Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sherlock Holmes Spotting (Part 4) - Wanted for Questioning.

No case is cold in Sherlockian investigation and I therefore close this series of Sherlock Holmes Spotting with a small group of performers who have proved especially elusive. All are known to have impersonated Mr Sherlock Holmes but their files are regrettably slim. Hence, I detail here what little is known in the hope more in the way of biographical information, sightings, even photographs may come to light. Please report any new information here or to your nearest Sherlockian.

John Webb.

Our first fugitive is known to have been active in the Glasgow area in the late Spring of 1894 with confirmed sightings (at least for a week) from May 28 when, with numerous accomplices, he masqueraded as Dr Conan Doyle's detective upon the stage of the Theatre Royal
Glasgow Herald June 2 1894

The second person ever to portray the Great Detective, he did so in conspiracy with Mr Charles Rogers whose play, "Sherlock Holmes: a Psychological Drama in Five Acts" had claimed stage copyright through a performance at the Theatre Royal, Hanley in December, 1893. An eye-witness from The Era reported John Webb played the part "earnestly and with much success" and secured a valuable list of his accomplices:

St. John Hamund (Dr. Watson), Arthur Lyle (Wilton Hursher), C. M. Curtiss (Augustus Featherleigh), Roy Cochrane (Dr. Macfarlane), Hugh Nolan (Dr. Grant), Mr. Conor (Mr. Westlake), Philip Rooke (Thompson), James Mayall (Jones), Kenyon Lyle (Billy), Mr. Quartermain (Lord Chief Justice), Mr. Bowes (Groves), Mr. Archibald (Rev. Mr. Williamson), Mr. James (Hawkins), Mr. Watson (Cotton), Mr. Constable (Police-Sgt. Thomas), Phyllis Manners (Mrs. Watson), Edith Lewis (Ruby Hursher), Jenny Hicks (Jane), Elaine Turner (Rachel), Cissy Sephton (Lily).

To these must be added one Henry Cordyce who, in concert with Hamund, managed the operation. Cordyce and Rogers have past history as the 1000 Reward Company active in 1893, a prior association that, with further research, may yet yield some trace of Webb himself.

I seized my Thread.

Arthur Lyle (Wilton Hursher in the play) has served as a fresh trail to follow...initially to Brighton in 1889, where he was recognised upon The Royal's stage in the guise of Justinian in Monday, November 18's premier of "Theodora".

The drama is an English version of Victorien Sardou's original (famously acted by Bernhardt), written by Robert Buchanan for the American actress, Grace Hawthorne (Nathaniel's niece) who purchased the rights from Sardou. The notes that follow are extracted from the excellent Robert Buchanan website (see HERE ). 

In this lavish production (it boasted two tame lions on stage), Lyle had as fellow actor Fuller Mellish who would, years later, appropriately, appear as Sidney Prince in Gillette's Lyceum "Sherlock Holmes". Neither actor tours with the company for much of 1890. Mellish is back (and admired) as Andreas, the Greek, from September.

The Stage for 19 February, 1891, reviewed the play's first night at London's Pavilion. On stage with Mellish is a new addition to the cast, playing "the illustrious general, Belisarius" - John Webb is described as "commendable". 

By the time the play opened in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (as detailed in The Stage for 23 April, 1891) Webb has been promoted to "an excellent Justinian". 

Though not specified in The Stage's brief review of a Dublin Gaiety engagement (28 May), I take it John Webb was still in the cast at that time as his subsequent departure is commented upon in The Stage's review of the resumed London run at The New Olympic (6 August).

The Observation of Trifles.

Where minimal data exists as in the case of the elusive John Webb any morsel, however insignificant in itself is worth noting: "docket it", Holmes himself advises.

I do not know if this is the same John Webb: I think it at least possible, given the thread followed here and the sense that he would, by late '93, be a known, experienced candidate for Sherlock Holmes. I have only scratched the surface of these lines of inquiry and see two main directions for the future: the much better documented  Robert Buchanan archive may have preserved images of Theodora putting a face to Webb. There's also all the reason in the world to investigate that whole list of accomplices for more possible sightings of our elusive thespian. Meanwhile...

Bessie B Beardsley.

Time to call in Pinkerton's for my next thespian wanted for questioning inhabited that shadowy, glitzy world of turn-of-the-century American vaudeville. I give you Bessie B Beardsley, who, anonymous as she remains, would appear to be the first female to impersonate Mr Sherlock Holmes in any media. Here's what I know (and it's not a lot!) about the original Baker Street Babe.

