Tag Archive: Billy Milton


The importance of Cabaret and the Revue to both popular and Bohemian culture between the Wars is undeniable. The first Bohemian night-clubs, The Cave of the Golden Calf, The Hambone and the Cave of Harmony were all initially cabaret-bars, modelled along Parisian lines. The craze for dancing in the 1920s reduced the Cabaret to a specialist or novelty act and the dance-bands and pianist-singers began to dominate. The legacy remained though.

At the same time, in the theatre, Andre Charlot and C.B.Cochran developed the Revue with a string of spectacular and innovative  productions.Elements of music-hall, Parisian Folies, jazz, ballet and topical satire all combined to create a distinctive, and very popular, night out.

Night Lights at the Trocadero

Both men favoured a mix ofthe  high and the low, of sophistication and spectacle. They also had a great eye for new talent and many of the great acts of the time owed their careers to their foresight. Aside from several mammoth (and expensive) productions they also pioneered what came to be known as the “Intimate Revue”, which achieved particular importance in the 1930s. Its success owed much to Noel Coward’s 1920s Revues, first for Charlot and then jointly with Cochran, On With The Dance (1925) and This Year of Grace (1928). These had provided the decade,s two most evocative and anthemic songs, firstly Poor Little Rich Girl and secondly Dance Little Lady.

The Intimate Revue was a theatrical event that drew inspiration from both Cabaret Club and larger stage performances. It was very fashionable for a while and its audience  pretty up-market. Certain artists became particularly associated with genre, Hermione Baddeley and Hermione Gingold especially.

Two Hermiones 1950

Hermione Baddeley was at the heart of Bright Young society. Her husband was David Tennant, owner of the Gargoyle Club and she had a  deep animosity towards Brenda Dean Paul and Harry Rowan Walker, from the raffish end of the set (both of whom were likely associates of Elvira). She was the star of the Revue that Hugh Wade was most involved with ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/to-and-fro-1936-hugh-wade-and-the-perils-of-the-topical-revue/ )

Hermione Gingold ruled the roost at the Gate Theatre Studio in Covent Garden. This was a small (96 seats) but important venue which put on challenging plays but also a large number of revues. Operating as a club, it avoided the need to submit everything to the Lord Chamberlain’s office and so was rather freer from censorship than larger venues. (see Gate Theatre Studio)

One programme is enough to reveal the array of talent involved and the general  ambience of these Revues. Some of the actors would go on to become the most familiar of British and American screen faces, others important figures in television circles. At least two were friends of Hugh Wade and Elvira.

1937: MEMBERS ONLY –

Geoffrey Wright, Robert MacDermot, John Adrian Ross, Nicholas Phipps (Gate Theatre Studio)
Charles Hawtrey, Hermione Gingold, Richard Haydn, Kenneth Carten, Nicholas Phipps, Nadine March, Ann Morrison, Billy Milton, Reginald Beckwith, Gabrielle Brune; dir:Norman Marshall & Geoffrey Wright, des:William Chappell ; additional material by Diana Morgan, Walter Leigh, Ronald Hill, John Weir, Reginald Beckwith, Harold Plumptre, Arthur Marshall

Norman Marshall was the owner of the theatre  and an important figure in what would now be termed alternative theatre. He used the Revues to finance more experimental and “difficult” productions (see Norman Marshall). His co-director,who wrote the music was Geoffrey Wright (see Geoffrey Wright Obituary ). This Oxbridge partnership gives the lie to the myth that “Beyond The Fringe” was the first manifestation of the Footlights tradition on the London  stage.

Billy Milton was at the height of his popularity at this time, spending his time between cabaret spots in London, Paris and New York. He has appeared on this blog in several guises, playing at Elvira’s parents’ house, claiming to have missed Elvira’s party by a day, befriending Napper Dean Paul in Cannes and generally knowing everyone in show-business and Society.

