In the autumn of 1978 I was into my fourth year as a professional comedian, when I was offered the position of Entertainment Director on a ship going on a world cruise. After four weeks of cruising up and down the straights of Alaska, the highlight of which was watching my clothes go round in a laundrette in Ketchikan, I returned home. Or, to be more accurate, I returned 'home' homeless, and was put up temporarily by my manager. What started as 'come round for dinner,' turned into a nine-month stay. Long dinner.
Some time during those months there was a season of Charlie Chaplin films, shown early evening each weekday on BBC2, I think. I had never seen Chaplin at the cinema, so a lot of these films were new to me. I would sit and watch them and laugh out loud, while my manager and his family would look at me in disbelief that I found any of it funny. But I knew this man Chaplin. I could instantly relate to the business he was performing, and I instinctively knew what he felt in his bones.
Strange to say but, over the years, my capacity to laugh at his films has severely diminished, but my fascination for Chaplin 'the man' has grown stronger – hence the dedication I have given to the research behind this book.When I first voiced my intent to publish a book about Chaplin, the consensus of opinion seemed to be: “Surely, everything that could be written about Charlie Chaplin has been written.” Well, I have to agree that there has been a voluminous amount written about Chaplin, but so much of what is to be found in magazine and newspaper articles, and more recently on dedicated web-sites, is just junk. In these precis we often get the written equivalent of “Chinese whispers.” One writer writes something about Chaplin, another picks it up but doesn’t quite get it right, then the third writer re-writes it, a little more distorted, until the last writer has an article full of nonsense.
Within these pages you will find many quotes from contemporary sources. My feelings are: “If a quote is a quote – then quote it.” And you can quote me on that. The theory behind this is that, the nearer a biographer can get to the original source, the less chance there is that the words have become corrupted by the process mentioned. Obviously this method does not eradicate the quote which was written as a lie in the first place. There is also a certain arrogance in transposing first-person quotes into the third person. If Chaplin says “I was seventeen when I joined the Karno Company,” and a biographer writes: “Chaplin was seventeen when he joined the Karno Company,” then he is printing an inaccuracy whilst intimating that his source is correct. That is why, in nearly all cases, I have revealed my sources.
There have also been a lot of glaring inconsistencies written about Chaplin – most of them by Chaplin himself. When Chaplin sat down to write his biographies, it is doubtful that he had to hand the full list of dates he played whilst with the Karno Company; and so, as these numbered in the hundreds and occurred at the rate of up to three per night, he is rightly forgiven for any slight inaccuracies. One can also forgive Chaplin in instances where he has mistaken one London theatre for another. I, the author, was a club comedian for some fifteen years; in which time I too played thousands of dates at hundreds of venues. In my instance I had to find out the location of the venue in advance, plan my route, and then navigate my own way by car. Chaplin, however, had no such responsibility. All he had to do when playing in London, was to walk down to the Karno Fun Factory, in Camberwell, get aboard one of the special Karno buses, and be driven to the venue.When you’re not driving, you don’t always pay attention to the route, and thus you can easily be unaware as to your location. Thus, when Chaplin says he was appearing at, say, Streatham, he might well have been appearing at Balham, and when he says “Woolwich,” “Rotherithe” might well have been the venue. Failing that explanation, the passage of time between the actual appearances and the writing of his biographies must have clouded his memories.
What further complicates accounts of Chaplin’s movements is that many of these slip-ups have been carried on by latter-day biographers, who didn’t have the recourse to check them out. Past biographers have also underrated the time our eponymous subject spent in the Karno Company. In the biography Remember Fred Karno?, the author relates that Chaplin joined the Karno Company during a run of the sketch The Football Match, after which he went into Jimmy the Fearless – thus omitting at least half-a-dozen other sketches and jumping forward more than two years in the twinkling of an eye. Other authors make similar leaps. Chaplin himself does not help. In his autobiography he omits to mention the first tour of three he made in The Football Match, thus giving the illusion that he was an immediate star in the Karno Company. Of the Karno sketch Jimmy the Fearless, Chaplin makes no mention whatsoever, despite his having played the lead role in it for some nineteen weeks.
This book has three aims:
The first is to destroy many of the myths and legends which surround Chaplin’s stage career. Some can be dealt with here and now:
Firstly, there never was a sketch or a sketch company called: “Fred Karno’s Army [*1].” Neither was there a sketch or company called “Fred Karno’s Circus.” This is important to note as, in many previous accounts, Chaplin and Stan Laurel have been credited with being members of sketches and/or companies with these titles. Paradoxically, there were sketches called Casey’s Army and Casey’s Circus but, whereas the latter two Casey sketches have been forgotten with time, the mythical Karno ones are the first to trip off the tongue whenever the name “Karno” is mentioned. There was no such sketch as “Casey’s Court Circus.” There was a sketch called Casey’s Court, which was set in a courtyard, and there was sketch called Casey’s Circus, which was set in a mock-up of a circus ring.
never appeared in Casey’s Court.
The second aim is to put back many of the pieces of Chaplin’s early stage work which he chose to leave out, and to remove from others the paint with which he retouched them when he wished to present a different image. David Robinson, in Chaplin - His Life and Art, gives the opinion that: “Chaplin was an honest and truthful biographer.” I can’t agree. In my opinion, Chaplin has in many instances distorted the truth, changed the facts, fabricated evidence, and deliberately left out information which doesn’t favour him. Also, the dates and years he gives are so inaccurate that, in at least fifty per cent of cases, it is best to ignore them.
A second oft-used ruse by Chaplin is to leave out anyone from his very early days who went on to become famous. For instance: if it weren’t for the caption on two photographs – one in Chaplin’s autobiography, and the other in Chaplin - My Life in Pictures, Stan Laurel would not have existed in Chaplin’s records, despite their having spent four years together in the Karno Company. More “neglected” stars, and relatives, will be revealed throughout the book.
[Photo right shows Chaplin meeting Billie Reeves, but in Chaplin's autobiography there is no mention of Reeves]
A third recurring inaccuracy is for Chaplin to make out that events which happened only once, happened repeatedly. In one instance he describes escorting Hetty Kelly to the tube station to attend an audition, then goes on to make out this happened four days running. In another he says his mother spent a week on tour with them, then doesn’t “pull out” and tells us it was four weeks. His best one regards the time he was touring with the play Sherlock Holmes. Chaplin recounts his escapades in travelling with a pet rabbit, of which his guardian adds: “Once he let his rabbits run all over the landlady’s sitting room, and of course they made a mess and annoyed the landlady.” Chaplin’s version of “once” is that this happened every week for a whole year.
The third, and main, aim of the book is to present a chronological account of all of Chaplin’s stage appearances. This has been done in fragmented sections within the text, but then in full date-sheet form in the tables at the back of the book. After more than six years of research I am still unable to present these as one hundred per cent complete. Obviously, some minor errors will be found in them, but I hope that the reader will realise the enormity of the task and seek to help to improve the listing, rather than take pleasure in highlighting mistakes or holes. After all, in the ninety-years-plus since Chaplin actually made these appearances, this is the nearest to a definitive record you can find.
In the article A Comedian Sees the World, written in September 1933, Chaplin himself revealed.
I am tired of love and people and like all egocentrics I turn to myself. I want to live in my youth again, to capture the moods and sensations of childhood, so remote from me now - so unreal - almost like a dream. I need to turn back time; to venture into the blurred past and bring it into focus.
So, good readers, let us venture into the blurred past and bring it into focus.
amendments will be
with a view to a proposed second edition.
[*1] The 1952 play “Fred Karno’s Army” had nothing to do with Karno, or any of his sketches.