Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chaplin and my grandfather Hanley 1904

I did not know my grandfather Bill Sherwin. He died when I was three in 1958. He had done quite a bit in his life. A GPO man, a miner, a soldier in the North Staffordshire Regiment where he was wounded fighting with the 7th battalion in Mesopotamia ( Modern day Iraq) and an intriguing story of him being in the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in Montevideo after punching an officer. He had the reputation of being a interesting conversationalist and one of his stories that I was interested in finding out more about was the time in the early years of the last century when he saw Charlie Chaplain as a young boy entertaining the crowds in Market Square Hanley. I was interested if this was right.

What was Charlie Chaplin's early life like?

Thus by the time he was ten, he had encountered a range of experiences greater than most of us know in long lifetimes. He had known abject poverty and hunger, and the loneliness and deprivation of life in workhouses and children's homes. He had witnessed at close quarters alcoholism, madness and death. For much of the time he survived only by his own initiative and wit.

It was a life, which would simply have killed many ordinary children. But this child was not ordinary. He had a strength and resilience, which appears phenomenal.

And then at ten years old, his life changed. He went to work. And his work, like his parents', and thanks to his father's connections, was in the music hall. He was engaged to dance and sing with a juvenile act called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads.'

The music halls of those times provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time - between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. Every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo - a beginning, a middle and a great exit - to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience.
By the time he was 14 Chaplin was touring with a company in the role of the Billy in a play written by Conan Doyle based on his great character Sherlock Holmes.

"Sherlock Holmes" was remarkable for its staging. There was total darkness during which the scenes changed, an unprecedented use of blackouts; and a mass of electric equipment to provide such novel lighting effects as the glow of Holmes' cigar in the darkness. The part of Billy was a good part for him. Chaplin made a half a dozen appearances in the course of the play, and has quite funny dialogue, elaborately written in cockney dialogue. It toured the provincial theatres of the north and the Midlands and it arrived in Hanley at the Palace of Varieities, the Theatre Royal for a 6-day tour beginning on the 12th April 1904