Proctor's 5th Avenue Theater 1899
Not to be confused with Edison's (later) film "Miss Sherlock Holmes" starring Florence Turner, "Little Miss Sherlock Holmes" was a one-act vaudeville sketch, performed at Proctor's 5th Avenue Theater in early July, 1900.

Written by J Searle Dawley it was presented by and starred Sheridan Block as a highwayman. Set in the present in London, Block's three accomplices are the author, Harry Vaness and Ms Beardsley. Advertisements appeared in the New York Times (8 July) & the Indianapolis Journal (10 July) ( see HERE and HERE )

The fullest description that places the sketch in its vaudeville context appeared in the New York Clipper on 14 July. I reproduce it below.

As yet, no photograph or further information has been detected.

Hugh Robinson.

On September 20 1911, five days after the death of Thomas Kingston (see my previous post), London's Kingsway Theatre hosted (for 2 performances only) "Sherbet Jones; or Who Stole the Roller Skates" with Hugh Robinson (Sherbet Jones) along with Ernest Thesiger (Dr What's On) & Miles Malleson (Professor Goryarty).

The London Evening News reviewed it the next day (see HERE ).
Robinson is described as a "Cambridge Humorist"  who has put together "an undergraduate's lark" which includes a satire on musical comedy "The Girl with the Cash" and his "Sherbet Jones". He plays the famous detective "well...very youthful". We are told his little company includes a capable eccentric comedian in Mr Ernest Thesiger". The audience, largely of friends, enjoyed the show, but the reviewer sees no serious future in it.

Slight and brief as was its existence, the play has two features of special interest. The first, of course, is the subject of this post - what did Hugh Robinson look like in the role or any role? The second lies in the considerable historic interest for theatre history in the presence of two far more famous actors. This is Thesiger's first year on the stage (maybe his first public production?) He'd go on, like Malleson, to become a well-loved, highly respected actor of stage and screen. I suspect Miles Malleson was the connection as I believe he was at Cambridge too.

I have found two further references to Robinson's stage career:

(1) On December 16, 1913, he was in "One Afternoon" on Eastbourne Pier with Harry King, while Thesiger was playing Roderigo in "Othello" at His Majesty's. (see HERE ).

(2) In October, 1916, while Thesiger was in "A Little Bit of Fluff" at The Criterion and Brighton's West Pier, Robinson was at The Garrick in the review "Looking Around". (see HERE ).

Sherlock Holmes Spotting.

My apologies for the absence of illustrations in this post - but that is the point. I should love to be able to return to these early impersonators of Sherlock Holmes and at least put a face to them.

I can, however, close with TWO images :- 

"Gluck" (Hannah Gluckstein) caught Ernest Thesiger perfectly in her painting "Ernest Thesiger waiting to go on".

That indefatigable Pinkerton Agent, my American Sherlockian friend, Howard Ostrom, has recently put out a call for information on a more modern actor as mysterious as John Webb:

Who the hell is Burt Grosselfinger pictured here in Howard's collection as a Sherlock Holmes of indeterminate date and context?

The game is always afoot!

Burt Grosselfinger from The Howard Ostrom Collection.

© Ray Wilcockson (2015) All Rights Reserved.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Days of Dignity or What You Will.

My contribution of 35 to #1000 years' Experience.

Education establishments: 11-18 Secondary selective technical school; 11-16 Comprehensive schools; Sixth Form College; 16-19 & FE combined college and Supply including Special School. 

Posts: Assistant English (+ school librarian); Head of English (+ Director of Creative Arts + Director of Language and Communications); Lecturer in English.

Subjects: English Language & Literature to 'A' level; Drama & Theatre Arts; General Studies to A level; BTEC Communications & (as needed) some French, Latin, EFL, E2L & Remedial English.

[This is, I think, the first of two, related education posts. Forthcoming is "The Readiness is All" under the thematic umbrella #Nurture1415. My thanks to @ChrisChivers2 for inviting me to contribute.]

Days of Dignity  or What You Will.

Twelfth Night, and a new school term. At my own grammar in the 1960's we would gather in the first assembly to sing:
 "Lord Behold us with thy Blessing
   Once again assembled here." 
The hymn's third verse opens thus:
"Keep the spell of home affection
 Still alive in every heart."

In retirement I have no assembly to attend but I take this opportunity to write with affection about what essentially still lives in my heart and so, surely, is that which I most value from those years in the profession.

Olden Days.

I think now that I was blessed to work (from 1969) in a system, with a local authority, advisers, HMI's, colleagues and (especially) Head Teachers who trusted professional autonomy. Moreover, I am crystal clear this was the crucial factor in the generation of that sense of personal and communal dignity I now value above all else in the practice of education. It is thanks to them that the sub-title of my career may be so Shakespearean: "What You Will". 

For me, there have always been two significant units in a school: its individuals and its communities. The former addresses the uniqueness of each person, adult or child; the latter is that living nest of Chinese boxes, incorporating local folk & parents, the whole school assembled and such constituent, overlapping, fluid communities as houses, year and form groups, classes, sets, sports teams, orchestras, play casts and staff.

Only in retrospect do I settle on dignity to christen the most gratifying feature encountered. Only now with time and energy for reflection is the beneficent connection patent between teaching English with autonomy and a perennial impulse to engage outside the class room. I can most usefully illustrate with reference to one 1970's 11-16 Comprehensive. With respect to teaching English with autonomy I'll focus on the currently topical matter of setting v mixed ability. I'll then recall a July afternoon that seems now to encapsulate all I wish to say here. But first...


There is about this term a measured, quiet poise I do not detect in the more hackneyed pride we associate with wearing the school uniform and the broadcasting of achievement to the world on school websites or bannered gates. It is in fact the more dignified by its implicit, unspoken influence, palpable to those who sense it and enduring in its impact long after childhood. Where pride is a blatant flag, dignity is a modest pennant. You can't teach this abstract any more than you can character. Those who go about their business with dignity leave something wholesome in their wake born of self and reciprocal respect. With it, failure and success are 'imposters just the same'  and it's engendered by trustworthy acknowledgement of the intrinsic, unique worth of individuals and groups.

The English Group.

It never mattered to me overmuch whether any age-group was 'setted' or 'mixed-ability'. Whatever the theoretical basis of the exercise, practicalities such as staffing levels, equalizing numbers and managing pupil relationships affect the equation. I never put much store in feeder primary grades or (at 6th form college) GCSE results, partly because (this is not a criticism) they often displayed disparity, but mostly because for an English teacher they told nothing like the full story. In addition, to be frank, it was more fruitful to set aside the past as soon as maybe because (like human development) English isn't a linear subject. Hence an undue consciousness of earlier performance was both irrelevant and counterproductive (especially with older students prejudiced by depressing grades).

My instinct has always been to get to know pupils as they present themselves and welcome the group as a nascent society. Apart from confidential pastoral information, the pupil before me is the embodiment of whatever data I need. Why look elsewhere when I have the living subject? My job is to observe and assess daily this ever-changing human data and respond to its ultimate benefit in real time, authentic encounters.

In the absence of a National Curriculum, targets, outcomes, lesson objectives and the like, I taught what and how I wished in the 1970's. Apart from discussing individual students, internal exam arrangements, external syllabi & capitation the most regular item of departmental interest was the expansion of resources, especially literature. The English Scheme of Work was a guiding reminder of that spectrum of matters with which an English teacher is properly concerned and (as with the best use of text books) not to be followed in its necessarily linear publication order.

Richness of resources was of paramount concern. Of course these incorporated specialized texts graded by reading age but I mean to stress the importance of variety, depth and breadth in effectively fuelling lessons, whose thirsty engines were Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing.

I'd have found it prejudicial and self-limiting, either to advertise a lesson objective or prepare differentiated work. An English teacher who commits to articulating an objective must not be surprised if: (a) that is all that's accomplished ; (b) multiple unpredictable opportunities are preempted and (c) fluid, in-lesson, individual differentiation is rendered impossible.

For me, the lesson's content is a fresh, varied stimulus open to all that dignifies the group as people who matter equally and who may respond according to each one's lights. My job is to conduct a running exercise in subtle differentiation, an exercise that will have been ongoing on multiple levels since I met the group and contribute to awareness of objectives for group and individual I'd not flag up to either because I've long been convinced students learn more naturally when they forget they're being taught.(Indeed, at all levels, I've taught some of my most effective 'lessons' in dinner queues and playgrounds).

I have a lot of time for rank orders. The least useful, practically, is the received list of last year's exam grades which usually inform me only how a student read and wrote under exam conditions months ago. I ignore these into the same oblivion as the name of the group or set. My teaching is the more immediate if I view a given group as the only one in the world rather than the 4th of 6 sets.

