"Suitable for all Classes"
"The funniest man on earth" Dan Leno also died young of syphilis.
The best known of the five entertainers in the exhibition, Green describes him as "arguably the greatest of them all. He worked his way up and achieved huge fame—he was a household name".
In a period where entertainment was openly divided between legitimate and illegitimate, Leno's repertoire crossed over the boundary.
"He went from being a clogdancer to a Music Hall performer, inventing comedy characters with patter which is likely the forerunner to stand-up", says Green, "and then he moved into full legitimacy by doing the Drury Lane pantos, really nailing the role of Dame".
The exhibition shows that entertainment was for everyone with posters often saying "Suitable for All Classes" with a range of ticket prices to match. "That’s just business. The notion that these things are only for working class audiences is nonsense", says Green.
Shows and circuses toured like those of the promoter, the self–styled "Lord" George Sanger.
The map showing his 1886 tour route brings home not only what a feat of marketing and organisation it was to move around a two-mile-long road train of wagons, with lions, tigers and bears but the hardship that must have been endured by the performers.
Inventor John Nevil Maskelyne is another of the five entertainers showcased in the exhibition. He was behind the Egyptian Hall Home of Mystery, he designed automata and created, amongst other things, the penny toilet lock.
On the afternoon I visit the British Library, I see actor Andrew Dowbiggin, handsome and suave in white tie and tails, performing as Maskelyne, explaining the three-card trick scam.
It is a family day at the library so the sketch is adapted for a mixed-aged audience as is the material performed by the diminutive Joanna Holden as Annie de Montford, who gets young and old singing "God Save the Queen" as a finale.
I ask Christopher Green who directs the shows how he picked the material and how it was re–worked for contemporary audiences.
"Having got the five people I had very strong ideas about the pieces.
"One thing I have been saving for a long time is an incredibly long newspaper article from 1880. It describes in very great detail everything [De Montfort] did in her act and that’s the foundation of the sketch Joanna has just done. It's very similar to what people do now with stage hypnosis but the precision of what she says is from that article.
"In some cases it was very straightforward—for Dan Leno it is two of his best known acts and you don’t mess about with them too much.
"For the others, I had strong ideas and worked in collaboration with the performers—we gave them lots of background material, biographies and other source materials to find the essence of what those pieces were. It wouldn’t work just to do a script verbatim—it's trying keep it relevant.
"Joanna sings a song Annie De Montfort wouldn’t have sung called 'How I Mesmerise Them' and I think that’s fine but we just do one verse and one chorus because there are lots of verses and they don’t have many jokes in them.
"Our guiding principal is that it has to be entertaining."
Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun is a free exhibition which runs at the British Library until 12 March.
The There Will Be Fun Repertory Company is comprised of Andrew Dowbiggin, Joanna Holden, Ian Harvey-Stone, Pete Cunningham and Tony Lidington.
Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun events at the British Library include
- Crinolines and other Victorian oddities: in 3D – 8 November
- Late at the Library: There Will Be Fun! – 25 November
- A Christmas Magic Show! – 9 December
- Derren Brown and Nina Conti talk about their stage craft and practise – 10 January (on sale from December 2016)
Christopher Green's book exploring many of the themes of the exhibition in greater detail, Overpowered! The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis, is available from the British Library shop.