Charlie Chaplin

From the Guernsey Press of May 11th, 1939; 'Heard in the Bordage' by Stargazer.

Gossip of Guernsey

Charlie Chaplin, the world-famous comedian, was fifty the other day. He has done a great deal for the world. He has made us laugh. There is something a little wistful, too, about Charlie, because he has had the desire, not only to make the world laugh, but top make it think and feel. Perhaps he has done that also to a certain extent.

I am perhaps the only Sarnian who has met Chaplin. I still keep up a correspondence with him, approximately two letters per year. The story of how Guernsey put him on the road to fame has been told before, but lately it has been resurrected by Fred Karno, of theatre fame, who was one of the first to see that Chaplin had comic genius.

Charlie appeared in Guernsey, you know, with Karno’s Company at the old St Julian’s Hall, now the Gaumont Palace. That was in 1911, and I remember going to see the performance. I must have been about 13 years of age.

No-one realised, even if those who saw the performance remotely remember seeing Chaplin, that they were viewing the work of one who was destined to become second to none in his profession. Charlie, in those days, was a typical Cockney; he had all the mannerisms, the cheeky wit, the peculiar accent of Kennington, on the other side of Waterloo Bridge, London, where he normally lived.

But in 1911 Guernsey people did not understand the Chaplin type of humour. So Charlie told me himself. He who was the principal comedian of the Karno crowd; he who on tour of all other towns had held sway, was not doing so well at Guernsey.

The other turns, the more blatant but less clever, the custard-pie throwing type of comedian, because the humour was so obvious, was getting all the laughs. Charlie was despondent. 'I’m a flop,’ he said. ‘These people are half French,’ said Karno. ‘They don’t understand you.’ (Which was rather a far-fetched conclusion; Guernsey people in 1911 knew enough of the world and English ways to have called forth a less drastic denunciation. No, we just didn’t appreciate Charlie’s peculiar type of humour.)

‘Well. I’ll give them what they want,’ said Chaplin. ‘Obviously they want antics. So I’ll mime my stuff.’ And for the next three performances he did. And Guernsey audiences loved it. So much so he wondered if it would be appreciated in other centres. He said as much to Karno. ‘My boy,’ said Karno, you’re made. You are not taking that miming out of your performance. This is going to make you the world’s most talked about comedian.’ And so Chaplin’s silly, yet pathetic, little shuffling walk, the tilting of the bowler from behind, the carrying of the absurd cane, even the introduction of the moustache and fuzzy hair, became part and parcel of Charlie Chaplin. He rarely spoke again while acting, and certainly not in films as we know.

Now, Chaplin told me all that himself. I remember it was a bright shiny morning, and we were crossing over on a ferry boat from the docks at Kowloon, where we had just left his ship, on our way to Hong Kong. And I was the envy of many journalists who were anxious to interview him. Charlie was only in the colony for a day or so, but we spent a number of happy hours together. I also met his brother, Syd Chaplin, who was travelling with him.

[....] I am grateful for having seen Chaplin on the films. I feel privileged for having known him as an ordinary individual.

This anecdote does not accord with the newspaper reports of the time. Fred Karno's Company played at St Julian's Theatre in St Peter Port on August 16th 1912, for one night only, and went down very well, although the press reviewer seems to have found the humour in The Mumming Birds and the Wow Wows somewhat too much on the cheeky side:

Fred Karno's celebrated variety company yesterday paid a flying visit to the island and met with an enthusiastic reception at St Julian's Theatre¹ last evening. The programme was certainly a very varied one, and the comedy provided was distinctly good, though some of the 'jokes' might have been suppressed. [...] Then followed Fred Karno's latest absurdity, The Wow Wows, in which there were three scenes: 'The nook up the river'; 'the preparing room of Brown's Club'; and the interior of the latter, where the Hon. Archibald Binks (Charlie Chaplin) is initiated a 'Wow Wow' upon the invitation of Jimmy Bottles (Edgar Hu[r]ley). Special scenery and effects were employed. The piece was well staged and caused immense amusement. [...] The final item was Mr Fred Karno's new version of the 'Mumming Birds', a skit on the modern music hall, in which the saucy boy (Edgar Hurley) and the inebriated swell (Charlie Chaplin) in the boxes caused much amusement. The artistes' endeavours to please the audience were interrupted by the individuals referred to in such a way as to intensify their delight. The stage was fitted up so as to represent the boxes of a music hall and stage combined. The whole piece was ably carried out by the whole company. [Guernsey Press, August 17th, 1912.]

The Star of the same date reports:

A very large audience, which included Colonel R O Kellett and other officers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish regiment, witnessed one of the most laughable entertainments ever presented at the Theatre. From beginning to end there was but one continuous laugh.

The company had come straight over from Jersey, where they had performed the four previous nights at the Opera House. They were favourably reviewed in the Jersey Evening Post.¹ They returned from Guernsey to London the morning of the 17th, on the Caesarea. Charlie Chaplin polished his miming skills as one of Karno's 'Speechless Comedians', but whether a poor reception in Jersey (rather than Guernsey) caused him to alter his performance in any way is not clear. A J Marriot, who is a leading biographer of Chaplin, kindly pointed us to the relevant chapter from his new book, Chaplin stage by stage(a copy of the book is now in the Library), which comprises a detailed record of Charlie Chaplin's stage appearances, in Britain and America, before his entry into films. In Mr Marriot's opinion, the story as told to 'Stargazer' is most unlikely to be true. From his book, however, we learn that the company did radically alter their set that September, after only two more appearances. Interestingly, he adds that Chaplin was very taken with a character he observed in Jersey, a pompous individual 'hogging the camera' at the Battle of Flowers, and used it later in a film, although he believes that Chaplin himself did not take part in the Battle, as is often claimed. The Guernsey story is attributed first by 'Stargazer' to Fred Karno himself; Charlie later probably forgot the details, or just told 'Stargazer' what he wanted to hear.


¹ 13th August 1912 (thanks to A J Marriot); (the Jersey Evening Press from this period is in the Library collection but the print is of very poor quality, and they are at present too fragile to be consulted by the public. Copies of editions from other decades are also in the collection and are in better condition). Mr Marriot has also sent us a scan of the programme from the Guernsey performance. St Julian's Hall, later Theatre, was built originally for the Oddfellows (see The Guernsey Magazine of November 1876).