Posts Tagged ‘theatre’

The Dancer Bobby Britt and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Police photograph of Bobby Britt and his party guests at his flat at 25 Fitzroy Square, January 1927

At one in the morning on the 16th January 1927 Superintendent George Collins of the Metropolitan police knocked on the door of the basement flat at 25 Fitzroy Square. A woman called Constance Carre answered and was told that there was a warrant to arrest the occupants. Carre responded:

But Mr Britt was going to give us a Salome dance!

The Superintendent and his fellow officers barged past here and quickly entered the flat. They came across a 26 year old man who was wearing, as a police report would later describe, ‘a thin black transparent skirt, with gilt trimming round the edge and a red sash… tied round his loins.’ The report added ‘he wore ladys (sic) shoes and was naked from the loins upwards.’

The oddly attired man gave his name as Robert Britt and said:

I am employed in the chorus of ‘Lady Be Good’. These are a few friends of mine. I was going to give an exhibition dance when you came in.

I have been here for about eight months and pay two pounds five shillings weekly for the flat. Carre is my housekeeper. I was a Valet to a gentleman for about nine years who died last November. I did not like that sort of life, so as I’m considered good at fancy dancing I decided to go on stage… Some of the men I have known for a long time and they bring along any of their friends if they care to do so.

It eventually came to light that the police had been staking out Britt’s flat for a month or so. Sergeant Spencer and Police Constable Gavin of “D” division had spent 16th, 17th December 1926 and 1st and 2nd of January 1927 essentially peering into the abode from the front and rear of the property. They noted the activities during various parties Robert Britt held at his flat.

Police Sergeant Arthur Spencer wrote:

At 11.45pm I saw two men, who I saw enter at 11.30pm leave, they were undoubtedly men of the “Nancy type”. They walked cuddling one another to Tottenham Court Road, where they stood waiting for a bus. I stood close to them and saw their faces were powdered and painted and their appearance and manner strongly suggested them to be importuners of men.

Police Constable Gavin contributed to the report:

I saw from the a roof into a bedroom in the basement, where two men enter the bedroom, they both undressed and got into bed and the light was put out. I heard them laugh and scream in very effeminate voices.

The bedroom in Bobby Britt’s Flat as photographed by the police at the raid.

Fitzroy Square in the 1920s

Londoner Bobby Britt, the youngest of four children, had been born in Camberwell at the turn of the century and was now 26 years old. As he mentioned to the police when they raided his flat he was performing at the Empire Theatre in the dancing chorus of Lady Be Good! – the Gershwin brothers’ first Broadway musical and which starred the brother and sister team of Fred and Adele Astaire. The musical had been a huge success in New York and had now transferred to the famous theatre in Leicester Square to perhaps even greater acclaim. Bobby Britt was dancing in easily the hottest show in town.

Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good

Leicester Square “is one of the gayest quarters of London”. Almost certainly the word ‘gay’ would have already been in use by a few people to mean homosexual around this time. Albeit not by postcard writers.

George Gershwin attended the opening night in London which brought huge crowds to the theatre. Later with the Astaires he partied at the fashionable Embassy Club, where apparently he stayed until eight in the morning.

The Embassy Club, the location for the first night party of Lady Be Good!

Lady Be Good established the Astaires as international celebrities and the Times enthusiastically wrote:

Columbus may have danced with joy at discovering America, but how he would have cavorted had he also discovered Fred and Adele Astaire!

Adele and her younger brother Fred had been a successful vaudeville act since 1905 and in 1926 Adele was actually the bigger star of the two – Fred at this stage of his career played almost a supporting role. Professionally the siblings were completely different; Fred, a constant worrier, was never happy with his or his sister’s performance and usually arrived at the theatre two hours early to limber up and practice, while Adele, a much more relaxed individual, would generally turn up a few minutes before her first entrance.

Fred and Adele – vaudeville dancers in 1915

Fred and Adele

Adele enjoyed her new found celebrity status on both sides of the Atlantic and particularly appreciated the attention she had started to get from rich tycoons’ sons and wealthy young aristocrats. In 1932 she retired from the stage and her professional relationship with her brother when she married Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish and moved to Ireland, where they lived at Lismore Castle.

Although she had been dancing most of her life, Adele made no attempt to hide the fact that the theatrical life wasn’t really for her – “It was an acquired taste,” she said, “like olives.”

The future Lady Charles Cavendish

The Empire Theatre around the turn of the century

Thirty years before Fred and Adele danced on the stage of the Empire to such acclaim, Oscar Wilde had his character Algernon Moncrieff mention the theatre in the first act of The importance of Being Ernest’.

