that time of emergency had done. His own striking personality and comic came out. He was a real leader - the 'Guv'nor' - and give me a guv'nor to work for every time. I did not have another till I worked for Basil Dean. Sometimes Harry would get a black mood. Then we all felt it, but Lewis Sydney was the magician that would lift the cloud, slip in a gag, and in a moment Harry would be himself again. It is quite useless to try to explain Harry Pelissier, but we were all devoted to him. Illness, family bereavement, all feelings had to be swamped for The Follies. He was times a big, sulky unreasonable boy - and how we could eat! When he and Fay Compton were first married, I spent many weekends with them at Finchley, for I was very fond of Fay. We would get back after the show and about 11.30 pm sit down to a supper of roast veal, cauliflower, new potatoes, trifle, and always a big macaroni cheese, and about six o'clock in the morning you would hear strains of music as Harry used to start composing on one of the many pianos he had at the house. Dear Harry, so lovable and so difficult. I've sung My Moon in public hardly at all since he died. I feel shivers down my spine. Freddy Griswold wrote to me after they'd done a 1012 Scrap Book:
'I'm like you, Moon does things to me always. The years roll back and I am once more at the Apollo, laughing till I can hardly bear myself, and I remember you all so well, exactly as you all looked - Gwennie, Effie, yourself. What a wonderful and glorious cast and what a show!'
The Follies were an unworldly lot of people. Not one of us were good-looking but we had the spirit of comedy and a flair for burlesque. Here are some thumbnail sketches of us.
Dan Everard developed into Harry's right-hand man, secretary and councillor. He met Pelissier and was invited to show what he could do, and sang A May Morning without giving serious offence. Asked if he could dance he had a shot at it and was hastily told to desist. He was due every morning at 10 am. Sometimes he arrived then. His chief having already opened the morning's mail bag, Dan had to rescue the letters from the floor, the fender, the top of the piano and the butter dish. Somebody who did not admire Dan's voice very much asked Harry why he kept him. 'Why do I keep Dan?' said Harry, 'Why, he's the most useful member of the Company, he cleans my bicycle!'
Morris Harvey. It was after The Follies had been at the Apollo some time that Pelissier arrived at the theatre to find that Sydney was ill. After a moment's thought Harry said 'Find Morris Harvey'. One hour later he was in the theatre given a Pierrot's costume and bundled onto the stage to give some of his imitations. I remember his rehearsing a Potted Play - Harry nearly always rehearsed from the stalls and never knew his lines on an opening night. There was a long pause. 'What are you waiting for?' yelled Harry. 'My cue,' said Morrris. 'You'll get no bloody cue from me' said Harry - and never was a truer word spoken.
Lewis Sydney, whom Harry truly loved (and who could help it) - the kindest and gentlest of men . Nobody knew his age. His wife, Ethel Allan Dale, could say nothing more definite than, 'He has told me he was born during some important war, but he either does not know or will not say if it was the Crimean or Boer War'. His father was a City Printer, but Sydney discarded printing saying he was a printer's error. I think everyone best remembers him as a storyteller. I have never heard a better.
Douglas Macclaren - very young and very versatile. I remember Ellen Terry, who came to see us often, when he was introduced to her, said: 'My dear, you look as if you had just come out of the egg.'
I have left the ladies to the last. Ethel Allandale, later to become Mrs. Lewis Sydney, so clever an actress that few realised how very clever she was. She was an excellent pianist, very witty and gave a wonderful impersonation of Margaret Cooper.
Effie Cook had a lovely contralto voice and twinkling eyes. She graduated to the concert platform from the Guildhall School of Music. She joined the Company at Terry's Theatre and scored many successes at the Apollo. She married Walter Johnson, and when he died became Lady Selsden.
Gwennie Mars, whose real name was Gwendoline-Evans, neat, dapper, a good pianist with a pretty voice and an excellent mimic. She gave a wonderful imitation of Harry Lauder and Wilkie Bard and was a very nice girl. I was very fond of her.
As this book is about myself, I will put in only one quotation from Fitzroy Gardner, who wrote a delightful book called Pure Folly in 1909. He wrote: 'Behind the scenes Muriel George is one of the cheeriest members of the Company and her ready repartee is something to be reckoned with.'
There were several other people not known to the public who were important in the production of The Follies., every one of whom had a distinct personality. It is quite likely that few realised that Harry had a brother - Frederick - who was as near his double as to make no matter. In private life he was his father's partner in the precious stone business, but in the early days he painted the scenery for the show. When at Christmas 1908 Pelissier formed a temporary second company, for a Christmas season at Manchester, Freddie was engaged to play Harry's parts. Harry had promised to appear himself at Manchester for the first week to give the show a good kick off and in his absence from the Apollo Fred impersonated him. This was his first appearance on the stage and we were trembling with nervousness. But he went through the first night without the slightest trace of stage fright or the audience getting an inkling it was not Harry who was convulsing them. He was equally successful at Manchester. He was a witty as Harry and had the genuine 'Folly' temperament.
Our accompanist Louis Laval was very talented. He was known to us all as 'Grubble'. He also served as the butt for some of Harry's gags. When the double piano was introduced, Gwennie Mars' sister, Maud Evans, mother of Marjorie Mars, played one end Grubble the other. He sometimes went to sleep during the show to be kindly awakened by Harry leaning over the footlights. I cannot see that happening anywhere else! The prompter had no roof to his mouth. He was a nice lad, but Heaven help you if you dried up. Harry had a faithful dresser, Ben. He was with him for years, and his brother Reggie dressed one of the other Follies. Ben had bad feet and a wonderful cockney accent, so Harry made him come on as Lord Falconbury in our burlesque of The Whip - a Drury Lane melodrama. We all went to see the play. I was cast for the Jockey, and Ben and Reggie for the horse. Going down on the stage I found them both looking very glum.
'Good morning, boys,' I said. 'What's the matter?'
'It's this 'ere whip,' Reggie said, 'We're playing the 'orse.'
'Well, what of it?' I asked. 'I'm the jockey.'
'Oh thank Gawd, Miss - we thought it was the Guv'ner.'
As I hardly weighed eight stone and Harry was sixteen, no wonder they were relieved.
Morris Harvey had a sad looking dresser called Sam. Morris told him one night when he was tying his ruffle, 'It would be as well if you washed your hands, Sam, they're dirty.'
'Nay, that ain't dirt,' said Sam, 'That's grimed in.'
Once Maud Evans was ill and Margery Dyer took her place. She was a big handsome girl and her sister Kitty was at the Royal Academy of Music. They had lovely Sunday nights when we all sang and laughed. I went to many happy evenings at her parent's home, and one night I met William Samuel and a dark haired, blue eyed young man called Ernest Butcher. He sang an old English song called 'Sweet Kitty Clover' and though his voice was lovely I said 'You're not a tenor, you're a comedian.' It was a fatal evening for both of us. He wouldn't leave me and insisted on seeing me home.
'Are you engaged,' he said.
'No, I'm married and have a little boy,' I said.
Though we did not meet again for ages I sent him tickets for The Follies and finally got him his first job with R.W. Salisbury's 'Quaints' at Wyndhams Theatre, and had no idea that he would be my husband ten years later.
To return to The Follies. We had a most amazing and faithful following - people who came once a week regularly, some oftener. And how many famous people have told me they came in the gallery time and time again. The late Henry Ainley loved The Follies and if he got away from his theatre early or had a week or two between plays, he would put on a soldier's red coat and pill box hat and disguised with an enormous black moustache, go up in the gallery of our Music Hall with Harry Pelissier and shout rude remarks to the turns. When we did a burlesque of a music hall we had two boxes built on the stage and anyone not actually appearing used to climb up a ladder in any disguise. I did a burlesque of a shooting act and the two Harrys went into the gallery just above me, with a huge bag of monkey nuts which they proceeded to eat and throw the shells all round me when I staggered off weak with laughing. Ainley brought Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree to see us. They were given the Royal Box and started off two perfect gentlemen, white ties and all. Before the evening was over we had the pleasure of seeing them hanging like Punch and Judy out of the box, their shirts crumpled and their ties under their ears. I used to enjoy the show so much myself that one day Harry told me I needn't bother to laugh so much on the stage. 'My good man, do you think I do it on purpose? I just can't help it.'
After that he deliberately tried to make me laugh and some time after I left he said how much he'd missed seeing my appreciative twinkle. The late Maurice Baring was a great fan of ours and used to come with a couple of friends on an average of twice a week. He had a laugh like a cackling hen, and we were always glad to see him in front. For a spell of two months he bought four stalls once a week, it being his habit to round off a dinner party with a visit to The Follies. One night he brought two friends who, unknown to the company, had made a compact that whoever of them was the first to laugh aloud should pay for a magnum of champagne. We were amazed to see our usually hilarious admirer silent in the second row of the stalls. His jaws were clenched and he refused to let a sound pass them. Harry spotted it first and we all backed him up in gagging for Maurice's benefit, but still he refused to laugh. He was doing his 'Margarine the Dream Dancer' - really a burlesque of Maud Allan - and he introduced some exceedingly funny business as a last resource. That broke the spell. One wild short shriek broke from Maurice and drowned the laughter of the rest of the audience. It cost him his magnum for, as soon as he had broken down, his two friends let themselves go.
Ellen Terry was a frequent visitor. We had a long change room at the back of the stage, and I had a little carpet stool on which to rest during the short waits. She asked particularly to see me, 'the little cheeky one'. One evening she sat on my stool which promptly gave way and there she stayed, laughing and talking on the floor with her beautiful white hair, coral combs and necklace. What a love she was.
During my four years at the Apollo I was away only once for a weekend, and when I came back I found the company had been rehearsing a sketch by Compton MacKenzie. I came to the theatre in the middle of it and discovered to my horror it was a perfectly straight play-let, not a bit in our line. I sat in front and laughed and laughed and Harry came round livid with rage. He adored Month.
'What are you laughing at, you silly little fool?'
'You'll be the laughing stock of London if you play it straight,' I told him. Ethel Allandale was playing the leading part and the more serious she was, the sunnier I thought her. Harry started to laugh, and then rushed on the stage and took over her part himself. It was a good thing as he looked frightfully funny and made his entrance carrying a birdcage with a clockwork nightingale in it and wearing a bright red wig.
The Follies suffered less from late arrivals than most companies. The reason was the screamingly funny programmes issued which people wanted to read before the curtain went up. These were written by Arthur Davenport. Harry guyed the programmes of other managements just as he potted their plays. You know how little space is an average theatre programme is devoted to the play in question - the remainder being advertisements. Pelissier had huge advertisements in his programme, but they were all cod. You know the Lord Chamberlain's regulations are always printed? Harry had his own version of them. I remember some of them went like this:
'An Egg proof curtain will be lowered at least once during the performance for the protection of the artists. In case of fire cut round the dotted line.'