The reality is that every group has ranges. Exam grades are one of many. I'd maintain that knowing your pupils means you can close your eyes in the staff room or late one night in bed and think: "Listening. Rank order most receptive to least, my Year 7's. Go."  I think it the English teacher's job to maintain such mental and fluid rank orders for significant aspects of the subject, from ability to deploy the colon to poetic language sensitivity, imaginative engagement, and reading aloud. I'd not write these down - as a pupil is his or her own living data base, I'm the dynamic data processor. What else should occupy a teacher's mind but student and subject?

I'm only appropriately interested in grades external to a given group when end-of-year  or external exams seek to compare my students with others. The only time I'd mark to external standards would be in mock exams, as part of my duty to prepare pupils for this special task. My teaching would change radically likewise. Training to perform in written examinations calls for directed, objective-led lessons of advice, familiarization, technique, revision strategies and realistic exercise.

Children are like adults. We tend to be more forthcoming when we feel valued. We are Billy Caspers all our lives - suddenly, amazingly fluent when our personal 'kestrels' are appreciated by a group peaceful in its achieved dignity. And I pray, are we Ralphs on this Lord of the Flies island, civilized in the belief every man woman and child has the right to take the conch in hand and enjoy fair hearing however apparently inarticulate.

One July Afternoon.

The scene is a school hall I came to love. The time 1977.

I'd returned to the school that January as Head of Dept (after secondment and a year elsewhere) taking on a 4th year (Year 10) CSE group. Having realized by then that the quickest way to get known in a school is to produce a play, I dramatized a spin-off paperback of the hit of '76, "Bugsy Malone", secured Alan Parker's permission, got the green light from the Head and announced auditions in assembly.

I could have cast the play fully five times over, such was the response, including all the boys in my CSE set who, on hearing I had a script of a film they'd loved, asked to read it in class. West Midland (rough-cut) diamonds to a man, they'd never acted before, but read aloud in class with a surge of imaginative engagement never before evinced. I knew I had the makings of Fat Sam and Dandy Dan's gangs.

Limited as they were academically, these lads had street and sport cred which they deployed to draw in others. Faced with an embarrassment of riches I doubled up on the female leads and Bugsy who would perform alternate nights.

I can't remember why, but that July afternoon, members of the cast had gravitated naturally to the centre of their world. I can see them now. Costumed, they sit or stand about the darkened hall, talking fitfully, glancing now and then up at the illumined stage. And I too, unusually, find time to reflect.

How far had we come since Easter! I thought on the groundswell of support from every quarter. Of the music master who composed our songs. Of the design department's weeks of experiment to invent and then replicate splurge guns that worked, turning the playground into a firing range. Of the depth of trust and validating insight from a management that understood this was curriculum on a par with the most academic of classes.

Mostly I mused on transformation. I chose the word dignity for this celebratory post because that is what I perceived in the bearing of some boys become young men, awaiting the evening's performance with a grace in the step and a song of self-esteem in fearless hearts.

Here are some of them, caught in aspic, from my late dad's scrapbook. I wish all teachers in service and students at school similar legacies of dignity from doing what they will.

Just some of the Gang

And, of course, Bugsy & Molls.

© Ray Wilcockson (2015) All Rights Reserved.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Sherlock Holmes Spotting (Part 3) - In the Footsteps of William Gillette.

William Gillette in a poster for "Sherlock Holmes".

"I would rather see you play Sherlock Holmes than be a child again on Christmas morning" - Author Booth Tarkington in a letter to William Gillette.

This quotation is heard with renewed significance on the lips of many a Sherlockian currently savouring the prospect of viewing Essanay's 'lost' 1916 silent film of Gillette in his iconic role. 

Thirteen years before the release of this 90 minute 7-reeler (on 21 December 1903 as the Baker Street Journal has reliably tweeted), H A Saintsbury delivered his 500th performance in the same part. The American would himself have played Holmes some 1300 times before the final farewell tour of 1932. Saintsbury is probably the best known of numerous actors who trod the boards in Gillette's footsteps in America, Great Britain and abroad.

So popular was the play that it stretched even the considerable resources of producer, Charles Frohman and Gillette's energies to meet an insatiable demand. 

 Had cinematic technology, production & distribution developed fifteen, even ten years earlier than it did, replication of the popular play across the world may perhaps have been more filmic than theatrical with Gillette himself writ large on the silver screen. But an infant medium capable only in 1900 of a 30 second Mutoscope like "Sherlock Holmes Baffled" was no viable alternative to theatre's well-developed international reach. Where Gillette could not perform in person, touring companies were able and willing to make hay while this beneficent sun shone. 

