In the past, our much loved (by me) Hallowe’en feature has included classic songs like ‘With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm’, and headline names like George Formby and Leslie Sarony. This year, though, we’re looking further down the bill. Tom Woottwell was successful enough in his day, but he’s now mostly forgotten, such that he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page (and these days, you simply don’t exist if you don’t have a Wikipedia page). So he probably needs a little introduction.
Tom Woottwell was born Thomas Hare Burgess in Highbury, North London in 1865. His father was a builder, who wanted his boy to become an architect, but – as in any decent showbiz story – the boy had dreams only of appearing on stage.
He formed a double-act under the name the Brothers Bruce, then worked six months in a quartet called the American Eccentrics, before joining the Girards. All these were legmania acts, a style of entertainment that was very popular in the music halls in the 1870s and ’80s: a cross between eccentric dancing, acrobatics and gymnastics, all performed at a frenzied speed. The Girards billed themselves as ‘the greatest of all the legmania artists’, which suited Woottwell; he had, he said, ‘a passion for the eccentric in tumbling and dancing’.
This phase of his career came to an end, however, when Julian Girard – leader of the troupe – was invalided out, after a leap over a table went wrong.
Believing, correctly, that legmania ‘had lost its claim to novelty’ and was destined to decline, Woottwell created a new act as a comic singer, also appearing in pantomime from 1882 onwards. He wasn’t exactly an overnight success, later talking about how he ‘worked his way up the long ladder step by step, learning something from every rebuff’. But by the mid-1890s he was in full-time work, and in 1900 – he would later claim – he became the first music hall star to own a car (with ‘neither gear-box, plugs or throttle’), which he ‘used in dashing from one music hall to another in London when he was playing eight theatres a night’.
He also used to boast in later life of having been friends with the great legends of the halls, the likes of Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and Little Tich. And here he is on a fabulous bill in 1905, alongside Tom Costello, Nellie Wallace, T.E. Dunville and Tich himself:
Around the same time, he married another music hall artist, Emily Lyndale, who was billed variously as ‘a serio-comedy songstress’, a ‘serio and dancer’, and a ‘burlesque actress’. Apart from her solo act, with songs like ‘The Wedding’, she regularly appeared as the Principal Boy in pantomime, and starred in touring productions of The Count of Monte Cristo and Jack Sheppard. She was also, it was said, descended from William Makepeace Thackeray.
Here’s a notice from 1890 with her halfway up the bill. She’s not at the level of male impersonator Bessie Bonehill, then on a trip back from America as the headline star, but she is at least above Selbini’s Troupe of Bicyclists and Professor Matthews’s Goats.
The Edwardian era saw the peak of Woottwell’s career. He toured South Africa, Australia and the USA, and in 1910 was advertising the fact that he was fully booked for the next four years. He retired in the early 1920s, which seems rather early, considering he was then still in his fifties. Maybe he was just getting too old for the ‘loose-legged’ comedy routine that he retained from the old legmania days, even now he was a singer. He and Emily moved to Milton, Portsmouth, and he died from heart failure in 1941.
So after that (necessarily) lengthy introduction, we come to the work. Unusually for a music hall star – particularly one who’d started out as an eccentric dancer – Woottwell wrote most of his own songs, the titles of which (‘’Ave a Drop of Gin, Old Dear’, ‘Blowed if I Didn’t Wake Up’, ‘’Owd Yer Row’) reflected his comic cockney persona.
He recorded around sixty songs, including this fine piece, ‘Wait a Minute’. Characteristically of such material, each verse tells a different story, building to a shared chorus. And I’m including it as a Hallowe’en choice, not so much for the first verse, where the narrator is on an insurance scam (though the opening line is irresistible: ‘Wait a minute – half a minute – I’m supposed to be dead’). Rather, I’m drawn to the macabre, dead-pan tale of an industrial accident in verse three:
Wait a minute – half a minute –
When a chimney fell down,
I’d a contract to rebuild it along with old Patsy Brown.
On the morning it was finished,
Poor old Patsy somehow
Tumbled headfirst down the chimney –
He’s sticking there now.
Keep it as quiet as you can.
Not a word, mustn’t shout.
They’re wondering why their chimney smokes,
And I’m frightened it might get about.
An enthusiastic fan of the time, one John Lawson, was quoted in adverts saying: ‘The words of your song “Wait a Minute” are worthy of W.S. Gilbert.’ That’s overstating the case, but the lyrics are good, the song is remarkably catchy, and the semi-spoken delivery – somewhere between Gus Elen and Stanley Holloway, maybe – is very endearing.