This is the final Charlie’s London post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London. Charlie’s London is now moving to its own site!
Welcome to the last edition of Charlie’s London on Silent London. I had been thinking for a while about what would be the best goodbye post for a site I hold so very dear. Without Silent London, Charlie’s London would not have an audience and I would not have had the platform to express my love for one of the greatest artists/comedians/directors/humanitarians the world has seen.
Chaplin means something different to everyone. To me he has somehow become part of my family history! From little William in that workhouse to seeing my very own godson fall in love with his films, I can honestly say Charlie never leaves me. Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Southbank showing of The Circus and as I sat in what really is Charlie’s London I felt very honoured and emotional. It was not just because it was a Chaplin film, but because my grandmother and I had watched this film many times when I was a child. I clearly remember her singing “swing little girl” to me on more than one occasion; I wish she had been able to sit in one of those deckchairs with me and enjoy it for herself.
There has been so much written about Chaplin the film-maker, the genius of cinema. There has been even more on Chaplin the man. What has interested me throughout my time writing this blog is Charlie the Londoner. It is true that most of his london no longer exists, but his presence still lingers those streets, even if people do not realise it. Poverty is still a massive problem in inner-city areas around the world, and South London is no different. Chaplin saw all this. For him it was a different age, a different life, but not a different London. You can see this in every one of this films: Easy Street, The Kid, Modern Times and right up until Limelight, Chaplin never forgot his roots.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Today I am going to look at the importance of another figure in Charlie’s life, his brother Sydney, whom I feel should never be overlooked.
Until the groundbreaking biography by Dr Lisa K Stein (Syd Chaplin: a biography), Sydney’s story was only really told as a piece of the Charlie Chaplin jigsaw puzzle. She has completely changed this, showing Sydney as an individual who helped to create his brother’s career. Stein’s book allows us to see Sydney like never before. Her work is a testament to the extensive resources in the Chaplin archives in Bologna, as well as her own personal collection and enthusiasm for her subject. For me, it shows that the information is all very much still there for us to all see, it’s just a question of knowing where to look, having the guts to challenge what is already known, interpret it differently and give a new dimension to further Chaplin research.
Four years older than his famous brother, Sydney would look out for his younger brother for the rest of his life. Born in 16 March 1885 to the 19-year-old Hannah Hill, and originally known as Sidney John Hill, Syd become a Chaplin when he was a few months old upon the marriage between his mother and Charlie’s father. The bond these brothers or the rest of their lives was a powerful one. Their shared time in south London workhouses and poorhouses, while their mother suffered with mental illness, required great courage. These events would later shape the brothers’ outlook on their art and their lives – although in different ways. Sydney Chaplin junior, Charlie’s son by his second wife Lita Grey, would reportedly later joke that his father’s choice of name for him was very apt. Whereas Charlie lived and breathed his work until its completion, Sydney senior would adopt a much more laidback approach and enjoy the fruits of his labour. In my humble opinion, Sydney felt he worked hard so he could play hard, Charlie however felt he had to hold on to his tragedy, because it helped mould his comedy.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Hi everyone. Welcome back to another edition of Charlie’s London.
As promised I will be looking at two more women who I believe shaped his life, both on screen and off. Last time I looked at Chaplin’s mother and Mabel Normand, this week I will look at Edna Purviance and Oona O’Neill. I have to confess, Normand never used to be a favourite of mine, even though I consider her contribution to be important and often overlooked. Now, I have to say, I’m really in her corner. People have often said that Chaplin and Normand hated each other. People have also often said Chaplin and Mary Pickford hated each other too, for me, these relationships are one and the same. Their relationships were creative ones: if they clashed, let’s call it artistic differences.
Normand not only directed Chaplin but also acted as his leading lady too: a role taken most often by Edna Purviance, who appeared in 33 of his pictures including extra parts in Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Purviance was first cast opposite Chaplin in 1915 after a chance meeting with one of his associates in a Tate’s Cafe in San Francisco – the director was looking for a new female lead for his Essanay comedy A Night Out. Even after her final film with Chaplin, A Woman Of Paris in 1923, Purviance stayed on the company payroll right up to her death in 1958.
Chaplin and Purviance were romantically linked for many years, and unfortunately this is how some film enthusiasts and historians seem to want to remember her. I completely disagree with this. Chaplin would never have another leading lady like Purviance – Paulette Goddard comes close, but they don’t have the same bond on screen.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome to another edition of Charlie’s London! For this segment and the next I’m going to look at some of the women in Chaplin’s life, showing how influential, important and ultimately empowering some of these women’s roles really were.
A lot has been written about Chaplin’s private life; he was a dashing and charismatic individual whose appeal extended beyond stage and screen. Recently I was talking to a fellow Chaplin fan and friend in Bologna. We both agreed that there was something so beautiful about Charlie, it was no surprise that his private life become front-page news, whether the stories were true or not. Putting the gossip aside, for me the women who shaped, moulded and even changed Chaplin were his mother Hannah, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance and of course Oona O’Neill.
This subject will often be debated, with some enthusiasts and historians adding Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love, and even Paulette Goddard, his third wife and star of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, to that list. I hope with these two blogs I will explain why I have chosen this group. In this first instalment I will talk about Hannah Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
Hannah Hill, Chaplin’s mother, was arguably the most influential woman in his life. Her struggles in order to give Chaplin a decent upbringing, only to suffer such terrible mental health problems, no doubt haunted him for the rest of his days. I have spoken of Hannah before, and I am quite fond of her as a historical character, not only because she is the mother of my hero, but because I feel she is incredibly interesting. Historians have labelled Hannah as everything from a woman of ill repute to an undiscovered music hall genius whose renditions of the era’s classics would ignite her son’s thirst for the art.
The “fallen woman” analysis comes very much from psychologist Dr Stephen Weissman whose book Chaplin: A Life paints Hannah in a very unflattering light. His depiction of her affair with stage star Leo Dryden (the union that would produce Chaplin’s brother Wheeler) and his suggestion that syphilis was the cause of her madness (including references to her working as a prostitute) are seen as very controversial by other Chaplin enthusiasts and historians. David Robinson is quite rightly kinder to Hannah, noting the confirmed ancestral link to mental health dificulties within the Hill women as the roots of her tragic downfall, while also highlighting her faults such as her affair.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for another edition of Charlie’s London. This week I am going to be talking about my debut appearance on the Silent London Podcast, as well as my recent trip to the thoroughly mindblowing Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy
Being a Chaplin fan you are never short of on-screen comedy capers to keep you entertained, but when someone tells you you can visit the Charlie Chaplin Archive in Bologna, Italy should you be in the area, well you don’t really have to think twice. My partner Kieran and I took a 6am flight to Bologna so that I could visit the archive, but also so we could enjoy the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival too.
At the Cineteca in Bologna we registered for the archive and the festival. All around us everyone complained about the heat, but being half Turkish I didn’t really mind. No sooner had we sat down for a coffee, my phone began to ping, it was Jenny, a fellow festival-goer who had not only made the journey to Bologna but was also staying in the same hotel as us. Pretty soon we were all together, along with Mark, another friend and great supporter of Bristol Silents looking over the festival plan.
Initially I began to look over the schedule from Wednesday to Friday, because I was due to be in the archives Monday and Tuesday, but this turned out this was a pointless exercise. In the end, I was in the archive until Friday morning and in total saw only five films at the festival. The film that left the biggest impression on me was the new restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Mark had told me many times before that it was a film I would enjoy, not only because I have a soft spot for Technicolor but because I have spent a lot of time researching the first and second world wars. He wasn’t wrong! It was a feast of restored beauty, history and irony.
My biggest adventure came on Monday when I finally got to visit the Chaplin archives. Everything has been digitised to make viewing incredibly easy. The staff are so helpful and friendly, even with the busy festival under way in the grounds. Before I knew it I was engrossed, flicking through pages and pages of useful and exciting documents all relevant to a massive piece of research I am undertaking. Kate Guyonvarch, Kevin Brownlow and of course David Robinson all were there to give me a helping hand: their support was priceless. Imagine, as I have done, having read someone’s work since you were 11 years old, only to find them standing behind you in an archive and clarifying a sentence in one of their books that you want to quote in your research! That what David Robinson did, and he refreshed my memory on something I had a mental block on. After many cups of lovely Italian coffee and long chats I had more than 40 pages to take back to England: the tip of the iceberg had been scratched.
Bologna is a long way from South London! Charlie’s London had very much gone continental. Here is where my biggest conundrum lay – you can’t just take a bus to these archives. I knew I had so much I wanted to look at, but I was meant to be at a film festival, what was a girl to do? Luckily enough I have a very supportive partner who smiled and told me to book more time in the archives. So, what started as two days ended up being the whole week, and it was worth it! I discovered so much more about my hero.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Where can I start? First I want to talk to you about an exciting Charlie’s London adventure I am having in the next two weeks! From the 23rd to 30th June 2012 Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy will be showing some amazing silent film gems including a night of Chaplin’s Mutual films accompanied by new scores by Neil Brand, written especially for the festival. And I will be there! I squealed like a child after too much sweet consumption when I heard this, I can assure you.
For me this trip will be a very personal and important journey, one that I hope will enrich my knowledge of Chaplin. I will have the fantastic opportunity of visiting the Chaplin Archives there, a first for me and a very daunting and happy prospect too. Hopefully while I am there I can find some items of interest for all you lovely Charlie’s London readers.
In today’s instalment I want to talk to you about one of Charlie’s homes that I missed out a few episodes back and promised I would return to: No 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road. Why is this house so important to the Chaplin story? It seems to be the one mentioned the most in all his works and definitely the one that seems to have had the most impact on him. Chaplin recounts in My Autobiography walking the “rickety stairs” to the rooms he shared with his mother and Sydney; how the rooms always smelt of slop and wet clothes; how from the windows he could see the glamour of the wealthy music hall acts, their finery and jewels. Their room was less than 12ft square and if poor Hannah’s mental health was failing then the room would suffer too, becoming cluttered with messy cups and plates. Often Chaplin would come home from school, empty the slop bucket and run along to his friend Wally, a son of a friend of his mother from her theatrical days. Wally seems to have made a happy playmate for Charlie while Sydney was away at sea, a period that seems to have added to his mother’s worries.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet
Hi everyone, again thank you for taking time out to read this instalment of Charlie’s London. This segment is going to look at the importance of family with the backdrop of the Lambeth Workhouse. Events that transpired behind the walls of that Victorian institution would change Charlie’s life; but it also holds some personal significance for me too.
I thought long and hard about how to start this piece. The answer to my prayers came in the form of my three-year-old godson Jayden, whose mannerisms and speech are so precociously adult-like you can imagine him starring in The Kid. Jayden is my cousin Em’s little boy, I was there when he was born and have never lived more than three doors away from his mother my entire life. Jay waltzed into my bedroom one afternoon after playing in our joint garden (Em’s parents live next door to us) and pointed at my wall.
“What’s that, Ayşe?” He was referring my two framed Chaplin film posters, one of The Kid and one of The Gold Rush. When I explained to him that they were posters from films made by a very funny man called Charlie Chaplin, Jayden was intrigued.
“Can we watch him?” Well! I don’t need an excuse, so I reached for one of my DVDs.
We snuggled up on the sofa to watch The Kid (I choose this one because I felt Jay could really identify with little Jackie Coogan, both cheeky and comical). I was right; Jayden loved it! He giggled and squealed at every comedy moment, until the scene when the Kid is ripped away from the Tramp. It disturbed him, you could see in his little face the terror and torment; the fear that someone could do that to him, and he would no longer see his mother and father. I have to confess, Coogan’s lips moving to the words “I want my daddy” always causes a lump in my throat. Of course, when the Tramp rescues the boy from the moving orphanage van and holds him the way only a father can, I assured Jay that all little boys have their parents in the end, if they are good little boys.
After he had gone home I sat thinking about the film. Jayden’s reaction had hit a nerve with me that I needed to explore.
Chaplin never hid the fact that he cared about human suffering, and it has been suggested the world over that his own poor upbringing left him with emotional scars. If my godson at three felt moved and distressed at he sight of this in a film, what must a young Chaplin have felt? His whole world, mother and Syd ripped apart from him by a system that was designed to protect but ultimately hindered the welfare of the poorer classes and their children. Initially, a frightened seven-year-old Chaplin, his mother Hannah and brother Sydney went of their own accord to the Lambeth workhouse, once known as the Newington Workhouse because of its location (just off Newington Butts in Lambeth). This was largely because of their mother, who struggled to cope with the financial difficulties the family had to endure. Once the family were admitted their clothes were removed and their heads were shaved; can you imagine the humiliation? I have to be honest: I think Hannah’s decision to admit her sons rather than show defeat actually showed love and strength. She admitted to herself they deserved better, what more can a mother who loves her sons do?
Hannah Chaplin’s breakdown and the family’s arrival at Lambeth Workhouse happened in 1896. By June that same year the two boys were removed from their mother, which caused Chaplin much distress, and sent to Central London District School at Hanwell in west London. The journey seemed like a holiday to the young brothers, who travelled to their new home by horse-drawn bakery van. However, when they arrived, they spent time in an “approbation” ward where Chaplin was separated from his beloved brother and placed in the infants section of the school. Chaplin remembered in his Autobiography many years later how the older girls would bathe the younger boys, recounting in particular the cold and wet all-over flannel wash he received from a fourteen-year-old.
If you have read these blogs before you will know I’ve mentioned my great-grandmother Nanny Harris before. Her daughter Esther, my nan’s sister whom I always lovingly referred to as Auntie Etty, was born in a Lambeth workhouse. My nan’s brother, my uncle Fred, was also born in one too. Family story leads us to believe my great-grandmother literally sat upon the steps of the workhouse each time her waters broke and told them to take her in: “Or I am going to have this bleeding baby in the street.”
What’s more, a family mystery could tie us directly to Chaplin – and we didn’t realise it for many years.
There is a famous picture of Chaplin, huddled against a group of small boys, his seven-year-old face looking at the camera with the same cheeky grin that would later make him a worldwide star. Two rows back is a small boy, his jawline is strong and his face familiar, this boy we believe is the brother of my great-grandmother, who, if records are to be believed was in the Lambeth Workhouse the same time as Chaplin. Unfortunately no other photo of him exists as an adult, no photos of my great-grandmother survive either, so it really is a family mystery that will never be solved. The family would again later return to this building but thankfully in better circumstances.
In the 1960s my mother volunteered at the building when it was still a hospital and institution within the borough, she probably stood in the chapel area, famously linked to the Chaplin family, and never realised the connection that her own daughter would later write about. Now, of course, the workhouse has become the Cinema Museum. Recently it was my turn to return there, to meet David Robinson, a hero I have been reading from the age of 11, for a fantastic presentation on Chaplin, my ultimate hero – I came full circle!
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for the next instalment of Charlie’s London. In this segment I am looking at the Lambeth Workhouse, an institution that Chaplin spent some time as a youngster. But unlike in the previous chapters of this blog, which focus on either my connections with Charlie or the places our paths have crossed, I want to look at a fantastic event that really brought home to me the importance of keeping his memory alive.
For me, who had grown up in South London, loving Chaplin, knowing this very building was the old Lambeth Workhouse and of course reading Robinson’s biography of Chaplin since I was 11 years old, this event was really the final piece in the jigsaw. I was 10 when I first saw the biopic Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jnr. I had wanted to read more about Chaplin’s life, and so ventured to the local library with my nan, where I uncovered Robinson’s book. I can remember sitting on a stool in the library stool while my nan browsed, my elbows rested on the table while my hands were placed firmly on my jaw line, head transfixed in the book. Everyone always tells me they know when my concentration level is at its highest: I swing my legs like a crazy person or bite my bottom lip as I read. Well, according to my nan this is exactly what I did.
I borrowed the book for two weeks and read the whole thing. I was hooked. For my birthday I asked for my own copy – Mum couldn’t quite understand why, especially as I had not long finished the library copy. I just knew, even at that age that I would want to read it over and over again. Now, 18 years later, it’s still sitting there on my shelf. I have used it for references, quotes, even to solve arguments – it has always been my true companion on my Chaplin journey. Of course, I understand the book very better now as a grown woman than I did as a child, with life comes greater understanding. Yet I will never forget asking my nan what certain words meant and if she had heard of the actors and actresses mentioned in the books. Did she remember any of the events and of course what was it like to actually see a Chaplin film in the cinema? Her stories always fascinated me!
The first time I met David Robinson was at the 2012 Slapstick Festival in Bristol. It was January and traditionally cold and miserable, but the festival cheered up every dreary day. Robinson gave two presentations that weekend, one on Chaplin’s life and one showing shorts and clips from some of his most memorable films. I watched in fascination at the first event, which I remember being 9am on the Saturday morning. It was everything I loved and adored about Chaplin, his London and how it affected him; his controversies and how he reacted to them. Well, after nearly 20 years and quite a bit of courage I finally got to talk to Robinson, and if I ever felt his book was an inspiration I can promise anyone who reads this that the man himself it so much more. Through him I have met some amazing and interesting people: I have continued a journey I started as a small child and I have felt very privileged in many ways. I wouldn’t have half the material I have in my blog without him, that’s for sure.
So this blog post has been rather sentimental, not that the others have really been anything else! And of course I have quoted Robinson and mentioned him before. But it is no exaggeration that you cannot possibly research Chaplin without having his biography constantly on hand. For me, being sat in the very room where Charlie and Sydney Chaplin spent such hard times, listening to David and remembering my roots, I truly felt I had come home. London never leaves you. Getting off the tube at the Elephant and walking down towards Renfrew Road; seeing the Imperial War Museum in the background; remembering the stories I grew up on – all these things remind me of the person I really am. Your home and your birth make up a large part of who you are. My nan always taught me that, and just as Robinson said in his reminiscence that Chaplin had always been in his life because of his father’s love of his films, so has he (and Robinson) very much always been in mine. I truly hope that this will always continue!
Thank you so much for taking time to read this blog spot, normal Chaplinesque service will be resumed in two weeks’ time when we will venture back to the workhouse once more to give some context to our hero and his life in London, as well as its use now as a fantastic gem of a museum.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Thanks for returning for another instalment of Charlie’s London! This piece is going to look at the pubs in Chaplin’s life. It has always been my intention to show Chaplin’s emotional side, and also how there we can still see the South London of his youth around us. Chaplin appears not to have been much of a drinker, but two significant incidents in his life were connected to public houses that you can visit in London today.
First, we will look at the Three Stags just off the Kennington Road, opposite the fantastic Imperial War Museum. Then we will look at The Coal Hole on the Strand, a beautiful Victorian building.
As an undergraduate student who specialised in the Great War I would often find myself in the Imperial War Museum, studying its vast collection of military artifacts and hours of video footage. It was at this time I first discovered “Chaplin’s Corner”. Myself and three friends decided that, rather than hot chocolate and scones in the museum café we would cross the road to the Three Stags pub. The pub has that hint of Victorian decadence you imagine in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: dark, almost black interiors with perfectly preserved stained glass. Once we were seated inside, I looked over to my right and a sign caught my eye. It said “Chaplin’s Corner”. As I ventured over I could see a beautiful picture of Chaplin and Jackie Coogan from the 1921 movie The Kid and an explanation for the naming of this little area.
When Charlie was just 10 years old he happened to wander past the pub and for no reason poke his head through the open door. What he saw would go on to be an important moment in his young life. In his Autobiography he wrote:
The Three Stags in the Kennington Road was not a place my Father frequented, yet as I passed it one evening an urge prompted me to peek inside and there he was, sitting in the corner! I was about to leave, but his face lit up and he beckoned me to him. I was surprised at such a welcome, for he was never demonstrative. He looked very ill; his eyes were sunken, and his body had swollen to an enormous size. He rested one hand, Napoleon-like, in his waistcoat as if to ease his difficult breathing. That evening he was most solicitous, inquiring after Mother and Sydney, and before I left took me in his arms and for the first time kissed me. That was the last time I saw him alive. (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
I then remembered reading this same passage and more in Chaplin’s My Autobiography, so that night I took my well-read and very battered copy from my bookshelf once more. If you have not read this book I really do recommend it. This book has often come under scrutiny from critics for being “overly Dickensian”. I cannot disagree with that enough! What makes this an interesting read is more looking at the man behind the words, why does he mention certain things and not others? Why does he speak of some quite obscure people and now well-known individuals such as Buster Keaton whom we know he had a good friendship with?
It was then that I stumbled across another familiar place, a name I had seen before and could not place, The Coal Hole in the Strand. Well, if I felt the Three Stags screamed Victorian thriller then this pub most definitely howled its heritage from the rooftops. The beautiful glowing red sign above the door reminds you of gas lamps and empty gin beakers. Unlike the Three Stags, which no doubt held sad memories for Chaplin, the Coal Hole was the setting for a very touching moment in which he realised his brother Syd’s true affections for him. Chaplin wrote in his Autobiography:
I had been in the Provinces for six months. Meanwhile Sydney had had little success in getting a job in a theatre, so he was obliged to descend from his Thespian ambition and apply for a job as a bartender at The Coal Hole in the Strand. Out of one hundred and fifty applicants he got the job. But he had fallen ignominiously from his own graces as it were.
He wrote to me regularly and kept me posted of Mother, but I seldom answered his letters; for one reason, I could not spell very well. One letter touched me deeply and drew me very close to him; he reproached me for not answering his letter and recalled the misery we had endured together which should unite us even closer. “Since Mother’s illness,” wrote Sydney, “all we have in the world is each other. Do you must write regularly and let me know I have a brother.” His letter was so moving I replied immediately. Now I saw Sydney in another light. His letter cemented a brotherly love that has lasted throughout my life. (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
It has always been a belief of mine that Syd gets overlooked when we talk about Chaplin. Well thanks to Lisa K Stein and her truly wonderful biography of Syd Chaplin we can now all see the full story. This book is another must-read, alongside David Robinson’s definitive biography of Chaplin, which I have also mentioned before in my little blog. If you can find My Trip Abroad by Chaplin himself, first published in 1922, I also highly recommend that as another look at this great Londoner’s feelings about his home town.
People often ask me why Chaplin never came back to England to live. Of course, I can’t answer that. Only the great man himself could explain and unfortunately we will never have his answer. That is also only one of the questions I get asked. Half the people I talk to about Chaplin don’t even realise he was English, which to me is extraordinary! The only thing I can say is that in my humble opinion Chaplin didn’t need to make constant pilgrimages to the place of his birth, it never really left him.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Thanks again for returning to Charlie’s London with me. First, I want to wish Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin a very happy 123rd birthday! It really is a coincidence that my latest blogpost falls on the anniversary of his birthday, but hopefully it’s a very good blessing.
Today I’m going to be looking at some of the houses in and around Lambeth that Chaplin lived in, and some of those in the same area that my family have called home, too. Unfortunately I can’t say I have ever lived in a house that he graced, but who knows what may happen in the future?
Family was very important to Chaplin, just as it is to me. He entrusted much of his business to Sydney Chaplin, his half-brother who acted wisely on Charlie’s behalf. He was also incredibly close to his mother Hannah, whom he idolised. Contrary to popular belief, he even had a relationship with his father – when he was around. Chaplin spoke fondly of his first meeting with his father during that period in his autobiography.
“The prospect of living with Father was exciting. I had seen him only twice in my life, on stage, and once passing a house in Kennington Road, as he was coming down the path with a lady. I had paused and watched him, knowing instinctively he was my father. He beckoned me to him and asked my name. Sensing the drama of the situation, I had feigned innocence and said ‘Charlie Chaplin’. Then he glanced knowingly at the lady, felt his pocket and gave me half a crown, and without further ado I ran straight home and told Mother that I had met my father.” (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)
Family continued to be important to Chaplin throughout his life, and as you may have realised, I too am very devoted to my own family. The fond memories I have of my own grandmother will never leave me. This is why this personal journey, walking the streets of South London reminiscing, has been a wonderful and emotional experience for me. My grandmother Florence Boakes died on 12 May 1997, and from that time on, it became very painful for me to watch the great silent films, such as Chaplin’s, that we had enjoyed together. If the films were on television or I came across one of our old videos, it was too painful to watch without her there. I had bought her a Chaplin tile on a stand when I went to Hastings for a school trip, and that had to be kept out of sight too.
So what brought me back to Chaplin? In short, my husband-to-be Kieran, and our first date almost 12 years later. We had agreed to meet in a Starbucks in Charing Cross and he was early, which is nothing new. When I arrived I was nervous as we had only met a handful of times before. As he was reading a book, that the topic of conversation we used to break the ice.
“It’s about Buster Keaton, I’m a big silent film fan,” he confessed. I smiled as he showed me the front cover and I handed it back to him.
“I grew up watching Chaplin, I was a Chaplin fan,” I answered. He smiled back.
“Silent films never leave you, you’re still a Chaplin fan.”
Of course, he was right. Our next date involved a bottle of wine, some very good food and The Kid, which at first I was worried about watching. For the first time in years I watched the Tramp and I smiled – then I realised my love affair with Chaplin was very much back on. In January 2011 I found myself watching The Gold Rush with Carl Davis conducting the London Philharmonia orchestra, a wonderful Christmas present from Kieran. And this year he took me to the Slapstick festival – anyone who knows me knows how that has changed my life!
Mum was really happy I’d found Chaplin again, so when I decided to start writing this blog the three of us spent a day wandering around, taking pictures of all the sights involved.
We walked from Waterloo towards the Imperial War Museum and down Lambeth Road, cutting down George Road to find West Square. Children were playing in a communal garden; it really is the most beautiful little piece of London. Mum told me my great uncle Fred had a friend who lived in West Square and they would also play around there as children. In his autobiography, Chaplin remembers the family’s time in West Square as being “moderately comfortable; we lived in three tastefully furnished rooms”. The square itself was built in 1791 and you can see it was considered a plush place to live.
Coming back towards the Imperial War Museum, cutting down Kennington Road, we found ourselves at 287 Kennington Road. This was the home Charlie and Syd shared with their father in 1898. Their mother Hannah was unable to support the family and was institutionalised in Cane Hill Asylum, so Charles Chaplin Senior had care of the two boys instead, along with his very reluctant mistress Louise. What a relief it must have been when their mother finally sent for them. Outside 287 Kennington Road now is a plaque, privately paid for and dedicated to Charlie, reminding passersby that he once lived here. Apparently, the door number is in itself under dispute and even the plaque unfortunately is incorrect. It says that Charlie died in 1978 when he actually died on Christmas Day 1977.
We decided to head back towards the Walworth Road. Getting off the tube at Elephant and Castle we walked to the Walworth Road and of course we couldn’t resist stopping for some pie and mash. I had double of everything and claimed it all as research! Crossing the road we headed down towards Methley Street, another residence for the young Chaplin. No 39 Methley Street was Chaplin’s home between 1898 and 1899. It might look nice now but back then it was a desperate residence with the surrounding area consisting of pickle factories and slaughterhouses.
Looking around this area it is easy to see where Chaplin’s inspirations for films such as The Kid actually came from. To this day, Lambeth is littered with old Victorian streets and houses only recently made fashionable and picturesque. There is a plaque on Methley Street dedicated to Charlie, this time with correct dates, also acknowledging that he was a Water Rat. A Water Rat was a name given to a member of an acting guild who, if in times of hardship could go to the Grand Order of the Water Rats and seek refuge and help. Stan Laurel was a Water Rat too. It is when they were living at Methley Street Hannah began to sew again and for a while they seem to have been quite happy, until her health took a turn for the worse again and she had to send her sewing machine and various garments to the pawnshop to make the rent. Without her sewing machine she could not work, which plunged the little family into further chaos. Charlie would later use a pawnbroker as the backdrop of one of his 1916 films The Pawnshop.
We headed home at this point, and yes, you’ll notice that I haven’t covered the famous Pownall Terrace, the most famous of Charlie’s homes in Lambeth. There is a reason for this, and all will be revealed in a future instalment!
Thanks for reading everyone, and I hope you’ll join me again for next instalment of Charlie’s London in two weeks’ time.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet.
Thanks for returning for part three of Charlie’s London; this edition will look at the tradition of the English music hall, the same stages that would form the backdrop to Charlie’s early years. Unfortunately, these such wonderful places do not really exist any more, except for seasonal events or moments of fleeting fashionable curiosity. Happily, those of us who love silent cinema have a greater appreciation for them.
Last week, I looked at the Walworth Road, Charlie’s supposed birthplace. This week looks at the music hall tradition, where both of Chaplin’s parents worked. And I’ll be throwing some family stories into the mix that will hopefully make you all chuckle along the way.
Charles Spencer Chaplin Senior was a butcher’s son who found his niche on the music hall stage with a certain degree of success and credibility. His specialist skills were as a vocalist and actor, talents that no doubt his famous son would inherit. However, Charlie Junior appears to credit his mother Hannah Chaplin as a larger theatrical and musical influence over his life. Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill was a smaller star who went by the stage name Lilly Harley. In the late 19th century, the Lambeth and Kennington area was a hotbed for music hall entertainers, including fresh-faced talents looking for their first taste of the stage, just like Hannah and Charles.
Music hall was already a tradition rooted in the working class history of London. Initially established in back rooms of public houses they provided entertainment from songs and plays to recitals and dance troupes. In a future instalment I will be talking about the Coal Hole public house in the Strand as a future place of work for Sydney Chaplin – that pub too had a back room known as a song and supper room. Offering light entertainment and a meal for a set price, song and supper rooms offered a bargain night out for most.
In fact, the very first musical hall was established in little old Lambeth. 143 Westminster Bridge road in fact! The theatre was called the Canterbury and designed and built by Charles Morton in 1852. Charlies seem to feature a lot in this little walk around don’t they? Other, large-scale theatres followed, including the South London Music Hall in 1860, and the London Pavilion, which appeared in 1859 and then gave its name to a grander west end establishment in 1885.
Chaplin’s parents separated when he was just three years old, yet throughout his young life he did occasionally have contact with his father who had turned to drink many years before. In his autobiography Charlie blames the music hall culture for his father’s aggressive alcoholism, which would cut his life short at the age of just 37. Drink and song were always hand-in-hand partners in the music halls. My great grandmother used to enjoy both, and the stories live on in family tales to this day.
My Nanny Harris as we called her was, as my grandmother would say, “a blinking nightmare”. She was born in a workhouse, and had two of her children in one, but she was without a doubt the comic of our family. My grandmother would die every Sunday at the sight of her climbing the steps to her Peabody flat in Southwark Street looking like a scene from Chaplin’s film One AM. My grandmother was an amazingly proud person who took care of her home and who looked after her two girls with all the love in the world and never drank. However, my Nanny Harris would sit at the dinner table slightly inebriated and slyly place her false teeth into the gravy boat, waiting for some poor unsuspecting Sunday guest to tip them innocently on to their food. These scenes almost sound like something out of one of Chaplin’s early Keystone comedies, with a poor woman who is really a man in drag unfortunately being the brunt of all the jokes.
Anyone who has seen the Richard Attenborough film Chaplin or more importantly read David Robinson’s definitive biography will know the sad yet almost heroic story of his mother’s ill-fated performance on an Aldershot stage. She lost her nerve and her voice, and her small son Charlie took fearlessly to the stage in an attempt to calm the crowd. After much cheering and coins being thrown in support (Charlie paused and apologised to the crowd while he picked up the coins, leading to further cheers) he felt the rush of performing, admitting he felt completely at home on stage.
Music seems to be a very big part of the working-class community, it definitely can be found in my mother, grandmother’s and my childhood. Four generations of my family play the piano by ear, me included. I remember sitting with my nan, her on the piano and me sat next to her singing The Band Played On. The conversation would turn to Chaplin more times than not as she sat there, her fingers hitting away at the keys. We’d usually end up singing Champagne Charlie in his honour. Looking back on it now it’s hard to believe it was such a long time ago, life always seemed simpler sat on her knee on a cold winter’s afternoon. We’d watch a Chaplin film, usually followed by a bit of Laurel and Hardy, but we always returned to our favourite, good old Charlie! As Nanny would say: “The London boy done good”.
Thanks for reading, everyone! See you all next time, on 16 April.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet.
Hello again everyone! First, thank you for coming back for part two of my personal guide to Charlie Chaplin’s London. The journey is hopefully going to be interesting and fun with many unknown treasures along the way.
