Audacity as Entertainment
James Hawes’s 2007 Film about the Life of Marie Lloyd
Try this: audacity as entertainment. And I don’t mean Theresa May, she of the strong and stable leadership. John Crace reported in The Guardian, from Florence, that half the audience had gone to sleep before she’d got through the first five minutes. Moreover, most of the audience were English journalists. Crace wondered aloud if perhaps all the London halls were booked up.
When I was seven or so, I fell down the stairs and my right leg had to be put in plaster. I could still hobble about. As a get-well treat, my paternal grandpa took me to Blackpool Central Pier, where Randolph Sutton (On mother Kelly’s doorstep) had called out of retirement some of his contemporaries in a show called Thanks for the Memory.
We were sitting on the front row. Grandpa knew all the words for the sing-alongs. I soon picked them up, then picked them out on the piano at home. It was this event above all others that decided me I had to have a life in music. Did those music hall stars ever know about the power of communication. I was, of course, unaware at the time, of a decision which had been made for me.
Mrs May seems not to have had any such childhood good luck.
There was Tessie O’Shea (No one loves a fairy when she’s forty) and Gertie Gitana (My dusky princess), lots of dancing girls with fat legs, and most memorable of all, Ella Shields (I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty / I don’t care a job for the lot / I stroll down the Strand with my gloves on my hand / Then I stroll back again with them off). She used the Queen’s pronunciation of off (i.e. orff). There was lots of cross-dressing in the music halls and here was a woman, fitted out as a man and a toff to boot. She had a face which was covered in white powder which blew all over the front row as she started to sing.
It was only many decades later that I learned that Ella was American, so there was an amazing quadruple take going on: an American woman as a down and out English bloke passing himself off as a London toff.
Trolling the internet recently, I came across an astonishingly well-made film about the life and work of Marie Lloyd, written and directed by James Hawes for Hat Trick with the BBC in 2007. In seventy minutes Hawes has packed in much of Lloyd’s very busy life and artistry, though he has sacrificed her tours abroad in France, Australia and America. (to see Miss Marie Lloyd – Queen of The Music Hall on YouTube click here).
James Hawes, novelist, historian, academic, film director, entertainer (this last always present in the other four) is widely seen as England’s leading intellectual. I must now add another accolade to his impressive list: musician. There is a precise moment when anything must happen in a film, a precise second when a scene must be cut, a precise second when the action must slow down and a precise second when the action must accelerate. The measurement of these timings is a musical skill. Mr Hawes has it in bucketfulls. And he must have the busiest scissors in the movie business. He takes the viewer’s breath away (a kind of sexual assault on the audience, just what Miss Lloyd knowingly did) and like the Queen of the Hall, it feels like he is having pleasure, giving pleasure.
When James Hawes was auditioning for the title role in Miss Marie Lloyd, and Jessie Wallace appeared with her agent, and casually sang through The Boy I love is Up in the Gallery, Hawes knew he need look no further for his leading lady. Ms Wallace is best known to many for her longtime role as Kat Slater in the BBC soap-opera, EastEnders or recently (1 September 2017) for causing public disturbance and screeching obscenities, while being thrown out of a North London pub: both admirable qualifications for becoming Marie Lloyd.
It looks very much like the theatre scenes were shot in Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Tower Hamlets, a Grade II listed building, now restored and used by the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House for their appropriate productions, as well as the BBC. There is no mention of Wilton’s in the film’s credits, but surprisingly, I did spot a storage-heater of our own times in one scene, which should have been covered or removed; a strange slip for one so attentive to detail as James Hawes.
If Wilton’s it was, at the auditions, The Boy I Love was being heard in the place where it first saw the light of day. That possibly wouldn’t have meant much to Ms Wallace. But it meant everything to Mr Hawes. And his guess they would make an excellent team proved well-founded too.
Jessie Wallace was born in Hackney, so not quite within the sound of Bow Bells (said to be the requirement to qualify as cockney). Her cockney did sometimes slip, but on the whole was tolerably good. The issue is complex, because cockneys themselves are given to imitating others, as I well know from buying fruit from the remaining boys in Soho’s Berwick Street market. You will never win a battle of wits with them. I was buying figs and asked boy one where they came from and got I dunno. But boy 2 picked up the box, read it and said they came from Turkey, a triumphant look on his face. I said to boy one (who was my actual server) This haughty youth he speaks the truth / whenever he finds it pays / and in this case, it all took place / exactly as he says. Number two got his breath and said, Discount to the gentleman, affecting a posh accent. W S Gilbert would have been delighted with my appropriating his words. And a bit of sun had entered all three of our lives on a grey day.