William “Billy” Chappell is also a familiar name, linked with Edward Burra, Frederick Ashton et al. His work in the 1930s as dancer, choreographer and set-designer show a work ethic not usually associated with the Chelsea Set (see William Chappell Obituary )

Billy Chappell

Apart from Gingold, the name most likely to resonate today is Charles Hawtrey. It is easy to forget that he had a long pre-Carry On career and in 1937 had already endeared himself to the British public as the obnoxious schoolboy in Will Hay’s stage and cinema act. Hawtrey’s later life is one of tragedy and alcoholic downfall, so it is pleasant to remember him in these early years of success. He was the show’s compere.

Charles Hawtrey

Richard Haydn was a comic actor whose nasal-tones created a number of memorable radio characters in the 1930s. He is best remembered as the voice of the Caterpillar in Walt Disney’s Alice and as  Max Detweiler in The Sound of Music. (see  Richard Haydn)

Richard Haydn

Gabrielle Brune was another whose career spanned many decades. Fans of Ealing Comedies will remember her from “The Titfield Thunderbolt” ( see Gabrielle Brune)

Gabrielle Brune

Nadine March was a popular stage actress and revue star. Her speciality was a parody of Kensington/Mayfair society and party girls, which I am sure guaranteed her a good reception from the type of audience who attended the Gate and similar venues.

Nadine March

The name Nicholas Phipps may not mean much but his face is instantly recognisable from innumerable British comedy films where he tended to play officious or military types. He also was a screenwriter, his script for Doctor In The House (1954) being BAFTA nominated.

Nicholas Phipps

Equally ever-present on screen was Reginald Beckwith, whose film credits read like a history of post-War British popular cinema ( Freedom Road, Genevieve, Thunderball et. He was also a scriptwriter for revues and other stage productions. In “Members Only” he played a (comical)  male stripper, not the sort of thing seen too regularly in the mainstream West End.

Reginald Beckwith

Then we have Hugh Wade and Elvira’s friend Kenneth Carten. Carten was well-established as a regular in Noel Coward shows but is better known as Tallulah Bankhead’s close friend and confidante. He was probably the male lead in the sketches and song

Letter from Kenneth Carten to Hugh Wade 1949

Among those who provided the sketches were the playwright Diana Morgan (her husband, Robert MacDermot,later head of drama at the BBC, co-directed) and Arthur Marshall. Diana Morgan was to become a successful screenwriter (see Diana Morgan) while Arthur Marshall became known to television viewers through his appearances on Call My Bluff. In 1937, Marshall was a schoolmaster at Oundle but also had ambitions as a comic and cabaret turn. He had already begun his reviews and parodies of Public Schoolgirl stories (see Finding Schoolgirls Funny ), an acquired taste but one apparently shared by many.

Arthur Marshall

And then we have Hermione Gingold, for whom the word “character” seems hardly adequate. I think I will post on her separately but through her friendship with Elizabeth Welch and Brian Desmond Hurst and her marriage to Eric Maschwitz ( lyricist to “These Foolish Things”) she was very much at the heart of West End society.

Hermione Gingold

To me it is a remarkable list of people, cutting across a great swathe of British popular culture. There is a strong Public School, Oxbridge element involved and a definite gay and camp air to the proceedings. The show was well reviewed, Dilys Powell in the London Mercury praised Billy Milton’s American Film Star, Nicholas Phipps’ “Shooting Colonel”, Nadine March’s Kensington Girl, Beckwith’s Stripper and Hawtrey’s Compere.  She was very taken by Gingold’s “Snake Charmer” and Richar Haydn’s “Fish-Impersonator” (the mind boggles). It was all very light-hearted and, I’m sure, a jolly good night out.

A great source of information for theatres and revues is this one

Rob Wilton Theatricalia

I don’t know of a definitive history of the Revue but hope there is one somewhere.Of course, I can’t help wondering about the social network these artists operated within or wonder which night clubs they and the audience went to after the show.

