Charlie Chaplin in Jersey

An extract from Jersey: The Hidden Histories by Paul Darroch, which imagines Jersey’s history through the eyes of the people who created it.

Charlie Chaplin, Jersey Opera House, August 1912

The music hall was my mother’s meat and my father’s drink. They say parents live on through their children, and today the show must go on. As a boy I stalked like a ghost along the streets of London, squinting in through the blackened and frosted windows. A grinding, maddening hunger consumed me, for I had scarcely eaten in days. I sidled past the soft and gentle lights of restaurants, where happy families smiled and feasted. I gawped at the soft velvet clothes of respectable men, dazzled by the flash of their gold sovereigns, as if they were elegant creatures from another world. I feel that I have always spent my life on the outside, slowly freezing in the icy midwinter, peering in through a wall of glass.

I remember the father who betrayed us all; his mind blinded by the bottle, a man who burned his liver out along with his music hall career before he was thirty. Charles Chaplin Senior walked out on his children and soon drank himself into a pauper’s grave, following the well-worn path from the vanity fair of the Kennington stage to the dull oblivion of the Horns Tavern. My beautiful, devoted mother once sang like an angel, but her beauty and spirit would not save her. One day Fate stole her pretty voice, and she would never sing again. She was a caged bird, struck dumb, her wings broken. She was jeered off-stage. So we soon sank down from our threadbare respectability and plummeted down the slope into the abyss. The maelstrom inevitably dragged us under, a downward spiral of debts and bailiffs and despair. A bitter, gnawing hunger riled me day and night. I had never realised just how low men and women can fall.

Life proved to be a cruel taskmaster. My father was dead. My poor mother was imprisoned in Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum, her mind broken. This pitiless world saw us as the scum of the earth, human refuse to be buried without trace. I was soon a pariah, a booby-hatch boy, my head shaved and doused in iodine for ringworm. I felt like a leper. I remember the utter desolation of the workhouse, when we little infants sang ‘Abide with me’ as the black night fell down like a shroud over Victorian London. Sadness welled deep in our hearts, for we were utterly alone, and these were evil days.  One day, I was hauled to the stage in front of an audience of hundreds, and sentenced like a criminal for the sins of another. I remember the vicious bite of the workhouse birch, and feeling absolutely nothing, for I was already numb on the inside. I was a hollow child, a ghost stalking an empty world.

In time I graduated from this pit of hell, and was released back onto the streets. In desperation, and fondly recalling my mother’s lost music hall career, I lodged my particulars with a theatre company on the Strand. I expected nothing and hoped for nothing. I took on hard labour to keep the hunger at bay. I merely willed to survive, to carry on with the show.

One day, I was chopping wood for money, hacking and burning away my own past, when the casting call came. My golden ticket away from destitution had finally come good. So I worked until I dropped, rehearsed my act to the point of exhaustion, and mastered my craft. Today I travel the length and breadth of the kingdom as a leading clown in Fred Karno’s celebrated company, draped in vaudeville stage glamour, bringing mirth to thousands in a travelling troupe. Our busy schedule this year has brought us to the Opera House on this lovely little isle of Jersey.

They say history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce. So tonight I am playing my own father. I am playing the Inebriated Swell, a pie-eyed buffoon, slave to the bottle and a bundle of laughs. The play is an outrageous, uproarious send-off of the English music hall tradition, where my beloved mother once frolicked on the sad road to the asylum. Our show is called the Mumming Birds, and the Jersey press is already declaring it a theatrical triumph.

As I shamble drunkenly into my stage box, even my eccentric gait draws titters and whoops of delight. So I prance and prattle for their pleasure, peeling my gloves off, tipping an attendant then trying in vain to remove my glove again from my bare skin. The Saucy Soubrette sings a ditty in my ear, like a mother soothing her child. I hurl down vegetables at the other actors, lampooning their artistic pretensions as they pretend to perform a show. Having dismally failed to light my cigar by electric light, I stretch dangerously out of my box to reach for a match, teetering in exaggerated fashion on the edge of the abyss.