Algernon. What shall we do after dinner? Go to a theatre?

Jack. Oh no! I loathe listening.

Algernon. Well, let us go to the Club?

Jack. Oh, no! I hate talking

Algernon. Well, we might trot round to the Empire at ten?

Jack. Oh, no! I can’t bear looking at things. It is so silly.

The original production of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ showing Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax and and George Alexander as John Worthing. 1895.

Oscar Wilde, who wrote his last and ultimately most successful play during August 1896, would have known exactly what connotations a lot of the audience would glean from ‘the Empire’ reference.

While Wilde had been writing the play the Empire had been in the news for months, mostly because of the ‘purity campaign’ by the indomitable campaigner against vice – Mrs Ormiston Chant. The Daily Telegraph gave it huge coverage worried about ‘the prudes on the prowl’.

The Indomitable Mrs Ormiston Chant

Prostitution and the theatre, of course, had always been pretty close bedfellows, so to speak. At Wilton’s music hall, for instance, it was flagrant, the gallery could only be entered through the brothel inside which the hall had been built.

In the 1890s the Empire in Leicester Square was justly famous as a Variety and Musical Hall theatre especially for its spectacular ballet productions and its ‘Living Pictures’ – frozen-moment representations of well-known paintings or other familiar scenes where seemingly half-naked young men and women stood very very still.

In reality, the dominant attraction, and to what Wilde was probably referring, was the Empire’s second-tier promenade. This was an area behind the dress circle, where you could still see the stage if you wanted to, but was essentially a pick up joint for high class prostitutes. The theatre charged half a crown (12 1/2p) for a rover ticket that gave you licence to enjoy the promenade. There was room to wander around but there were also comfortable seats and what was called an ‘American Bar’ serving one shilling cocktails such as the ‘Bosom Caresser’ and the ‘Corpse Reviver’.

The luxurious and opulent interior of the Empire Theatre. The tier two promenade is on the bottom right.

The promenade was known as ‘The Cosmopolitan Club of the World’ and the essayist and caricaturist Max Beerhohm described it as “the reputed hub of all the wild gaiety in London – that Nirvana where gilded youth and painter beauty meet…in a glare of electric light.”

Enchanted Mrs Chant was not, and she was of the opinion that it was the risque ‘abbreviated costumes’ on stage that contributed to, and encouraged the indecent and indecorous air of the Promenade. She told the London County Council responsible for the licensing of the Empire:

“We have no right to sanction on the stage that which if it were done in the street would compel a policeman to lock the offender up…The whole question would be solved if men, and not women, were at stake. Men would refuse to exhibit their bodies nightly in this way.”

Her efforts were not in vain and she managed to persuade the council in October 1894 to instruct the Empire to build a barrier between the theatre itself and the infamous ‘haunt of vice’ promenade.

When the Empire Theatre management put up canvas screens to hide the auditorium from the Promenade they were quickly torn down by a rioting audience. They were egged on by the young Sandhurst cadet Winston Churchill who wrote to his brother:

Did you see the papers about the riot at the Empire last Saturday? It was I who led the rioters – and made a speech to the crowd – “Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!”.

The Empire Theatre in 1896

Presumably Mrs Ormiston Chant would have been even more shocked and horrified if she had known what was going on within the less prestigious and cheaper first tier promenade. Oscar Wilde, however, almost certainly did, and his ‘Empire’ reference would have had other connotation altogether to a more select part of his play’s audience.

At a cheaper price of only one shilling the Empire Theatre’s first tier promenade was said to be THE gay pick-up location in the whole of London. A letter to the council dated 15 October 1894, just six weeks after Mrs Chant’s visit to the theatre, described the rough ejection of a man from the shilling promenade by Robert Ahern, the front of house manager. The letter writer described the man who was thrown out “as a ‘sodomite’ as were perhaps half the occupants of that promenade, that it was the only venue for people of this kind, and that he ‘could lay his hands on 200 sods every night in the week if he liked.”

Oscar Wilde in 1895

It’s not known whether Oscar Wilde ever went to ‘look at things’ in the first tier promenade at the Empire Theatre but it does sound like the place he would have frequented around that time. However just a few months after Mrs Ormiston Chant’s intervention at the Empire, and only two months after The Importance of Being Ernest premiered at the St James Theatre in February 1895, Wilde was charged with gross indecency after a failed libel case with the belligerent little Marquess of Queensbury. Wilde was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

The judge, Mr Justice Wills described the sentence, the maximum allowed at the time, as “totally inadequate for a case such as this,”. Wilde’s response was “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” but it was drowned out in cries of “Shame in the courtroom. Five years later he was dead. A broken man.

