Mr Foote's Other Leg

Ian Kelly

Mr Foote's Other Leg

Ian Kelly, who divides his time between acting and writing historical novels, is to be thanked for bringing back into the public eye the long neglected actor, writer, impresario and comedian Samuel Foote.

This feisty gent was a larger-than-life character from the era of Garrick, Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr Johnson who led the kind of exciting and varied life normally only discovered in racy novels.

Though hailing from a wealthy and aristocratic family, Foote's university career was interrupted by a series of spells in debtors’ prison, partly as a consequence of his overblown lifestyle.

His return to something like financial security came as a result of a bizarre series of events that were eventually turned into the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case by Charles Dickens in Bleak House.

Foote's two uncles fought so hard over an inheritance that murder ensued. This became the subject for a series of pamphlets that were enriched by young Sam's personal viewpoint, thrilled the public and filled his pockets.

Thereafter, he made a highly successful career on stage first as a relatively straight actor and subsequently a playwright, comedian and mimic who could take off anybody at will and frequently did so during a sparkling theatrical life that left only Garrick capable of competing.

Having conquered London, Foote mysteriously disappeared overnight to Dublin, where he had equal success, and later Paris. Such was his fame that even the Boston Tea Party owed its name to this outrageous comedian.

Once again, the Irish law courts welcomed our hero and his fame was considerably bolstered after he was pursued by a publisher victim. While Foote had to pay significant financial compensation, his fortunes were soon replenished when he turned the court case into what sounds like a hilarious stage event.

Somehow, Foote managed to put himself into bizarre offstage dramas throughout his life. Having become friendly with the rich and famous, he attended a house party in Yorkshire with, amongst others, Prince Edward Augustus, soon to be Duke of York and second in line to the throne.

As a jape, Foote was bet that he could not ride a particularly frisky horse and, sadly, proved that he could not, losing a leg in the process or, to be more accurate, during an anaesthetic-less operation two days thereafter.

Even this could not keep our man down and in no time, perhaps as compensation, his little theatre was awarded a Royal patent. Therefore, though they may not know his name, visitors to the Theatre Royal Haymarket today have something to thank Samuel Foote for.

The law came back to bite the one-legged Foote one last time. Once again, the situation sounds like farcical comedy as he took on the bigamous Duchess of Kingston, who retaliated by accusing him of sodomy. This was a capital offence, although to balance the probabilities, making false accusations of this offence carried a similar penalty.

The public duel between the "slandered sodomite" and the "duplicitous Duchess" had the whole of London laughing but was always likely to end in tears.

Eventually, the judge instructed the jury to make what sounds like a perfectly sound and wise decision. However, the stress of the whole business appears to have been too much for the man who could laugh at almost anything and soon afterwards, he passed away.

Potential readers probably know very little about Samuel Foote but it is strongly recommended that they take a chance on purchasing Mr Foote's Other Leg, which is impeccably written, highly informative about 18th century theatrical life and very entertaining.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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