Tag Archive: Kenneth Carten


More on the Cartens

I have posted on the remarkable Carten siblings before (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/audrey-and-kenneth-carten/ and elsewhere).

Waveney and Audrey Carten

Here are a few extra snippets concerning them.

Audrey and Kenneth Carten, along with Tallulah Bankhead and Gwen Farrar, formed one element of the wilder and more mischievous wing of the Bright Young People ; Elizabeth Ponsonby  and her close friends another. Both groups overlapped at times and both were acquainted with Elvira and/or her associates.

I felt I hadn’t done justice to Kenneth Carten, seeing him as a minor actor, primarily linked to Noel Coward’s revues. The reason his acting career is fairly low-key was, I now realise, because he abandoned performing and became a Theatrical Agent. He achieved great success in this latter calling and had a long career. His clients included Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward and Googie Withers. He also “discovered” and represented the much loved Peter Sallis. In the 1940s, Carten was a London representative for the very powerful and influential  Myron Selznick corporation, which put him at the heart of British film and theatrical life.

Googie Withers 

(Before becoming one of the most popular film stars of the 40s, Withers had been a dancer at the Kit Kat and Murrays as well as appearing in Midnight Follies at the Mayfair Hotel)

It was from Selznick’s office, in early 1949,  that Kenneth Carten wrote to the ailing Hugh Wade. It is a fascinating letter, upbeat, full of references to stars of the day (Jessie Matthews, Patricia Roc, Stewart Grainger) and some waspish (but accurate) comments concerning the quality of certain  performances (Margaret Lockwood in the lamentable Cardboard Cavalier). He casts doubt on the likely success of Terence Rattigan’s new play Adventure Story, and was to be proved right. Kenneth is solicitous towards Hugh (“if there’s anything you want just ask” etc.) but the general tenor is one of friendly gossip between two showbiz “insiders”.

For many years Kenneth lived ,with his sister Audrey,at Paultons House, on the corner of King’s Road and Paultons Square. Paultons House was where Jean Rhys wrote the beautiful but, at the time, neglected, Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys had left No.22, to begin her long sojourn in  alcoholic obscurity by the time Kenneth moved into No.5 (and sometimes 6) .There was a third resident throughout the 1940s, the aristocratic socialite and actress,Lady Caroline Paget.  A beautiful and captivating free-spirit, who is often seen in photographs with Cecil Beaton, she was perhaps best depicted in a number of exquisite portraits by  a love-struck Rex Whistler (see Rex Whistler).

Unfortunately for Rex, she appears to have preferred Audrey, the two becoming “close friends and travelling companions” for a number of years. Caroline’s cousin, David Herbert, who (inevitably) knew all parties involved, has this to say,

“Caroline had made a number of new friends during her days in the theatre, the most important being Audrey Carton (sic), who many years before had written a play with Sir Gerald Maurier called The Dancers. It was in this play that Tallulah Bankhead made her first London appearance. As we all know, Tallulah went from strength to strength and became one of the foremost actresses of that period. Audrey faded into the background as a figure in the theatre, but owing to her beauty, intelligence and caustic wit remained a great personality in that particular world.

 

She was a bad influence on Caroline: they set up house together in Panelton (sic) Square. Caroline drifted away from her own world and, apart from the family, saw only a small group of friends, chiefly women. I suspect that Audrey was the real love of her life, though she had many affairs with men. Eventually she married my cousin, Michael Duff. This was an arrangement beneficial to them both.”

Audrey Carten c1929

Audrey, although never quite fulfilling her early promise as an actress, did find success throughout the 20s and 30s  as a playwright, working in partnership with her sister Waveney. However her later years were unhappy. After Caroline married, it appears that, the already rather eccentric Audrey became increasingly unstable and house-bound and was very dependent on Kenneth to take care of her.

“Late One Evening”  Audrey and Waveney Carten 1933

Waveney, known as “George” according to some sources, was married in 1922 to Ronald Trew, a singer. He earns his place in the marginalia of twentieth century history for two reasons. Firstly, it is alleged that he got Tallulah pregnant at a party held on the Thames in a boat belonging to “Jo” Carstairs (whose then girlfriend would have been Gwen Farrar). Secondly he is the man that the psychotic murderer Ronald True gave as an alibi/doppelganger/mortal enemy in one of the 1920s’ most notorious trials (see Ronald True ) . Waveney remarried in 1932. Her husband, Vladimir Provatoroff,  was an SOE operative in the Second World War. The couple lived firstly in Portland Place and later in Harley Street. They were still married at the time of his death in 1966.

Kenneth’s friendship with Tallulah remained undiminished over nearly forty years. He gives her residence as a forwarding address on his various travels to America in the 1950s. The two would have had some choice tales to share about the “party years”, of that I have no doubt.

 

 

 

Tallulah Bankhead

 

I’m sure that there is much more to be uncovered about this decidedly unconventional trio. There are copies of  “Happy Families” (1929) by Audrey and Waveney and their translation (for Noel Coward) of Deval’s “Mademoiselle” still knocking around, but not much else. The BFI has a copy of Birds of Prey (1930) a crime film directed by Basil Dean which starred Audrey (sometimes spelt Audry). Kenneth’s legacy is even more intangible but fans of “Wallace and Gromit” or “Last of the Summer Wine” may want to raise a glass to his memory.

Audrey Bicker Caarten (1900- 1977) d. Hastings

Waveney Bicker Caarten (1902-1990) d. Sandwich

Kenneth Bicker Caarten (1911-1980) d. Kensington

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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.

Here are some of the people who wrote, visited or sent best wishes to Hugh Wade during his illness. Some have already featured in this blog, the others will do so shortly.

Gwladys Stanley, Dorothy Ward, Francis Laidler, Elsie and Doris Waters, Elsie Randolph, Kenneth Carten, Kermit Goell, Geraldo, Collie Knox, Dolly Mayers, Muriel Belcher, Hero De Rance and  (possibly) Lady Rose McLaren.

Elsie and Doris Waters 1942

A few just used Christian names (Donald, Cara and Philipo)  and I haven’t identified them yet, one or two simply referred to a particular place or time to indicate who they are. The letters range from the reassuringly gossipy to the heartfelt and deeply-concerned.

The list is largely drawn from “Showbusiness” and includes people who at the time would have been household names (Elsie and Doris Waters) but also some who were then unknown but are now legendary (Muriel Belcher). The worlds of pantomime, theatre,variety, music publishing and club ownership are all represented. Lyricists, arrangers and musicians are also in there. Apart from the insight into the various circles Hugh moved in, the various communications provide a useful snapshot of a vanished world. It didn’t happen but the above names alone could have provided a singularly impressive Memorial Concert.

Geraldo Orchestra 1945

From Elvira’s time, the name that stands out is Kenneth Carten, whose career I may have undervalued and probably needs revisiting. He appears to have been working for the Myron Selznick talent agency at the time of writing. The letters written from the Romilly Club and the, then newly-opened, Colony Room have specific historical value (and are probably highly-collectible, William!) as do those from the “King of Pantomime”, Francis Laidler.

More soon, but if Francis Laidler and Gwladys Stanley mean nothing to you, and there is no reason why they would these days, you could do a lot worse than visit this remarkable site

It’s Behind You