Comic timings: Chaplin as Calvero in the 1952 film Limelight. Photo: Magnum
Show Hide image

Tears of a clown: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin's previously unpublished novella and a new biography show the makings of his melancholy genius

Charlie Chaplin 
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99


Footlights 
Charles Chaplin
Cineteca di Bologna, 226pp, £25

 

Liking Chaplin will probably never be cool. For the Sight and Sound-reading, suck-on-a-lemon-and-think-of-Bresson cineaste, Buster Keaton will always be their man, with his whitened deadpan and letter-box smile, his meta-movie conceits and collaboration with Samuel Beckett – those two stoics together, craggy and forlorn, staring down the headwinds of the 20th century like Easter Island statues. Then there is Chaplin with his touchiness about class, his walk, his mesmeric effect on kids and – dear, oh dear – his sentimentality. “For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin,” writes Carl Wilson in his recently republished book about taste, Let’s Talk About Love. “To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phoney, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd.”

The critical aversion to sentimentality – so often a disguise for squeamishness about emotion of any kind – quarantines us from the power of cinema’s early pioneers, who would no sooner have turned down the opportunity to wring an audience for tears than have declined an opportunity to make them rocket out of their seats with fright or laughter. It would be like designing a new automobile and keeping it under wraps in the garage. “Keep it wistful,” advised Fred Karno, the head of the comedy troupe that first brought Chaplin to America. When you hit a man, it’s funnier if you then kiss him on the head. The early Keystone shorts were crammed with people, props and gags; the actors were wind-up toys, uninflected by emotions such as fear or greed or passion, who simply ran and ran until they met immovable objects or dropped from exhaustion – a roundelay of constant motion, or “arse-kicking”, as Chaplin put it.

He did things differently. Emptying out the frame, Chaplin anchored the camera in the middle distance, the better to take in a full human figure, feet included, drawing audiences in with a single gesture – a smile, a half-tear, a look. “He had those eyes that absolutely forced you to look at them,” said Stan Laurel, another Karno regular who also travelled over on the same ship in 1910.

Within four months of arriving in the US, Chaplin was famous and soon became the first truly global icon, a hero of the Dadaists and an inspiration to Fernand Léger and Marcel Proust (who for a while trimmed his moustache in the Chaplin style). “He has escaped . . . from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm,” wrote T S Eliot, one of many highbrows swanning around the pages of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography. That Chaplin has attracted the attention of Dickens’s biographer is telling. In later life, according to his son, Chaplin read and reread Oliver Twist, “as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past”, Ackroyd writes. Both Dickens and Chaplin came from poverty and childhood neglect and achieved fame in their mid-twenties. Both produced urban fables that mixed farce with sentiment; melodrama with pantomime; comedy and pathos with poetry.

“Chaplin was Dickens’s true successor,” Ackroyd writes, “just as Modern Times is a successor to Hard Times.” Coming in at a slim 272 pages, his book has no ambition to supplant David Robinson’s definitive 1985 account of the comedian’s life, Chaplin: His Life and Art, and nor does it; but, aided by his novelistic appetites, Ackroyd has turned in the best account of Chaplin’s formation beneath the teetering chimney stacks of Victorian London, fragrant with the odour of “vinegar, and of dog dung, and of smoke, and of beer”. Boy, is he big on whiffs, from the delicate bouquet of “oranges, beer, of unwashed bodies and tobacco” that clings to the theatres where Chaplin, a seven-year-old in knickerbockers, first learned how to turn corners with a one-legged skid, to the lodgings on Pownall Terrace, “foul with the stale slops and old clothes”, where he lived with his mother before she was institutionalised for what seems likely to have been late-stage syphilitic madness, contracted from work as a prostitute.

“She died there,” Chaplin liked to tell people once he was safely ensconced in Hollywood but, Ackroyd writes, “This was perhaps less than fair to his mother, who was still very much alive in Peckham House hospital,” where she remained, with intermittent periods of lucidity, for another 17 years. The dryness of “perhaps less than fair” proves that Ackroyd is just the man to puncture the whoppers with which Chaplin embroidered his past, without being too much of a scold.