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The 1930 Stage show Ever Green, which became the 1934 film Evergreen, was one of the more significant musicals of era. Written, in London, by Rodgers and Hart it was a huge success, running for 234 performances at the newly-restored Adelphi Theatre. It brought together some remarkable people, some of whom we have encountered already.

The driving force behind the show was Charles B.Cochran. Although he is largely remembered now for his competing with rival producer Andre Charlot to see who could get the most chorus girls to fit on a London stage, Cochran was possibly the single most influential figure in catering to and shaping English tastes in theatre and music between the wars. He worked extensively with Noel Coward, He discovered Gertrude Lawrence, Jessie Matthews, Evelyn Laye and the Dolly Sisters. He hired the likes of Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler to design his sets. He mixed high culture with popular culture. The cast lists and production credits run the gamut of artistic talent in the period – from William Walton and the Sitwells to Flanagan and Allen and The Crazy Gang. By bringing the Blackbirds revue over in 1926 (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/blackbirds-revue-of-1926/ ) he pretty well initiated the craze for jazz and black culture among the Bright Young People.

The star of both stage-show Ever Green and the subsequent film was Jessie Matthews. Matthews was the most popular West End performer with the general public albeit one with a scandalous and tragic private life. She was born in Soho and her childhood friends included Henry Degrasse, barman and Ham Yard club proprietor, housebreaker and thief. As Mark Benney, he wrote the best insider descriptions of Soho night life (in Low Company (1938)) and later worked with Talcott Parsons and the influential Chicago School of Sociologists.Matthews, like Benney, always felt outsiders despite their considerable achievements.

Jessie Matthews 1927

Jessie Matthews (1907-1981) had started as a dancer in Charlot’s revues, then Cochran spotted her star potential. Her combination of a plucky, fresh-faced English persona and an aptitude for the new “American” dancing styles made her very marketable. Off stage her life was unbelievably messy.Her mental health was always fragile and she was notoriously “difficult”. Being raped by and or/hired out to various aristocrats for sex cannot have helped. The full story is very depressing – you can get a flavour of it here Jessie Matthews – Diva of Debauchery

The high-profile divorce case featuring Sonnie Hale (co-star in Evergreen) and Evelyn “Boo” Laye (a BYP favourite) that cited her as co-respondent nearly finished her career. At the same time she was being pursued by Harry Milton, brother of Elvira’s friend Billy. Harry was married to the redoubtable Chili Bouchier but found himself blacklisted from the London stage as a result of his advances – by whom is never made quite clear.

Anyway, High Society has a lot to thank Jessie Matthews for. Apart from her own contributions to some of the best loved shows, she encouraged Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson (her accompanist on several recordings) to sing as well as play the piano and did much to launch his career as the era’s preferred black performer (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/leslie-hutch-hutchinson/ ) .

Another, very different, black artist is associated with Ever Green. This is the remarkable Buddy Bradley (1905-1971).Bradley and Billy Pierce were brought to England (by Cochran) from Harlem to choreograph the show. Pierce ran a successful dance studio whose forte was teaching African-American dance styles to white artistes (see Pierce Dance Studio The Afro-American 1929 ). Bradley was the main instructor and an innovative choreographer in his own right.Several Broadway shows owed their success to his input but he was rarely given credit. Evergreen was the first “white” show where his name appeared in the programme

Ever Green

Pierce returned to Harlem but Bradley stayed in London, opening the Buddy Bradley School of Stage Dancing at 25a Old Compton Street ( near Wheelers restaurant) in Soho, where it thrived throughout the 1930s.Here, Bradley tutored the big names of british musical theatre such as Jack Buchanan. He worked closely with Jessie Matthews on all of her routines for stage and screen.

Bradley, Matthews and Buchanan 1936

In the 1940s the Dance Studio moved to nearby  Denman Street and was still there in the 1960s.Bradley continued to teach and advise, but he remained a background, and eventually neglected, figure. However traces ofhHis legacy can still be glimpsed on saturday night television, as a young Bruce Forsythe was sent to Bradley to polish up his juvenile song-and-dance act. Bradley’s UK career is assessed here  Black in the British Frame Stephen Bourne .