When I was thinking about the best way to write this blog I pondered the structure for quite a while. Should I group places together by theme? Should I piece them together by their visual representations within Chaplin’s films? Finally I realised the best way was the start at the very beginning. Ironically this was never how Chaplin made his movies; he would often think of a scenario and work on the beginning and end at a later time. Yet Chaplin’s background in London helped to set the scene for some of his best visual work.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in Lambeth, South London on 16 April 1889, supposedly in Walworth, an area not far from East Street Market. Walworth and Lambeth officially lie within the borough of Southwark. The Walworth Road is a rather long stretch: all the way from Westminster to just beyond Camberwell. Charlie often described open-top tram journeys towards Westminster and even though he referred to his home as Walworth and Lambeth its position just beyond the north of Lambeth was also close to Waterloo. I was born at one end of the Walworth Road, the end closest to London Bridge, but I’m still from Southwark/Lambeth.
Are you confused? I don’t blame you! I believe this is why Charlie always referred to Lambeth as his birthplace – it’s easier! Phonetically, us Londoners are a very strange bunch, immigration had helped create a shift in the dialect over the years and certain words do not spell as they sound, and we also speak rather fast. For instance, if Charlie had commented that he was born in Southwark no doubt a journalist somewhere would have heard “Suffolk”, can you imagine where the myths would have ended up then?
Today the East Street Market still stands on the same site and at the entrance a blue plaque is posted on a wall above a clothes shop to mark the suppose birthplace of Charles Chaplin. In fact, no one really knows if this is true. There has been a lot of speculation about his origins, especially with the recent release of the MI5 file stating no birth certificate exists. Well apart from the fact that this was common in Victorian England. I would like to throw something else into the mix. Has anyone here actually dealt with Southwark Town Hall? I rest my case!
Now, in the most recent edition of his book My Autobiography Chaplin states that he was born in East Lane, Lambeth at 8 o’clock in the evening. Here is another sign his origins show through even when he may not have meant them to! In his introduction, the eminent Chaplin historian and biographer David Robinson says that only south Londoners refer to East Street as East Lane, and I for one can vouch for that. My grandmother always called it this and people living in the area still do to this day.
As a child I frequently visited the Walworth Road, the treat was pie and mash in Arments and Sarsaparilla in Baldwins. In winter the Sarsaparilla was warmed with slices of orange and apple and served from barrels. When Charlie was a boy, Arments was located on the Walworth road itself, but it was relocated in 1914 to its current position just behind it. Baldwins has always been in the same spot; maybe as a child Charlie too drank warm Sarsaparilla there? Not far from where Arments was originally situated is a fishmonger’s, which has been there since the Victorian era. My mother would always buy fish there on a Friday and remembered always buying my grandmother bloaters that she would proceed to smoke. Charlie also fondly recollects his mother buying penny bloaters on a Friday while they lived at 3 Pownall Terrace, Lambeth, most probably at the same shop.
Along this journey I aim to find out as much as I can about not only my film hero but also about myself and my heritage. I have always been a proud South Londoner and knowing I walk in Charlie’s footsteps is an immense honour!
Thank you so much for reading. The next instalment will appear on 2 April.
Introducing a new series of guest posts by Chaplin expert and south Londoner Ayşe Behçet: a personal journey through Charlie Chaplin’s London.
Firstly, I want to say thank you for taking the time to read my first blog and what I hope will be an interesting journey through some unknown gems connected with one of the geniuses of early cinema, Charlie Chaplin.
My fascination with Chaplin started at a very young age. My grandmother and I would watch his films on a Saturday afternoon and thinking back on it now it was always raining. It was always about three in the afternoon too! With so many other comedians and great silent films circulating, at first I didn’t understand why we mostly watched Chaplin, but soon it all became clear.
My grandmother, my mother and myself were all born just off the Walworth road, so was Charlie. We had meandered around the back streets of Southwark, Camberwell, Lambeth, East Street Market and Kennington, so had Charlie. We had all seen the beautiful buildings and yet the depravity and roughness of the streets, and of course, so had Charlie. Sitting with Nan one day I found all this out, and suddenly I learned more about her through him than I had ever known before. From an early age I felt this immense pride that this hero, icon and pioneer had started life in the same humble beginnings as so many members of my family and he proved that anything was possible.
The images most people associate with Chaplin are the Little Tramp and his glamorous and often debauched escapades in in Hollywood – but I want to look at something more. I want to look at the real Chaplin. The houses, streets and community he knew are all gone, but the signs of his times still linger on in small near-forgotten landmarks scattered across the city. The Three Stags pub where he last saw his father, The Coal Hole Public House, a first steady job for Syd, East Lane and of course 287 Kennington Road, his home while he lived with his father are all still very much there. These buildings still tell tales, as do many other spots in London, and this blog aims to show you all of them, proving that Charlie was always a London boy – despite the glitz of Hollywood.
Hope you enjoy the instalments, the first blog spot will be Monday 19 March and will run fortnightly from that point on. Keep in touch.