Suddenly, I fall. This little manoeuvre takes practice, but after all, I have form. So I plunge down, exploding like a bomb onto the stage. The pantomime music hall show collapses in confusion and the audience roars its delight like the swell on the bay. I duly doff my hat and bow. Jersey Opera House shakes to its foundations with the rapturous thunder of applause.

Beyond the piercing glare of the footlights, I can glimpse them all: little children in hysterics, portly respectable ladies whooping uncontrollably, fine gentlemen choking on their chortles like a leg of mutton. The comfortable classes of Jersey have been mesmerised by this lost workhouse boy. I drink in the applause, as heart-warming as a shot of the local Calvados, as addictive as a dose of opium. Their faces bray and snort in delight, mirth rippling over their bewhiskered lips and their quivering double chins. A rogue thought leaps into my jester’s mind. I am a fool, for the sake of my show. Whose fool are you? 

I sleep late the next day. Pretty little Jersey feels a world away from the dazzling metropolitan theatres, or the drinking pits of south London. The air here is salt-heavy and beguiling, reminding me of one lost boyhood day, before the fall, when we joyously dipped our toes in the sea at Southend-on-Sea. I never saw the sea again as a child. St Helier is even more delightful, though for all its French airs it is branded with all the hallmarks of British provincialism. A grand statue of Queen Victoria dominates the Weighbridge, her heavy shadow still hanging like an implacable burden over our age. Little engines trundle out from the nearby railway station, creeping westwards along the arc of the bay. The wooden warehouses that line the Esplanade are packed high in season with potatoes for export for the finest markets in London.

Jersey in 1912 – contemporary postcard

Tomorrow is the climax of the Battle of Flowers, a charming parade that since the late King Edward’s coronation has formed the mainstay of the summer season here. The weather has been rather foul in these parts of late, but we can hardly miss the chance to take part in such a celebration. At a loose end that afternoon, my cast members and I join the parade on Victoria Avenue, marching in unison as a theatre troupe to amuse the crowds of assorted onlookers and good-timers.

They are still putting the finishing touches to the Battle displays, great floral barges, lavish flower-sacrifices to the gods of fate and summer and chance. I prance past the floats in character, drolly reprising my role as the tipsy music hall buffoon. The people love it. I break out from the line and perform an impromptu performance. Staggering past, clowning and japing it up to high heaven, I draw titters and cheers from the audience. I drink in the applause.

Out of the corner of my eye, a man is cranking up one of those curious new-fangled marvels, a cinematographic camera for taking motion pictures. It am told he has come down from London for the purpose, at the behest of the Topical Gazette, and is grinding his machine for all its worth. Almost many people seem to be watching him as me. I love novelty, and this is my first time on film, but it seems to fit me like a glove. The crowds roar out their acclaim, and the sea air is fresh with the scent of opportunity.

My little solo escapade is coming to an end. I bow jauntily and revel in the cheers. Just as I saunter back into the mêlée, I spy a little boy, his face dirty and smudged, gazing at me with pure adoration. I look back at him and see myself. He is a grimy street urchin, dirty but clinging to his pride, entranced by the show. The boy calls out to a distant mother, “Oh mamma, why has he gone away? I did want to see the funny man again?” His laughter burns in my ears like a promise.

In that moment, I begin to understand. This is the shape of things to come. The cine-camera whirrs and turns, spinning out my future. Suddenly the sun breaks in through the cloudbank high over St Aubin’s Bay, and hangs above the horizon like a glorious sign. The 1912 Battle of Flowers glides on. The little lost boy turns and smiles at me for one last time, before he is swallowed up by the carnival. I slip back into the warm embrace of the parade, my ears ringing with his laughter, dancing on towards tomorrow.

(c) Paul Darroch 2015, 2020

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