In retrospect, Bradley’s Golden Age was the 1930s. In that decade,some of his most interesting projects were developed in conjunction with Frederick Ashton, ballet-dancer,choreographer and part of the circle around Edward Burra and Billy Chappell. The best known of these was High Yellow (1932) performed at the Savoy Theatre – with Alicia Markova earning the nickname “Snake Hips” for her ability to mimic Harlem movements.Vanessa Bell did the set design and Billy Chappell the costumes.Other Ashton/Bradley collaborations, nearly all produced by Cochran, included  Magic Nights (1932) at the Trocadero Restaurant, Ballyhoo (1933) with Hermione Baddely at the Comedy Theatre,  Follow The Sun (1936) and Floodlights (1937) – the latter written by Beverley Nichols. If anybody tells you that High Culture/Pop Culture cross-pollination only started in the swinging sixties just point them in the direction of the programmes for these shows.

Freddy Ashton

High Yellow used the music of Spike Hughes (specifically “Six Bells Stampede”), himself first inspired by Cochran’s Blackbirds of 1926. I don’t think that Hughes would have thought much of Evergreen but you can judge for yourself as to its merits. Buddy Bradley makes, as far as I know, his only (very brief) appearance in front of camera about 42 minutes in.

The white-room, Art Deco set for”” Dancing on the Ceiling” is justly famous and it strikes me that the plot (such as it is) employs the “looking back” trope in ways that Coward’s Cavalcade would do a year after Ever Green’s stage debut. Matthews’ Charleston is still impressive,the first world war set-piece truly bizarre and Over My Shoulder became not only Matthews theme song but a “Depression” morale booster on the lines of “Keep Your Sunny Side Up”. Although it is obviously a film,(extra dialogue by none other than  Emlyn Williams) enough of the stage show remains to give us a sense of the lavishness of a Cochran musical revue.

One final note – Matthews’ career faded in the late forties (and only really revived when she took over the role of Mrs.Dale in 1963 in the long running radio soap-opera, “Mrs.Dale’s Diary”). She did attempt a comeback musical in 1947 with “Maid To Measure”. The music was composed by Blue Lantern resident pianist, Hugh Wade. It was not a success.

Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson

I’ll leave Charlotte Breese’s “Hutch” alone after this post but I do recommend it to anyone interested in the racial and sexual politics of the inter-war years – or anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with one of the true stars of British popular music in the sadly ignored decades preceding the rise of the Beatles. However there is a section on Elvira that is too tantalising to ignore.

“Typical of Hutch’s clients and/or lovers was Elvira Mullens, daughter of Lord and Lady Mullens. Three pianists – Hutch, Billy Milton and Carroll Gibbons – all played at one of her parties, which always featured modish theatricals. Appearing the same night was a close-harmony turn, The Three New Yorkers. Elvira was briefly married to one of them, a Mr.Barney. The marriage ended, and scandal erupted, when Elvira took a lover and shot him dead. Elvira was arrested and confined to the infirmary of Holloway prison, where, to keep up her spirits, she displayed a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead. At the same time, Mr. Barney tried to blackmail her father by threatening to expose details of her private life, including her cocaine habit. In the event, Elvira was acquitted. To celebrate she threw a huge party at the Berkeley. People were horrified and soon afterwards she committed suicide in Paris.”

There are some errors in this account, which is taken largely from Billy Milton’s “Paradise Mislaid” – is is doubtful that it was suicide, for example. However it is the “clients and/or lovers” that makes me wonder. Is this just a general statement about Elvira’s “typicality”  or is something more being implied? Why choose Elvira as an example, anyway?

