Halloween hits: Bang Went the Chance of a Lifetime

Continuing our annual attempt to reclaim some element of Hallowe’en for British tradition, here’s another Music Hall song with a nice line in fatalism…artwork-robey

‘Bang Went the Chance of a Lifetime’
George Robey

One of the recurring themes in the Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall is the thwarted dream of inheritance, reflecting the precarious financial state of so many Britons. Most famously, there’s Harry Champion’s ‘Any Old Iron’, where the narrator inherits his uncle’s watch and chain, only to find out that it’s worthless junk metal.

This song by George Robey (1869–1954) is about a man with better social connexions than any of Champion’s characters – he’s the nephew of a duchess, family friend of a marquis – but one who’s still in need of the readies. So each verse gives us another situation where it all nearly comes good for him, only for hope to be dashed at the last. It starts with attempted murder, and ends with a massive rail-crash – which gives it a fine mordant, morbid tone. (He did much the same story in ‘Where’s the Butler?’)

By this stage, Robey was pretty much the biggest male comedian on the circuit, the most obvious successor to Dan Leno,Kentish Mercury 8 April 1898 (Leno, Robey) who’d died – exhausted and broken by the age of forty-four – at the height of his fame in 1904. Here’s a notice for a week at the Canterbury – the first purpose-built music hall – in 1898 with Robey halfway down a bill topped by Leno, but already using the tagline ‘The Prime Minister of Mirth’. What strikes me about it is the extraordinary range of ticket prices, from sixpence to two pounds two shillings. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that’s roughly the equivalent at 2019 prices of £3.85 to £270.

A middle-class, uncontroversial figure whose chief attribute was his energetic good humour, Robey was well placed to navigate the transition from the old rowdy days of music hall to the respectability of variety. He ended up playing Falstaff in Laurence Oliver’s film of Henry V (1944) and being knighted shortly before his death (he’d turned down a knighthood back in 1919). If there’s an equivalent in the late twentieth century, it’d be Harry Secombe.

‘Bang Went the Chance of a Lifetime’ (1908) is from his early days, before revue and legitimate theatre lured him away from the halls. The words, incidentally, were written by Sax Rohmer, who five years later would create the enduring character Fu Manchu, ‘the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world today’.

Now my old aunt Rebecca is rich;
She’s the Dowager Duchess of Diddle.
When she dies I inherit a million or so,
But the old girl’s as fit as a fiddle.
Whilst gunning the moors on the Twelfth,
In a quiet lonely spot by the sea,
I saw someone there by the cliffs, I declare,
‘Twas the Dowager Duchess of D!
At that critical moment some birds came in sight,
So I upped with my gun and I blazed left and right;
And I nearly hit auntie! Yes, nearly, not quite!
And bang went the chance of a lifetime.

Returning one night from a ball,
In a mellowish mood and reflective,
I saw a strange light in a bank – I said, ‘Ha!
I’ll play Sherlock Holmes, the detective.’
A half-open window I spied,
And inside I proceeded to slip;
When a burglar I saw forcing wide the safe door,
So I held him in muscular grip!
But he slipped and he bunked, he was wiry and thin;
And the safe was wide open and slap full of ‘tin’!
I drew a deep breath-then six policemen rushed in!
And bang went the chance of a lifetime.

Once I courted a sweet winsome maid,
She was nineteen and also an heiress.
(It’s nice when a girl is a Venus galore
And also a millionairess!)
I wooed her, I wooed her, I won.
‘My darling,’ she said, ‘I am thine!’
She swore she’d be true,
So I thought I would too;
What do you think? I thought it was fine!
My sweet Hyacinth, fairest of flowers that blow!
(With a millionaire Pa in Chicago, what ho!)
So I put up the banns, then the wife got to know,
And bang went the chance of a lifetime.

Now the wife and her mother last June,
Went to stay with the Marquis de Caxey.
They decided to go by the 8.45,
So I saw them safe off in a taxi.
But somewhere about ten o’clock
Came a telegram – Heavens alive!
Poor dear Ma and the wife! Fearful smash! Loss of life!
Total wreck of the 8.45!
’Twas a terrible smash, eighty passengers slain!
And I manfully struggled my tears to restrain,
When the ghastly news reached me: They’d both missed the train!
And bang went the chance of a lifetime!


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