Robb Wilton

The joy of researching in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive at the British Library is that you get surprises. Yesterday I was looking at a 1921 play, which turned out more or less as I expected, but the scripts come in huge volumes, bound together with whatever else the censors had been looking at that week.

So I also had the chance to read some utterly forgotten fare from 1921. There was The Silver Lining, a mawkish one-acter about a man blinded in the war (but it’s all right – his girl-friend still loves him) and the script of a George Robey revue that seemed a bit so-so. And a horrifically anti-Semitic play called The Ninth Earl. (Decent hero accidentally kills a vile Jewish money-lender in the course of defending a girl’s honour. He spends fifteen years in prison for it, and when he comes out has to struggle valiantly against a society irrationally prejudiced against murderers.)

But then – to my joy – I came across The Fire Chief, licensed for performance at the Victoria Palace on 14 March 1921 – a sketch for (and I think by) the great Robb Wilton.

I’ve often enjoyed recordings of Wilton’s later monologues from the forties (“On the day war broke out…”) but had not expected to find him in 1921. Yet he was born in 1881, so was 40 in 1921, and his bumbling comic persona is obviously already fully formed by the time of this sketch.

Here’s the opening monologue of The Fire Chief. To get the full effect, you have to imagine Wilton’s own delivery and timing. There’s a good sample of it in this policeman sketch – on, bizarrely, a Russian website.

It’s a different game this is to when I first started, I started when fires first became popular, I started as an ordinary fireman, now I’m a chief, of course there’s not much difference, only now I’m nothing to do with the fires, well, when I say nothing to do, I mean, for instance, if there was a fire tonight we’ll say – I’ve got to be notified, and then I just ring that bell and the men spring onto the engine, that’s if they’re in of course, if not I know where to find them, they’re either at the Red Bull or the Fleece, or perhaps having a game of bowls, or a round of golf, they’re always pretty handy. The last fire we went to we hadn’t much time to mess about, we got a call through that the Town Hall was on fire! Well, my foreman’s a decent fellow but no memory, we dashed off and when we were half way there we found we’d forgotten the fire engine, of course we had to turn back. I called the foreman a – I forget now, he blamed me, said he thought I had it, well eventually we got the engine, but in the exciteemnt I stuck my finger in his eye, consequently he couldn’t find the hose. I said, where did you put it after the last fire? he said he wasn’t at the last fire. I said he was, he said he wasn’t and and that he’d bet me a shilling he wasn’t, well I bet him a shilling he was, well that meant looking up the books and we hadn’t much time to spare, still I wasn’t going to lose my shilling. The Town Hall may now be a heap of ruins, what did we c- how did we know, the mayor came running up he said “Quick for heaven’s sake, the left wing has gone, the right wing is going”, I said how’s the centre forward – what’s the matter. What’s the matter he said, matter you stand there and say what’s the matter when any moment the roof may fall in , i said which roof, he said the Town hall roof, I said, oh, I thought you meant this roof, he said Quick man, get your men together and do your duty, and then he started to run out of the office, I said wait a minute we’ll give you a lift, he said no, they’re expecting me back, anyhow we didn’t bother going, it looked too far gone.

That’s the opening monologue, with Wilton’s punctuation, almost all commas to match his rambling stream of consciousness style.

I thought I might have a scoop finding this sketch, but a version of it turns out to be already on the Internet – a transcript of a later (recorded?) version, I think – but without Wilton’s idiosyncratic punctuation.

The script continues with a distraught woman visiting the Fire Station. The ever-delightful YouTube provides a slightly different version of it:

The complete original script is in the British Library at Add Mss LCP 1912/5

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