Remembering Chirgwin

The British music-hall star George Chirgwin died 100 years ago, on 14 November 1922.

As the 20th century dawned, George Chirgwin was one of the biggest stars of the British music hall, rivalled only by Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. All have faded in the years since, of course, but Chirgwin perhaps more than the others, thanks – in part, at least – to changing standards of cultural mores.

As a male impersonator, Tilley is interesting in a world that’s currently celebrating gender fluidity, while Leno was the founding father of stand-up comedy, and Lloyd is still the greatest female performer Britain ever produced: our Marilyn Monroe who turned into our Edith Piaf. All this is to the good. Chirgwin, on the other hand, came out of a blackface tradition that has been reviled for decades now.

The British take on blackface was considerably more interesting than vague cultural memories of the Black and White Minstrels would suggest. That show, on stage and screen, was little more than a slick, polished take on the 19th-century American troupes, rooted in a racist parody of a supposed plantation culture. And even in the days of music hall, there were plenty of such British troupes (as well as the more original contribution of Sam Hague). But it was the solo performers who turned the convention into something distinctively British.

Because they often had so very little to do with the American model. By the late-19th century, there were blackface strongmen and jugglers, eccentric comedians and trick cyclists. Little Tich, the most revered comedian of the Edwardian music hall, had started out as a blackface clog-dancer, and other stars also used blackface early in their careers: Alfred ‘the Great’ Vance, Lottie Collins, Harry Champion, Gus Elen.

These weren’t minstrels. Just as Britain had taken the conventions of the Italian commedia dell’arte (filtered through France) and transformed them into Punch and Judy shows and pantomime, so the American blackface tradition was appropriated and adjusted by the British music hall. The make-up became a licence to experiment, liberating the performer from any pretence of reality. Vesta Tilley wrote in her memoirs that she changed her act to male impersonation because ‘I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy,’ and much the same was true of many of the blackface acts.

The greatest of these, by a very considerable margin, was George Chirgwin. Born the son of a circus clown in Seven Dials, London in 1854, he was seven when he first appeared on stage as part of the Chirgwin Family. He used to wear straight blackface until – in his own account – a fly flew in his eye just as he was about to go on stage; he rubbed his eye, removing a patch of make-up, and then got a big laugh from the audience just for his appearance. Adopting that as his gimmick, he henceforth painted a white diamond over his right eye, with the rest of his face black. Dressed in a black body-stocking, with a frock-coat and enormously tall stovepipe hat, he was billed as the White-Eyed Kaffir.

His act comprised songs, topical and political jokes, banter with the audience, ‘atrocious puns and more or less inane patter’. He had an impressive vocal range, singing bass, tenor and falsetto, interspersed with the occasional spell of yodelling, and he played a diverse collection of instruments, including violin, cello, banjo and trombone, as well as some of his own devising, including the phono-fiddle, which crossed a violin with a gramophone horn.

As time went on, the visual style became ever more elaborate. He’d reverse the colours, with white clothes and white face, except for a black diamond over his eye. Or he’d divide himself vertically: left-side white, right-side black (but still with the white diamond). Meanwhile, the hats got taller, the shoes longer, and the black body-stocking acquired a white handprint on the left buttock.

None of this made any sense in the context of American minstrelsy. This was an art project, a thoroughly theatrical creation, a set of masks. It carried no echoes of the Southern plantations of slavery days. If anything, it looked forward, a precursor of glam rock.

And if that seems to be overstating the case, consider this. The 1960s British rock ’n’ roll singer Screaming Lord Sutch cheerfully – and, I believe, consciously – plundered Chirgwin’s image, using the whiteface make-up with contrasting black eyes. He also adopted the stovepipe-hat, including a massively tall white version that was a direct copy of Chirgwin. Sutch was never much of a singer, but he understood theatricality, and he recognised Chirgwin as a fellow traveller.

In 1969 Lord Sutch played at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival show that brought together many of the first-generation stars including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley, as well as – most famously – John Lennon and Yoko Ono, making their first stage appearance together. Also on the bill was Gene Vincent, backed on this occasion by a little-known American band called Alice Cooper.

It was Toronto, and Sutch, who provided the inspiration for a change in Alice Cooper’s performance, ditching the trashy drag they’d previously used, in favour of horror imagery. When David Bowie went to Alice Cooper’s first British gig at the Rainbow in North London in 1971, he spotted the influence: ‘What I saw was something terribly reminiscent of British act Screaming Lord Sutch.’ Or, as Sutch himself put it: ‘This queen pinched my act.’

And what intrigues me is that Alice Cooper (the singer, not the band) pinched the asymmetric eye make-up that Sutch had in turn pinched from Chirgwin.

Very little survives of Chirgwin. He made some recordings which aren’t great, hampered not just by technical limitations, but by the absence of an audience. Like Marie Lloyd, and indeed all the big music-hall stars, Chirgwin was all about the interaction with the crowd, and stripped of that context, he’s clearly struggling. This is the most listenable of the records, though not his best-known song: that’d be ‘The Blind Boy’, which he reckoned he’d performed some 20,000 times. There are also a few seconds of silent footage; the quality is very poor but it gives a hint of his extraordinary appearance. The lack of documentary record hasn’t helped his cause, which is a shame, because he deserves to be better remembered than he is, cherished as one of British entertainment’s true originals.


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