The last photograph of Oscar Wilde in 1900

Bobby Britt, 1927 naked above his loins.

Thirty years later Lady Be Good! finished its run at the Empire on 22nd January 1927. Bobby Britt was no longer in the chorus because exactly two weeks previously he had been formally charged with keeping a disorderly house. Or to put it in slightly more detail he was charged with permitting:

…divers immoral lewd, and evil disposed persons, tippling whoring, using obscene language, indecently exposing their private naked parts, and behaving in a lewd, obscene and disorderly and riotous manner to the manifest corruption of the morals of His Majesty’s Liege Subjects, the evil example of others in the like case, offending and against the Peace of Our Lord the King, his Crown and Dignity.

After some legal arguing about what a disorderly house actually meant, poor Bobby Britt was sentenced to 15 months hard labour for essentially being a ‘nancy boy’ and enjoying the occasional party. Four of his friends were sentenced to six months without hard labour.

When Bobby was eventually released in 1928 let’s hope that he was able to go and enjoy Oscar Wilde’s Salome, perhaps to compare dances. The play, forty years after it was written (it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain on the basis that it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on stage), had its first public performance at the Savoy theatre in 1931.

After his time in prison Bobby took the stage-name Robert Linden and lived with his parents on Lansdowne Road in Stockwell and then after the war with his sister in Amhurst Road in Hackney.  Bobby went on to dance in many shows both in the West End and on Broadway in New York, working with Cecil Beaton, Frederick Ashton and Noel Coward. He danced at the initial BBC television trials at Alexander Palace and he performed for the Royal family at Windsor Castle.

Britt eventually moved to West Sussex and became a proficient painter in his eighties and he died at the age of 100 in the year 2000.

An influence for Mr Britt? Maude Allan as Salome and the head of John the Baptist in 1906.

Maud Allan became known as the ‘Salome Dancer’. Interesting character – her brother was hanged for murder of two women, she published an illustrated sex manual for women in 1900 and in 1918 it was implied by the British MP Noel Pemberton Billing in his article ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, that she was a lesbian associate of German wartime conspirators. She sewed her own costumes though.

The silent film star and dancer Alla Nazimova stars as Salome in 1923.

After Lady Be Good’s run had come to an end Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, who had recently bought the Empire, promptly demolished the famous old theatre and built a large cinema in its place. The Empire Theatre cinema, in one form or another, still exists to this day.

The Empire Theatre just after the war, it was showing the film Bad Bascomb with Wallace Beery and Margaret O’Brien.

The Empire Cinema today. It seems a long long way from Fred and Adele Astaire. More respect for the original building please.

25 Fitzroy Square today.

To try and recreate the ‘Naughty Nineties’ atmosphere at the Empire Theatre you may want to try the cocktails Bosom Caresser and Corpse Reviver.

Bosom Caresser
1 tea-spoon raspberry syrup
1 egg
1 jigger brandy

Fill a mixing-glass one-third full of fine ice; add a teaspoonful raspberry syrup, one fresh egg, one jigger brandy; fill with milk, shake well, and strain.

Corpse Reviver
2 shots Cognac
1 shot apple brandy or Calvados
1 shot sweet vermouth

Stir well with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass.

By the way Harry Craddock, who wrote a famous cocktail book in 1930 and worked at the Savoy Hotel wrote that the Corpse Reviver No. 1 should be drunk “before 11am, or whenever steam and energy are needed.”

Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth – Oh Lady Be Good!

The Berry Brothers and Eleanor Powell perform Fascinatin’ Rhythm from Lady Be Good 1946


Berwick Street, and the rivals in love – Jessie Matthews and Evelyn Laye

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

“The woman Matthews writes letters which show her to be a person of an odious mind.” – Sir Maurice Hill

Jessie Matthews as a boy

Jessie Matthews as a boy in ‘First A Girl’.

Today, except for the eldest amongst us and the blue plaque on the wall of the Blue Post pub on the corner of Berwick Street, Jessie Matthews is almost forgotten. It is fair to say, however, that once upon a time she was one of the most famous women in the country. Before the Second World War she was often voted Britain’s favourite film-star.

