21 May 2016

George Robey

George Robey (1869-1954) was an English comedian, singer and actor in musical theatre, who became known as one of the greatest music hall performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a comedian, Robey mixed everyday situations and observations with comic absurdity. Apart from his music hall acts, he was a popular Christmas pantomime performer in the English provinces, where he excelled in the dame roles. He only had modest success in the cinema.

George Robey
British postcard in the Rotary Photographic Series by Rotary Photo EC., no. 125 H.

George Robey as The Prehistoric Man
British postcard in the Philco Series by Rotary Photo EC., no. 3154 A. Photo: C. Ireland, Manchester. In 1902 Robey created the character The Prehistoric Man. He dressed as a caveman and spoke of modern political issues, often complaining about the government "slapping another pound of rock on his taxes". The character was received favourably by audiences, who found it easy to relate to his topical observations. That year he released The Prehistoric Man on a shellac disc using the early acoustic recording process.

The Prime Minister of Mirth

George Robey was born as George Edward Wade in London in 1869. He came from a middle-class family. His father, Charles Wade, was a civil engineer who spent much of his career on tramline design and construction. Robey's mother, Elizabeth Mary Wade née Keene, was a housewife.

After schooling in England and Germany, and a series of office jobs, he made his debut on the London stage, at the age of 21, as the straight man to a comic hypnotist. He soon developed his own act and appeared at the Oxford Music Hall in 1890, where he earned favourable notices singing The Simple Pimple and He'll Get It Where He's Gone to Now.

In 1892, Robey appeared in his first pantomime, Whittington Up-to-date in Brighton, which brought him to a wider audience. With Robey's popularity came an eagerness to differentiate himself from his music hall rivals, and so he devised a signature costume when appearing as himself: an oversized black coat fastened from the neck down with large, wooden buttons; black, unkempt, baggy trousers and a partially bald wig with black, whispery strands of unbrushed, dirty-looking hair that poked below a large, dishevelled top-hat. He applied thick white face paint and exaggerated the redness on his cheeks and nose with bright red make-up; his eye line and eyebrows were also enhanced with thick, black greasepaint. He held a short, misshaped, wooden walking stick, which was curved at the top.

Robey later used the costume for his character, The Prime Minister of Mirth. The outfit helped Robey become instantly recognisable on the London music hall circuit. More provincial engagements followed in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, and he soon became a mainstay of the popular Christmas pantomime scene. By the start of the new century, Robey was a big name in pantomime, and he was able to choose his roles. Pantomime enjoyed wide popularity until the 1890s, but by the time Robey had reached his peak, interest in it was on the wane. A type of character he particularly enjoyed taking on was the pantomime dame, which historically was played by comedians from the music hall. Robey was inspired by the older comedians Herbert Campbell and Dan Leno, and, although post-dating them, he rivalled their eccentricity and popularity, earning the festive entertainment a new audience.

Robey's music hall act matured in the first decade of the 1900s, and he undertook a number of foreign tours. He starred in the Royal Command Performance in 1912 and regularly entertained before aristocracy. Robey had made his film debut in 1900, according to IMDb. The short comedy The Rats (N.N., 1900) offered a brief glimpse of some of the greatest entertainers from the late Victorian and early Edwardian stage, including Dan Leno, Herbert Campbell and George Robey. In 1913, Robey appeared in two early sound shorts: And Very Nice Too (Walter R. Boots, 1913) and Good Queen Bess (Walter R. Boots, 1913), made in the Kinoplasticon process, where the film was synchronised with phonograph records.

The next year, he tried to emulate his music hall colleagues Billy Merson and Charlie Austin, who had set up Homeland Films and found success with the Squibs series of films starring Betty Balfour. Robey met filmmakers from the Burns Film Company, who engaged him in a silent short entitled George Robey Turns Anarchist, in which he played a character who fails to blow up the Houses of Parliament. George Robey's Day Off (1919) showed the comedian acting out his daily domestic routines to comic effect, but the picture failed at the box office. Producers obviously did not know how best to apply Robey's stage talents to film. He continued to appear sporadically in film throughout the rest of his career, never achieving more than a modest amount of success.

By the First World War, music hall entertainment had fallen out of favour with audiences. Revue appealed to wartime audiences, and Robey decided to capitalise on the medium's popularity. He achieved great success in The Bing Boys Are Here (1916). He was cast as Lucius Bing opposite Violet Loraine, who played his love interest Emma. The couple duetted in the show's signature song If You Were the Only Girl (In the World), which became an international success. Robey raised money for many war charities and was appointed a CBE in 1919. From 1918, he created sketches based on his Prime Minister of Mirth character and used a costume he had designed in the 1890s as a basis for the character's attire.

George Robey
British postcard in the Rotary Photographic Series by Rotary Photo EC., no. 125 H.

George Robey and family
British postcard in the Rotary Photographic Series by Rotary Photo EC., no. 4134 B. Mr. and Mrs. George Robey, Master Teddie & Miss Eileen Robey.

Sancho Panza

George Robey starred in the revue Round in Fifty in 1922, which earned him still wider notice. He returned to the cinema a further four times during 1923. The first two films were written with the intention of showcasing his pantomime talents: One Arabian Night (Sinclair Hall, 1923) was a reworking of Aladdin and co-starred Lionelle Howard and Edward O'Neill. In Harlequinade (A.E. Coleby, 1923) visited the roots of pantomime.

One of Robey's more notable film roles was Sancho Panza in Don Quixote (Maurice Elvey, 1923), for which he received a fee of £700 a week. The amount of time he spent working away from home led to the breakdown of his marriage, and he separated from Ethel in 1923. With the exception of his performances in revue and pantomime, he appeared as his Prime Minister of Mirth character in all the other entertainment media including variety, music hall and radio.

In the late 1920s Robey wrote and starred in two Phonofilm sound-on-film productions, Safety First (Hugh Croise, 1928) and Mrs. Mephistopheles (Hugh Croise, 1929). In 1932 Robey appeared in his first sound film, The Temperance Fête (Graham Cutts, 1932). It was followed by Marry Me (Wilhelm Thiele, 1932), starring German actress Renate Müller, which was one of the most successful musical films of his career. The film tells the story of a sound recordist in a gramophone company who romances a colleague when she becomes the family housekeeper.

Robey continued to perform in variety theatre in the inter-war years and, in 1932, he starred in Helen!, his first straight theatre role. His appearance brought him to the attention of many influential directors, including Sydney Carroll, who signed him to appear on stage as Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1 in 1935, a role that he later repeated in Laurence Olivier's film, Henry V (1944).

Robey starred opposite Fritz Kortner and Anna May Wong in a film version of the hit musical Chu Chin Chow (Walter Forde, 1934). The New York Times called him "a lovable and laughable Ali Baba". In the summer of 1938 Robey appeared in the film A Girl Must Live (Carol Reed, 1939) in which he played the role of Horace Blount. A journalist for The Times opined that Robey's performance as an elderly furrier, the love interest of both Margaret Lockwood and Lilli Palmer, was "a perfect study in bewildered embarrassment".

During the Second World War, Robey raised money for charities and promoted recruitment into the forces. Robey starred in the film Salute John Citizen (Maurice Elvey, 1942), co-starring Edward Rigby and Stanley Holloway, about the effects that the war had on a normal British family. A further four films followed in 1943, one of which promoted war propaganda while the other two displayed the popular medium of cine-variety.

By the 1950s, his health had deteriorated, and he entered into semi-retirement. George Robey was knighted a few months before his death at his home in Saltdean, East Sussex, in 1954. He was 85. Robey was married twice. In 1898, Robey married his first wife, the Australian-born musical theatre actress Ethel Hayden. Ethel accompanied him on his tours and frequently starred alongside him. They had two children, son Edward (1900) and daughter Eileen. After his divorce from Ethel in 1938, he married Blanche Littler, who was more than two decades his junior.

Violet Lorraine and George Robey sing If You Were The Only Girl In The World (1916). Source: gihiuh fvjjojo (YouTube).

George Robey and Thelma Tuson sing Any Time is Kissing Time in Chu Chin Chow (1934). Source:

Sources: Wikipedia and IMDb.

No comments: