Sunday 28 September 2014

Charlie Chaplin, King of the Kinema In The Funny Wonder Comic, 1930

As the inevitable shelf-load of ghosted celebrity autobiographies start to materialise in the run up to Christmas, here's a reminder that it's nothing new — famous names have been brands used to sell stuff for decades. There's arguably still never been a name bigger than Charlie Chaplin. That he was once the most famous man in the world is not open to debate, surely, and one small offshoot of that status was the decision of the British company Amalgamated Press to create, in 1915, a Chaplin comic strip.

It appeared in their comic The Funny Wonder all the way through to 1944, drawn mostly by Bertie Brown, with Freddie Adkins sometimes filling in. There are a handful of issues in the Little Shop, and below is a story from 1930, by Brown I think, which expertly captures the Little Tramp doing what he does best, mooning after girls and getting involved in pretty violent slapstick.

There are more examples of the strip on Lew Stringer's excellent blog here, and don't forget you can join Brian J. Robb's epic journey through all of Chaplin's output, exactly a century after each film's initial release, here.

Sunday 21 September 2014

An Actual Bottle From Uncle Monty's Sensational Cellar: The Ultimate Withnail Collectible?

Anno's Africa is "is a UK based charity that offers an alternative, arts education to orphans and vulnerable children in some of Africa’s most desperately deprived city slums." You can visit their website and donate to this most worthy cause here

I'm mentioning them because last week they auctioned off a bunch of 'celebrity' items on eBay. A whopping £42,000 was raised in total, thanks in no small part to Jane Birkin's signed Hermes bag (£19,900) and BenCum's Spencer Hart suit from Sherlock (£7,100). But the item that caught my eye was this:

"A genuine Haut Brion '53 wine bottle with original label, but filled with 'prop' wine (Ribena or equivalent) as used as a prop in cult movie WITHNAIL AND I – as part of Uncle Monty's wine cellar – and not uncorked by Uncle Monty! 

The label is signed on the left hand side by the movie's writer and director Bruce Robinson, and on the right hand side he has written 'Withnail & I 1986'."

I'll admit I would have dearly loved to have won this (what a centrepiece for the Withnail shrine in the Little Shop!); alas the winning bid of £481.89 was somewhat out of my price range. Still, at that price I'm sure it's gone to a good home, where it will be treated with the respect and love it deserves, and carefully handed down to generation upon generation in the future...

Incidentally, you can buy a bottle of Haut-Brion '53 that still has the actual wine in it for slightly less than £481.89 here, but only if you buy a whole case of it. For five and a half grand.

Anyway, here are some more photos of this wonderful piece of Withnail history, as modelled by Mr Robinson himself... Chin chin!

Friday 12 September 2014

Time-Space Visualiser: Penrith On June 23rd, 1887

I imagine someone somewhere has glibly called photographs 'windows into the past', but in the case of these recent arrivals, the description is totally justified. There are two of them, both the size of an LP record, and even though they're somewhat faded, get close enough and the detail really comes alive.

July 20th, 1887 was Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. She wrote in her diary:

"Had a large family dinner. All the Royalties assembled in the Bow Room, and we dined in the Supper-room, which looked splendid with the buffet covered with the gold plate. The table was a large horseshoe one, with many lights on it.

"The King of Denmark took me in, and Willy of Greece sat on my other side. The Princes were all in uniform, and the Princesses were all beautifully dressed. Afterwards we went into the Ballroom, where my band played."

Sounds like a great night. A couple of days later, it was Penrith's turn to celebrate. According to this report in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald the events kicked off with a rousing speech from the local M.P. J.W. Lowther, who called for three cheers, “Cheers which will make this old market place of Penrith ring and ring again, cheers which shall be remembered by all of us here present to our dying day."

The report continues:

A church service at St. Andrew’s was followed by a great procession. Supt. Fowler, of the local constabulary, on horseback, headed six carriages, containing the MP and other leading lights, and hundreds on foot, including Oddfellows, Druids, Forresters and Sons of Temperance.
A short stop was made while the chairman of the local board of health, Mr. James, re-named Scot Lane as Brunswick Road, as the thoroughfare had just been widened and improved.
It was the turn of the children to parade in the afternoon, this time with Mr. Fairer, the chairman of the jubilee committee, leading on his horse. While youngsters were presented with special mugs, old folk were entertained to a “knife and fork” feast in the Exchange Hall (later to become J. H. Howe’s dress shop in Angel Lane and, ultimately, demolished to make way for the Angel Square development).
The highlight was a sports meeting on the Foundry Field, with the cavalry band playing while athletes ran, jumped and wrestled. Everybody must have been exhausted by the end of the day, for the program also included a fireworks display on the Beacon and a dinner for 100 leading personalities at the Crown Hotel.

The photos below, taken by local portrait and landscape photographer James Huff, show the gathering in the centre of town to watch the procession. In the second shot though, a lot of the crowd spotted Huff, and are looking straight at us, through the years...

Sunday 7 September 2014

Saki Fanciers Raise A Glass: Remembering Jack Langguth

Once a year for about a decade, I would disappear from work for an afternoon to go and have a long lunch with Jack Langguth. He died earlier this week, and it's a sign of the respect in which he was held that his passing was marked by obituaries in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The obits can only scratch the surface of his long career as a journalist, novelist, historian and latterly well-loved Professor at the University of Southern California in LA. Here's a man who was Saigon bureau chief for The New York Times during the Vietnam War (experiences he drew on for his award-winning book Our Vietnam), spent Christmas with Lee Harvey Oswald's mother in the aftermath of the JFK assassination (which he remembered for the LA Times here), and wrote books about subjects as diverse as black magic in Brazil, the CIA's use of torture, Julius Caesar, the second American War of Independence, and the life of Hector Hugh Munro, the writer better known as Saki.

I got to know him through that Saki biography, a superbly researched, hugely entertaining and definitive 'category killer' which is still in print. Having read the book, and enjoyed the half dozen previously uncollected Saki stories he included in the original OUP edition, I excitedly contacted him (with a surname like that, Google found him instantly) with a query about a couple of other obscure Saki tales I had tracked down. The enthusiastic email I got in return was the beginning of many years of friendship. "Let's meet for lunch when I'm in London," he wrote. So we did, and continued to do so once a year for ten years.

Jack would come to London, usually in spring, for a week or so, and cram in as many theatre visits as he could: he would literally see a different play every night, with matinees of yet more shows as well where possible. His love of the theatre was infectious, and the pleasure it gave him was palpable, whether he was praising one of his favourite actors, Simon Russell Beale, or gleefully demolishing the shows he thought were terrible.

Lunch was always at a branch of Bertorelli's in the West End, and we always raised a glass to Hector. For the first few years it was just Jack and I, but by our last meeting a couple of years ago, the merry band of 'Saki Fanciers' (Jack's term) had long since reached double figures. It's thanks to Jack that I contacted English Heritage to persuade them to give Saki a blue plaque (one was already underway, and Jack and I attended its unveiling in Mortimer St), was inspired to put together my own edition of uncollected Saki stories, A Shot in the Dark, and then asked to appear as a talking head (alongside Jack, Will Self and Alexi Sayle amongst others) in the BBC documentary The Double Life of Saki. Indeed, the creative forces behind that programme, writer/actor Roger Davenport and director/producer Andrew Hutton, became stalwart lunch-going 'Saki Fanciers' themselves.

Jack was someone for whom the word 'gentleman' fit perfectly. He was warm, generous, and that wonderful combination: unfailingly interested, and interesting. I shall miss him.

UPDATE:  Some other tributes to Jack can be found here, here and here.