Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

Charlie’s London: Lambeth workhouse

The Kid (1921)
The Kid (1921)

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.

Hannah Chaplin
Hannah Chaplin

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.”

The Cinema Museum in south London
The Cinema Museum in south London (formerly Lambeth Workhouse)

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!

Ayşe Behçet

Charlie’s London: David Robinson at the Cinema Museum

The Cinema Museum in south London
The Cinema Museum in south London

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.

I have always sworn by the events calendar Silent London offers its readers, and three months ago was no exception. While browsing, I came across a presentation by the much loved and highly accredited film expert and Chaplin scholar David Robinson. Robinson on Robinson, as it was called, promised to be a fascinating insight into a career spanning many years, with many stories. The event, on Saturday night, did not disappoint, with brilliant anecdotes and wonderful tales of the Hollywood elite, and Robinson’s own career as the backdrop. For me this experience meant so much more. The event was held at the Cinema Museum, which holds masses of film memorabilia and regularly hosts film screenings and lectures – and the Cinema Museum is housed in the building that was once the Lambeth Workhouse.

David Robinson with Ayse Behçet
David Robinson with Ayşe Behçet

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.

Ayşe Behçet

Charlie’s London: the pub crawl

The Three Stags pub in Kennington
The Three Stags pub in Kennington

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.

"Chaplin's corner"
“Chaplin’s corner”

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?

The Coal Hole on the Strand
The Coal Hole on the Strand

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.

Ayşe Behçet

Charlie’s London: falling in and out of love with Chaplin

Ayse in West Square
Ayşe in West Square

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.

Ayse and Kieran
Ayşe and Kieran

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.

Ayse at 39 Methley Street
Ayşe at 39 West Square, where the Chaplins had ‘three tastefully furnished rooms’

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.

Ayşe Behçet

Charlie’s London: music hall memories

A young Charlie Chaplin, photograph from the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment
A young Charlie Chaplin, photograph from the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment

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.

Doing the Lambeth Walk ...
Doing the Lambeth Walk …

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.

Ayşe Behçet

Charlie’s London: the Walworth Road

Charlie Chaplin
Photograph of Charlie Chaplin from the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment.

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.

Charlie Chaplin's blue plaque
The plaque marks the spot?

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?

East Street Market
East Street Market has been officially open since 1880, but there has been trading in this part of London since the 16th century.

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!

East Street AKA East Lane
East Street AKA East Lane

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.

Ayşe Behçet


Competition: Listen to long-lost silent film music – and make an animated film

Some of the scores discovered in Birmingham in 2011
Some of the scores discovered in Birmingham in 2011

You remember, I’m sure, the exciting haul of silent film music that was discovered in Birmingham last year: the stash contained stock pieces to suit different moods, genres and locations as well as one very specific tune, a Charlie Chaplin theme. There were around 500 manuscripts in total, including compositions for small orchestras as well as solo pianists. The music had been ignored for decades and almost certainly not played in 80 years.

Neil Brand was quoted in the Guardian, explaining the significance of the find:

“This collection gives us our first proper overview of the music of the silent cinema in the UK from 1914 to the coming of sound. Its enormous size not only gives us insights into what the bands sounded like and how they worked with film [but also] the working methods of musical directors. Above all, it gives the lie to the long-cherished belief that silent films were accompanied on solo piano by little old ladies who only knew one tune. When they are played we will hear the authentic sound the audiences of the time would have heard.”

Read more, from the Bioscope, here.

The good news is that this spring, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will be playing some of the music as part of a special Charlie Chaplin night on Friday 20 April (they’re screening One AM and City Lights). The even better news is that you can hear some of the music on Soundcloud now. I’m quite fond of Dramatic Love Scene:

And how about The Great Ice Floe?

Or The Smugglers?

You’ll find nine tracks on the Orchestra’s Soundcloud page here. The reason that the tracks have been recorded and uploaded is that the Orchestra is holding a competition, and if you’re a whizz with animation you really should think about entering. The deal is that you have to make an animation to accompany one of the tracks, which includes the word “Birmingham” or an iconic image of the city. The winner will see their work on the big screen at the Charlie Chaplin night in April and receive a placement at the Charactershop animation studio and an Introduction to Final Cut Pro X course.

There are more details on the Orchestra’s website here.

Introducing … Charlie’s London

Charlie Chaplin
Maybe it’s because he’s a Londoner … Charlie Chaplin

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.

Ayse
Ayşe

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.

Happy walking round London with me!

