The Highest Priest of Camp (17 March 1893 – 24 August 1987)
Most accounts of UK live comedy refer to four circuits - Music Hall, Variety, The Working Men’s Club and New Wave/Alternative – but other stages have also helped develop the careers of numerous artistes. These include holiday camp summer seasons, pier shows, promenade Pierrot shows, seaside follies and gang shows. The forces’ Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) offered front-line gigs during WWII; Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) held concert parties performing to the troops as early as 1891; in the early 1900s Cine-Variety hired acts to entertain cinema audiences between films. These were all highly respectable places for comedians in which to work and be seen.
In the late sixties, Art Centres began booking comedic theatre companies such as The People Show, National Theatre of Brent (left bottom) and Ken Campbell’s Road Show (left top). The British Folk circuit opened clubs which nurtured Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot, Mike Harding and Max Boyce. Even the long-distance lorry drivers had their own circuit, with late-night shows for truckers held in small back rooms scattered around the country. Comics during this era were known to finish a club show and then take the A1 to perform on a makeshift stage behind a roadside Little Chef. In parallel, the Drag circuit was becoming the place to catch some first-class new comedy acts such as Danny LaRue and Larry Grayson, often working alongside veterans such as Mrs Shufflewick.
One of the most flamboyant historic circuits was a cluster of intimate Supper Revues. A spin-off from Theatre Revue, it was similar to Music Hall: a multi-act show combining music, dance and sketches executed by a small company of around eight performers. Its golden years were between the wars, catering for a middle to upper class audience. Its golden boy was Douglas Byng (right), whose collection of trailblazing female personae offered, according to Noel Coward:
“...the most refined vulgarity in London”.
At the height of his career, Byng regularly sold out the Chez Henri Club, the Café Anglais and the Strand Roof Garden. A favourite not only in London but also in Paris and New York, he commanded a huge fee wherever he worked. His comedy was much loved by younger members of the British Royal family who engaged him to give private performances at Windsor Castle and Balmoral. He was also invited to join the boards and committees of many charities where he brought in handsome funds for each organisation, and was acclaimed throughout his life as peerless, both as a human being and a performer.
Douglas Byng was born 17 March 1893 in Basford, Nottinghamshire. During his mother’s labour, his father put forward the suggestion that as it was St Patrick’s Day, they should name the baby after the saint. The story goes that Mrs Byng was so averse to the idea that the doctor emerged from the bedroom to ask: “Shall I save the mother or the baby?”. The thought of having a ‘Pat’ in the family had upset Mrs Byng so much, she took a turn for the worse. ‘Pat’, she felt, was the name of a servant and was not appropriate to the Byngs’ own social standing.
Byng was born into a large, eminent Nottingham family who lived in Ebers House, a Victorian mansion overlooking Mapperley Hall (Ebers House today, top left). Byng senior was the Managing Director of the Midlands Counties District Bank; he also governed a strict, religious household. Every Sunday morning the family took the long walk to St Thomas’s Church (St Thomas's today, bottom left) where Mr Byng was the churchwarden. After the service, the group would return home for a day without parlour music or card games, in recognition of the Sabbath. This draconian life was not without rebellion. Byng’s sisters would secretly make ice-cream in the basement, devoured by their siblings and servants while Mr and Mrs Byng were taking (according to Douglas Byng himself) so-called “afternoon rests”.
Byng’s childhood was not completely without recreation. He and his brother Noel would regularly dress up as minstrels and sing Dixie numbers to entertain family and friends. There were also frequent visits to Nottingham Theatre Royal where the productions of manager Fred Terry were a favourite. After Byng’s father retired, the family moved to Blackheath, south London in order to be closer to aunts and uncles in Kent and Surrey. Byng himself was packed off to Stanley House boarding school in Cliftonville, Margate where he could enjoy a broad range of entertainment at the Hall-by-the-Sea (above), the Hippodrome (left) and the Marine Palace.
This commercial exposure, plus his role in performing and writing sketches for end-of-term concerts drew Byng towards acting as a profession. By the time he left school in 1909 he knew that he wanted to be an actor; his mother’s response to this was “I hope dear, you will never come to that”. Byng’s parents sought to end his ambitions by sending him to work in Plauen, Saxony (right) at his brother Philip’s lace factory. The Byngs’ aim to “make a man” of him backfired once Philip saw Douglas’ flair for dress design. The result of this enforced employment was a move towards an extraordinary lifestyle for the times: Byng created beautiful, extravagant clothing, took classes in music, dance and language, and mixed socially with ‘bohemians’.
