‘Freaks’, by Roger Lewis
Roger Lewis’s essay ‘Freaks’ was the winner of the 2013 Observer / Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, and his piece is below.
Was Arthur Lucan the best drag act that ever lived ? No one else affects me with such wonder and strangeness, and few ever saw him out of costume as Old Mother Riley. Lucan arrived for work already fully made up, and as a spin-off from the music hall stage, his character, as scrawny as seaweed, appeared in fifteen films in the Thirties and Forties, having adventures in the army, in circuses, in jungles, in parliament, and in an unmade project she was to go to Mars. To watch the material today is to be struck not by grossness or coarseness, as one might expect, but by an odd kind a beauty. Old Mother Riley is in constant motion: arms, fists, elbows, knees, wrists – like a dancer. Robert Helpmann comes to mind. She’s pale and wispy, emanating wistfulness not sourness. In her bonnet with the elastic chin-strap, the ribbons, the shawl, the clogs, her chief attribute is speed.
Lucan was born in Lincolnshire in 1885, began his career as a member of Will Pepper’s White Coons Concert Party in Skegness, and Old Mother Riley came about when he was cast as a pantomime dame in Dublin, where in 1913 he married the colleen Kitty McShane. She was fifteen, and ever afterwards played her husband’s daughter. The structure of the act never varied. Old Mother Riley is waiting for her wayward Kitty to return home. “She’s left me all alone and she knows I can only read the clock when it strikes.” There was always a lot of smashing plates and flying crockery. Though Old Mother Riley was militant and uproarious, I agree with the reviewer in Liverpool who, in 1935, commended Lucan for combining in method and in effect “realistic acting with excursions into slapstick comedy.” And it’s the realism that’s remarkable, the grace and dignity, despite the derangement and capering.
Sitting on a hard chair before a weak fire, Old Mother Riley exists in the shadow of the workhouse. She is somehow desolate and oppressed – and terrified that Kitty too will fall. I look at the character shouting insults and I always wonder what injustices, wrongs, torments she has endured – or Lucan endured. As the decades passed, the most grotesque spectacle wasn’t Lucan in drag but Kitty still believing she was glamorous, despite looking stout in bombazine frocks and lacquered hair-dos. The onstage rows as mother and daughter became the real rows of husband and wife – and in 1951 they separated. Kitty left to run a beauty parlour, and promptly lost their life savings of £30,000. The Inland Revenue compelled Lucan to appear before the London Bankruptcy Court, as he owed £10,000 in taxes. At this point he found a new creative partner – Bela Lugosi.
In Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, horror and comedy finally come together – though the sinister and disturbing dimension of comedy had been apparent in Lucan from the beginning. It was filmed at Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames, between October and December 1951. Lugosi had been in Britain since the previous April, touring the provinces in a stage production of Dracula. Producers and managers had expected audiences to gasp and faint – St John’s Ambulance personnel were stationed in the stalls – but the few people who turned up openly scoffed. The opening night in Lewisham was a disaster. Van Helsing was indisposed and the understudy read from a script, which he kept dropping. The rubber bat knocked into the scenery. Throughout it all – Eastbourne, Middlesbrough, Leicester, Sheffield – Lugosi retained his curdling menace. He came before the footlights at the end to remind patrons, “Remember, when you get home tonight, look behind the curtains, for such things as vampires do exist.”
On 16 August, Lugosi, billed as the “Celebrated American Film Star,” officially opened the Gillingham Park Fete – Count Dracula at a flower show. Perhaps with the war a recent memory, the facts and romance of a horror fantasy didn’t appeal to people – were a source of embarrassment ? In Manchester, the Evening News said that “mocking giggles greeted what used to be the more horrific moments of this ancient thriller.” Nor in 1951 would audiences have any sophisticated camp appreciation, or imagination, or respect, or irony, or nostalgia, at least not as such qualities would be understood and are propagated today. Live theatre was vanishing. The movies would soon be eclipsed by television. But it is heartbreaking to hear how Lugosi, a proud man, would tell reporters that in Budapest he’d been an important stage actor and that even with this duff tour, “You know, Dracula is Hamlet to me.” The poor box office meant the show wasn’t to transfer to the West End.
