Thursday, 31 October 2013

Only two degrees of separation from Dan Leno

Today I performed as Marie Lloyd for Easton Good Companions Club. A matinee, and a full house. And cheering at the end. Marvellous.

But equally as marvellous, was the tale one of the ladies told me:

Her grandfather 'worked the 'alls' in London just before the turn of the century, and his wife ran a boarding house for the theatricals thereabouts.

One of the theatricals who stayed with them was Dan Leno, of whom Marie Lloyd once said, 'he has the saddest eyes in show business'. He was of course, a comedian, and by many accounts a thoroughly nice man.

My lady at Easton told me about her mother's childhood memories. Dan Leno liked his shoes clean, and would offer the grand prize of sixpence to the person who cleaned them. Shoe-cleaning was not usually a favourite activity, but apparently when Dan Leno was in the building, the children all fought ferociously for the job!

I love these little snippets of oral history. The lovely thing about performing as Marie is that it evokes the tiny bits of detail about that era that are just about still in living memory. I feel happy to have been able to preserve the information for another few generations!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

'Watton' interesting lot the de Grays are!

I've had an interesting couple of days. It all began about 18 months ago, when one of the Watton Festival organisers invited me to appear as Queen Elizabeth I. "The thing is", he said, "Lord Walsingham lives near here. We might get him to introduce you. Would that be ok?"

Lord Walsingham?! A direct descendant of Queen Liz's famous Spy Chief?! I thought that would most definitely be ok.

After many phone calls across many months, we established that our Walsingham was not in fact descended from the Sir Francis of the Elizabethan court. As our Walsingham put it, that lot were the vulgar branch of the family, descended from some butchers in Bury St Edmund.

An exchange of emails yesterday revealed that our Walsingham was a descendent of de Graie of Normandy, High Steward of the Duke. De Graie's daughter was none other than Herlot, mother -courtesy of the Duke's son- of a boy who came to be known as William the Bastard. We English, of course, gave him a different name: William the Conqueror.

So our Walsingham, family name now 'de Gray', is a little bit well connected. Herlot's cousin Anschetil was commander of cavalry at the a Battle of Hastings, and his part in the victory was rewarded with lots of stolen Saxon land. He sired seven sons, and our Walsingham is descended from the seventh.

His Lordship also told me about his family connection to Queen Elizabeth I - the plan being for me to chide him about it as part of my talk at the festival. It so happened that Robert de Gray was discovered to be a recusant (refusing to deny the catholic faith) during Elizabeth's 1578 Progress to East Anglia. He received a fine and a reforming stay with a good Protestant family, but was unrepentant and was fined annually until his eventual imprisonment in Norwich castle in 1587.

Bailiffs were sent to takeover de Gray's lands and the Crown received the income for the duration of the imprisonment. In prison, de Gray received word that his villagers' coppicing rights would be infringed by the bailiffs, and somehow he managed to warn them. The villagers fought and beat the bailiffs with pitchforks in what became known as The Battle of Wayland Wood. An enquiry took place; de Gray was fined £1000. Lobbyists tried to discredit de Gray further by linking him to the 'Babes in the Wood' legend, in the starring role of Wicked Uncle.

All extremely interesting stuff, although I was a little scared at the thought of the additions to my usual 'Queenie' spiel.

And after all that, in the end, my Lord Walsingham was mysteriously absent from the talk, so I did it all alone!

For further information on the fascinating de Grays, including Walter, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor to King John (yes, THAT one, the one in the Robin Hood stories)...try Wikipedia:

At any interesting point in English history, it seems one of the de Gray family was there!

The Watton festival continues until 2nd November. More information available here:

Monday, 21 October 2013

Marie Lloyd and Me: Only ONE degree of separation!

I was delighted to revisit Corton House, a wonderful residential home for older people in Norwich, last week.

I went as Marie Lloyd (my third outing in this guise) and did the usual getting dressed thing. Audiences are welcome to handle my underwear!! I've got some original Edwardian (and older) petticoats and combinations to pass around.

The latter two thirds of this talk are actually devoted to singing; I go through Marie's chaotic biography, putting in her well known songs as I go. The audiences seem to love the songs and join in with all the bits they know. Singing like 'our Marie' is a bit tough on my voice: having spent years trying not to shout or squawk, that's exactly what one has to do to put across a Music Hall style performance!

After the talk at Corton, one very elderly lady was eager to tell me about her own memories of Marie Lloyd. As a little girl growing up in Sheffield, this lady told me her mother was 'stone deaf', so as a little light relief from a quiet household, she had been taken by her father every week to The Tivoli theatre. And on one occasion she saw none other than Marie Lloyd herself, doing a song with lots of dolls lined up along the front of the stage. The lady thought it was in about 1922, when she was about 5 years old, and Marie, of course, would have been very near the end of her days.

What a fabulous story! I never imagined I would have the pleasure of speaking directly to anyone who had actually seen Marie perform. A precious moment for me.

And of course, now I will have to research exactly WHAT that song was. Any suggestions?- you know where I am!