Matthew Dennison on the life of Augustus Harris, the Victorian showman who invented the Christmas pantomime and pioneered sex, celebrity and excess as an art form
Forget Lord Leighton and his fleshy goddesses forced to bare all in the interests of classical scholarship. Forget Wilkie Collins and Mary E. Braddon, and those sensational stories of exciting young women with a past. Foremost among 19th-century efforts to cloak titillation in the garb of respectability is the invention of the principal boy of pantomime.
You know the scenario. The stage is set. Young boy is looking for love. Bad guys — an overdressed middle-aged transvestite plus accomplices, most of whom appear and disappear in puffs of smoke to the accompaniment of hissing and booing on the part of the audience — do their best to stop him. Despite this, young boy finds love and all ends happily ever after. A nice Christmas story for the children and eight weeks of light work for the old lushes in the green room. Turn the young boy into a lissom young woman in skimpy disguise, and faster than you can say ‘silk stockings’ every father in the front row is a happy man.
Pantomime is an esoteric art form. Girls become boys and the barmaid type in the big frock has a hairy chest and five o’clock shadow. It’s a region of subversion and carefully orchestrated misrule. It ends with love triumphant and — much like life — reaches this happy climax after a hefty dose of raucous singing, ungainly dancing and endless jokes about politicians, mothers-in-law and last night’s television. Despite tracing its origins to medieval mystery plays and the traditions of the commedia dell’arte, it is a quintessentially British entertainment. It did not evolve overnight. It owes its current form to 19th-century showmen and producers. Chief among them is Augustus Harris, for 18 years the manager of London’s Drury Lane Theatre.
Harris was 27, virtually penniless but driven by ambition when, in 1879, he badgered friends into stumping up the minimum payment of £2,750 required to acquire the theatre’s lease. Mission accomplished, he set about repaying his debts. He made no sacrifices to high art. Instead he outdid commercial taste by offering the theatre-going public a three-part season which included a popular melodrama, a pantomime and, if the panto made money, a spring offering of something more challenging. For two decades, Harris pulled out every stop to make the Drury Lane panto the biggest, best and most lucrative Christmas entertainment on the London stage. His success kept the cavernous theatre afloat. It also brought pantomime as an art form out of the shadows and into the spotlight, where year after year, like the star of Bethlehem, it has continued to add sparkle to family celebrations nationwide.
Harris’s success was based on enduring foundations: sex, celebrity and excess. While he may not have invented the convention of the pretty girl with good legs taking the part of the principal boy, he certainly ran with it. Presumably he understood that the opportunity to gaze lingeringly at milky expanses of Juno-esque Victorian thigh, briefly liberated from their daytime swaddling, went a long away towards reconciling at least one section of his audience to the more equivocal appeal of dancing fairies and slapstick mayhem.
Harris’s favourite principal boy was Ada Blanche, a descendant of a 17th-century lord mayor of London, Sir Thomas Adams, and aunt of the redoubtable comedienne Dame Cicely Courtneidge, but he also employed the diminutive, dimple-kneed Rita Presano and, on one occasion, the male impersonator Vesta Tilley. Tilley, of course, was a star in her own right, in some accounts the highest-earning woman in Britain during the 1890s. Yet such was the status and glamour of Harris’s Drury Lane pantomime that the role of principal boy acquired the power not only to annex celebrity but to confer it.
The effect was contagious. the Australian actress Carrie Moore embarked on a lucrative career of romantic entanglements which resulted in her owning diamonds worth the colossal sum of £23,000. Moore was no more or less attractive than the average actress, but she had earned her spurs — or her diamond rivière — with successful stints in tights, notably as Aladdin at the Liverpool Empire in 1904.
However acute his commercial instinct, Harris was sufficiently a man of his time, and sufficiently conventional in his ambitions, to recognise the impossibility of trumpeting sex as an enticement to sell theatre tickets. Instead, for the first time in pantomime history, he scalp-hunted celebrities of music hall and vaudeville. Harris’s crowd-pullers would become the forerunners of today’s recycled soap and sitcom stars. Vesta Tilley was followed by Marie Lloyd, who stayed at Drury Lane for three years. Harris engaged the 12-fingered dwarf comic Little Tich, an ‘eccentric dancer’ who had already won panto plaudits in Manchester. The jewel in his crown, however, was the comedian and world-champion clog dancer Dan Leno. Leno made his Drury Lane debut in 1888, playing the Baroness in Babes in the Wood for the weekly rate of £28. Fifteen years later, with Harris long dead and himself a legend described in the popular press as ‘the King’s jester’, Leno played his final Drury Lane dame before succumbing to syphilis and insanity.
It was in 1890 that Harris pulled off his masterstroke of early media manipulation. He decided to capitalise on a society scandal. The new Viscountess Dunlo was a music-hall star called Belle Bilton. Belle’s husband had married her in secret. Her father-in-law, the Earl of Clancarty, reacted to news of the mésalliance with fury, dispatching his son to Australia and insisting he sue for divorce. Her future uncertain, Belle decided to continue working and accepted Harris’s offer of the title role in Beauty and the Beast. She donned her splendid costumes for the Bond Street photographer Alexander Bassano, making liberal use of her new title. Pantomime has always contained strong meat. Belle’s father-in-law died shortly after the end of the Drury Lane season, whether from shock or shame is not recorded. Harris’s ‘Beauty’ found herself in a twinkling the fifth Countess of Clancarty.
With typically Victorian gusto, Harris worked unremittingly on a broad canvas. Although the public called him ‘Druriolanus’ for his work at Drury Lane, he also took over the Royal Opera House and bought the Sunday Times. He founded the Drury Lane masonic lodge, became a member of the London county council and, in 1890, served as sheriff of London, earning himself a knighthood in the process. When he died at the age of 43 six years later, unsurprisingly exhaustion was listed among the causes of death. For his contemporaries, he had created magical memories of supremely lavish productions, several involving more than 500 people on stage. To today’s panto-goer, he bequeathed the now-familiar device of ‘invisible’ flying, the omnipresence of the television ‘celebrity’ — and the timeless titivation of those unconvincing boys in tights.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 19, 2009