'The Management earnestly solicit the cooperation of the audience in bringing to their notice any item that they consider inside the bounds of propriety or otherwise objectionable. Our attendants have been given strict orders to eject any person so doing.'
Then there was a weird and wonderful map to illustrate 'Hoe to Get to the Apollo'. Almost every road was a cul de sac, and the names of London’s most familiar public houses were dotted about willy nilly; but the most strenuous research failed to show the name of the Apollo Theatre at all. On several pages of one issue of the programme was the advice: 'Don't bother about the programme, read the advertisements.' This was all in the general spirit of burlesque which brought a new humour to London and it permeated everything connected with The Follies, including the scenery and posters.
The Follies descended, so to speak, from an amateur company known as The Baddeley Troup. They were got together about the year 1895 by Charrington Chinn. Harry Gabriel Pelissier was one of this company, son of a dealer in precious stones but already showing himself a clever musician and performer. Besides this, he was a dreamer of private dreams nobody else believed in. One year later he purchased the title and goodwill of The Follies and from that moment he guided them to the heights. Quite early on he started reviving the art of burlesque, but I wonder if a single soul of the audience at Aberwystwyth who saw him, Lewis Sydney and Norman Blume knew they were at the birth of a theatrical institution. Sydney, as the orchestra, imitated various musical instruments with his mouth. In spite of a frigid reception the three artistes enjoyed themselves immensely in their almost unrehearsed turn and Pelissier refused to be discouraged. Indeed, the idea was worked up and rehearsed until at Folkestone some time later, they presented a burlesque of national music, including Italian opera.
And so from these small beginnings Pelissier found himself with his Follies as a turn at the Palace Theatre in January 1904, and here he produced his skit on the pantomime called 'Bill Bailey'. What a first night he had! London was wrapped in one of its thickest fogs, which pervaded the half-filled auditorium. Those who had braved the fog needed something special to dispel their gloom, and within five minutes gusts of laughter shook the house from stalls to gallery. No need to worry if he would get another engagement at The Palace; already he had started the town talking. In a few years The Follies had been taken by Pelissier from seaside piers and concert halls to the most distinguished variety theatre in the world by way of St. Georges Hall, Queens Hall, The Tivoli and the Alhambra. Their spare time had been filled in with private engagements at garden parties and in the town and country houses of the wealthy - not all of whom appreciated them.
I went to a garden party with them once, and our dressing rooms consisted of a large double conservatory. The majestic butler showed us to our quarters and flung open the door of our dressing room. 'But we have to change our clothes,' said distracted Harry. 'That's quite all right sir, I have locked the communicating door,' said the butler pontifically. The Follies appeared at the Palace six times in five years. While there in December 1904 they were honoured to appear at Sandringham on Queen Alexandra's birthday. The company then number six - Pelissier, Lewis Sydney, Dan Everard, Marjorie Napier, Ethel Allandale and Gwennie Mars. By the time the Apollo days came the number was brought up to eight. Marjorie Napier had retired to get married and the additions were Douglas MacLaren, Morris Harvey and myself. In order to be faithful to history, I should mention that a three months' season was started at Terry's Theatre in the Strand in September 1907, and success here proved The Follies could fill a theatre with a complete evening's entertainment. In the following February they opened at the Apollo Theatre and after a short tour when I rejoined them the company returned to the Apollo on December 1908. I think it might be interesting to tell of some of these wanderings before before we settled down to our long West End run. These are the sort of lightning tours we did.
We started a five weeks' tour on July 11, working at a different town every day except Sundays, and on twelve occasions we did two shows a day.
The Follies Flying Tour
July 11 Theatre Royal Bath
July 12 Princes Theatre Bristol
July 13 Opera House Cheltenham
July 14 Matinee Theatre Royal Worcester
July 15 Matinee Empire Coventry
July 15 Evening Opera House Leamington
July 16 Grand Theatre Wolverhampton
July 18 Town Hall Cromer
July 19 Town Hall Cromer
July 20 Town Hall Cromer
July 21 Wellington Pier Yarmouth
July 23 Mat&Even. Theatre Royal Norwich
July 25 Opera House Northampton
July 26 Theatre Royal Nottingham
July 27 Spa Scarborough
July 28 Spa Bridlington
July 29 Mat&Even. Kursaal Harrogate
July 30 Theatre Royal York
August 1 Town Hall West Kirby
August 2 Matinee Theatre Royal Chester
August 2 Evening Pier New Brighton
August 3 Matinee Pier Southport
August 4 Matinee Winter Gardens Rhyl
August 5 Pier Colwyn Bay
August 6 Pier Aberwystwyth
August 8 Evening Winter Gardens Bournemouth
August 9 Matinee Winter Gardens Ryde
August 10 Winter Gardens Shanklin
Then we went back to the Apollo for a week's interval in which we rehearsed harder than ever we had worked on tour and stayed there till the end of March.
I suppose we really produced our finest work when we got home to the Apollo. We had more time to think. Harry and Arthur Davenport inspired most things, but they left us to work them up. I remembered I did an imitation of Marie Lloyd and looked very like her, and when I strolled on, with a golden dress, diamond-headed cane, brown wig done in a pompadour, Harry had never even seen me and I heard him say 'Blimey, it's Muriel!'
The one piece that was never written beforehand was 'The Voice Trial'. We all said what we thought we could do and did it. But Harry was supposed to be a Manager giving an audition and after each turn said 'Very well, we'll let you know in a few days.'
It was arranged that Effie Cook was to sing an excellent number called 'Jane from Maiden Lane' - but just before she went on she had a really bad attack of nerves - 'I can't go on' - but seeing she was really scared I flung on a coat and bonnet and powdered the front of my hair. 'Don't worry, I'll come on as your Mother' and, to give her time to get her breath started gagging, 'Of course I don't approve of her going on the stage, she's such a home bird - so good at dusting and pastry' etc. Then Effie sang her song charmingly and Harry, hard pressed to keep a straight face, said 'We'll let you know in a few days.' 'Oh, no,' said I grandly, 'We'll let you know in a few days' and swept out!
Another night as I walked up to the table, I looked Harry up and down. 'Dear me,' I said, 'You're very obese for a young man.' He put his head down on the table and cried with laughing. Tommy Trinder borrowed one of Harry's inventions. What other actor than H.G.P. Fifty years ago would stop whatever we were doing to say to a late arrival 'You're very late, sir. I hope you've enjoyed your dinner.' In fact, people were heard to say in the vestibule, on arriving after the curtain had gone up, 'I hope he will spot us and say something funny!'
He did things so unexpectedly. I remember once in our burlesque of 'The Whip', a Drury Lane melodrama, he suddenly produced a whip and started flogging his stuffed hounds. White dust rose in clouds and nearly choked us.
Some people thought 'The Whip' the funniest of all our potted plays, but I think the funniest of all was 'Hamlet'. Harry's soliloquy 'To be or not to be' was a debate with himself as to whether he should have another drink or not. The final scene was a riot. He killed us all off by hitting us on the head with a bottle, and it was a real one. Then he wrestled with three other Hamlets, which were dummies of Tree, H.B. Irving and Martin Harvey. At that moment Shakespeare popped up thro a trap door and shot Hamlet dead. Looking at all the corpses around him he sand, in dirge-like tones:
More in sorrow than in anger
I give this friendly warning,
Let some beware lest this fate they share
And plunge their families in mourning.
That was a gentle hint to a spate of actors who at that time were victims of the Hamlet epidemic. Harry was all for realism. He hit us all with a real bottle and when we took our curtain calls we did not know if we were in London or Denmark. We threatened to strike and so with great reluctance he substituted a stuffed bottle.
Another funny burlesque was 'The Pageant'. I was Mrs. Red Pottage and went on the green sward and recited 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' dressed as Cleopatra. I was escorted by three Chelsea Pensioners and when I waved my parasol one solemnly moved the patch over his eye to the eye near me! Then I rushed off the stage to don a man's costume - Charles the Second period - to do a gavotte on the village green. One night my long knickers were handed me hinder part before and when I cam to bend I was very full in front and very tight at the back! Of course The Pageant ended in thunder and lightening, and we used rice for the hail. It was very painful as it fell from the flies so we all used to put up umbrellas.
Harry devised some amazing costumes for us and for himself but I think the palm must be given to the grand burlesque of Maud Allan in the Salome Dance. As members of the ballet we all had grotesque things to wear. Pink sateen slips and black net skirts and as breast plates I was given two tin funnels with a string of beads coming out. I could not quite stomach that so after laughter punctuated protests I was given two small saucepan lids and we carried on our shoulders a sort of stick with two dummies dressed exactly like us, and when we were all on the stage twirling round it had really a wonderful effect. One might have expected Maud Allen to be annoyed at the almost cruel caricature but she did not seem to bear any grudge and came and laughed with the rest.
Of course everyone did not understand our humour. One man coming out of the stalls said to a companion, 'It's a pity Pelissier does not do something original. All three of those plays are nothing but imitations of things I've seen before.'
The pantomime was very funny and Harry was a stout fairy who tried to come up out of a trap door and got stuck half way. Ethel Allandale was the Fairy Queen and came on before a front cloth to sing 'Dear Heart'. The carpenters made a fearful noise behind, banging hard and nearly pushing her into the audience and when the curtain went up there were only two very crooked pillars. But one old lady was heard to remark, 'Really, I've no doubt they did their best poor things but people could not help laughing. I don't know when I've seen such a disgraceful pantomime. The scenery was wretched and the dresses tawdry. The only pretty song was 'Dear Heart', but there was so much noise going on behind the scene that I could scarcely hear a word!'
This is a good story to tell about a last night at the Palace Theatre when I was a very young Folly. All of us but one shared a practical joke. Dan Everard, burlesquing the Baron in Dick Whittington had to come on at different times and say 'I am the Baron... I have only one song and I will sing it to you now.' Then the rest of us would rush on, hustle him out of the way and start a chorus of our own. This night, Dan made his entrance, said the familiar lines for the third time but none of us arrived on the stage. He had no song to sing and what was more disconcerting Herman Finck - himself an inveterate practical joker - joined in the fun and struck up Home Sweet Home. Dan stood aghast and the audience grasping the situation roared with delight. Eventually we all strolled on unconcernedly looked at him pityingly and sang the usual chorus.
As well as the shows and the grand fun we had by appearing in them, what a thrill to be driven home in a hansom cab, or on matinee days to go to Fuller's or Apendrodt's for tea. How tremendously dashing it was to go to supper after the show to Romano's, the Savoy or the Café Royal.
I remember just after joining The Follies my first really long dress to the ground - a pale grey hop sack coat and skirt, lined with taffetas that rustled and had to be held up by hand, an ostrich feather boa and a pink parasol with a cherry stick handle. My goodness, I thought, I was magnificent and I remember the coat and skirt cost £3.
Harry always gave a large party on his birthday, generally at Pagani's. On April 25th 1909 there were lovely red roses for decoration, the food was superb and I won three pounds for guessing the nearest to the actual number of leaves on the pineapple. The second dinner was at Hull. The menu itself was a joke. At the bottom of the 'To drink' page was written 'Jeyes' disinfectant used throughout'. Among the 'To eat' items Real Turtle Soup. The peaches were 'as Melba makes them'. I also have this menu card but it was quite a straight forward list of 'Eats' except at the top was written 'Cleanliness is next to godliness' - and that was the keynote of the decorations. Large placards with 'Use Sapolio' and 'Pears Soap' and beside each plate a small tin of fruit salts, a bar of soap and a piece of washing soda. The next was at Verry's in Regent Street and there we had some fun. Tripe was on the menu with a lovely sauce, but it was really tiny bits of blanket, and the first magnum of champagne tasted very funny to me. I said, 'This is ginger ale, and this isn’t tripe, it's blanket.' Harry was delighted that I had been the one to find out. One of Harry's excellent jokes went wrong that night. He took a well-known agent into his confidence and commissioned him to book an ordinary company of sea-side Pierrots for our entertainment, who were to be kept in ignorance of the company they were to entertain. That agent had a sense of humour too and he booked the best troupe he could find - The Grotesques. Pelissier hugged himself with delight when dinner over it was announced the entertainers had arrived. He went out to welcome them and escorted them into the room with a great flourish. One turn after another was greeted by The Follies with great applause, genuine and well-deserved applause. Harry, quickly realising he had been hoisted with his own petard warmly congratulated the troupe. They, for their part, were astonished to find what company they were in.
This was not the only time Harry had to face a serious predicament - it is the lot of all who run shows. In the early days, on the first night at the Royalty Theatre, the safety curtain after being lowered as usual refused to rise more than a few feet from the stage. Harry crawled underneath it and explained it was all part of the show. The audience laughed. There was another pause broken by the curtain jerking up another couple of feet. 'All right, don't go away,' said Harry, 'It will move again in another half an hour.' Happily a few more minutes saw the frantic efforts of the stage hands rewarded and the show proceeded with a further hitch.
A much more difficult position faced him while we were doing potted versions of 'The Girls of Gottenberg' and 'The Merry Widow'. The late George Edwards took out an injunction restraining him from using any of the music from these plays. Although given only two days' notice, he was fully prepared to face the judgement which was delivered against him at mid-day. We were awaiting the results in the theatre and by that afternoon Harry had written and we had rehearsed new music for both plays. During rehearsals several reporters came to ask what he was going to do about it. His reply was 'We shall include the two pieces in tonight's programme as before, but with new music.' For The Merry Widow waltz he substituted a composition of his own entitled 'The Deceased Wife's Sister's Polka'. The chorus in the other musical comedy was a brilliantly clever skit on the banned music, just reminiscent enough of it but insufficient for the court order to be infringed. No publicity campaign Pelissier could have thought of would possibly have had such good results as this case. The papers were full of his cleverness in meeting the situation and we had 'House Full' boards out for weeks afterwards. In fact, after all law costs were paid, it was estimated that Pelissier netted a profit of more than £1,000!
Now let me get back to Harry himself. I have mentioned that his father was a dealer in precious stones. Educated in England and France, the only unhappy days of his life were spent in the city, before he was able to convince his father he must go on the stage. An ancestor of his was a Marshal of France and fought in the Crimea. Soon after that the family evidently thought England a better place than France to live in, with the happy result that Harry was born in England to teach us how to laugh.
Then in 1912 Michael Faraday made me an offer to go into the first English version of Die Fledermaus - the Nightbirds - at the Lyric Theatre. I had wonderful notices and a letter of which I have the original from some first nighters:
Miss Muriel George -
A host of Gallery girls, boys, women and men wish to heartily congratulate you on your splendid performance last night. We were a trifle nervous for you at first (and endeavoured to reassure you by giving you a hearty reception on your first entrance) but the apprehension quickly passed away when we saw the grip you had on your part so to speak. We were hoping you would each take a curtain at the end, singly, and if our luck had been in, you would have had an ovation not easily forgotten.
Signed Alec White
The Nightbirds did not run very long and then I was invited by Herbert Fordwych (or Max Cardiff) and Ernest Butcher to open in a Concert Party in the small hall at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. It was called The Glad Idlers and was a great success; but in 1914 Butch and I were asked to run a show ourselves - again at Eastbourne.
We were most enthusiastic and put our money and brains into a show we called The Bunch of Keys. As you know the war broke out in 1914 in the first week of August and everybody left the seaside. Between Butch's attempt to get in the army and mine to keep smiling we struggled on. At last he went and I ran the show by myself for nine months. During that time I do not remember one funny thing happening. I did manage to put on one or two character numbers that had a big success, but before Butch left we had accomplished something that was a milestone in our lives. We tried the duets My Boy Billy, No John, The Keys of Canterbury and the audience adored them and so gave us hope for the future.
I'm forgetting one charming thing that happened. The company went to Rhyl and we were asked to go to Kinmel Park to sing for the men who were going to become officers. It was a lovely day, and the Hall was made of wood with a good stage and all went well. All the windows were open, and I started to sing. It was a song about a blackbird and quite suddenly a bird settled on an opened window and joined in with all his might - we made a proper duet of it - and then for the second verse from under the stage came a baby rabbit and sat up to see what all the noise was about. The audience was very quiet and when I'd finished the bird flew away and the rabbit ran back to his home. A very nice Irish man thanked the Company at the end of the concert and said he'd heard of people charming birds out of trees but never someone who charmed rabbits out of their burrows as well!
Butch got his commission from the ranks and went to France in the York and Lancs Regiment. He came safely home again and with that war over we took the plunge by giving a Recital at the Aeolian Hall. Butch had a passion for folk songs and delved into country history to recover them, often adapting them himself, so we were able to get a good programme together. A Recital is an investment that may pay a dividend. Ours paid a hundred per cent. It cost about £65 and our agent Billy Price of Ashtons induced some of the Stoll booking people to come along. As well as the duets I did a cockney number or two and felt we had really rung a bell for we had marvellous notices in the papers:
The turn presented at the Coliseum by Miss Muriel George and Mr. Ernest Butcher is certainly one of the most artistic and charming acts that has been before the public for some time. On all sides among the audience one heard warmest expressions of approval, and it was not to be wondered at, for they were exceptionally gifted singers who 'get home' with simple folk songs sung with that distinguished art which alone can charm and delight. 'Oh, No John' and 'My Boy Billy' gave Miss George scope for a display of vocal talent and wit quite unsurpassed, while Mr. Butcher was simply great in his rendering of 'The Top of the Hill'.
The Daily Telegraph
A NOVEL PROGRAMME
'A Recital from their repertoires.' Thus the unaccustomed legend - obviously admitting of a wide interpretation - on the programme of a very pleasant entertainment in which Miss Muriel George and Mr. Ernest Butcher joined forces at the Aeolian Hall on Friday. Of the first-named artist one has agreeable recollections in the palmy days of the late Mr. Pelissier's Follies and in the old songs and character studies which were among her contributions to the recital under notice she made it plain that she had lost none of those engaging characteristics that secured for her so welcome a place as a member of the once famous little band of light-hearted entertainers. With Mr. Butcher she was also heard in 'Old World' and other duets and, on his own account, her companion used a pleasant tenor voice to excellent advantage in a number of songs all admirably suited to the general schemes.
Afterwards Billy Price told me what had happened. He took Mr. Johns and Billy Bleach of Stolls Organisation to have a cup of tea and put it to them straight, 'What about these two for the Coliseum?' 'I think the turn is too slight for the Coliseum audience,' said Mr. Johns. 'You heard what the audience thought about it today,' said Billy, 'and there's no fake about it, as Butcher has only just come out of the army.' They argued and argued and finally put us on first turn at the Coliseum. We did not think anyone had noticed us, but in a week or two we bottomed the Bill at Shepherds Bush Empire and we topped the bills all over the country for eleven years.
It was hard work, as with the Music Halls you have to get away in the first two minutes otherwise the audience starts to cough and fidget, but if you are a success the reward is great. The audience used to shout from all over the house for what it wanted. When I look back on the simple things we did I marvel how we got away with it - evening dress and Paisley shawl and a pair of spectacles our only props. And though we worked together for so many years I never got tired of listening to Butch. In his own way irreplaceable. There has never been anyone quite like him for getting into the marrow of a song. Other people may have bigger and better voices, but no one has such diction and such a sense of character. Who can forget how he sung 'The Top of the Hill'. Sir Oswald Stoll was so delighted with it that he wrote and asked Butch for two copies, one for the office and one for his sons. It was an inspiring thing and never failed to bring the house down.
THE TOP OF THE HILL
Music by Harold Samuel, Words by Lindsay Clifford
Steep is the hill we've got to climb day by day
Lonely for most of us and cheerless and grey.
The clouds darken o'er us
But ever before us
The sun lights the hill top and points out the way.
And he who'd get there must have endurance and pluck
And trust in himself instead of trusting to luck.
He must toil might and main, or his toil is in vain
And when once he's begun
He must not rest till he'd won
But strive on and on with untiring will
Until he's climbed to the top of the hill.
To the Top of the Hill, it's steep and it's long
For the one road that's right
You've scores that are wrong
And the right road is lonely
Each step makes it only
Seem farther and farther away from you still.
There is always a way the goal can be wonderfully
So keep a good swinging stride
And throw your doubts all aside
And you'll climb to the Top of the Hill.
Putney Hill, S.W.
Dear Mr. Butcher,
Thank you very much for the songs which my wife and I wished our boys to have.
It completely cured one man of amnesia. He wrote and told Butch that he went home to Birmingham, completely cured after hearing Butch sing it and had never suffered again. He was a piano maker.
I do not think we quite realised our luck when the audience applauded out first turn at the Coliseum but it must have been known in 'the Office' that we had arrived, for the young man who came round to pay our salaries said he would be seeing us back there in a very few weeks. It was a meteoric rise, as no one had invaded variety from the concert platform before, though many did after us - Flotsam and Jetsam, Gert and Daisy, etc. The years of touring seem supremely happy ones, seen from this distance. Butch and I were now married. We seldom had bad rooms or poor cooks and the different music halls generally provided excellent companies - for who are more intelligent and resourceful than Music Hall artists? I think of happy hours spent with Will Fyffe, Harry Tate, Rob Wilton, all with a host of stories to tell. Then there were fresh towns to explore, for bits of pewter or china. I used to look round my house and see a blue lustre jug that spoke of Harrogate, a set of lovely pewter mugs found in a dirty little shop in Lanchester - they had the lovely name Adam Maden on - and a marquetry bureau, copper scuttles and blue plates to bring back happy memories of Bristol. What a lovely old town Bristol and one of the kindest audiences in the world. My mother-in-law gave me an appreciation of china and glass, and I brought back a lustre bowl with apricot markings on it from Cape Town - goodness knows who had taken it there.
Harrogate was a yearly and happy date with Johnny Wilshire and Basil Cameron then conducting the orchestra. I recall one hilarious fortnight with Nervo and Knox and young Dan Leno in the Isle of Man. There was a Sunday concert when John Coates refused to eat his supper unless I sand The Sweet Nightingale to him and we sat up till all hours giving him our impressions of Pelleas and Melisande, which we had just seen before at Golders Green. He was a grand man and a lovely artist, and knew we should have a good time if ever we were on the concert of musical hall bill with him.
Liverpool was another red letter date as there we had Tommy and Bertha Buckley for mates. He was on the Liverpool Echo and she on the Post. We always went to the Little Theatre to the cradle of the young stars and well remember seeing Diana Wynyard and Robert Donat in an Irish play called (I think) The Old House. James Harcourt was in that too - a wonderful company. I remember seeing Harry Pelissier's niece, Constance, playing there too. She was very handsome and I remember her saying once, 'If you say I look “bonny” Muriel, I'll strike you.' She was rosy and good featured and got sick of being told so, poor darling.
The Buckleys were friends for many years. Tommy loved Butch's voice and was always urging us to sing operatic airs; but I think we were wiser to stick to our limits. We had our own following and place, gave recitals all over the country and sang for many musical festivals. Our pianist for many years was Ethel Brigstock, 'Biggie' as she was to us, and when she died it was an awful job to fill her place. So many people have sung our songs since we left variety that it may not be realised we were the very first people to revive 'On Ilk-la Moor', 'Villikins and his Dinah', 'Cockles and Mussels' and the first to make 'No John' a duet. It had always been sung as a song.
Towards the end of the first world war I used to go round all the publishers trying to find new songs, as I was going down to Harwich and taking Concert Parties to the submarines and destroyers, to the New Zealanders and the South Africans, and new material I had to find. I generally ended up at the professional department at Chappels. Behind the counter was a big jolly good-looking girl with a most infectious laugh, Emmie Bass. I used to meet Eric Coates and Percy Hening there, and we used to laugh and tell stories - in fact it was an unofficial club. Everyone loved Emmie and after the war she became William Boosey's secretary. Then she went to Ibbs & Tilletts and became a partner and later married John Tillett. But we met often through the years and when Emmie and her mother had a top part of Harolde Samuel's house in Well Walk what grand times we had when we went to supper. Harold generally asked himself up for coffee and soon we were having supper with him and he was having tea with us. Of all the people who came to see us Mother enjoyed Harold most. He knew it of course and how he used to make her laugh. He used to make our grand piano sing and one night I remember he played and sang a comic opera he had written on Rumpelstiltzkin.
The saddest part of growing old is losing ones friends first - Percy Heming, Darrol Fancourt and Eric Coates, all people we made music with and had fun with - and Peter Dawson now in Australia.
Sir Oswald Stoll was a good friend to us and I can never forget the unvarying kindness of John Hayman of the Victoria Palace. This and the Coliseum, where we appeared more than fifty times, were our favourite houses in London. At the Victoria Palace people used to shout for three and four numbers at a time. Between our music hall dates we used to sandwich in Boosey, Chappel and Cramer Ballad Concerts, and for three years running we did a series of Wesleyan Concerts in the north - Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford, etc. They were a remarkable audience, so fresh and enthusiastic, and although it was hard work so enjoyable we never minded how many encores. In all my life I have never experienced such enthusiasm. Of the series, one at Salford, just outside Manchester, is most vivid in my memory. I could not do anything wrong and after the concert women crowded round the car saying, 'Ee, let me touch 'er.'
At an Eastbourne Musical Festival, Sir Edward Elgar told me how he used to come and listen to The Follies and how he had often come to hear us at the Coliseum.
The thing that helped our repertoire was the Sunday League Concerts at the Palladium. We were there Sunday after Sunday and sang to such amazingly good audiences that we were able to try out many new numbers on them. We were good to them, but how good they were to us!
I was making a picture once and Carol Reed was directing it and he said he had come time and again to hear us, and Harold French told me the same thing. When we first sang for the Sunday League we were only just starting and we did not get much money, and I remember how very disconcerted Butch was when we once went to Camberwell and our fee was seven guineas and they paid us all in half crowns. Butch appeared weighed down and there was an ominous clanking from his tail pocket which I could not understand till we were going home and he told me what it was.
We needed a lot of songs and duets and I kept careful note of all we did. John Hayman was always nervous of our changing our programme as the Victoria Palace seemed intent on hearing all the old favourites.
When we put down Ilk-la Moor for the first time he tried to dissuade us saying My Boy Billy was such a sure fire success. But we stuck to our guns and I do not need to say how right we were. It meant a lot of work, looking out these old songs, and anxious work as we never knew how a new one would go.
It is easy to go on the stage and be 'produced' but we produced ourselves. An enthusiastic follower of our research was a House Master at Eton, A.M. Goodhart. He lived at Brighton and every time we went there he seemed to have a new folk song for us. When we started broadcasting great interest was aroused. Folk songs are found in remote country places, many denizens of which never came into towns to hear us on the music halls. They heard us by means of wireless and sent us shoals of songs. In spite of that we never got a real 'hit' from this source, the only pretty good one being the Hampshire 'Lumps of Pudden and Dollops o' Fat'. During our twelve years on the Halls we had only one overseas tour, much as we would have loved to travel. The one country we visited was South Africa.
When you are going abroad you have to give a lot of thought to your programmes, particularly when dealing with such material as folk songs. At Cape Town they were a very responsive audience, though the notices were wonderful - but of course most of the audience were Dutch and we had not counted on the fact that most of Johannesburg audience had either spent holidays in London or heard us on the wireless. Bearing this in mind we did not do 'On Ilk-la Moor' when we opened in Johannesburg. We thought the Yorkshire dialect would beat them. Judge our amazement then, on the first night, when we heard shouts for it from several parts of the house! The Stage Manager said 'What is it they are calling for?' I told him. 'Can you do it, Mrs. Butcher?' You bet we could, and did, and then they called for 'Widdecombe Fair'. We stayed in Johannesburg six weeks, changing our programme every week, and one fortnight in Pretoria was wonderful. Butch and I sang for forty minutes a house, and then most of the audience used to wait and talk or walk back to the hotel with us.
Pietermaritzberg was like a sleepy English village, all the women and children looked lovely. To me the most encouraging thing was the way the young spoke of England as home - but that was a long time ago.
I liked the Indian waiters, and the enormous Zulu who was our bedroom boy at Johannesburg. He wept when we left and begged to be taken with us. He said (if the Dutch chambermaid is to be believed) that he 'would carry me about in his arms and that I need never walk again' - but I could imagine what respectable Muswell Hill would have said so had to decline.
I have forgotten to say that three years after we started we had a telegram saying: 'Dear George and Butcher. Mr. Tennant has just rung up to ask us if we would advise you that he is writing you to the effect that he has booked you for the Command Performance at the London Hippodrome (December 12th 1922) when the King and Queen will be there,' King George and Queen Mary. When I married Butch and we started on the Music Halls, it was a great delight to Mrs. Butcher senior to come and spend a week with us at Burnley, Blackburn or Liverpool, etc. She lived at Lytham, in Lancashire, and once Mr. Butcher came to Burnley with her. He had been a schoolmaster at Cliviger where Butch was born. So one summer afternoon we chartered a carriage and set off round the country. It was a lovely day for an open carriage but, alas, it was drawn by two funeral horses with long tails. And there we set behind them, me in my most summery attire. Folks rushing to look at us through lace curtains did not know if we were a wedding or a funeral. We stopped at the village school and the children sang folk songs to us . Word went round and great bearded men came to shake Mr. Butcher senior by the hand - his former pupils. Someone gave us tea and we got home after a triumphal afternoon. I was very fond of my mother-in-law and she was very fond of me. Once I walked down Lytham's main street with her and we met a dour looking man whom she stopped.
'You haven't met young Mrs. Ernest yet have you?' she asked him.
'No,' he replied, looking as if he did not want to.
'You haven't heard her sing,' pursued my mother-in-law proudly.
'No,' he replied. 'Soprano or contralto?'
'Soprano,' I told him.
'Ah, I prefer contraltos,' and raising his hat he walked away.
I think north country people generally suffer from a queer sort of inferiority complex. Goodness knows why. J.B. Priestley seemed to have the knack of putting his foot in it with people, and there is no one I would rather work for or hear on the radio, with his warm comforting north country voice. I wish we had ten minutes of him every night. I acted in a television play of his called 'The Rose and the Crown' directly after the war. I had to play an old drunk, a good part and I enjoyed it enormously,but I had to drink a big glass of guiness.
'You've got to drink it you know,' said the producer. 'Of course I shall drink it,' I said. And when the time came, I did drink it, all of it, all at once, and then to serve me right I got hiccoughs! - most realistic but very disconcerting.
When one has been on the Music Halls and Theatres all ones life and there is a resting season, it is extraordinary the restless feeling that gets one about 6.30 - that is generally the time for leaving and getting to the theatre. But when you are on the Music Halls, and you get to the stage door, it horrifies you to hear music being played and realise the show has started without you and you've got to wait your turn, so that often one does not see the rest of the bill except the turn that immediately precedes you. I went to a party given by Henry Kendal and saw across the room a little dark man shyly smiling at me, so taking my courage in my hands I went up to him.
'Good evening, I'm sure I've seen you before but can't h ink where.'
'I've seen you many a time, Miss George. My name is Syd Fields. You never saw my turn but I never missed yours. You see Top of the Bills never see first turns.'
'But that's wonderful,' I said. 'Butch and I were only saying you must have been on the Halls to get your perfect sense of timing ease, and we wondered why we'd never met you.'
He was a dear little man, shy and unspoilt, and I liked him very much.
