‘King of the Cinema’: Anthony Burgess and Charlie Chaplin
Anthony Burgess was a fan of Charlie Chaplin, once describing him as “the funniest man alive.” The exhibition ‘Burgess and Chaplin’ is a celebration of Chaplin’s appearances in the theatres of Manchester during his formative years as a music hall entertainer, using Burgess’s writings about Chaplin and his descriptions of the music hall (where both of his parents had worked) to accompany the story.
Burgess, an avid cinema goer, grew up in Manchester in the 1920s. In his memoirs, he recalls that, in 1926, he “was now going to the cinema six nights a week… Mondays and Thursdays the Princess; Tuesdays and Fridays the Palace; Wednesdays and Saturdays the Claremont on Claremont Road.” This was the golden age of silent cinema, with stars such as Harold Lloyd, Chester Conklin, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Ben Turpin and of course Charlie Chaplin all being mentioned in Little Wilson and Big God, the first volume of Burgess’s autobiography.
While Chaplin gets just a few passing references in Burgess’s fiction, it is clear from two essays that Burgess wrote about him – one a lengthy review of David Robinson’s book, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion in 1984; the other commissioned to celebrate Chaplin’s centenary in 1989 – that Burgess was a keen admirer of Chaplin’s early film work: “One can forgive anything of a man who made us laugh so much […] In an antiquarian spirit we go back gratefully to the early films, before pretension set in, and take the laughter as a benison of a more innocent age. Chaplin lost little of his innocence but essayed sophistication in a period which seemed to call for it. That was his error. Viewing the wealth of his early work we are very ready to forgive it.”
However, it was with Chaplin’s work in the music hall that Burgess felt the strongest affinity: “I regret many things, but I regret none more than the end of the Chaplin world – the world that existed before he sought the bright light of Hollywood.” This seems a strange thing to say, because the period Burgess refers to was actually before he was born. So is this an oblique reference to the world of his parents and the time when his mother was still alive? In his autobiography, Burgess wrote that his father met his mother “by way of her ankles. She was in the chorus at the Ardwick Empire.” Burgess was also fond of reminding people that his father had once played piano for Chaplin and a young Stan Laurel while they were performing on stage for Fred Karno’s touring company. If this story is true, it is fair to ask whether it could have taken place at the Ardwick Empire, a music hall venue that also gets mentioned in Burgess’s last work of fiction, Byrne. According to A.J. Marriot’s exhaustive account of Chaplin’s early career, Chaplin: Stage by Stage, both Chaplin and Stan Jefferson (later Stan Laurel) were in the list of players who starred in the Karno produced sketch, ‘Jimmy the Fearless’, which was performed at the Ardwick Empire during the week of 15 August 1910. Burgess’s father, Joseph Wilson, would have been 28 years old at the time.
One of Burgess’s later novels, The Pianoplayers, published in 1986, drew heavily on his memories of his father, who also played piano in the local cinemas in Moss Side during the era of the silent movies: “To my dad pianoplaying for the pictures was just a ghost, and I could see what he meant. He’d talk of the great days of Fred Karno and Casey’s Court and the way he’d been in the pit to play for Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin before they went off to the States to be great names in the films. They became ghosts, my dad would say, and even the big money they earned was a kind of ghost money. I never properly understood what he meant by that.”
The ‘Burgess and Chaplin’ exhibition is open Monday to Friday (10:00am to 3:00pm) at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. It runs until 8 March 2016.