I’ve just had a busy couple of days in London, with not much time for rambling, but one thing I had to do was check the sculpted frieze on the Odeon Cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue (formerly the Saville Theatre). This was designed by Gilbert Bayes for the opening of the theatre ion 1931, and represents ‘Theatre Through the Ages’. This includes everything from Greek tragedy to Punch and Judy, and has been ably analysed by Chris Partridge on his Ornamental Passions blog.
The reason that I had to see it was that the twentieth century is represented by two figures, who bookend the rest. The first, fairly predictably for 1931, is Sybil Thorndike as Saint Joan. Shaw’s play doesn’t have quite the reputation today that it had eighty years ago, but the recent production at the National showed that it is still effective and thought-provoking when performed well.
The other bookend is less predictable. Ernie Lotinga was a favourite of T.S. Eliot, but is almost forgotten today. A huge star at the time when Music Hall was evolving into Variety, but never quite a Music Hall performer, Lotinga starred first in comic sketches, and then in full-length farces that toured the variety circuit, with enormous success. A while back I was reading twenties copies of the show business newspaper, The Era, and there’s no doubt that at that time, Lotinga was the king of comedy.
The sculpture shows Ernie in Khaki, a 1924 farce set in wartime, in which Ernie’s standard character, ‘Josser’ becomes an unwilling conscript, foils the officer villains, and goes on to become a war hero. I first became interested in the play because of its problems with the office of the Lord Chamberlain, the theatrical censor of the time. The censors hated the idea that the villains were officers, and loathed a very funny scene where Josser plays tricks on the main villain, answering back to an officer in ways that these respectable gentlemen totally diapproved of.
Ernie Lotinga had never had censor trouble before, and pleaded that he had a large amount of money tied up in the show (scenery had been built, and a cast and theatres hired). He pointed out that during wartime itself he had produced a play set in the Navy in which his Josser character had cheeked Admirals and others, and that it had not only passed the censor but had received a great reception from officers in Portsmouth and other naval towns. Clearly the Army was much more sensitive. Eventually changes were made (the chief villain was demoted from Colonel to Captain, for example) and the play went on.
I’d gathered from reviews that it was successful, and recently discovered a 1929 programme that showed it had been revived in that year, but I’d no idea that it was so successful that a sculptor would choose it as the light theatre counterpart to Shaw’s weighty St. Joan.
Many thanks to Chris Partridge, whose comment on my blog first got me looking at the frieze. Now I have to see what else I can discover.