I never saw Henry Irving; I wish I had, one seems to know so little about him personally, though his grandson's 'life' of him did help a little. I did see Ellen Terry often at the Apollo and we met Mrs. Kendal and sang to her on her eightieth birthday. She wore a small bonnet and cape, but had a most majestic presence. I can imagine Queen Victoria must have been like her. Ilk-la Moor broke her down, and she and Butch launched into broad Yorkshire. A little while after she was at a Concert we were singing at. We did My Boy Billy as an encore and presently I heard an imperious voice called 'Muriel Butcher, I wish to speak to Muriel Butcher,' and when she saw me she put her arms round me and said: 'You naughty girl, you've made me cry.' And so I had. I was very proud and she said the kindest things to me.
I have always found the bigger the artist the nicer they are, and the simplest. Ellen Terry, Mrs. Kendal, Henry Ainley and Owen Wares. I remember the latter was on the bill with us in a perfectly awful sketch and he got the bird every night. He always came off so apologetic as we had to follow him, but we were able to laugh about it when I was with him in Dodie Smith's 'Call it a Day', and once when I had been off with a cold I was welcomed back with a big bunch of red roses and 'Welcome home, darling, Owen'. I have already said how Henry Ainley came to see The Follies. He was the most romantic actor of his day and had a terrific sense of humour. But I have a poignant recollection of him. We were on tour and had just got into our rooms in Bristol, when the landlady said 'Would I go upstairs as there was a gentleman very ill and wanting to see me.' I went up and to my horror found Henry Ainley in bed, apparently breathing his last, suffering from diabetes. I did my best to comfort him and Butch got the doctor and on leaving at the end of the week kissed him goodbye, never expecting to see him again. The next time I saw him was on the anniversary of 'The First Mrs. Fraser' in which he was starring with Marie Tempest. He had made a remarkable come back and the play ran for two years.
While The Follies were at the Apollo, Lewis Waller, another romantic actor, was next door at the Lyric. I saw all his productions and admired him greatly, but often galleryites for his theatre would get in the wrong queue and find themselves watching us instead, and vice versa! With Lewis Waller was always A.E. George, a wonderful character actor. He was no relation to me, but he and his wife were very kind to me.
Another great favourite of mine was Edmund Gwenn. He was rather in the same position as Butch and me in invading the Halls - he from the legitimate stage and we from the concert platform. He did several play-lets at the Coliseum with Margaret Holstan. Barrie's 'Half Hour' and Shaw's 'How He Lied to Her Husband' I remember specially. During the run of 'When We Are Married', in which Butch and I played, he invited us to lunch at the Carlton the Christmas before the 1940 war. He chose all the food himself with great care and I shall never forget the result. Edmund Gwenn was so alive. He lit up a stage. He first met at the end of the 1914-18 war. He was invalided out for a time and when I went down to entertain the soldiers at Aldershot and what a good time I had, Teddy, standing in the wings and cheering me on, and then going on himself and doing a song of George Robey's - red nose and all.
Speaking of great personalities, we more than once shared the top of the bill at the Coliseumm with that incomparable clown Grock - or to give him his real name, Adrian Wettasch. Grock was a melancholy, thoughtful man, very learned, even though he had been a professional racing cyclist in his young days! It was sad that London lost this great comedian while he was still at his zenith. The reason was that he refused to pay the huge income tax demanded by the British Government. I remember Grock telling me about a former wife of his, a Spaniard. It seems, according to him, that she was very extravagant and treated him badly. In consequence everything Spanish drove him into a frenzy of rage, and he would not even look at a painting by Goya! He made me laugh so much while he was detailing his woes, that I never knew if his droll mimicry of his wife's tantrums was serious or a leg pull! Anyway, he kept a perfectly straight face through it all.
I have very happy memories of Little Tich - the great little comedian with the long boots. He was very clever and intelligent and wonderful company, but he frightened most women with the five fingers he had on each hand. This deformity did not worry me, but he was very sensitive about it and I know many women had a horror of looking at his hands. We had wonderful rooms in Glasgow one time, and Little Tich had awful ones. He made me shriek with laughter as he described them and he was so sad about his fate. I asked him to lunch the next day. He arrived, with a lunch of flowers as big as himself, and I had great difficulty stopping myself from lifting him on to his chair. We first met him at the Chiswick Empire. Tich used to watch our turn from the wings and begged us to let him come on and sing 'No John' with Butch. I wish I had let him, he would have made it so very funny.
Harry Tate was at the Palace when I first joined The Follies. He was a black-faced entertainer then, but I really met him when we were both at the Manchester Hippodrome. I saw a portly, country squire sort of man - leggings and cap - smiling at me. I went to Butch and said, 'You'd better come on the stage, there's a man smiling away at me and I've never seen him before.' So Butch got into conversation and said, 'Come and meet him, he remembers you when you were very young, and he was a black-faced entertainer - it's Harry Tate!' What a fund of stories he had. He lived at Sutton and had a motor caravan. One night on his way home in it he saw a luxurious car stopped by the roadside. So being a gentleman he stopped and asked if the lovely owner would like to come into his caravan while her chauffeur finished changing a wheel. They had a little chat and a little drink and the lady was able to go on her way. When thanking him she said she was Gladys Cooper.
'I'm Harry Tate,' he replied.
'I suppose she was Gladys Cooper,' Harry told me, 'But I don't suppose for a minute she thought I was Harry Tate. I think we both looked utterly incredulous at the time.'
Charlie Austin was another of the old school full of fun, good humour and good stories. He stayed in our rooms in Manchester once and I never got to bed till two or three in the morning - my chest sore with laughing. Billy Bennet was another most intelligent and amusing man who wrote all his own patter. I sat between Billy Bennet and Tommy Handley at the Savage Club's Ladies Nights. I enjoyed them immensely. For one thing neither Tommy or Billy liked oysters, so they always passed theirs on to me and I must own that was far as I got with food as we laughed so much.
I was in a train with Billy before I knew him well, and he sat writing hard and I thought it was letters - but no... He said 'Would you like to read my latest lyric?' and I thought, 'Oh dear, what a bore,' but it started:
Two little sausages sat on a plate
Dabbling their tootsies in the gravy....
I looked up and caught Billy's eye. I do not know how it went on, I have forgotten.
We were often on the bill with Will Fyffe, another delightful companion. He used to do an imitation of Butch and me singing 'Soldier, Soldier Won't You Marry Me' that would have brought the house down if done on the Halls. I shall also always love Peter Dawson - dear, kind generous man. Butch and I met him at our first Ballad Concert at the Queens Hall. We had just done our afternoon performance at the Coliseum, and most of the artists were very sniffy at Music Hall artists invading their province. But in the men's dressing room Butch said Peter went up to him and said: 'Hallo young Butcher. Excuse my hand it's a bit rough. I've been white-washing the scullery,' and he went on feeling much better. But there was no-one to ease my mind, and a little nerve began to twitch in my upper lip - but after the first duet all was well and I knew we were all right. The next time we met Peter Dawson was at a Concert at Margate, and we persuaded him and his wife Nannie to let us drive them back to London. Quite suddenly an odd rattle bang started in the car - very disturbing, especially as we wanted it to be all smooth and pleasant. So Butch ran it into a garage outside Maidstone and they said the universal joint wanted greasing. So we all got out to stretch our legs and the proprietor sauntered up. For want of something to say, Butch said: 'Ah well, these little things are sent to try us - always happens when you want to be at your best. You know who is with me?'
'No,' said the man without much interest.
'Peter Dawson, the celebrated baritone,' said Butch proudly. Peter strolled up then and said 'You know who is driving me, don't you?'
'No,' said the man.
'Ernest Butcher the famous folk song singer' trumpeted Peter loudly.
'Oh,' said the man, turning on his heel, 'Never 'eard of either of you.'
Peter and his wife were dears and we had some jolly times together. Nannie was a wonderful cook and always gave me a big Xmas pudding every year. I miss them both very much. Next to Butch I would rather hear Peter sing than anybody in the world.
Florence Austral and John Amadio were two other Australians I loved to meet. They had just come back from an Australian tour and John told a story of going down to the local Hall and saying to the caretaker, 'H'm, nice Hall you've got here. Are the acoustics good?'
'Oh yes, sir, very good, one for the Ladies and one for the Gentlemen!'
Once at the Albert Hall, Florence said she had a sore and asked me to look at it. It was scarlet and covered with little white spots. As I stood at the side in in agony for her, I heard her sing 'Ocean Though Mighty Monster' like an angel, and was able to tell her when she cam off that 'a crimson throat covered with white spots' improved her singing if anything.
We used to go to jolly parties at Derek Oldham's and Winne Melville's, with all the old Savoyards, Bertha Lewis, Sir Henry Lytton, Darroll Fancourt and Geoffrey Toye. The last-named had a wonderful gift of being able to put an accompaniment to a tune while you were singing it, generally better than the original.
Harry Dearth was a wonderful singer too. I remember him coming to a big concert at the Queen's Hall. We were standing in the wings when he came off. Diving into his tail pocket he brought out a bundle of songs.
'I'll sing this,' he said, 'No, I won't. You'll be singing a country song, won't you young Butcher?'
'Indeed no,' said Butch, touched nearly to tears, 'You carry on, bless you.'
It was a kind and gracious thought and I have never forgotten it or him.
Listening to the singers today gives me a pain in my throat. I do not know, or where, they produce the noises. Even jazz years ago was a different thing, sung by good voices, but now they seem to think four people with poor voices are as acceptable as one good voice. All Music Halls are not swept clean and made of modern material like the Coliseum and the Victoria Palace. Behind the scenes in many of them actors, singers, etc. are not the only denizens. Rats and mice abound. Butch and I had an uncomfortable week at the Empire, Birmingham. After rehearsal on the Monday morning we put out grease paint, etc. for the evening show. On returning for the first house I was amazed to find bits of my powder puff all over the table and floor, and when Butch started to change he started shouting. He had a brand new dress suit and had hung it up to remove travel creases and found the silk had been gnawed from nearly every button. Mice! They infested the place and ran about the auditorium at that time. Truly what the eye does not see the heart does not grieve about, for the audience must have been in blissful ignorance of the creatures who ran about the stalls while the show was on.
I can vouch for the truth of this story. A turn immediately before us at one Music Hall was Heather Thatcher, who had to lie languorously on a couch during the sketch. I was watching her one night when I noticed a mouse playing up and down the cushions behind her head. It finally settled itself comfortably and proceeded to wash itself. This is did with the most irritating aplomb and in great detail. The stage hands joined me in breathless watching, afraid to stir a muscle in case the mouse took fright and ran down Heather's arm. To our deep relief it finally satisfied itself that it was looking its best for the subsequent courting and curled itself up and went to sleep. The audience were quiet for everyone realised that if Heather had seen her fellow performer she might have screamed or had hysterics. She had a terrific ovation on taking her call and I do not suppose to this day she knew that it was not all given for her act.