Born on March 11 in 1907 in a small, cramped and overcrowded flat above a Butcher’s shop in Soho’s Berwick Street, Matthews was the sixth of eleven children. Her father was a costermonger in the market for which Berwick Street is still famous. Twenty years later, with elocution lessons having removed her natural cockney accent, the saucer-eyed actress was taking the West End by storm.



Early 20th century views of Berwick Street

Jessie aged 16 appearing in the Music Box revue

Jessie aged 16 appearing in the Music Box revue

In 1927, and already a star, Jessie Matthews was booked to perform in a new revue called This Year of Grace – written by the 29 year-old Noel Coward. Her co-star was to be the bespectacled and short comic actor Sonnie Hale – well-known at the time for not only his comedic abilities but that he was married, somewhat incongruously, to the extraordinarily beautiful and popular West-End actress Evelyn Laye.

Already a West End star, the 17 year old Evelyn Laye 1917

Already a West End star, the 17 year old Evelyn Laye in 1917

Evelyn Laye

Evelyn Laye

Evelyn Laye and Sonny Hale at their wedding in 1926

Evelyn Laye and Sonny Hale at their wedding in 1926

Not long before the opening night of This Year of Grace, Evelyn Laye held a small supper party for her close friends at Soho’s recently opened Gargoyle Club. The guests included the actress Ruby Miller and the young actor Frank Lawton. Slightly late, and after a rehearsal for Coward’s new revue , her husband came along too. He brought with him, however, his young, pretty and dangerously charming co-star. There was a reason that the Sunday Times theatre critic James Agate described Matthews as ‘the rogue in porcelain’ and Laye was about to find out.

Jessie Matthews by now had been married for almost two years but unfortunately to a womanising debt-ridden actor called Henry Lytton Junior. He was from a famous theatrical family and she married Lytton to seek a stability in a life which must have become totally unreal after her almost overnight success as a West End star. She was well-off by now but his family offered social advantages to the young actress that her Soho working-class upbringing would have lacked.

The wedding occurred only eighteen months after Matthews had been initially courted and then raped at the age of sixteen by a louche, handsome Argentinean friend of the Prince of Wales called Jorge Ferrara. They had met on a ship to New York where she was to appear on Broadway as an understudy for Gertrude Lawrence. When Jessie returned to London she had a secret and illegal abortion from which she never really recovered psychologically (and probably physically too – she suffered from miscarriages though out her life). She made fourteen films during the thirties and had as many breakdowns. She later wrote in her autobiography: “All my life I have been frightened.”

Unfortunately the stability she sought in her marriage crumbled after just eight months. Lytton, who had not only had been sleeping with chorus girls behind Matthews’ back (indeed he’d been having an affair with one girl in particular from the very week they had been married), started to become increasingly envious of her growing success.


Jessie and Henry Lytton Jnr performing together in Charlot’s Revue in 1925, two months before they married.

At the Gargoyle club, situated in Meard Street, not a stone’s throw from the street where Matthews was born but in some respects a million miles away, Evelyn Laye genially greeted Matthews when she arrived with her Sonnie. The two women had met at various theatrical parties but they didn’t know each other well. Sitting opposite each other at the table, observers that night noted how the two actresses contrasted both in looks and in temperament.

The blue-eyed blonde Laye was tall, cool and sophisticated but maybe slightly aloof. Whereas Matthews, although not classically beautiful, had a sexual attractiveness and zest for life that a lot of men found utterly irresistible.

They both had one thing in common, however, and that was their love for Sonnie Hale.

The starlet Jessie Matthews in 1927

The 20 year old starlet Jessie Matthews in 1927

Sonnie Hale in 1926, the year he married Evelyn Laye

The ‘less than Greek’ Sonnie Hale in 1926, the year he married Evelyn Laye

Jessie in 1926

Jessie in 1926

Early in the new year of 1928 Evelyn Laye had travelled up to Manchester where Coward’s This Year of Grace was previewing. When she arrived at the theatre she accidentally caught her husband and Matthews holding hands. The co-stars quickly and expeditiously unclasped their hands on seeing her and Laye, pretending to joke, asked whether they were in love with each other. They nervously laughed and assured her that the idea was absurd and foolish. It was, as Sonnie pointed out, less than a month to only their second anniversary. Jessie and Sonnie were lying. They had already been lovers for several weeks.

This Year of Grace opened to rave reviews both for Jessie and for the writer Noel Coward (it resurrected his career). The Sunday Express ironically ranked Jessie Matthews with Evelyn Laye as ‘the brightest female stars on our English light musical stage’. This would have rankled Laye, who saw herself as London’s reigning stage beauty, and it only got worse when Room With A Veiw a song from This Year of Grace became a huge hit that summer.