Ayşe Behçet

Slapstick Festival, Bristol, 26-29 January 2012

I hate to admit it, but there are good reasons to leave London sometimes. Bristol, for example, can lay a good claim to being the capital of silent cinema in this country, thanks mostly to the year-round efforts of the marvellous people at Bristol Silents. Indeed, come January there is nowhere finer for the discerning silent comedy fan to be. The annual Slapstick Festival is a four-day, multi-venue extravaganza of comedy, mostly of the silent era, presented by comedians and experts – and accompanied by live music.

The 2012 Slapstick Festival will take place from 26-29 January 2012, and the full lineup has just been announced. Yes, there will be some more recent comedy courtesy of gala screenings featuring Dad’s Army, Monty Python and the French film-maker Pierre Étaix. But Slapstick Festival is noted for its passionate endorsement of silent comedy, and it’s here in spades.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

Kevin Brownlow will be talking about Buster Keaton and showing footage from his documentary A Hard Act to Follow, while Griff Rhys-Jones will introduce a night of silent comedy including a screening of The General at Colston Hall with music from Günter Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. On the last day of the festival, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ian Lavender and Barry Cryer will also introduce their favourite Buster Keaton shorts.

The Slapstick Festival team
The Slapstick Festival team: Neil Innes, Chris Serle and Ian Lavender (back row); Paul McGann, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Barry Cryer

Historian David Robinson will give an illustrated lecture, with clips, on Charlie Chaplin and also discuss his work with fan and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar; Barry Cryer will present a Harold Lloyd double-bill and Graeme Garden will make a case for the debonair Charley Chase. David Wyatt will give two presentations: one talking about lesser-known silent comics such as Max Davidson and Larry Semon and the other on the spoofs and parodies rife in silent-era comedy.

Slapstick Festival events will take place in Colston Hall, the Watershed Cinema and the Arnolfini Arts Centre, Bristol from 26-29 January 2012. See the Slapstick Festival website for more details and to book tickets.

  • And don’t forget, the Slapstick Festival has its own real ale, brewed locally, especially for the event. The launch of the Slapstick Beer takes place at the Victoria Pub, Clifton on Friday 9 December at 7.30pm. Details on Facebook.

Louis (2010): review

Anthony Coleman in Louis (2010)
Anthony Coleman in Louis (2010)

The difference between homage and pastiche is largely a question of respect. It perfectly possible to pastiche something you don’t care for very much, or don’t understand, whereas a homage aims to be a worthy tribute to the art that inspires it. Louis (2010) is a pastiche. It’s a glossy, fast-paced film, with a charming lead performance from the young actor who takes the title role – and it’s occasionally funny, too – but I didn’t feel the love.

Louis, a “modern re-imagining” of a silent movie, is ostensibly both a tribute to Louis Armstrong, whose early life is mythologised here, and to the films of Charlie Chaplin. These two aims get so terribly bungled that the film shifts its attention away from the young Louis and towards what should be a sub-plot, featuring a villain who looks, and moves, in imitation of Chaplin. The idea of having an actor (Jackie Earle Haley, who is really very good in the role) mimic the Tramp while playing such an unpleasant character is bizarre: he’s a corrupt local judge who is guilty of murder and extortion. We see him attempting to pay off the prostitute who has given birth to his child, and when that fails, trying to suffocate the newborn in question. Adorable.

Louis may be ludicrous, but it very nearly gets away with it. There’s an undeniable pleasure in clocking all the Chaplin references, Vilmos Zsigmond’s back-and-white photography is crisp and the speeded-up chase sequences are a hoot. Yes, the film is set in a deprived quarter of early 20th-century New Orleans, but Louis is designed as a retro fantasy and if it stuck to its comedy guns, it could have been a family-friendly caper. Sadly, however, Louis loses its way very early on.

What might have been a charming film about a young boy’s love for music gets lost when it wanders on to adult territory, specifically the brothel. The scenes inside the bordello are both sanitised and horribly puerile at the same time – the women perform raunchy, anachronistic dance routines in perfectly laundered white petticoats. It’s more like a pop video than a movie in these sequences, but they are enough to give the film its US ‘R’ rating. More problematically, the storyline involving a prostitute going back to work after having an illegitimate baby raises issues that Louis is not sophisticated enough to deal with.

And then there’s the music. The score, written by Wynton Marsalis and featuring many pieces by Armstrong himself and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, is played by a 10-piece band at a volume that goes way beyond “accompaniment” – meaning, at least, you can barely concentrate on the plot holes. There’s rich, squelchy brass in almost every scene, and the tempo rarely takes a breath. You do wonder whether the music was meant to accompany the film or vice versa.

Louis is filmed in widescreen, with looping, extended Steadicam sequences and crane shots – it’s not a perfect replica of a silent film, but it will remind you of one. I don’t mind that it’s “inauthentic” in the slightest. Modern silents should come in all forms, and the idea of a silent biopic of a musician with a live score is an inspired one. The problem with Louis is that it gets distracted from what it does best, and a Chaplin pastiche is no substitute for the real thing.

Read more about Louis.

Chaplin in 3D. Wait, don’t run away

Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)
Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)

The reviews are already in for German film-maker Uwe Boll’s latest venture, and it isn’t even ready to view yet. “Worst idea ever,” said Anne Thompson on Indiewire. Wretched and doomed,” tweeted Roger Ebert. Thompson’s Indiewire blogpost reports that a representative of the German distributor Kinostar has approached a “major studio” with a pitch for “one 90 minute 3D movie titled Chaplin 3D – Little Tramp’s Adventure.” The plan involves the conversion of several Chaplin films into 3D, which will then be compiled into one feature-length movie. Retro-fitted 3D is rarely a happy experience, so even if the idea of Chaplin drunkenly tumbling down steps and into your lap, or skating wobbily past your nose, appeals, this doesn’t bode well. When you consider Boll’s critical reputation, which is somewhere between “joke” and ”criminal” this project is beginning to look disastrous. Led, perhaps, by Ebert, the reaction to the story on Twitter yesterday was of near-universal revulsion.

The truth is, there is more to this Chaplin in 3D story than meets the eye. Or both eyes. Clarification and elaboration arrives courtesy of a revelatory post by film preservationist David Shepard on the Nitrateville forum:

Serge Bromberg and I are among the people involved in this project. The principals, a film company in Istanbul which has been operating successfully for more than 70 years, is run by people of integrity; their proprietary 3-D conversion process is far superior to any other I have seen. Even the folks at Association Chaplin were impressed.

L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna or Technicolor scanned our earliest generation nitrate negatives to 2K and have done the highest quality of frame-by-frame image restoration of which they are capable for THE IMMIGRANT, THE RINK and EASY STREET. The films will be presented in b&w, at 20 fps, with new large-orchestra scores by Robert Israel, but in 3-D.

Obviously, Chaplin’s films are about performance; they are not highly pictorial films like, for example, those of Maurice Tourneur; we think they will look and sound wonderful and that the 3-D conversion does them no violence. We hope they will be rolled out first as family concerts with live orchestral performance, moving later on to other platforms with the recorded scores.

Obviously the intended audience is not the readers of Nitrateville, although you will not be excluded from attending the shows to see them for yourselves. If this project is successful it will be expanded to other silent films that can also deliver excellent experiences to 21st century audiences. We hope it will promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar. Think of it as a solution for one of the performance arts (along with opera and classical music) for which the present audience is rapidly aging out, and for which something innovative must be done to insure their survival.

So, the precious films are in the hands of the experts, not a multiple Razzie-winner, and we can be fairly certain that they will look and sound great, due to the restoration and rescoring work. Those who share Mark Kermode’s aversion to 3D in all its forms will still have qualms, of course, but Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo (2011) may well be about to charm cinephiles into a newfound love of stereoscopy. Chaplin himself shot 3D test footage for The Circus (1928), though the fact that he dropped the idea may tell us as much as the fact that he attempted it. He was also known, of course, to retrospectively rework his films, such as when he added a voiceover and music to The Gold Rush in the 1940s.

It is a little saddening to think that the way to “promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar” is to change them so radically. However, the recent re-release of Giorgio’s Moroder’s Metropolis has reminded us of the unusual paths many people take towards an appreciation of silent cinema. Could a three-dimensional rendering of Chaplin movies create a new generation of silent film fans, just as his colourised, intertitle-free Metropolis did in the 1980s?

As for Uwe Boll’s involvement? A red herring, or perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that he has worked with Geraldine Chaplin in the past (on 2005’s BloodRayne). Remember that Suzanne Lloyd has endorsed the 3D conversion of her grandfather Harold’s most famous scene from Safety Last.

I don’t need to tell you that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and doubtless we all have opinions on whether this project is likely to succeed in pleasing either existing or potential silent film fans. The Tramp is not quite in the perilous position we feared, and for now I recommend keeping an open mind.

Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew at Blackall Studios, Shoreditch 25-29 May 2011

From Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew
From Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew

For the vintage-lovers among you, this exhibition should be a real treat. Pam Glew’s Beautiful and Damned exhibition at Blackall Studios in east London uses vintage fabrics and techniques to create poignant but gorgeous images of silent movie stars. It’s only on for a few days, so catch it while you can:

‘Beautiful and Damned’, the shows title, is of course taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel, which explores the listless lives of moneyed society during the Jazz Age. This captivating era, drenched in glamour yet tinged with tragedy is the decadent setting for this extraordinary series of work. The exquisitely beautiful movie starlets, society icons and characters on display capture the spirit of the age all who are caught in the unforgiving glare of the limelight and some sadly burn out before their time. As Pam states, “the tragedy amongst the beauty is what has inspired this show, the sharp contrast between a blessed life and one that ends in scandal, hedonism or destitution”.

Beautiful and Damned runs from 25-29 May at Blackall Studios, 73 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 4QS. For more information, check out Pam Glew’s website here.

City Lights and Metropolis at Ealing’s Classic Cinema Club, May 2011

City Lights (1931)
City Lights (1931)

There’s a new film club in west London – Ealing’s Classic Cinema Club, which plans to show great movies from around the world every Friday night. They’re launching themselves in fine style, with a brace of silent films: Chaplin’s City Lights and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

From sentiment to science-fiction, that’s two very different silents, and this will be a great to watch some wonderful movies as well as an opportunity to meet fellow film fans in an area rich with its own cinematic heritage. First, the world-famous Ealing Studios are just down the road; second, I took Film Studies A-level at the local sixth-form college. OK, maybe I didn’t think that one through properly.

The following week, on 27 May, the club will show Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), which should be a fine accompaniment to the Soviet silents being screened at the BFI this month.

As ever, if your local film society is planning any silent screenings – do let me know.

City Lights screens on 13 May and Metropolis will be shown on 20 May, both at Ealing Town Hall. All screenings start at 7pm sharp and will be followed by a short discussion. Tickets cost £7.50 or £6 for concessions.  Tickets may be reserved (but not bought) in advance by writing to classiccinemaclub@hotmail.co.uk or phoning 020 8579 4925. Membership is also available at £5. More details about the club can be found here.

With thanks to @ianburge on Twitter for telling me about these screenings.

Charlie Chaplin Google doodle video

The Charlie Chaplin Google doodle is more ambitious than most. It links to this cute Chaplin-esque video. It hasn’t appeared here in the UK quite yet, but look out for it tomorrow, 16 April, which is the 122nd anniversary of the actor/director’s birth. Very nice of Google to mark the occasion, but this video does make you miss the real thing. Those of you who are Chaplin fans all year round and not just on his birthday might enjoy this article from the Spectator. It’s a preview of the forthcoming Chaplin museum in Switzerland and an interview with the film-maker’s son, Michael. Definitely worth a read.

The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness Hippodrome, 18-20 March 2011

Clara Bow in It (1927)
Clara Bow in It (1927)

The Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk, beautifully restored to match its 1920 heyday, will host Scotland’s first silent film festival – and it promises to be an event with a real ‘vintage’ feel. The programme incorporates some enduringly popular silents, from a rare chance to see It (1927), starring Clara Bow, to FW Murnau’s influential vampire film Nosferatu (1922) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), plus a handful of comedies from Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.

Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment to several of the films, and he will also perform his acclaimed one-man show The Silent Pianist Speaks. David Allison of The Island Tapes will reprise his score for Nosferatu at the festival’s closing night gala, and another of the films will benefit from a specially commissioned soundtrack performed by local schoolchildren.

There will be a Slapstick Workshop for over-12s by Scottish theatre company Plutôt La Vie, and a new, specially commissioned soundtrack for one of the films performed by local schoolchildren. Another retro treat for younger viewers is the “jeely jar special” – a revival of a 1920s practice whereby film fans can get a two-for-one deal on tickets for The Kid if they bring along a clean jam jar (with lid). Bargain.

And for a touch more glamour, the Opening Gala screening of It has a 1920s dress code. Dropped waists, long strings of beads and cloches – it’s the perfect opportunity to indulge your inner flapper and give Clara Bow a run for her money. Perhaps you can find some sartorial inspiration here. Festival director Allison Strauss says:

The whole event is designed to celebrate the magic, glamour and pure entertainment of films from the silent era.  Our programme and the supporting events include something for all ages and we’ve made sure that the wide appeal will involve a broad range of tastes, from cinephiles to anyone discovering early film for the first time.

For full details and to download a brochure, visit the website here.

Carl Davis on Charlie Chaplin

The Gold Rush (1925)
The Gold Rush (1925)

There is an interesting article by the composer Carl Davis about Charlie Chaplin in the Guardian Review today. In the piece, he talks about how he came to piece together the original score for The Gold Rush, which he will conduct at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 January.

I was ­allowed into the vaults under the Alps near Geneva where all the materials of Chaplin’s working life are kept. There I examined the boxes containing the sketches and materials used for the 1942 revision. I found the sources of the pieces I could only guess at, as well as sketches for sequences that were in the 1925 version but cut in 1942.

Tickets for The Gold Rush are available here. Plus, for a limited time only, you can get a 20% discount if you call the box office (0844 847 9910) and quote ‘London Film Museum’.