On his return home, Byng took his designs around the fashion houses of London but could not secure employment. Byng’s mother introduced him to one of her friends in couture, a Mr Darbyshire, who in turn introduced Byng to Charles Alias, a French designer who ran a theatrical costumiers in Soho Square. He engaged Byng to work as Assistant Designer to Alfred Price. The company’s recent move towards servicing an international clientele meant that Byng’s knowledge of European measurements was highly valued. The Moorish Room on the first floor was the most renowned fitting room in show business, and Byng was soon converting sizes to imperial for stars such as Anna Pavlova (above), Dorothy Ward (left) and La Belle Leonora.
Alias was also responsible for the pantomime costumes at Drury Lane Theatre, as well as the magnificent walk-down curtain call outfits for every major UK theatre. This was Byng’s forté. His elaborate creations were prized by the pantomime casts in Edinburgh, Bristol and Manchester. He worked late into the night, affixing costume jewels onto enormous head-dresses, and sequins onto waistcoats and still arrived early in the morning with new designs under his arm. One perk of the job was a range of free theatre tickets: Byng was often seen at West End premieres with a sister on his arm.
Seemingly as a penance, his first week was long and demanding. In addition to the chorus numbers, Byng had two solo songs in the first half - Mary Ann She’s After Me and She’s Fat And She’s Beautiful - performed in a peculiar Somerset accent, likely to be a tribute to the original score by comic country bumpkin, George Bastow. There was also a comedy routine, a sketch and a song in Spanish. The show ran at three performances a day in the week and six a day at weekends. The production changed its repertoire every three days so by the end of the season, Byng had learned an astonishing fifty-five different finales and thirty-six solo songs. His hard work did not go unnoticed by his audience, many of whom were local fishermen: most mornings, a few samples from their overnight catch would be left on his lodging doorstep.
As WWI began to make an impact on daily life, Alfred Price and many of the Alias staff signed up for military service. Byng suffered from Sydenham’s Chorea/St Vitus’ Dance and the condition’s characteristic random, jerking movements prevented him from joining his colleagues in action. Instead, in 1914 he responded to an ad in The Stage seeking a “light comedian for a concert party by the sea, 28-week resident season”. This was the Periodicals Concert Party at the Palacette, Hastings, for which the company travelled down from Norfolk to open on the Monday evening. Byng was instructed to be at the theatre for 10am Monday to learn the opening number and the finale of the first and second half. Sauntering in fifteen minutes late, wearing a light blue woollen suit, spats, straw boater and cane, Byng (left) was met by a disgruntled (punctual) ensemble, waiting to rehearse.
By October, Byng had performed in over six hundred shows but his fee only just covered his living costs and he left with nothing. The experience, however, had made a great impression on the young man and inspired him to seek theatre work. His first role was with a touring production of the musical farce The Girl In The Taxi. The show had recently finished in the West End and was booked for a 112-theatre tour of the country. The actor, Douglas Vine, was both producer and lead actor; Byng was his understudy and was called in to cover fairly often, as Vine frequently travelled to London seeking financial backing for the production. The show’s lack of success meant that during the run Byng sometimes had to turn to his family for funds, which only underlined his mother’s belief that he was wasting his talents.
Whenever the show was cancelled, Byng would go with some of the disappointed audience members to the nearest public house. A piano was a regular fixture in most locals across the country, so Byng would end up singing from his extensive repertoire accrued at the recent Periodicals Concert Party. Byng was concerned that twelve months on the road with The Girl in the Taxi would not be good for his career. In fact, producers had noticed the young man who was ready to step up and take the lead at a moment’s notice. When the contract ended he was immediately offered the comic part in The Cinema Star by Jean Gilbert, touring even bigger towns and theatres.
