‘In the Waxworks Late Last Night’
Some of those who feature in this annual series are household names (assuming you live in a civilised household): George Robey, George Formby, Leslie Sarony. Others – Tom Woottwell, for example – not so much. This year’s entry falls squarely into the latter category. At the time of writing, Wikipedia says of Charlie Higgins: ‘Little is known about him today on the internet or in Music Hall books.’ So let’s try to get some basic facts clear.
Born in Liverpool in 1897, Charlie Higgins first wanted to be a clog dancer and joined a juvenile troupe, but doesn’t seem to have made a name for himself before the outbreak of World War I. He joined up, becoming ‘a well-known performer in Army concert parties’, and on being demobbed, formed a double-act with an army friend, appearing as St Just and Higgins, the King’s Jesters (‘Entertainers Who Entertain’), in an act comprising ‘popular songs, whistling, dancing etc’.
In 1925 Higgins went solo, establishing a new career as a comedian in revues, a form that was all the rage at the time. Shows such as Magnets (1925), Out of Work (1926), The Show World (1928) and La Revue Artistique (1928) had the occasional week in London – Out of Work at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, The Show World at the Kilburn Empire – but mostly they toured the country, building Higgins’s reputation, and earning him good notices. He was ‘a broad comedian of a versatile type’; ‘droll and many-sided’; ‘a new type of comedian who does not rely upon jokes of a doubtful character to provoke laughter, but who abounds in witticisms which are really funny’.
Of these revues, the most successful – and most intriguing – was Out of Work, written by the great Billy Bennett, who met Higgins when they were both appearing at the Alhambra, London, and wrote the piece especially for him. Higgins played Barry Bitters, a shop-worker who loses his job and tries various occupations to humorous effect: he’s a night watchman, toy seller, pavement artist, sandwich-board man, flower shop attendant, bath chair pusher, waiter and navvy; one review noted: ‘Perhaps he shines best in the scene outside a lingerie department.’
At the end of the decade, he launched himself as a stand-up comic on the variety circuit. He was billed as ‘A fool if only he knew it’, sported a catchphrase in ‘Good, isn’t it?’, and wore a distinctive costume: top hat, plus-fours worn without stockings, big brown boots. He had a sidekick (first Matt Leamore, later Wilbur Lenton, then Vernon Kingsley) who was apparently just there as a foil for Higgins’s ‘absurd conundrums and his inexhaustible supply of disparaging epithets for his partner’s apparent lack of intelligence’. He also sang a song, ‘With Me Gloves in Me ’And’, that the Daily Mail said was ‘in the real music-hall tradition’. In 1930 it became his first record release.
Several other records followed, as did radio appearances from 1934 and some high profile bookings at major London venues, including the Alhambra and the Palladium (he did three stints there). He shared bills with comic legends such as Will Hay, Jimmy James and Max Miller, and with the footballer Jack Cock, formerly of Chelsea and Plymouth Argyle, a man who scored within 30 seconds on his England debut in 1920, and who passed the off-season singing songs – ‘sentimental or otherwise’ – on the variety stage.
The 1930s was very much the peak of Charlie Higgins’s career, although he continued performing in the post-war period, still billed as ‘A fool if only he knew it’ and finding work in pantomime – he played Jack in Mother Goose at the Newcastle Palace in 1949. According to the obituary in The Stage, he retired in 1960, though his regular listing in that publication actually came to an end in 1953. He died in 1978.
So what are we here for this Halloween? Well, it could have been ‘Sh! There’s a Ghost in the House’ (1931), which – like George Formby’s ‘Our House Is Haunted’ – suggests that there might be a non-supernatural explanation for the phenomena described: something more marital than mysterious.
But instead, I’ve gone for the flip-side to the first single. ‘In the Waxworks Late Last Night’ is a slightly confused tale of a man getting trapped in a wax museum (on his wedding day, for reasons that aren’t obvious). The early verses are a wonderfully hallucinatory account of the exhibits coming to life:
Crippen up stood, showing the blood
all down his blazer.
Old Sweeney Todd gave me a nod,
sharpened his razor.
Cutthroats with knives drawn from their sheath
cutting the throats of their pals beneath,
even the kids were cutting their teeth
in the waxworks late last night.
The second half loses the focus on the Chamber of Horrors, sadly, but does have some good comedy:
Lady Godiva looked A1
when I saw her sitting there with no clothes on.
I shut both eyes to obscure my view –
you may think I’m a liar and you’re quite right too.
‘His ability to sing a really funny song is unchallenged,’ said The Era, and the reviews were similarly positive: ‘very funny though perhaps a trifle broad,’ said one critic; ‘excellent entertainment,’ said another.