A few weeks later Evelyn Laye found passionate and rather explicitly detailed love letters, albeit in an ill-educated childish scrawl, from Jessie to Sonnie. After confronting her husband with them, he admitted his love for Matthews, and it wasn’t long before Laye moved out of the Hale home in Linden Gardens and moved into a small flat in South Audley Street in Mayfair.

Evelyn appearing in Ziegfeld's production of Bitter Sweet in 1930

Evelyn appearing in Ziegfeld’s production of Bitter Sweet in 1930


On the 2nd June 1930 Jessie Matthews and Lytton were divorced. Five weeks later in the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, Evelyn Laye’s divorce petition came before Sir Maurice Hill – a judge who was close to retirement but particularly averse, in almost a prehistoric fashion, to divorce.

Evelyn Laye wasn’t in court as she was filming One Heavenly Night in Hollywood. Against all advice, however, Jessie Matthews did attend. She soon realised her mistake when her letters to Sonnie were read out in open court:

My Darling, I want you and need you badly, all of you, and for a very long time. I am lying here, waiting for you to possess me. The dear little boobs, which you love so much, are waiting for you also.

During the reading of one particularly embarrassing letter Matthews fainted and she had to be helped outside. Whether it was an act or not it didn’t garner much sympathy from Sir Maurice Hill. His final comments were spoken with brutal severity:

It is quite clear that the husband admits himself to be a cad, and nobody will quarrel with that, and the woman Matthews writes letters which show her to be a person of an odious mind.

Evelyn Laye in One Heavenly Night 1930

Evelyn Laye in One Heavenly Night 1930

Evelyn Laye and John Boles in One Heavenly Night

Evelyn Laye and John Boles in One Heavenly Night

Evelyn Laye in 1933

Evelyn Laye in 1933

Jessie and Sonnie Hale on their wedding day.

Jessie and Sonnie Hale on their wedding day.

Jessie Matthews and Evelyn Laye, not surprisingly, hardly spoke to each other again. In January 1931 Sonnie Hale and Jessie Matthews married at Hampstead registry office. Sadly, particularly after all the scandal that the relationship had caused, it wasn’t a long and happy marriage. Jessie had many affairs including Salvador Dali during a holiday in Barcelona, and the bisexual actors Tyrone Power and Danny Kaye.

It was while she was performing with Kaye in a disastrous Broadway musical that Matthews had the worst of her breakdowns and was admitted to an American psychiatric hospital. She was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and the hospital reported to Hale that she was ‘on the edge of madness’.

When Jessie returned to Britain she found out that Hale had fallen in love with the nanny who had been employed to look after their adoptive daughter. A year later they were divorced.

Jessie Matthews in a blonde wig appearing in Evergreen 1930

Jessie Matthews in a blonde wig appearing in Evergreen 1930



Jessie Matthews never retained the popularity of her pre-war years. Her style of dancing and singing appeared old fashioned not helped by the cut-glass accent from her teenage elocution lessons. In 1970, she was awarded an OBE, but by now had become slightly more rotund and matronly than in her lithe graceful days as an actress and dancer during the twenties and thirties. This comes to most of us but after watching Matthews at a charity gala, Evelyn Laye, who retained her slim graceful figure throughout her life, waspishly said:

Oh look, the dear little boobs have become apple dumplings.

Evelyn Laye had married again in 1936 this time to the handsome young actor Frank Lawton who ironically had been at the late supper at the Gargoyle club where Laye and Matthews had first formerly met. They were happily married until Lawton’s death in 1969 and Evelyn continued to work in the theatre until well into her nineties.

Evelyn Laye and her second husband Frank Lawton

Evelyn Laye and her second husband Frank Lawton

Evelyn Laye in One Heavenly Night

Jessie Matthews in Evergreen

Jessie Matthews in First a Girl

A lot of the information for this post has come from the biography of Jessie Matthews by Michael Thornton which although out of print can be found here.

Two songs made famous by Jessie Matthews sang by two of her contemporaries:

Noel Coward – Room With A View

Al Bowlly – Over My Shoulder

Jessie Matthews DVDs and music can be bought here
Evelyn Laye music can be bought here, alas copies of her films seem to be short on the ground, although apparently her acting style, like Jessie’s singing, has dated somewhat. It’s safe to say that her extraordinary beauty certainly hasn’t.