Despite his enjoyment of playing to provincial audiences, Byng longed to appear in a West End production. Whenever he was ‘resting’ between contracts he would travel to London’s Theatreland and stand at stage doors. His favourite was The Gaiety Theatre (left) on The Strand, a Music Hall venue since 1864 where The Shop Girl musical created the legendary ‘Gaiety Girls’. Under the impression that London theatres would not employ a small-town newcomer, Byng had resigned himself to the prospect of touring for many years before securing his first West End engagement. Imagine his surprise when he was asked to audition for a new musical at his beloved Gaiety.
Theodore & Co. was a new musical with a remarkable team of talent behind it. The libretto was written by two of the era’s funniest playwrights, H. M. Harwood and George Grossmith Jr. Ivor Novello and Jerome Kern wrote the score with lyrics by Adrian Ross and Clifford Grey. It was the show in which to be seen. Byng was employed as understudy to Frederick Morant as ‘Mr Blissett’, and would be paid £4 a week. This was the break he had been waiting for. Byng was so overjoyed with the position that he had new business cards made declaring him to be ‘Douglas Byng, Gaiety Theatre’.
The new Gaiety show had, in fact, eighteen understudies. The war created many opportunities for all of them to shine: wartime raids by Zeppelins, the suspension of train and tram services, and the unexpected absences of cast members when called up for duty meant that being an understudy was never fruitless. Not only was Byng regularly on stage at his favourite theatre, he was also lucky enough to be performing with one of his comedy idols, George Grossmith Jr (right). A fine comic and playwright, GG Jnr had started performing in his late teens and by the age of thirty owned ten London venues. He was smart, funny and debonair, and Byng adored him.
Shortly into the run, Frederick Morant was called to serve his country so Byng took on the role of Mr Bissett, full-time. His performance greatly impressed GG Jr. and by the end of the run, Byng had established himself as a formidable West End artiste and social triumph, drinking at the best theatrical establishments and attending all the right parties, usually accompanied by the actress Julia James (who was playing his wife in Theodore
& Co.) One evening, the regular stage door crowd included another young but celebrated actor: Noël Coward (left). Byng and Coward would become close friends and intermittent lovers throughout their lives, and Byng would often try out Coward’s new songs at his revue shows.
Byng’s many other celebrity relationships including Terrence Rattigan, Ivor Novello, Robert Newton and Prince George, Duke of Kent. It was the time of the so-called ‘Bright Young People’ or ‘Bright Young Things’, the epithet given by the British national press to the bohemian socialites of the 1920s. A libertarian response to the privations of WWI, these flamboyant, hard-drinking, drug-taking party-goers proliferated across London’s nightlife. While not part of this select group due to his lower status, Byng regularly entertained at their events, balls and cabarets, and was soon adopted as their private jester or ‘Merry Andrew’. He still kept his sexuality well hidden; even his autobiography declares Byng a ‘Ladies’ Man’ with a string of failed marriage engagements.
At this time, late-night revue shows began to be launched at new West End clubs such as The Embassy, The Kit-Kat, The 50/50 Club and The Trocadero. Byng played them all. He developed a set of monologues delivered by outlandish female characters who recounted the details of their down-trodden lives. A hat or a wig were all that Byng needed to transform himself into Doris The Goddess Of Wind, Milly The Messy Old Mermaid or Sex Appeal Sarah. Audiences adored them; the elite clamoured for tickets to see Byng’s eccentric women delivering his own musical compositions, many of which he recorded as vinyl 78s. Considered too risqué for BBC radio broadcast, the material was eventually subject to a blanket ban by the corporation.
On 16 January 1925 a new venue opened in Dean Street, Soho. This was The Gargoyle Club owned by David Tennant, whose aspiration was for it to be the best in London. To this end he engaged the prominent architect Edwin Lutyens and artists Henri Matisse and Augustus John to design the interior decoration, modelled on the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. On opening night, The Daily Telegraph reported that the club’s 300-strong members’ list “probably contains more famous names in society and the arts than any other purely social club”. And it was Douglas Byng (concurrently playing his first Dame role, Eliza The Cook in Dick Whittington at the New Oxford Theatre) who entertained them that night. Fifty-four years later, the venue would become the first London Comedy Store.