Matilda Alice Victoria Wood was the eldest of nine children, born, 12 February 1870, in Hoxton (the only other place in London to still have a restored music hall today) where Tilly (as she was known in the family) made her try-out debut, a few years before her first agent, also her first husband, gave her the name of Marie Lloyd.
Marie went through three husbands, the first and last of whom were opportunists, on the make through the immense fortune Marie amassed through her meteoric rise to fame. In fairness to Percy Courtenay (Richard Armstrong) he was probably, genuinely, as much in love with her act, as were her public. He also gave her her stage name. And became her trusted banker (a mistake on Marie’s part, permitting this, but in those times husbands ruled their wives as an accepted social norm). He also gambled her money away. And she had only married him because he had got her pregnant. The result of that birth was that Marie junior (her only child) who would follow her mother in the halls; the pair had enormous success, especially in France, but after Marie’s death at the age of 52, the daughter never made it alone.
The press had a ball with her divorce, mostly taking Courtenay’s side. Marie replied to them, using her art to get her message across: Hold your hand out, naughty boy. There was scarcely any applause or response as she came on stage with her usual Are we all ‘appy?. But having confessed her misery, Marie then signaled to the bandmaster to begin the new number.
This is the moment to praise the authentic instrumentation which composer, Rob Lane, has used throughout the movie, the slightly-out-of-tune pub piano, the Chinese blocks, the harrumphing glissandos of the bass trombone, the trumpets’ mutes which give the raspberry to the naughty boy. It brought the house down. The Queen of the Hall had turned misfortune to her advantage.
Marie, having locked Courtenay out of the house, took firm charge of her money. She calmly made a divorce settlement of £2000 on Courtenay (take it or leave it) when husband number 2 was waiting. This was Alec Hurley (Matthew Marsh), himself a much admired musical hall singer (Doing the Lambeth Walk) whom Marie married on the rebound from her divorce. It was a mistake. Her drinking was fast getting out of control and poor Alec was classified as a bore by Marie. She had a point there too.
The next and final husband was young enough to be her son, a jockey who easily gets top prize in cuteness (Tom Payne) who decides to try his hand at being a music hall turn in singing and dancing. He and Marie were soon together in an act, both onstage and off.
Husbands aside, there was another man in Marie’s life, her childhood friend, Freddie (Lee Williams, who competes for cuteness with Tom Payne). The movie opens with Marie and Freddie as children, when a woman stranger in the street presses a couple of shillings into Marie’s hands to wish them well. Freddie thinks of sweets but Marie has a better idea to use it to bribe the stage doorman to let them sneak in to see the show from backstage.
Freddie becomes Marie’s dresser. Marie’s mother was a much sought-after dressmaker and real-life Freddie was probably an assistant in her shop. However, he stands by Marie through thick and thin, until, under the heavy influence of alcohol during the third marriage, she fires him. But even in her stupor, she cannot live without him and has to go to beg to him to come back. He does.
This was also the period when Marie stood up for the rights of the girls of the chorus who were not being paid enough to feed their children. The theatre managements were furious. They offered her a hundred pounds a week to return. Not until you pay my girls a decent living wage, she said, more than a century before Jeremy Corbyn. And she held out. She attended picket lines outside the theatres and performed to take up a collection for the unemployment funds. People gave so generously, it was almost unwillingly the girls went back to work when management caved in and Marie arrived at the theatre with champagne for all, especially the management, whose glasses she filled with a merry wink.
It was, in fact, the winks and the nods, rather than the words, which gave her songs a risqué element. Has anyone used that word since the Victorians? Every little movement has a meaning of its own. Or My old man said, follow the van. It all depends where you put the stress.
A Mrs Chant was determined to have Miss Marie Lloyd banned from the halls and succeeded in bringing her before the Vigilance Committee. By this time Marie was cocksure of her act and old spoilsport Chant was left unsatisfied by the hearing or its positive verdict of Miss Lloyd. One of the great comic scenes of the movie.
There is nothing on the present-day London screens or stages that can stand alongside the pleasure which this movie will surely invoke in all who see it. Like Joe Orton, Marie Lloyd’s art was founded on audacity; the more she sank into the mire, the more audacious she became. She died (officially) of mercury poisoning (taken in an attempt to rid herself of syphilis). Friends said she had died of a broken heart. Over a hundred thousand people lined the streets for her funeral.
But Marie Lloyd’s spirit lives on. And nowhere more than in this superb film.