It is not far-fetched at all to speculate  that Elvira could have had a fling with Hutch. So it seems did half of West End society, male and female. Elvira’s idol Tallulah certainly did and Zena Naylor (a friend of Brenda Dean Paul and Olivia Wyndham, if not Elvira herself) had quite a long-lasting affair with the singer. At one party, Brenda Dean Paul actually won Hutch in an auction. Another ex-Deb, Elizabeth Corbett (nee Sperling) was about the same age as Elvira and said to be the leader of “a smart set”. She gave birth to a child by Hutch in 1930. Hutch’s most famous relationship was with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, a somewhat less than clandestine romance and one which Elvira would have known all about. Edwina was drawing press attention at the same time Elvira was on trial. The People had hinted at an affair between Lady Mountbatten and a “coloured” entertainer. Fortunately for the Mountbattens, they picked on Paul Robeson as the likely candidate and Lord Mountbatten sued and won substantial damages. The unsuccessful defence case was conducted by none other than Sir Patrick Hastings, fresh from his  triumphant handling of Elvira’s murder charge.

Edwina Mountbatten

Although Hutch continued to be a cabaret favourite there was an undoubted behind the scenes campaign against him.After the abdication of friend and enthusiast Edward the Eighth he was rarely heard on the BBC and the Society invitations tailed off. He remained incredibly popular with female audiences throughout the country  and staged a triumphant “Society” comeback as part of the nostalgia for the 20s that hit the upper-classes in the mid-fifties. His last years though were ones of absolute decline and make for very sad and somewhat disquieting reading.

Breese’s commentary on the motivations of those women who threw themselves at Hutch in the golden years, from 1927 to the mid-thirties, rather misses some obvious points, explored at length elsewhere in the book,  but as an analysis of Elvira is worthy of consideration,

“Many of Hutch’s female lovers were rich and had nothing to do, and had little or no self-esteem.Desperate for affection, and attention, they lived in gilded misery, drifting from party to party and, inevitably, attracting men who despised, exploited and discarded them.”

“Mauve” Waterhouse

Charlotte Breese’s  biography of Leslie Hutchinson, “Hutch“, apart from being a moving and rather sad portrayal of the Bright Young Thing’s favourite cabaret performer, is a mine of information and, sometimes slightly scurrilous, revelations about the antics of  the “faster” crowd between the Wars. One anecdote in particular caught my eye.

Hutch 1928

In a section of the book that begins with the statement, “While most of the parties that Hutch attended were fairly decorous, some were scenes of open debauch.”, the following is given as an example –

“The wife of Sir Nicholas Hildersley, Audrey, known as “Mauve”, used to entertain her decadent friends at their home in Swan Walk, Chelsea. While her husband, often with his fellow philatelist George V, worked on his stamp collection in the basement, the guests, stimulated by drink and cocaine at his expense, used to chant “Hey, Hey, Let Nicky Pay!” Hutch and Mauve, armed with a musical saw, used to sing and vigorously enact “Let’s Do It”.”

“Mauve was a vain woman, in a cloud of Turkish cigarettes and Chanel No. 5, who avoided having children for fear of losing her beautiful figure . Although Hutch probably tried various drugs – Billy Milton, a rival pianist, claimed he took cocaine – he did not become dependent on the stimuli of the very fast set, limiting himself to being a lifelong heavy smoker and drinker.”

So, we find another seemingly respectable Chelsea household where drug-taking and sexual shenanigans are the order of the day. As a bonus, we also have a mention of Elvira’s friend, Billy Milton.

Now, I have no wish to contravene the libel laws or to offend anybody related to the Hildersleys  and the story, presumably related by one of that ilk, cannot be independently verified, but it does seem worth pointing out the following facts.

There is no record of anyone called Hildersley residing in Swan Walk in the relevant years (1928-30, I’d guess). However Sir Nicholas Edwin Waterhouse, senior partner in the already powerful accountancy firm Price-Waterhouse, lived at No.2 with his wife Audrey, known as “Mauve” to her friends. Sir Nicholas was a keen philatelist, his book on American postage stamps can still be found. Conspicuously wealthy, the couple were both keen patrons of the arts.