By the mid-twenties, revue shows were becoming widely accepted as legitimate theatre. On 25 April 1925, Noel Coward and the impresario C.B. Cochran opened a new show at The London Pavilion (left), On With The Dance, with Byng cast as the lead comic. Appearing alongside him were French singer Alice Delysia, impressionist Florence Desmond (bottom left) and everyone’s favourite Dr Watson, Nigel Bruce (bottom right). The production was a huge success, with a record numbers of curtain calls and the acclaim of The Morning Post who described it as “a decadent and brilliant show”. Its 229 performances established Byng as a public darling, after which he remained on The Pavilion payroll for
a further five years.
After Noel Coward’s This Year Of Grace played to full houses between March and October 1928 at The London Pavilion, it transferred to Broadway with a completely new cast. One of the highlights of the UK production had been Byng’s outstanding performance as Policewoman Pellet. Perhaps inevitably, Coward was unable to source an American actor who could match it, so the role was dropped. The UK cast developed two more shows for Cochran (right): Wake Up And Dream and 1930 Revue, after which Byng said his goodbyes and left The Pavilion.
He was now the proprietor of a nightclub, The Kinde Dragon, situated in a yard just off St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden. Celebrating its earlier incarnation as the furniture workshop of Thomas Chippendale, Byng stocked the club with antique chairs and tables. Drinks were served in pewter pots, food on fine china. He claimed the design was inspired by Charles II’s Royal Barge. Despite being regularly filled with A-listers happy to perform for free, Byng had insufficient time and expertise to run the club and he soon sold up.
By the early 1930s, Byng was in demand for the Cabaret and Variety circuits, both as a solo act and as part of ‘The Cabaret Boys’ which he performed with Lance Lister. He had met Lister in Cochran’s 1926 Revue, an ill-fated Pavilion production closed several times by the general strike; when this happened the pair played a few Cabaret spots together, mainly to other performers whose productions were also temporarily closed. The effeminate theatrical characters created by Byng and Lister have since been lauded as the first to introduce overtly ‘gay’ lyrics to the general public (right).
We started out in Music Hall with dear old Dad
And, though we were put on first, we didn’t go too bad
Till we saw a couple of strong men and we both went mad.
Byng was doing very well for himself. He was billed at the new Café de Paris club as London’s Most Important and Expensive Cabaret Star for which he was paid handsomely - £300 a week. News of his popularity soon reached New York producers and in early 1931 Byng sailed on the Queen Mary to fulfil an engagement at Club Lido for a weekly fee of $1000. He was a huge success and was offered a contract extension but returned home at the end of the year for his beloved Pantomime season.
For ten months of the year, Douglas Byng was the doyen of scandalous ‘adult’ revues. For the Christmas and New Year period he represented pure, wholesome, family entertainment. His grounding in fashion paid off: each season he wore increasingly elaborate clothing made to his own designs. Byng was the originator of the Grande Dame, a refined, feminine character as opposed to the ‘bloke in a frock’ version deployed by previous Dames. Byng also rejected generic titles like ‘Cook’ or ‘Nanny’, instead insisting on the more specific Alderman Fitzwarren’s Housekeeper or Snow White’s Governess which matched the gentility of his costumes:
“I wanted every lady in the audience to want and go out and buy one of my finale dresses for themselves.”
In May 1932 as a favour to his friend, Ivor Novello, Byng agreed to appear in the play, ‘Party’, which Novello considered to be a little vanity project written in Hollywood while scripting the film Tarzan The Ape Man. It was presented at The Arts Theatre as a five-performance showcase by a cast which included Rex Harrison, Lillian Braithwaite, Benita Hume and Novello himself. ‘Party’ then transferred to The Strand Theatre, and then again to The Gaiety, only closing after an astounding 160 performances on 8 Oct 1932. UK and US tours followed. When Novello sold the film rights to MGM for £8k he was stunned: “...this was a play I had never intended for public presentation. How little we know!”
In 1933 Byng decided to go back to Revue. The first was André Charlot’s highly successful production of How D’You Do? at the Comedy Theatre starring Doris Hare, famed for On The Buses (bottom right) and Edward Chapman, famed for Mr Grimsdale (top right), some of which Byng also wrote. Byng was happy to do Charlot’s next show, ‘Hi Diddle Diddle’, as long as he was less heavily involved, so Charlot purchased some new material from the US songwriter Cole Porter. This led to Douglas Byng being the first person to sing Miss Otis Regrets, the haunting song about a woman who cancels her lunch date because she has just killed her lover.