Mice were a menace in many Music Halls and used to play “touch” round my dressing room. A stage hand once told me he was crawling along the flies under the roof above the stage when he met a rat, so large and so indomitable that he retreated as fast as he dare.
The Coliseum used to have rats too, though I never saw any as they kept a large black cat that kept them at bay. His big paws were like boxing gloves and I was told not to touch him or he might “tear me to ribbons”. However, Tommy and I got very friendly and he used to come to my dressing room for a saucer of milk. I used to sit on the stage in the shadow while Butch sang Top of the Hill. One night I heard a soft “miaow” beside me. It was Tommy demanding his milk. I hesitated for a second and a louder “miaow” came, so rather fearfully I stooped and got him into my lap where he stayed purring, and when Butch had finished he walked calmly off with his tail waving, and getting extra applause for his exit.
At another Hall I was watching one of those contortionist ladies, who turn themselves inside out. I noticed she was standing on her hands near the backcloth and had just come to the point when she was putting her head between them, when a cat walked on and stared straight into her eyes. I admired her self control for she finished her act without batting an eyelid.
I shall never forget a distracting week we had at the Coliseum when a flock of performing doves were there. One or two of them refused to be collected after the show and while we were singing whirred and flapped all over the place, dropping little messages on a surprised and indignant audience. Another uncomfortable turn to be on the bill with us was Winston's Sea Lions - very tame and affectionate, but they had to be kept in tanks on the stage, and a soft high note was quite ruined by sea lions diving in with a splash or helping us out with a loud coughing noise, and the smell towards the end of the week was almost unendurable.
Those animal acts were merely disturbing. Minnehaha and Hiawatha, the chimpanzees, were a positive menace. Before I went on the stage at Brook Green Empire on the Monday night the Stage Manager said, 'Miss George, when you've finished your calls will you exit to your left?' 'I always do,' I said. 'Yes, but this is important. Minnehaha comes on the R side and she doesn't like women and might make a grab at you.' So I was very careful of my exit. But the week wore on and I thought it might be safe to look at them from the wings. They were riding their bicycles round the stage and I ventured to poke my head round. They saw me and swerved towards me. I gave four leaps and was back in my dressing room with the door locked!
A donkey and a duck nearly ruined our first visit to Shepherds Bush Empire. We were singing The Sweet Nightingale and came to 'Down in the valley below' when there was a loud “hee-haw”. So we tried the second verse, wondering where on earth the noise had come from. Sure enough 'Down in the valley below' brought another loud “hee-haw”, and we gave up and sang No John instead. They kept the donkey under the stage and perhaps he was musical and thought he would make it a trio!
My first experience of animal acts was when I was first in The Follies and we were a Music Hall Act at the Palace Theatre. A troupe of performing bears were on the bill one week. I had to go on and bang a cymbal hanging on a tripod in a snake charming scene. I used to put my props at the side of the stage, and one night went off and could not find them. I tried to make up for the loss by banging the ground with my hand and singing in a high nasal voice. Harry cursed me in a whisper and then I went off I stopped to look at the bears - big ones, about six, and the largest had my cymbal clutched to his bosom and would not let go, and what is more would not do a single trick.
And now here is a story of Teddy and Mad Fox. You might remember Teddy in the Co-Optimists afterwards but at this time they were a struggling Music Hall act and rather down on their luck. One Christmas, with little money and no work, they had difficulty in finding rooms but were finally taken in by a woman in Brixton. On the first night Teddy went to sleep, but Mai, cold and miserable, lay awake thinking she heard strange noises. At last, sure it was not her imagination, she lit a candle and there running about were lots of mice, not just ordinary mice but piebald! Next morning the landlady asked if they had had a comfortable night and Mai told her the phenomenon of the black and white mice.
'It was one of your sort that did it,' said the landlady. 'I 'ad a lodger with performing white mice 'ere and he wouldn't pay 'is bill. I said a few words to 'im and 'e lost 'is temper and let 'is mice out all over the 'ouse, and they hobnobbed with my mice and that is the result.'
On the Music Halls if you are coming to the end of your contracts the Managements make things difficult, so as to deflate one to the state of not asking for more money next time! Butch and I were once nearly at the end of our Stoll contracts and when we appeared at the Manchester Hippodrome found we were down to follow Nervo and Knox. Before the first performance Jimmy Nervo said: 'It's sheer B---y murder. Tell you what we'll do. We'll take our calls and the curtain can go up on the four of us doing the Lancers.' There were matinees on Mondays and Tuesdays here, that meant fourteen performances the week. No matter how tired Nervo and Knox were they did this right through the week. It put the audience in a lovely mood to receive us, made the whole programme one big family and saved us from having our hearts broken. This shows the great kindness that exists between Music Hall artists. Jealousy is practically non-existent. We all recognise how difficult it is to make a success on a bad spot on the bill. Everything depends on whom you follow, and if you are given time to build up your performance.
Apart from this there are good and bad theatres from a performers point of view. The worst I knew was Hackney Empire. Most artists dreaded their week there, at least they did when we were on the Halls. The reason is the preponderating number of foreigners who live near there and patronise the house regularly, though they cannot understand much English.
On Monday night all went well till the third number 'My Boy Billy' when the gallery started beating time with their feet. We had to stop and Butch walked to the footlights and said there was a clause in our contract that said if there was a noise we could go off and be paid just the same. 'So it's up to you, shall we stop or go on?' 'Go on' shouted the stalls. So we sang 'No John' and 'If Every Star Was a Little Piccanny'. Gene Gerrard, Gertrude Lawrence and Arthur Margetson were also on the bill in a very slight revue, and Gene thanked Butch as the audience would have got out of hand and they would never have been heard.
The Manager left us alone that night, but came round on the Tuesday.
'Sorry you had a bit of bother last night,but you've really come a very lucky week.'
'Oh!' I said, 'and what do you call lucky?'
'Well there was a razor fight outside the theatre last Saturday night and those who arn't in jail are in hospital.'
Sir Oswald Stoll was very nice about it and gave us the Hackney dates at the Coliseum. The second houses at the Holborn and the Palladium are always a bit difficult; they were always kind to us but our hearts used to beat heavily and our mouths go dry. One would think this sort of thing would shorten a performer's life but it does not! I count myself very lucky to have had those twelve years on the Music Halls - it gives one a punch and a solidity that nothing else can. It is nervy work, but how rewarding. Nowhere else does one get such cheers and smiles. Everyone was surprised our numbers went so well, perhaps because we enjoyed them ourselves.
Orchestras are a bit of an anxiety, but we had our pianist so we did not have to bother about that. A pleasant stage manager is a help and the one at the Victoria Palace used to say, 'Give me a nod when you want the curtain to come down. Let 'em 'ave wot they want.' But what a mess a young and inexperienced one can cause! I was in a play with Richard Goulding, by Muriel and Sydney Box, and we were getting towards the end of the tour. A cat was supposed to be carried on but just before it was due I was told it had not arrived. 'Go next door to the tobacconist,' I said, 'They're sure to have one.' And I was right, and so I carried on a strange cat who cursed me loudly before I let it go. Then the electric bell that was to announce the arrival of nieces and nephews at the reading of a will did not work, and Dickie and I had to improvise wildly to get the people on; then the curtain came down and went up again in the middle of the act - the Stage Manager had carelessly leant on it; and finally the hero entered, sat on a chair and the two front castors came off and flung him on the floor at my feet! This all happened in the first scene and I nearly had hysterics!
This is another true story. One night between the houses at the Coliseum, Butch had gone up to the stage door to get a little air and came back convulsed with laughter. A big man came up and asked if a celebrated organist who was on the Bill had finished his turn and was told be would be out shortly.
'Do you know who that is?' said the Door Keeper.
'No,' said Butch, but his face seems familiar.'
'That Joe Beckett the heavy weight champion. Very fond of music,' said the Door Keeper.
Butch went outside to look at the retreating figure and spotted a little man coming towards the Coliseum jauntily, dressed like the proverbial clerk, black coat, striped trousers, a little bag and a bowler hat … Perhaps he had just won a football pool, but he came along shadow boxing with himself, saw Joe Beckett and playfully offered to spar with him. Joe stared, then out went his left hand and the little man dropped in the gutter, his hat going one way his bag the other. Joe laughed and strolled on and in a minute the little man picked himself up and trotted off more soberly, and to this day he does not know he had taken the K.O. From the champion of Great Britain!
My first close-up of Russian Ballet was in Bristol when we were on the bill with an 'All Russian Company and Anton Dolin'. The orchestra was as unfamiliar as I with the ballet and were seldom in time with their music. I watched fascinated from the wings. The Corps de Ballet did a Russian dance on their haunches; when they finished I heard one of the men say, in broad Lancashire, as they came off, 'Ee ma legs does ache!'
Butch and I went on the Halls in 1919 and it was twelve years before we started another Concert Party. This was at Central Pier, Blackpool, and we called ourselves The Jolly Good Company.
A year before we had been having a short holiday in Lytham and one evening we went to St. Annes and heard Tom Howells Concert Party. A young man came on to sing - a lovely voice. 'Oh Butch,' I said, 'here's a find.' Butch was equally impressed and went round to see Tom Howells.
'You've got a good tenor Tom.' And Tom took him up to the singer who was making up for the second half. He did not turn round when Butch was introduced and said without any show of interest, 'Not the Ernest Butcher!'
'I'm the only one I know about,' said Butch.
'The real Ernest Butcher is a tall bronzed man,' said the singer scornfully.
'All right,' said Butch, 'I'll bring my wife round after the show.' And as soon as he saw me he realised he was not having his leg pulled.
'What are you doing in this small Concert Party?' I asked him, 'You've a world beating voice.'
The singer was Webster Booth. He was not released till our second season at Central Pier, then he came to us and was a great success and a delightful man to have in the show. Before we started the next season we gave a small party and invited Peter Dawson and Webster Booth whose voice so delighted Peter that he took him down to H.M.V. Where he made some records, and so we can claim to have started him on his career.
We started the first season with a loss of £900 until a few cold winds and showers sent the audience crowding in. But it was hard work and I sometimes wondered if it was worth it. Then one day years later I had been to see my dear friends Baliol Holloway and his wife and was waiting for a taxi. I had been waiting quite a time when one came up and the driver said, 'Didn't finish me tea. Can't see you waitin' about any longer. Where can I drive you?'
'You know me then,' I said.
'Know you, Miss George. Why I practically spent my honeymoon with you.'
'How's that?' I asked.
'Well, me and my wife went to Blackpool on our honeymoon, and the first evening we got there we were walking along the front and it came on to drizzle, and the wife said: “Look, there's Muriel George and Ernest Butcher. I've heard 'em on the wireless. Let's go in and see them.” So on to Central Pier we went and my wife went mad about you. Next evening I suggested a theatre but she said, “No, they've got a new programme on the Pier tonight; do let's go there.” And in the end we went every evening. That's why I know all your numbers.' And he recited a lot to me including The Basin Crop, one that we only did up north, so I knew he was telling me the truth. When we got to St. John's Wood, he refused to take any money. 'If my wife knew I'd taken money off you she wouldn't 'arf go off the deep end!' And I felt it had been worth all the rehearsing and keeping count of what numbers we did on every day and varying them every week. I love taxi drivers - always my friends.
When writing of Concert Parties I should never forget that during our first season at Eastbourne we were lucky enough to get Elsie April as pianist. That was not her real name - we gave it to her - and we lived together all that season and she remained my close friend till she died. She was a complete marvel at the piano - could transpose a song up or down and could prompt you with the words too if necessary. She had blue eyes and a mass of dark hair, and a gorgeous sense of humour. She did a great deal behind the scenes of some of the most famous musical shows for C.B. Cochran and for Noel Coward. I am sure the concert Party training is good for everybody on the stage. Singers have to play character parts, character actors try to sing and you all learn timing - one of the most difficult things to learn.
There are no touring companies now where one could learn one's job, and few Concert Parties. I do hope more will spring up. No Sunday Leagues, no Ballad Concerts. How can the younger generation get experience?
Butch and I had been on the Halls for quite a long time before we broadcasted. We looked at it from a commercial point of view, as managements rather frowned up on it. We were engaged to sing at a Barclay's Bank Choir Concert at the Albert Hall with Peter Dawson and Carrie Tubb. We were not told about the broadcast till too late and Carrie Tubb and Peter Dawson had already agreed, so we could not very well stand out. Before we went on Butch asked the BBC official if we were to please the audience in the Hall or the listeners on the air.
'The audience here,' he replied.
Well the audience was Grand! They loved Butch's solos and the duets; but the hit was the encore - we did Tree in the Wood. It was very fast and rather tricky and Butch used to pretend he had forgotten the words and rehearse first. He got roars of laughter without a sound coming over the mike, he had an enormous fan mail that staggered us - so did the BBC and they sent to us and offered an audition. When we got to Savoy Hill we found the man who had to decide if we would do was Donald Calthorp, and old friend of mine from The Follies days. That was in 1924 and we broadcasted regularly after that, gave recitals and used to broadcast from the Coliseum and the Palladium when we were on the bill. We enjoyed it from the beginning. I like being alone in a studio and getting a character over. During the 1940 war I was given many opportunities to act without singing.
I loved best the old Savoy Hill days. Everything was so friendly. We used to be received by Colonel Brand, a most delightful man. Stuart Hibbard was there when we started and so were Freddie Grisewood and his brother Harman, and Lionel Marson. Things went wrong often - more than they do now - and I remember we were once in the middle of a recital and were told the mike had failed. We had to run upstairs to another studio and go on with the duets breathless and bursting with laughter. Another time we had a young and gay announcer, and he and Butch were doing a wild Maud Allen dance round the studio when the red light started to flicker and the announcer said 'Muriel - gasp - George and Ernest - gasp - Butcher - in a - gasp - programme of English - gasp - folk songs and duets.' The commissionaires are remote and the whole entrance at Broadcasting House is more dignified, but I think it is a pity.
Some time after the 1939 war started, Butch and I were engaged to do star broadcasts to W.S.A at about 1 am. Jerry Wilmot was the announcer and he gave me a wonderful build-up for the plays and pictures I had been in. When we had finished our turn he came and was most enthusiastic about my singing. He said he had no idea I could sing like that, bless his heart - but it just shows how soon one can be forgotten.
Just about a year before we went into 'When We Are Married', Butch and I were in a Radio show called The Pig and Whistle - the show was written by Charles and Mrs. Penrose, and produced by Ernest Longstaffe. Supposed to be in a village pub, we had all the village characters, 'Ole Granfer', the village postman, the policeman, and so on and Butch and I played the Landlord and Landlady … and Butch used his ingenuity to give us an artistic and amusing finish - we either kissed each other good night, or listened to the cuckoo clock striking, or called the cat in or said something rude to one of our departing customers.
When I came back to North London again, after sixteen years away, the cashier in the Mac Fisheries said: 'Oh! The old Pig and Whistle. Oh! I do beg your pardon, Miss George, but I used to love that show, and it's so nice to see you back.'
It was some twenty years ago that I felt I was not making quite such a nice noise as I used to and Butch wanted to sing on his own, so I asked our good friend, John Hayman of the Victoria Palace for his candid opinion. He said it was nonsense and added: 'The very way you sit on the stage and look at Butch with love in your eyes makes you worth the money, and don't forget you're a good comic and get as many laughs as anyone on the bill.' But I was not happy. The Music Halls were pepping up the acts, lots of American acts coming over at that time (about 1931) and instead of our leisurely building up of our programme, we had to get away in eight or ten minutes. With our type of act this was impossible as the numbers were slight in themselves and needed contrast and working to get them over in large halls and to such varied audiences. So I said I'd have a try for the stage and let Butch go on his own. I hated to do this but I did not want to sink into the background - be a small turn. But my mother was an invalid, with an attendant in the house, and John getting through Cambridge. I had not the least idea where to go and who to look to for work. But the problem was solved for me. Ann Codrington rang me up one day, saying she had heard that Sir Nigel Playfair was looking for someone to play a character part in a play he was doing at the New Theatre. So down I went to the Lyric, Hammersmith, to see him.
'Oh, no,' said Sir Nigel, 'You look too nice to play this part. I want someone really frowzy.'
I tried to explain I could look dreadful in two minutes - one minute even - when a huge man rose from the obscurity of a big armchair and said, 'She can do it. I heard her stop the show at the Savage Club Cabaret the other night with a cockney recitation.' The speaker was H.F. Maltby.
So play the part I did and though the show ran only three weeks I scored a personal success which gave me confidence, and at the end of the run Nigel booked me for his special pantomime at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and for Derby Day to follow. The pantomime was Aladdin with Ivy Tresmond and Marie Blanche as principal girl and boy, and I played the Empress. I sang a song lying flat on my stomach and it went very well, and Nigel sent me a letter saying I was 'a very great artist' which delighted me. The author, Clinton Haddeley, liked me too. He was writing a film play at the time (I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called) and asked me if I would go in it, and play the wife of a defunct plumber, mother to Jerry Verno. Peter Gawthorne played the butler and I had to sing a duet with him, Michael Powell directing. I saw him and all was arranged. I provided my own clothes and the first day came.
Now I had never been in a film before, I knew nothing of the procedure, and when I went to work at Walton I had pretty definite ideas as to how I should play the part and work the duet - not realising at all that the producer tells you all that and most of the time you have no say in the matter. I started off for Walton, Butch driving me, about 6.30 am., and was left at the door of the studio, very like a new little girl at school. I had had no breakfast but was made up and on the set at nine o'clock. I had borrowed a dress of mother's, made a toque, and came down to let my director see me.
'Yes, very nice,' he said. 'Know your words?'
'Oh, yes,' I said, 'I thought I'd sit on the settee and drink my first glass of champagne while Peter Sings the verse,' etc. I thought Micky looked a bit dazed,but he let me carry on.
Well we romped through its and I drank three glasses of ginger ale.
'Good Lord!' said Micky, 'We'll try a take.'
Well Peter dried up in the middle. By that time I had drunk six glasses of ginger ale. But the third time was lucky, everything went swimmingly, until just at the end I let out the loudest belch ever heard. I cast a horrified glance at Micky, who was roaring with laughter, and carried on and danced off with Peter. Nine glasses of ginger ale on an empty and terrified stomach had been too much for me! When the cry of 'Cut' came, electricians and all collapsed. After that I played Something Always Happens with Ian Hunter, Michael Powell again directing.
When I made The Dancing Years the film company took us to Austria. We stayed at The White Horse inn, about fifty miles from Salzburg on a lovely lake with mountains all around us. Harold French used the Austrian people for the crowds. They were charming, very good-looking and polite. We were over there a month but the first ten days it poured with rain. The hotel was comfortable and had a wide verandah round it. One night, going into dinner, I saw one of the carpenters belonging go the film unit staring out at the rain splashing down.
'Well Bill,' I said, 'What do you think of Austria?'
'Blimey' said Bill. 'Lakes! Mountains! When you've seen 'em you've 'ad it. Give me the Elephant and Castle.'
When the weather cleared up though it was lovely, and people from all around used to row up to the hotel and have tea. One lovely Sunday I was sitting there and a beautiful little boy tried playing ball with me. I slowly enticed him on to my lap and he had a cake. Presently a young middle-aged man came and knelt beside us.
'Miss George, before the war I was in London and came often to the Coliseum to hear you and your partner sing. It is a great pleasure to see that my little son appreciates you too. I wish you every happiness.'
After Something Always Happens I was offered a nice little part in Music in the Air by Cochran. It ran nearly a year at His Majestys Theatre and I enjoyed it very much. Mary Ellis, C.V. France and Arthur Margetson were all in the cast. I had admired Mary Ellis very much - so very attractive, lovely voice and a grand actress. She was delighted when I brought her a big jar of Morello Cherry jam - we had a lot of cherry tress in the orchard and I made cherry jam, cherry whiskey and cherry brandy from them. Mary had a great desire to have a picnic on Hampstead Heath. I told her it was not done, that it would be hot, smelly and very crowded, but she would do it and invited Butch and me and Arthur Margetson and a girl playing a small part. So off we went in the car, with a huge hamper from Fortnum & Mason - with cold lobsters and chicken etc. - and with Butch and Arthur carrying the basket to try and find a secluded spot.
Well at last we found one but when we opened the basket the most enormous wasps arrived. I have never seen such whoppers, and Arthur swore he had seen one fly away with a lobster claw in its mouth. We were afraid to eat anything in case we bit on one and crowds gathered to watch us. So in the end we packed the hamper and finished the picnic in our orchard at Muswell Hill.
It was a great thrill for me to be playing with C.V. France, who first made his name with Tree and so was at home at His Majestys Theatre. When I was young I had seen him in a play with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. He played a gardener and I never forgot him. What a lovely actor and what a darling.
While Music in the Air was running Herbert Wilcox saw me in it and offered me the part of the dresser in Nell Gwynne with Anna Neagle. They were very kind to me; and then followed The Street Singer and lots of other films. But as soon as they were finished I was sent off to Basil Dean. He wanted me for the charwoman in Priestley's Cornelius. I met him in the vestibule of the Duchess Theatre. He looked at me and I loved him on sight. 'I think it will be fun, don't you?' he said. 'Yes, I do.' And it was. I was never afraid of him as many people were and he always praised me and never knew what he had done for my self esteem. I did two films for him and four plays., the second being Dodie Smith’s Call it a Day in which I played the cook and met Fay Compton again after many years.
It is a great experience to feel a play take shape and come to life at rehearsals and interesting to see how a change of cast will unbalance and alter the whole meaning of it - not always for the good. I find stage work quite easy after years of Music Hall and it was very interesting to work with Basil. 'I want you to get a laugh when you go off, dear - raise your voice and kick the door open,' which got me not only a laugh but a round of applause. He used to say, 'By the way, I've thought of a bit of business here, promise you won't wreck the play if I give it to you?'
When Basil Dean was ready to start rehearsing Call it a Day I was in the middle of a film. Something had gone wrong and all the shots had to be done again. So to make it easier Phyllis Morris and the girl engaged as a tweenie came out to my house on Sunday and we rehearsed with bread and butter and tea, etc. - in the days before 1940 butter was cheap. What Basil and Owen Nares did not know about the charwoman was not worth knowing. 'Don't cut the bread like that - too ladylike. Hold it against yourself, and hack it off' and 'Put the butter on in dollops - it's not your butter,' Owen would say.
So when I was free I went along to the Globe theatre. 'Ha, so you've got here at last,' said Basil. 'I shall take your scene after lunch, so mind you make me laugh.' When he returned he strode across the stage. 'Hope you've had a good lunch,' I said. But all was well and he was pleased. The play was produced in Glasgow and Dodie Smith and I were out together when suddenly I saw a white horse in a brewer's dray and said, 'Good luck to you, good luck to me, good luck to every white horse I see' and spat three times over my little finger for luck. Dodie was very intrigued at my only superstition, and I was lucky enough to see a little white china horse in Glasgow and gave it her, and she sat in her box on the first night clutching it. Something worked, as the play ran fifteen months.
After it more films and Goodbye to Yesterday with Gladys Cooper. Then Basil sent for Butch and me for When We Are Married by J.B. Priestley. We rehearsed it to roars of laughter - in fact Jack and Basil were both anxious as they felt if we laughed so much the audience wouldn't. I remember at one rehearsal my drawers fell down. I was horrified but Basil laughed and said it was lucky!
We opened in Manchester and went to Blackpool and New Brighton and then settled down to a good run at the St. Martins and Princes Theatre.
Then Butch was asked by the B.B.C. If he would go into the Robinson Family. It ran six years and he was Mr. Robinson. I read the scripts and thought them awfully clever. I sent them to one or two film directors but nothing happened. The author was Allan Melville. I got so mad I felt something had to be done, so I invited my agent Herbert de Leon and Allan to dinner one night, and they got on so well that before they got home they had arranged to do Sweet and Low and another revue at the Phoenix.
Flat 3, 3 Grape Street
Shaftesbury Avenue, W.C.2
May 12th 1946
My dear Muriel,
Just a line to thank you very much indeed for your lovely telegram and good wishes. It was so nice of you to remember me on the Night.
We seem to have a huge success and the press could not have been nicer, so I hope we're all set for a long run.
I'll never forget that it was through you that I met Herbert, and through Herbert that I cashed in on this review racket... so it's all due to you, darling!
All my love and once again many many thanks.
War came and I made many films. Many for the Ministry of Information; one that Anthony Asquith directed about the woman who would shop in the rush hours. Quiet Wedding with Margaret Lockwood during the Blitz. Also I'll Be Your Sweetheart with her. In all I made about forty films one of the last being Last Holiday with Alec Guinness - J.B. Priestley again. We were strolling round the set and he said, 'What part of Yorkshire do you come from, Muriel?' and I answered, 'London'.
The first television I ever did was just before the war and was The Monkey's Paw. The technique of running a curtain down or letting you know when the show is over had not been made definite and I was left, crying and banging on the door, and thought to myself 'Dear me! How much longer must I go on weeping?' until I was touched gently on the arm by the electrician who said, 'We've been finished some time, Miss George, would you like the loan of my 'andkerchief?' I did feel an ass!
Then I did Derby Day and then the war stopped television and when it was over I did The Rose and Crown and then followed a series of Aldwych farces produced by Eric Fawcett: Thark, The Cup of Happiness (both of these twice, Rookery Nook, Ma's Bit of Brass and Noah (Obe) with Michael Hordern. It was summer and very hot, and poor Michael had to wear a long beard, a long white wig and skins and so on. He was also suffering from a feverish cold and I have seen a more perspiring man. Every time he had to embrace me tenderly be used to say, 'So sorry, darling, - you'll have to have your hair washed tomorrow.' And Malcolm Baker Smith, who was producing, said, 'Do you think you can climb the ark, dear?' 'I don't know till I've seen it,' I said. 'Well, we'll get there early and have a good look' said Malcolm. When I saw it it was an iron ladder flat against a wall about twelve feet high. I had long flowing robes on and started gaily upwards, but on about the sixth rung I trod on my skirt, let go of the ladder and fell back, luckily being caught by Basil Rogers who was playing my eldest son, and we have been friends ever since. There were a lot of other plays but I cannot remember what they were called.
Then the awful summer and the doodle bugs, and when the war was over some journalist friends, who had a small bar outside Cork, begged me to take a small house on their lease. Soon I was the possessor of a double-fronted house, facing the bay, with hills and lovely country all round me. I shall never forget the day I landed in Cork and realised what I had done. You see, Butch had fallen in love with someone else and so I could only give him his freedom as gracefully as possible. I had fought against it for several years, but it had to be faced and on that first day in Cork I felt completely desolate.
Still, the little house had nice views, good-sized rooms and looked very nice when I received my first callers. The first was the local priest - white haired, blue eyed, and nearly stone deaf. However he came and welcomed me warmly and could hardly take his eyes off a Baxter print hanging in the hall. It was a picture of the crucifixion - lovely colours, and he kept going back to it again and again, and when he was leaving I gave it to him. He was like a child. I told him I was not Catholic, though my grandchildren were, and begged him to take it.
'Why do you give it to me?'
'Because of your lovely blue eyes,' I said.
I do not think he heard me and he would not understand how touched I was with his kindness and simplicity. He told me when I left three years later, 'You'll allays be in my prayers you know because you are my benefactress.' If anyone could have persuaded me to stay he would have. But I found it was too far away, and if I wanted to work I could never be sure of transport, as Summer, Easter, Whitsun and Christmas spell packed boats, and it is a long and exhausting journey. Luckily for me I am an excellent sailor and was sometimes the only one who had avoided sickness. But I stayed three years and loved the place and the people and I made some good and charming friends. The local schoolmaster and his wife were very kind and one or two couples who had lovely houses and gardens were hospitable indeed. We used to exchange books and magazines and they would give me fruit and vegetables from their gardens. In fact everyone was smiling, gay and helpful - except one old woman and she was a 'devill'. All the village was afraid of her but of course I have never lived in an English village and I dare say there are people there who are just as bad. It was extraordinary how she got the news. Bill and Kay used to say she had a 'bamboo wireless' but she knew our news almost as soon as we knew it ourselves.
I must say I found Cork a delightful city, good shops, cinemas and smiling faces, plenty of food and, although dear, you could buy it and no meals had to be taken out unless you wanted to. Everything is taken at a slower pace there. Tomorrow will do as well as today. No purchase tax made clothes easier to buy, and I found the fresh sea air and good food a boon after all the bombing. Although it was such a tiny village, just one short street, we were lucky enough to have electricity to see, cook and iron by - though I found the big iron stoves, fed by wood and peat, lovely for cooking, and I always had a lovely fire in the winter and would come down in the morning to a warm sitting room and glorious red ash ready to be rekindled.
I had good help - in fact three children on tap to run errands and go to the post etc., as well as their energetic and efficient mother. I found the women in Ireland kind and very hard working; busy with child bearing and rearing. The men seemed too liable to drink too much and keep their children in the background, but not of course the educated ones. As a whole the nicest thing about them was their un-sophistication, like a lot of jolly boys. I was astonished and delighted to go into Bill's Bar and find so many people anxious to talk to me and have a laugh and a good story.
If I sat outside my house in the sun people would stop their cars and come and talk to me and if it meant a drink or two, after England's frustration it was welcome and a means of escape. The laws in Ireland are meant to be broken, one Cork citizen said to me. I found it impossible to get quiet nights. That little village was, during the months from June to October, the noisiest I have ever know. Bill and Kay were always so tired they were ready and willing to close at twelve, but the other two pubs - oh dear no! The doors were often shut, but the customers came and went out by the back, and the local police with them! 'You must find this a very quiet place after London,' they would say. 'Indeed no,' I would answer, 'Such noise would never be permitted.' Klaxon horns to call reluctant friends from their Guinness, shouts and songs and so on. But that was my only complaint - not a very big one, after all business had to be done while the going was good. Anyway, I left with a sore heart. I liked the people and they liked me. I miss the lovely view, the soft air, the soft Irish voices 'Ah Miss George dear, you're back again and looking lovely,' and although you know it's just a bit of native blarney it's a comfort to hear and a welcome - what more does one want?
When I was in Ireland and had a film to make I used to wire Ethel Fenton and make my way to St. John's Wood. Ethel was a good looking girl with lovely auburn hair and was with us in The Follies. She took Effie Cook's place for a time, but did not like it. She did nots like the acting part and when she left she sang at the Ballad Concerts and Celebrity Concerts, so we had not seen one another for about thirty-five years when we met face to face in St. John's Wood. She had a big house in Langford Place and used to let me have a room. I was most grateful as I got such sympathetic and loving companionship and was always sure of a warm welcome. She had a lovely old ginger tom for seventeen years - in fact she fed any cat who looked hungry!
And now I am back in London once more, living not far from Muriel and Sydney Box - two people I love very much - who come and make me free of their garden on summer days. Also I am nearer my son, John Davenport, who has provided me with two lovely grand-daughters and two grandsons. He was educated at St. Paul's and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and is well known to anyone who read the Observer. People still talk to me in trains, shops and buses. I was in a bus the other day and a golden haired clippie watched me coming up the bus and said, 'I know that face,' and a fat woman covered with parcels, sitting in the corner, said: 'Of course you know it - we all know it, and what's more we like it.' I have so much to thank the general public for.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Audience, bless you, your smiles have helped me over some rough times. May you always smile at me is the wish of your grateful servant, Muriel George.
November 23, 1958