Dan Leno - 100 years

This is a shortened version of one of the Lost Lives, written for the hundredth anniversary of his death - on which there was a ceremonial re-dedication of his grave

Dan Leno

One hundred years ago, on the last day of October, 1904, a tiny genius called Dan Leno died. The Daily Mirror devoted its entire front page to the news; the funeral brought thousands of Londoners into the streets. His was a household name in every strand of society: when Max Beerbohm had guests to whom he wished to show what England was like, he took them to Westminster Abbey - and then to watch Leno perform. (Another fan was a young Winston Churchill.)

Leno's clowning in stage shows and pantomimes was intensely physical and surreally verbal - the first to shift the weight of the performance from song to patter. We think of Spike Milligan as godfather to Peter Cook, to Monty Python, to inspirational nonsense. But Leno and his writers had developed the style fifty years before Milligan. Leno was a Goon long before The Goons. He had a confidential monologue about the problem of Eggs:

Where is there an article that compels you to tell more lies than an egg? There's mystery in it. Of course there are three kinds of Eggs - there is the new-laid Egg (that of course is nearly extinct) then there is the fresh Egg, that is almost the same as the new-laid - but then comes The Egg, well, that is the Egg I'm talking about - that is the Egg that causes the trouble, a little round white thing. You can't tell what it is thinking about. You dare not kick it or drop it. It has got no face. You can't get it to laugh. No, you simply look at it and say: "Egg."

This was developed into a routine about a hapless grocer's assistant:

On New Year's Day I made a resolution: I made up my mind that, whatever happened, I would always speak the truth - whatever happened, I would never tell another lie as long as I lived - and I was feeling so happy and comfortable and angelic about it as I was taking down the shutters in the morning when - what do you think? What do you think? The very first customer who came into the shop asked me - straight out - 'Are those eggs fresh?'

A more Milliganesque routine involved a routine called 'McGregor's Gathering', in which the chorus of his opening song repeatedly broke down:

There were McGregor's men,
And McPherson's men,
And McTulloch's men,
And Mc -

He stopped. He was stuck. He tried again, repeatedly, face scrunched up in frustration. Eventually he turned to the conductor and advised 'Never mind! Go on with the dance!' and began a crazy, hyped-up Highland fling. Suddenly, his face lit up, and he cut the orchestra dead by clapping his hands. He marched forward victoriously, and spoke to the conductor. 'McFarlane's men!' he announced, and marched straight off.

Leno had come up the hard way. He was born George Galvin in 1860  in a tenement demolished to make way for St. Pancras Station (Platform One). He was the fourth child of a struggling double act who called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Johnny Wilde. By the age of four, he was performing out of necessity, his father having drunk his way out of this life. He was appearing solo as Little George, the Infant Wonder, Contortionist and Posturer. He inherited the name 'Dan Leno' from his step-father, William Grant, a comic vocalist with whom he and his mother, and, for a while, his eldest brother John, went on the road (his other siblings, Henry and Frances, remained with relatives). In 1869, performing in Belfast, he caught the prescient eye of Charles Dickens, who told him he'd go far, and patted his head.

But it was a craze for clog-dancing in the 1880s that gave him his break. At five-foot three, impish and twenty-one, he mastered the side-step, the double shuffle, rolls of triplets which would tax talented drummers. Their rhythms alternated, played conversations with the floor, kicked audiences into shivers. He won a Leeds contest which proclaimed him 'Clog Dancing Champion Of The World', in the face of a fix intended to win the prize for a local man.

His feet took him to London in the late 1880s; his timing allowed him to adapt when the clog-dancing craze evaporated. In the 1890s, he ruled Drury Lane as pantomine dame of the decade. His limbs were a whirligig of perpetual motion. At the start of his act, he would run to the front of the stage, drum his feet fast, throw up one leg for a long moment, and then crack it down on the boards. He created a host of chattering characters, and developed a hugely popular double act with nineteen-stone Herbert Campbell, who towered over him.

Leno's tragedy may have been contracting syphilis in his teens, which killed him when he was just 43 - or so his doctors alleged. If right, it lay latent throughout his happy marriage (which produced six children, one of whom became the third Dan Leno). It is very possible that it was a brain tumour which was responsible, and not syphilis at all. At the turn of the century, its tertiary stage set in. He began to have fantasies of becoming a Shakespearean actor, turning up with 'eyes like a wounded animal' at the home of Constance Collier, a young leading lady in Sir Herbert Tree's company. But even in dementia's grip, in a nursing-home, he managed a startling gag. He indicated a clock, and asked a nurse "Is that clock quite right?" "Yes," she said. His answer was instant: "Then what's it doing here?"