Patrick O'Connor's 'Gaiety Girls' talk
Patrick O'Connor's talk, 'Gaiety Girls', at the national Portrait Gallery yesterday was a great treat. He began with a tinted photograph by Bassano of Gabrielle Ray posed on a tiger skin, accompanied by an explanation of the rise in popularity of celebrity portraits in Victorian and Edwardian London. Then, passing from the emergence of Gaiety Girls, the so-called 'Big Eight' in their revealing costumes of fleshings and abbreviated jackets, who were the front row chorines at the old Gaiety Theatre and their more demurely attired sisters of the mid 1890s and later, he spoke of the transition from old-fashioned burlesque to musical comedy and operetta. This was the springboard for his real subject: the careers and personalities of a few outstanding actresses (he went out of his way, to a sigh of relief from his audience, to eschew the politically correct 'female actor'), all of whom were stars of the lyric stage during the early years of the 20th Century. These were Gertie Millar, Ada Reeve, Gaby Deslys, Cicely Courtneidge and Evelyn Laye.
Gertie Millar, that imp of vivacity whose memory dominates the Edwardian phase of the Gaiety's history, was represented by some well-chosen photographs and a snatch from a 1939 broadcast, made long after her retirement, of her singing her 1902 hit, 'Keep Off the Grass
.' (The latter is available on Tony Barker's recently issued Gaiety Girls
It was difficult to tell who among Patrick's subjects was his favourite, but clearly Ada Reeve might easily have headed the list. He spoke of the wide range of her work and the extraordinary length of her career with obvious warmth. Again, he displayed some good photographs and played a telling recording, but his trump was being able to show a scene from the 1952 film, I Believe in You
. Here Miss Reeve 'stole the show' as eccentric Mrs Crockett, a former artist's model, making a reluctant Cecil Parker look at her album of photographs of herself in her heyday. 'Is this you?' asks Parker incredulously, pointing to a particularly beautiful image; she replies, her elderly face filling the screen, 'Why? Don't you recognise me?' It was the cue for the stoniest of hearts to melt.
Next came the adorable Gaby Deslys, a French star of the musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic who died tragically young at 39. Patrick thought that history had been unkind to her because by all contemporary accounts her talents far exceed her latter-day reputation as merely a pretty showgirl, famed for her beautiful, often wildly fanciful costumes. He played one of only three recordings she is known to have made, the exceedingly rare 'La Parisienne', made in London in 1910. Although she appeared in several films
only a fleeting thirty seconds appears to have survived and this Patrick was able to show. It was a wonderful moment, when we were watching what appeared to be a giant flower. It was one Gaby's huge headdresses. It moved, revealing underneath her smiling face and flashing eyes - and then she was gone. All too brief, of course, but a thrill nevertheless.
Patrick also showed several early photographs of Cecily Courtneidge
, an actress whose work on stage and film is still fondly remembered by many. Although her father, the theatrical impresario Robert Courtneidge responsible for staging The Arcadians
, The Pearl Girl
and other successful musicals, was keen for her to become a dramatic actress it was as an effervescent comedienne that she excelled. Patrick played her excellently absurd tongue twisting sketch wherein as a Mrs Blagdon Blogg she tries to order 'Two Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins' from a bemused haberdasher.
Last but by no means least on Patrick's list was the beautiful and talented Evelyn Laye. He let us look at several photographs of her from the Bassano archives, including one taken in 1917
that drew gasps of admiration. Not only was she physically striking she also had a remarkable singing voice that she used to great effect as the star of a number of highly successful musical shows. Patrick chose to play us a rare recording of her singing 'The Call Of Life' from Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet
, and to show us a scene from the 1934 film, Evensong
, whose cast included such luminaries as Emlyn Williams, Alice Delysia, Conchita Supervia and Browning Mummery. Here she sang two songs, one of which was Paul Rubens's 'I Love the Moon' that he had written for that other prima donna of the musical stage, his friend Phyllis Dare.
Patrick O'Connor wears his considerable knowledge lightly and I am sure that I wasn't alone in wishing that he had spoken for another hour and shown many more photographs. As it was he threw much needed light onto an often neglected area of theatrical history. Why, someone asked afterwards, hasn't a book been published to accompany the NPG's current 'Gaiety Girls' display? Why indeed! - JC
Posted by footlightnotes
at 1:23 PM BST
Updated: Monday, 28 June 2004 6:11 AM BST