In any event, after 229 performances kissing and biting, Lugosi’s health was not up to it. He’d been drinking Fernet Branca in his hotel every night, and in his dressing room, before curtain up, his wife would give him morphine injections – which he alleged were insulin injections for diabetes. The final performance was in Portsmouth on 13 October. With nearly two months to go before passage had been booked home, Lugosi agreed to play Professor Von Housen in Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Of the plot, nothing makes any sense. Women are going missing and being mummified, though this strand is never resolved. The Professor seems to want to collect uranium samples. We don’t find out why. A robot appears ( “a man all done up like a tin of Russian crab” ), which Old Mother Riley easily wallops and dismantles. Von Housen, the internationally renowned evil mastermind, spends his time twiddling knobs and throwing switches in his laboratory.
What you do notice is Lugosi’s musical voice – lilting and rasping, foreign, obviously, and exotic. (I have no doubt that such lines as “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious,” could seem Shakespearean. ) He has wonderful spidery hands – those twitching fingers, clawing their way into shot to detain a departing shoulder or grasp a throat – and he brings with him the suggestion of strange landscapes, of Hungary and Transylvania, wolves and frozen forests. Lucan’s Old Mother Riley, too, is suggestive of her background, in the mildewy chill of boarding houses, and when she and Lugosi meet, there is a kind of accord between them, an affinity or tenderness. Though the initial appeal of the dreadful film is frankly bizarre and almost voyeuristic: to see the desperation of two fallen sozzled artistes at the end of their careers, artistes who might be forgiven for giving up on the roots of life.
In the way they play their big scene together, Lucan and Lugosi approach the sublime. Old Mother Riley begins warily. “I must be going now,” she says. “You see, I left a bit of scrag end on to simmer.” But soon she’s caving in to Von Housen’s charm and blandishments, skipping with a feather duster about the castle, complete with its secret passageways. “I’ll just give it a quick flick,” she says. It’s as if she’s found true love. Lugosi and Lucan transcend the junk script, the music hall frivolity, the piffle of popular entertainment, and as actors show the confidence their famous characters feel in being themselves, their natural awareness and familiarity. The vampire and the transvestite, both disturbingly ambivalent creatures when you think about it ( the one half-dead and half-alive, the other half-man and half-woman ), enter each other’s loneliness. There seems to be a link between their psychological nature and activities and the confusion of what is going on around them. You expect Old Mother Riley to be bickering and pitiless, trapped in a room with the Undead, but there’s a romantic mournfulness. As pale and dry as straw, she seems to have no weight or colour, as if she is already fading before our eyes. Lugosi, meanwhile, is all East European heaviness, lugubriousness, with his white face and strong glistening stained black teeth. It’s fleeting, this sequence – a midnight moment. But enough for us to glimpse or sense the lonely pathos of injured spirits.
Then it’s back to the antic plot, a crude back-projected car chase and a shoot-out onboard a ship in Tilbury. It is odd seeing Lugosi in daylight. Lugosi returned to New York on 11 December. He got divorced, remarried again for the fifth time, appeared in Glen or Glenda, the cult film about, coincidentally, transvestism, and died, a drug fiend, in 1956. “Dracula never ends,” he’d told a dockside television crew. Lucan dropped dead backstage at the Tivoli Theatre, Hull, in May 1954. Thirty years later, Alan Plater wrote a play about him, On Your Way, Riley, which starred Brian Murphy. Murphy’s understudy was Frank Seaton. Seaton had been Arthur Lucan’s understudy, and went on for him the night he died. The robot costume was auctioned at Bonham’s in 2010 and sold for £1,680.