Australia's First and Second 'Sherlock Holmes'. 

The franchise was clearly in safe hands when Australian impresario, J C Williamson, paid £1000 to produce the play, initially in 1902. New Zealander, Harry Plimmer, was both the first to portray Holmes in Australia and the first New Zealand-born actor to play the part. Williamson's other lead, the Canadian, Cuyler Hastings, however, came to personify the detective for Australians. Derham Groves tells their story HERE with contemporary illustrations and news archives. 

Thomas Kingston, an English Holmes Abroad.

The Evening Post for October 4, 1902, (HERE) noted the Williamson production contract and (scroll down) the recent Melbourne production with Cuyler Hastings. The ensuing paragraph mentions a London production of Magda which included Thomas Kingston in its cast. On 25 October Kingston opened at The Comedy Theatre, London in a show that would run for 430 performances (Kingston recalls over 600) - "Monsieur Beaucaire", co-written by Booth Tarkington himself. Here is Kingston in the part of Mr Rakell.

  StageBeauty has an excellent article on this production HERE and The State Library of New South Wales possesses a superb photograph of Thomas Kingston taken in a Sydney studio (please click HERE to view). I would suggest this photo was taken in 1900 when this leading English actor was on his first of several visits to Australia. There is evidence of performances in two plays for J C Williamson's Company, both alongside Harry Plimmer.
1) Easter Saturday, April 14, 1900: in "Camille" as Armand Duval (see HERE ). 
2) November 2, 1900 in "Hedda Gabler" as Lovborg (see HERE ).
(In each case, scroll down link page for relevant text.)

Almost 40 in 1900, Kingston's debut appearance for Williamson (for whom he would always work abroad) was (with poetic aptness) in Gillette's "Secret Service". 

Mrs Thomas Kingston.

On July 1, 1896, the actor married a lady destined to be far more famous and to live many more years. One of Clara Schumann's last pupils, Adelina Tilbury, born in Carlisle in 1872, now renowned world-wide as the pianist and composer, Adelina de Lara, would live to the ripe old age of 89. You can hear her playing - just search the name on Youtube.

Mrs Thomas Kingston.
There is an excellent biography of Adelina HERE . The Sydney Mail for August 19, 1899, records the imminent arrival of man and wife HERE . The Adelaide Advertiser has an informative article on Kingston dated 2 August, '99 HERE . 

In August, 1906, Williamson recalled Kingston at short notice and The Evening Post of 25 August details the couple's extensive touring to date HERE . 

In the Footsteps of Cuyler Hastings 1909-11.

On June 7, 1909, Roy Redgrave opened as Sherlock Holmes in "The Bank of England" at the King's Theatre, Melbourne, for William Anderson's Company, thus becoming the first South African-born actor to portray the detective. (see HERE ).

Meanwhile, in the same city, at the Princess Theatre, Thomas Kingston played Sherlock Holmes for the week beginning September 11, in the Gillette/Williamson version. (see HERE ).

On December 4, The New Zealand Herald described the forthcoming revival of Gillette's play with Thomas Kingston as Holmes and Harry Plimmer as James Larrabee. (see HERE ). 

The Press for 22 December reviewed the production at the Theatre Royal (see HERE ).

One senses from an article in New Zealand's Observer (18 September '09) that Kingston is planning a well-earned retirement. There are two (separated) paragraphs about his love of sculling and recent purchase of a farm in France HERE .

Perhaps the most important article about Thomas Kingston's portrayal of Holmes was published in the Observer's Lorgnette on 12 February, 1910 in that it compares and contrasts Kingston with Hastings (see HERE .).

I have found just two more articles that flesh out the all-too-sketchy information available on this well-respected, somewhat neglected leading actor. In May 1910, the Observer notes Kingston's intention to retire to France when his New Zealand tour of "Peter Pan" closes. (see HERE ). Alas, the best laid plans were not to be. The Dominion for 15 September, 1911, carries his obituary and pays fitting testament to a man well-liked and an actor much  admired. It may be read HERE . He was just short of fifty.

The more famous names peopling Thomas Kingston's world have to my mind rather over-shadowed one who, in his industry, reliability and professionalism exemplifies all such lesser lights who facilitated the celebrity of a finer talent by following in the footsteps of William Gillette.

[Part 4 will conclude this series of posts with a miscellany of little-known Holmes actors, including a new morsel of information on the elusive John Webb.]

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved