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IN HIS FASCINATING COMPENDIUM of London during the mid-1800s, Henry Mayhew described everything from costermongers’ comestibles to mudlarkers’ low-tide Thames treasures.

Recalling classic Charles Laughton flicks got me researching another of Mayhew’s topics: London’s reciters, specialized buskers engaging in street performances with the hopes of gratuities. Here are tidbits gleaned from Mayhew as well as from Turner Classic Movies and my usual Internet sleuthing.

Mayhew’s Londonby Henry Mayhew, edited by Peter Quennell, Bracken Books, 1984.

Street Reciters, Mid-1800s. Mayhew recounts, “Street reciters are somewhat scarce now-a-days, and I was a long time before meeting with one…. At length I heard that some street actors, as they call themselves, lived in court in the City. There were two of them—one a lad, who was dressed in a man’s ragged coat and burst boots, … the other decently attired in a black paletot [double-breasted overcoat] with a flash white-and-red handkerchief, or ‘fogle’ as the costermongers call it, jauntily arranged so as to bulge over the closely-buttoned collar of his coat.”

Henry Mayhew, 1812–1887, English journalist, playwright, and advocate of reform, co-founder of Punch magazine. Image from London Labour and the London Poor, 1861.

Modest, But Well-Spoken. Mayhew described the lad: “He had a bright, cheerful face, … and altogether appeared so different from the generality of street lads, that I felt convinced that he had not long led a wandering life, and that there was some mystery connected with his present pursuits.”

Mayhew observed, “He had picked up several of the set phrases of theatrical parlance, such as, ‘But my dream has vanished in air,’ or, ‘I felt that a blight was on my happiness,’ and delivered his words in a romantic tone, as though he was acting on a stage.”

The Lad’s Othello. “He volunteered to show me his declamatory powers, and selected ‘Othello’s Apology.’ He went to the back of the room, and after throwing his arms about him for a few seconds, as if to inspire himself, he started off.”

“No sooner did he deliver his ‘Most potent, grave, and reverend Signiors,’ than I was surprised to hear him assume a deep stomachic voice—style evidently founded upon the melodramatic models at minor theatres. His good-looking face, however, became flushed and excited during the delivery of the speech, his eyes rolled about, and he passed his hands through his hair combing it with his fingers till it fell wildly about his neck like a mane.”

“When he finished the speech,” Mayhew said, “he again relapsed into his quiet ways, and resuming his former tone of voice, seemed to think that an apology was requisite for the wildness of his acting, for he said, ‘When I act Shakespeare I cannot restrain myself,—it seems to master my soul.” 

Charles Laughton, Reciter—London and Red Gap. So too could this describe famous British actor Charles Laughton, 1899–1962. I am addicted to movies of the 1930s, and two of them feature Charles Laughton as reciter. In Ruggles of Red Gap, 1935, he’s an English valet whose service is won in a poker game by nouveau-riche American Egbert Floud of wild-west Red Gap. It’s a charming comedy, a high point of which is Ruggles affirming his belief in America by reciting the entire Gettysburg Address in a local saloon.

Sidewalks of London, 1938, is a bit more complex, a British movie in which busker Charles Laughton teams up with talented pickpocket Vivien Leigh, only to have her reject him when she’s offered a Hollywood contract. The flick has had other names: St. Martin’s Lane, London After Dark, and Partners of the Night. 

Vivien Leigh, Less Than Gracious? Befitting her role (one of her first of any significance), Leigh didn’t get along with Laughton during the film’s production. As reported in Wikipedia, In Alexander Walker’s biography of Leigh, Larry Adler is quoted as saying that Leigh was difficult to work with. He said, ‘She didn’t like Charles and he didn’t like her. But he was much more professional. One weekend there were a few close-ups of Vivien to be done outside a theater and Charles, who invariably went down to the country with Elsa (Lanchester) at weekends, stayed up in town to “feed” Vivien lines from behind the camera. I doubt if she’d have done as much for him. [Laurence] Olivier would show up on the set and they’d disappear into her dressing-room and it was quite a business to get her back to work.’ Olivier would show up on the days that Leigh was to shoot love scenes with the handsome Rex Harrison.”

A particularly odd poster announcing the flick. 

Wikipedia also notes, “Editor Hugh Stewart called it ‘a dreadful film.’ ” I beg to differ; I find it charming and wistful.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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