Swan Walk, Chelsea

One artist who benefitted especially from their support was the great “lost Modernist”,  the maverick and irascible Wyndham Lewis. By the late 1920s, having alienated most of literary and artistic London, Lewis was in need of sympathetic patronage. The Waterhouses funded his journal The Enemy and helped him financially during the writing of The Apes of God (a novel which lambasted everyone Lewis knew, thus ensuring his further isolation.)

Wyndham Lewis was connected to Elvira’s world through Marjorie Firminger’s unfortunate infatuation with the artist  (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/ ). It just possible that Firminger and her friends  met Lewis at Swan Walk. Firminger’s narcotically-inclined co-host at many a Chelsea bash,Olivia Wyndham,was distantly related to Lewis (but then again so was she to almost everybody.)

Audrey Waterhouse was much older than Elvira and I think it is unlikely that they were acquainted. However, if true, the presence of yet another Chelsea residence where cocaine was freely available would not have escaped the notice of the circles Mrs.Barney inhabited. As to Hutch, there might be – according to Charlotte Breese – an even closer connection to Elvira than simply a shared fondness for “decadent” parties – and that will be dealt with shortly.

 

 

John Sterling Barney, for many the real villain of the piece, was part of the Three New Yorkers singing group that came to London in 1927/28. They scored a significant success in the show “Many Happy Returns” and had residencies at the Kit Kat club and at the Cafe De Paris. They may be long forgotten, but they were “pop stars” in their day – introducing a slick, American vocal style to English audiences. That Elvira, with her love of the theatrical world and of all things fashionable and  modern, should have found them fascinating should not surprise us. Barney is usually presented as a seedy nobody, but the fact that Elvira’s party at her parents’ house in Belgrave Square included the group as part of the entertainment, along with three major stars of the day – Billy Milton, Lesley Hutchinson (“Hutch”) and Carroll Gibbons – shows that they were , however briefly, the talk of the town.

The marriage was, of course, a disaster, Barney proving himself to be both jealous and sadistic. He was back in America within a year and for many commentators Elvira’s journey into the wilder side of 1920s life can be attributed to Barney’s cruelty. I am not entirely convinced of this but what little we know of him is hardly endearing. For example, his major contribution to the trial was an offer to sell the story of the marriage to the newspapers. He then disappears altogether. His partners, Ross and Sergeant, continued the act in the states but seem not to have left any great mark on popular culture. 1928 in London was the highpoint for the trio  – and perhaps for Elvira too.

The Three New Yorkers made a few London recordings for the Metropole label – so here are two rare examples of an actual voice from the Barney case that we can access today. These are the sounds that captivated Elvira –

“Many Happy Returns” was a successful and significant show. Its historical importance lies in the fact that it included one of the iconic songs of the period,  “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”. Written by Herbert Farjeon, an important figure in London theatrical and revue history (and another cricket-writer of some repute),it encapsulated the Prince of Wales cult, then at its height, with some precision and remains a much quoted testament to those times.

“I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
It was simply grand, he said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”
Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females
For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
My word I’ve had a party, my word I’ve had a spree
Believe me or believe me not, it’s all the same to me!
I’m wild with exultation, I’m dizzy with success
For I’ve danced with a man, I’ve danced with a man-
Who
Well, you’ll never guess
I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.
I’m crazy with excitement, completely off the rails
And when he said to me what she said to him -the Prince remarked to her
It was simply grand, he said “Topping band” and she said “Delightful, Sir”
Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females;
For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”
Herbert Farjeon
The song, which catches the mood of the era perfectly, was written about Edna Deane, ballroom dancing champion and populariser of the “modern” dances that Elvira and her friends all loved. Deane’s great dance-floor rival was Phyllis Haylor, part of the London gay set and later the lover and partner of film-critic Nerina Shute. Elvira would have known all three.
Tim Palmer and Edna Deane