Clapham Common Clowns. Photo: Tim Marshall, poem: Tim Turnbull. (1/4)

Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984

Clown Rapture Imminent

See them assemble under tarpaulin,
raggy-arsed, rowdy, dim-wit conventicle,
googling their eyes, goofing and pratfalling,
red-nosed and panstuck, no two identical.

The Jingles and Joeys, Buttons and Beppos
stream, in their thousands, the dusty back roads
trudging with bindles and holes in their boot toes,
arrive in jalopies which promptly explode,

but nobody’s certain why they are here –
on the ramshackle outskirts of showbiz –
none of them has the remotest idea
who ought to feed, what, even, the joke is.

So, on they caper, cavort through the night,
dance by the light of a torched charabanc,
engaging in ever more savage pie-fights
with nail-studded slapsticks and ironwood planks.

They wake where they fell, spent and depleted,
clown-pants beshitten, all covered with flies
as Weary Willy, throwing back his head,
howls ‘We are forsaken!’ to an empty sky.

… for The London Column. © Tim Turnbull 2012.

Speciality Acts. Photo: David Secombe, text: Claire Muldoon. (3/3)

Terri Carol, Hackney Empire. © David Secombe 1990.

From the Obituary column of The Guardian, 19 March 2002:

Terri Carol by Claire Muldoon

What was unique about the music hall performer Terri Carol, who has died aged 87, was that she bridged the gap between pre-television era variety and the variety which re-emerged in the 1980s. Terri was a paper tearer – she balked at the term origami – and became a symbol of the resurrected Hackney Empire in London’s east end.

Her presentation stunned modern audiences. Coiffured, magnificently gowned, the grand old lady – who called people “darling” or “sweetie” – astonished young audiences with her skill. The act was a series of age-old paper tricks, accompanied by a patter delivered as asides. “If the government,” she would observe to the incredulous onlookers, “gave me a bit more pension I wouldn’t have to do this bloody thing.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke,” she would add, “but I’m not a spoilsport.” The show proved it. Out of a flurry of paper would be launched ships, palm trees, lace doilies, steering wheels, occasionally enhanced by a dash of audience participation. The performance culminated with her astounding “tower of progress”, a 30ft- tall paper ladder which she would dedicate to a cause dear to her heart.

The daughter of a music hall paper tearer, Terri was born in a Mitcham funeral parlour. She was educated at a convent school until, at the age of nine, her father taught her the paper tearer’s art and carried her off on a world tour with Sir Harry Lauder. The act, her father opined, was clean, and it would make her a living. By the time she was 12, she reckoned she had circumnavigated the world twice. She played Tokyo, took Paper Capers to the Radio City in New York, and claimed that, while doing seven shows a day in the US, she never saw the light of day.

Her career peaked in wartime and she was described by the Daily Mirror in 1942 as “the pluckiest girl in showbusiness”. She performed with her baby in a crib, in the care of a stagehand in the wings. She played with Buster Keaton (“never sober to tell you the truth”), Carmen Miranda, Phil Silvers, Lena Horne, Max Miller and Laurel and Hardy. There was even a time when, she said, she lived in Park Lane, complete with a maid.

Terri was married three times. Her first husband was killed, and after a brief marriage to a Pole she met on a train to York, she married Bill Lowe, one half of a popular comedy double of the 1940s whom she met – with his then wife – on a troop plane back from Germany. As the music hall declined, she toured the continent in the early 1950s, but by the mid-1950s her marriage had collapsed.

Her father’s advice did earn Terri a living, apart from a spell which began in the 1960s when variety was dying. So she worked in the civil service at the ancient monuments department. A decision in the early 1980s to move to South Africa – and visit one of her daughters – was a disaster.

Back in London and virtually penniless, she moved into sheltered housing in Croydon. But then, after the Hackney Empire reopened in l986, I spotted Terri performing in a “good old days” show, and became her agent. She subsequently appeared on Wogan, Friday Night Live, Barrymore, the Generation Game, and the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal; she toured the New Variety circuit in London and went back to Japan for Nippon TV’s Comical Performers. There she was the only person present able to recall pre-war, pre-fire-bombed Tokyo. She performed for the Eurythmics in Nice, and at Tina Turner’s 50th birthday party.

Terri retired officially when arthritis finally took its toll at the age of 80, and she found it too difficult to tear paper, yet she was still planning to perform for the reopening of the Empire’s main auditorium later this year. She is survived by two daughters.

Terri Carol (Ivy Rosina Victoria Morse), entertainer, born May 25 1914; died January 31 2002.

David Secombe:

This photo of Terri Carol was taken in the foyer of the Hackney Empire as part of a series on ‘Speciality Acts’ which I shot for The Sunday Times Magazine.  The feature was facilitated by Claire and Roland Muldoon, sponsors of new and old Variety theatre by virtue of their heroic work managing performers and rescuing the Hackney Empire from its fate as a defunct Bingo hall. Some might say that their achievement has not been properly appreciated: without their effort and enthusiasm, this grand Frank Matcham-designed theatre would have been pulled down in the 1980s. Some of the most magical nights I have ever experienced in a theatre have been at the Hackney Empire; sadly, since the Muldoons departed, the theatre may have said to have lost its pristine sense of purpose. The love has left the building. If there was any justice in the world, the Muldoons would still be in charge of the finest Variety Theatre in Britain and there would be a statue of Claire, Roland and Sid the balloon-juggling dog outside Hackney Town Hall.

See also: Comics 1 (Spike Milligan)

Speciality Acts. Photos & text David Secombe (2/3)

Stevie Starr, Finchley. © David Secombe 1990.

Stevie Starr swallows things; then he brings them back up again. He is a professional regurgitator.

In the picture above he is bringing up a fountain of sucrose powder – which , bizarrely, is coming up dry – one of a number of different items and substances which disappeared and then reappeared before our eyes: a lightbulb, a billiard ball, coins … Another routine involved swallowing soapy water, smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke-filled bubbles.  He refrained from performing his famous goldfish routine, a trick which had got him into some trouble with the RSPCA. Stevie pointed out to the animal welfare inspector who came to see his show that he drank six pints of water before he swallowed the fish, that he had never had one die on him and that, as their memory span was only eight seconds, by the time they were in his stomach they couldn’t remember how they got there.

Stevie’s story of how he came to acquire such a skill was touching, if perhaps calculated; he said that he was bullied at school and had to swallow his pocket money to stop it from being stolen; he then discovered that he could bring the change back at will.

I heard nothing of Stevie for many years – until last year, when he appeared as a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent. Stevie’s talent is specialist but genuine: in an earlier era, he might have become as well-known as the celebrating farting turn Le Petomane, but Stevie’s skill is perhaps too unnerving for contemporary taste. Seeing his routine close-up was a hugely memorable yet faintly worrying experience: I thought he was going to choke to death on that billiard ball.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012. 

Speciality Acts.Photos & text: David Secombe (1/3)

Larry Barnes, ‘The Viceroy of Versatility’, Finchley. © David Secombe 1990.

From the Obituary column of The Stage:

Larry Barnes

Published Monday 15 August 2011 at 17:42 by Richard Anthony Baker

Billed as the Viceroy of Versatility, Larry Barnes lived up to the promise. As one of the variety theatre’s last speciality acts, he was a magician, an escapologist, a balloon sculptor and most famously a paper tearer.

His father introduced him to music hall when he was still a boy and, after only a brief stint at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, he made his stage debut at the Adelphi in 1941/42 playing a pirate in Peter Pan with Barbara Mullen in the title role. After serving in the Second World War, he resumed his stage career and also worked as a stunt man in films, including The Colditz Story (1955).

After contracting arthritis following an accident on stage, he furthered his interest in magic and took part in the Tower’s annual music hall shows. He also recreated the escapology act of Houdini, releasing himself from a range of ancient handcuffs and a straitjacket in less than a minute. In addition, he built up a repertoire of songs that he combined with his conjuring and paper tearing. His most famous was If It Wasn’t For the ‘Ouses in Between, originally sung by the Cockney comedian, Gus Elen. Barnes’ gimmick was this – as he reached certain words in the song, such as ‘a ladder’, or ‘a tree’, or ‘a row of houses,’ he would produce his paper representation of them. “Wiv a ladder and some glasses, you could see to ‘Ackney Marshes, if it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.”

David Secombe writes:

These photos showing Larry Barnes demonstrating his version of Harry Houdini’s straitjacket routine were made at the home of Larry’s assistant (who was also a Justice of the Peace) in Finchley. The photos were commissioned for a Sunday Times Magazine feature on ‘Speciality Acts’, which were having something of a revival at the time – the term covered old-timers like Larry and the new breed of more outre ‘New Variety’ performers such as the ‘regurgitator’ Stevie Starr, another on my list of subjects. Larry arrived at his assistant’s later than billed, dressed in an extravagant outfit which spoke of the theatricality of an earlier era; unfortunately, his stylish presentation was the reason for his lateness, as he had been mugged on the Victoria Line by some football supporters who took exception to his appearance and stole his carpet-bag of props. The bag was thrown onto the platform at the next stop, but Larry had had to go to Brixton to retrieve them from lost property.

Amongst other things, the bag contained Larry’s prized handcuffs, allegedly the property of Houdini himself – although it has to be said that Larry was a bit vague on their provenance. But Larry’s tour-de-force was his straitjacket escape, which provided this photographer with a sequence of a dozen images which – by accident rather than design – look like some kind of collaboration between Edward Muybridge and Francis Bacon. The pictures only give a hint of the tremendous effort Larry put into this stunt, but I like to think that his expression in the final image gives an indication of the nature of his achievement. Quite literally, Larry shows us what it means to be free.

Larry Barnes, born Islington May 16, 1926; died Hackney, July 2, 2011.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.