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.

Christmas on Greek Street.

© David Secombe 2010.

From Act Two of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter, 1965:

LENNY: […] I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t I take her with me up to Greek Street?


MAX: You mean put her on the game?


We’ll put her on the game. That’s a stroke of genius, that’s a marvellous idea. You mean she can earn the money herself – on her back?


MAX: Wonderful. The only thing is, it’ll have to be short hours. We don’t want her out of the house all night.

LENNY: I can limit the hours.

MAX: How many?

LENNY: Four hours a night.

MAX: (dubiously) Is that enough?

LENNY: She’ll bring in a good sum for four hours a night.

MAX: Well, you should know. After all, it’s true, the last thing we want to do is to wear the girl out. She’s going to have her obligations this end as well. Where you going to put her in Greek Street?

LENNY: It doesn’t have to be right in Greek Street, Dad. I’ve got a number of flats all around that area.

MAX: You have? Well, what about me? Why don’t you give me one?

LENNY:  You’re sexless.

… and a Merry Christmas to all our readers. 

(see also: Old and New Soho no.5)

Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (3/5)

Brydges Place, WC2, 1982. Photo © Paul Barkshire.

Brydges Place – “the narrowest alley in London” – runs between St. Martin’s Lane and Bedfordbury. Paul Barkshire’s photograph shows the view towards St.Martin’s Lane, where the alley narrows with an authentically Victorian oppressiveness before it opens out into the bright lights next to the Coliseum. Ahead, the pub signs denote the back doors of The Marquis and The Harp, the latter being one of the  nicest remaining West End pubs; immediately behind where Paul placed his camera is 2 Brydges Place, a civilized drinking club which, like the Harp, is much favoured by actors and theatre people.

This Dickensian little alley – a relic of a time when London was interlaced with innumerable such passages, usually forbidding rather than charming – offers many possibilities for drinking, socialising and making odd connections in general. On a warm night, or just when the pubs are so rammed that they spill into the alley, one can strike up intriguing conversations with strangers. And the stars are more vivid when you can only see a narrow slit of sky (past the sodium yellow of the streetlights, of course).

It is also a good spot to make a fool of yourself. Your correspondent went to English National Opera at the Coliseum earlier this year, and after a couple of sharpeners at the Harp, used Brydges Place as a cut-through – forgetting how crowded it gets on a Saturday when there is a matinee at ENO. As I trundled towards St.Martin’s Lane, I noticed a very beautiful woman waiting for me to clear so she and her friend could enter the alley: I recognised her as being the celebrated actress Saffron Burrows. No sooner had I clocked her and her cheekbones than I heard her say to her companion:  “We’ll have to wait for this large man to get out before we can go down here”. A fraction of a second later, I stepped on a loose paving slab and my desert-booted foot dropped into filthy rainwater up to my ankle. Smooth, smooth, smooth. D.S.

Nights at the Opera. Photo & text: David Secombe. (5/5)

Viviana Durante taking her curtain call. Photo © David Secombe 1994.

To a Dancer by Arthur Symons:

Her eyes across the footlights gleam,
(The wine of love, the wine of dream)
Her eyes that gleam for me!

The eyes of all that see
Draw to her glances stealing fire
From her desire that leaps to my desire
Her eyes that gleam for me!

(There are two more verses of this awful poem, but I think we’ve heard enough.)

Viviana Durante is seen here taking a final bow at the end of Kenneth MacMillan’s acclaimed staging of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This was the last concert of the season, a hot June night, and dance fans in the gods indulged in the agreeably cheesey custom of throwing flowers on to the stage as the principals took their calls. Ms Durante appears to be looking into the lens in this picture – this is likely, as the next frame shows her getting a fit of giggles as she looks at someone standing on my right. So you get it both ways: a poised ballerina straight from Symons’ coy imaginings, who sends up the entire form with a lethally witty gesture. Only someone seriously good can get away with that.

The London Column takes its own break for a week or so; material will be amassing in the mean time, so join us again later in the month.

David Secombe

Nights at the Opera. Photo & text: David Secombe (4/5)

Darcey Bussell,  Royal Ballet Company, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.  Photo © David Secombe, 1994.

From London: a book of Aspects by Arthur Symons, 1912

The most magical glimpse I ever caught of a ballet was from the road in front, from the other side of the road, one night when two doors were suddenly thrown open as I was passing. In the moment’s interval before the doors closed again, I saw, in that odd, unexpected way, over the heads of the audience, far off in a sort of blue mist, the whole stage, its brilliant crowd drawn up in the last pose, just as the curtain was beginning to go down.

Ballet is one of those art forms – like poetry and jazz – which may be cheerfully disparaged in polite conversation. Such discussions offer opportunities for the uninterested to dress up their prejudices at the expense of a form which is seen as a minority interest, the province of the uncool or the far too radical. I confess I shared a similar ignorance, even hostility, to dance until I started photographing it. I had been looking forward to seeing opera in the raw and regarded the ballet as a rather irritating add-on to my obligations on the Royal Opera House project. You see something on television and arrogantly assume you know enough to hold an opinionAs it turned out, I found the ballet thrilling and opera a comparative let-down (as theatre, anyway); but the dance was a real discovery.  The staggering physicality of dancers at their physical and artistic peak: the noise of the corps de ballet thudding onstage is a shock in itself. Standing off-stage, or just in the wings – as I was when I took the picture above – gives you a glimpse of what it costs to defy gravity; the strain of the job showing just outside the frame of the proscenium arch. I went from total skeptic to convinced enthusiast: a faintly humbling position for a sedentary, overweight photographer to assume.

Some doubts remain. The Royal Ballet’s version of Daphnis and Chloe was a disappointment. Ravel’s rapturous score concludes with one of the great orgiastic frenzies in all art, but the action on stage was something akin to Morris Dancing, with the fabulous Viviana Durante and company poncing about with over-sized handkerchiefs. Even Bernard Haitink’s conducting couldn’t compensate for the absurdity of that.

© David Secombe 2011