When, aged 38, his father drank himself to death, Chaplin, “with black crape on his sleeve, sold narcissi in the local public houses, lamenting in a whispered voice the death of his father. Who could fail to be moved by the grieving boy?” The vibrato swell lets us know Ackroyd is on to him and his habit of self-dramatisation – the sense of being always “on”, void of any experience that isn’t witnessed by another – that made for a performer of genius and also, in the words of a reporter for the New York Times, “the unhappiest and shyest human being I have met”. Or as another writer put it, even more bluntly, “The bulk of him is ice.”

A lifelong reader of Schopenhauer and “the gloomier philosophers”, Chaplin was a creature of pure will and wisp. On-screen, the Tramp was indomitable, endlessly resourceful and adaptive, impeded but never defeated, bowed but not broken, raising his arms in the final scene of Police in Christlike exaltation, as if to say: “Look, I have come through.” His Favourite Pastime paired him with Fatty Arbuckle, only to confirm how fully he was a solo performer, going over or around the heads of his fellow actors to commune directly with the audience, making eyes at them from within that expanse of white make-up.

Ackroyd picks up on the solipsism of all this. Protected by the bubble wrap of the audience’s attention, Chaplin is haughty with anyone who brushes his sense of dignity. He collects resentments like moss. From the spectacle in One AM, in which Chaplin gets into an argument with a bed and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, to the grand panoply of Modern Times, he seemed intent on taking the entire world personally.

Is it any surprise that in his private life he proceeded to do the same? The book tails off in its second half; all Chaplin bio­graphies do. His life tailed off, a dying fall to echo those in his comedy. Ackroyd’s account takes it at a canter – the coming of sound, the failure of the 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s entanglement with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the teenage brides and paternity suits – and in the final furlong achieves a steady gallop of just under a year per page.

For those wishing for a more thorough spelunking of Chaplin’s psyche at this point, help is at hand in the form of Footlights, a recently unearthed prose work, published with an accompanying essay by David Robinson and presented as Chaplin’s first and only novella. It isn’t really: it’s more like a 34,000-word extended treatment for Limelight (1952), the last film he made in the US before his exile in Switzerland, about the platonic romance between an old clown named Calvero and Terry, a beautiful young ballet dancer troubled by a psychosomatic illness whom he nurses back to the stage.

That Chaplin felt impelled to flesh this out in prose form is indicative of his maudlin frame of mind at the time. Heavy with backstory, the book recounts first Terry’s plaintive history, then Calvero’s – as booze, women and a nervous breakdown curtail his career, leaving him sour with the fickleness of audiences: “a motley confusion of cross-purposes, like a monster without a head”, he rails. “They’re guinea pigs! They react to whatever injection you give them!” She responds: “You talk like a lover who’s quarrelled.” Potentially, this was promising material. When popular performers misfire, the collapse is total and baffling, the tender ministrations with which the performer once unlocked his audience now recalibrated as loathsome presumptions, a form of artistic rape.

The trick, as Jerry Lewis showed us in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, is to have the courage of your misanthropy and to let the mask slip completely. But the one note missing from the mauve-and-violet prose effects of Footlights is that of honest and accurate self-appraisal. The prevailing tone is of self-pity; the overall impression is that of gloom leavened with froth, as Calvero invokes “the elegant melancholy of twilight” and “dinners under saffron skies on a balcony overlooking the Thames” to get Terry on her feet and dancing again. Who could have guessed that when one of the great clowns of the silent era finally spoke up, he would come out sounding so much like Barbara Taylor Bradford?

Words were never Chaplin’s medium. He knew next to nothing about the Tramp, not even his name (he referred to him as “the little fellow”). His art was one of radical attenuation, Euclidean subtraction, the winnowing and carving out of gags from thin air – “shaking the tree”, he called it – to reveal the form hanging there like dust motes in sunlight. He worked tirelessly to secure the audience’s sympathy, our pity for him freeing him from the bother of feeling it for himself. When Chaplin exits the final reel of The Tramp, he walks dejectedly down the road before perking up with that little jig and quickstep of his, ready once again for the adventure of life. “His little dance upon the road is a form of self-definition,” writes Ackroyd. “He is free.” Iris in, fade out. 

Tom Shone’s new book, “Scorsese: a Retrospective”, will be published by Thames & Hudson in September

 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Photo: Popperfoto
Show Hide image

How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue