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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Funniest Man on Earth

With comedy legend Norman Wisdom sadly passing away today, I thought we could take a look at a Victorian comedy virtuoso, the man proclaimed “the funniest man on Earth”, music hall comedian, singer, dancer and actor; George Galvin – Better known as Dan Leno.

Dan Leno

Leno’s stage career began in 1864 when he was only four years old, appearing as “Little George, the Infant Wonder, Contortionist and Posturer” at the Cosmotheca Music Hall, Paddington in London, where he performed acrobatics and contortion tricks. In the same year, his father died, and his mother’s re-marriage to comedian Will Grant (stage name; Will Leno) brought about a move from the poor districts of London in Somers Town, Camden, to LiverpoolIn Liverpool, Leno and his brother, Henry, toured for almost fifteen years as “The Brothers Leno – Champion Dancers” around the north of England, Scotland and Ireland. By 1880, Leno had gone solo, and the peak of his career came in Leeds in the same year when he entered and won a clog dancing competition. Despite the competition allegedly being rigged for another contestant to win, Leno proved so popular that he took the prize.

J. Hickory Wood, Leno’s biographer, described the scene:

“He danced on the stage; he danced on a pedestal; he danced on a slab of slate; he was encored over and over again; but throughout his performance, he never uttered a word.”

After meeting Sarah Lydia Reynolds, a comedy singer in Manchester, Leno moved his family back down to London and developed a new style of comedy, which was more a study of various down-trodden and hard-done-by characters he had created getting into unfortunate situations. His act comprised singing, dancing, acting and Chaplin-esque physical comedy, as well as long and hilarious monologues. His most popular characters, and the routines that made him famous were his pantomime “Dames” in the 1890’s when pantomime’s ran from December right up to Easter.

Leno Dressed as a Panto Dame
As his career in the music halls took off, he gained a comedy sidekick in the shape of Herbert Campbell, and together they entertained London audiences with sixteen back-to-back productions, sometimes performing up to twenty times a day. His popularity soared and Leno became the most famous performer in the world, and the first music hall performer to appear at a Royal command performance, performing his routine before Edward VII at Sandringham, which earned him the title of “King Jester”.

Campbell and Leno appeared in a few comedy films between 1899 and 1902, although I believe sadly, none of the films still exist apart from one, entitled “The Obstinate Cork”

Leno's Grave
Ever the hard worker and showman, Leno’s continuous performances took their toll as he began to display “erratic behaviour” and he suffered a mental breakdown in 1902 from which he never really recovered. At the young age of 43 and after a series of similar breakdowns, the funniest man alive died.

The death certificate states the cause of death as syphilis, or as it is written “General Paralysis of the Insane” but later Doctors would argue that given the drastic change in his behaviour before he died, it was more likely that a brain tumour killed the King Jester.

Dan Leno is buried in Lambeth cemetery, where his grave is maintained by “The Grand Order of Water Rats” – an entertainment charity of which Leno was a part.
For more details on Dan Leno, read Barry Anthony’s book “The King’s Jester” click here for the Amazon link
Or, if you prefer a novel, Leno appears in Peter Ackroyd’s book: "Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” which is an exceptional read.

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