Despite some of his songs being deemed inappropriate for broadcast, the BBC often booked Byng to appear on radio and TV. Producers worked hard to keep him on a tight rein. The accompanying celebrity status moved Byng swiftly up the Variety bills: his headlining one-man pantomime was in huge demand around the country. In 1938 the BBC commissioned Byng to write and perform in a one-off sketch show: ‘Byng-Ho’ aired on the 17 March featuring Byng’s trusted friend, Doris Hare, and comic/poet Cyril Fletcher (That’s Life). Throughout his career Byng was noted to rely on a few props rather than full drag to depict his female characters, this time he went full frock and Byng is credited as the first female impersonator on television as a result of this show.
In 1939, at the outbreak of WWII, Byng was entertaining wherever he might maintain morale, both overseas to military audiences and at home where the public gathered in the London Underground air-raid shelters. To be more patriotic, he changed his billing from The One And Only Douglas Byng to Douglas Byng, Bawdy But British. The comic, Tommy Trinder (right), was another regular on the ENSA tours. The sketches which Trinder and Byng performed together were popular with the troops, particularly when the pair mocked high ranking officers. One sketch had Trinder as a male officer and Byng as a female officer in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps:
Byng (pointing to his forehead): “It’s no good your boys chasing our girls. Oh no, our girls have it up here.”
Trinder: “It doesn’t matter where your girls have got it, my boys will find it.”
Gags like these would bring the house down, though one Brigadier was overheard to declare: “If my daughter were here, I’d have shot that Byng fellow.”
During the London Blitz, The Café de Paris became a sanctuary for high society. The rooms were sufficiently deep to evade the bomb damage which affected much of central London. Byng was cast in a new revue at The Coliseum, Covent Garden but also performed later each night at The Café de Paris. On 8 March 1941, as Byng left The Coliseum and headed off for his usual short walk across Leicester Square, the air raid sirens sounded and he was obliged to take refuge in St Martin’s Lane. During the bombardment, two devices dropped into one of the ventilation shafts at The Café de Paris and exploded in the basement ballroom: thirty-four people were killed and over eighty severely injured. When Byng eventually arrived at Coventry Street, bodies were laid across the pavement. Recognising friends and fans who would have been awaiting his arrival, he experienced this as a very personal tragedy.
After the war, Byng brought his eccentric female characters into service for the comedy roles included within a range of West End musicals, revues and late-night cabarets. However, in May 1947, when Karl Zellar’s operetta, The Bird Seller - originally performed at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1895 - was revived at The Palace Theatre, Byng was cast as Baron Weps, Master of the Hunt. The musical director was the singing film star, Richard Tauber, venturing back onto the European stage after finding stardom in Hollywood. During rehearsals it was reported by the press that Tauber had returned because of illness, specifically lung cancer. Byng believed that the audience were morbidly, more interested in seeing Tauber before his death than in the show itself, which soon closed.
In 1956, Byng was offered the part of Monsieur Martin in Hotel Paradiso, a French stage farce based on Georges Feydeau’s 1894 play, L'Hôtel du Libre Échange. Other cast members in Hotel Paradiso included Alec Guinness, Irene Worth, Kenneth Williams and, new to the West End, Billie Whitelaw. The show was a hit and Byng’s stand-out performance was noted by the press: when L'Hôtel du Libre Échange moved on to Broadway, Byng was the only performer from the original cast asked to transfer with the show. Guinness was replaced by Bert Lahr and Whitelaw by Angela Lansbury. Eight years later, MGM adapted the play into a major motion picture and Byng played Monsieur Martin once more, and to rave reviews.
Now in his seventies, Byng was still working the West End in shows such as House of Cards, The Love Doctor, The Maid of the Mountains, The Country Wife and a star-studded production of Lady Windemere’s Fan. There was pantomime every year, and now that the corporation ban on his more salacious work had been lifted, there were also frequent BBC radio and television appearances. Indeed, in 1967 the BBC2 programme, Before the Fringe, often broadcast some of Byng’s late-night cabaret compositions. By the early 1970s, Byng started to kick back. He had moved to Arundel Terrace, Brighton, a notorious bohemia for creative residents which had included Millicent Martin, Ronald Searle, John Osbourne, Annie Nightingale and Robert Flemyng. Brighton suited Byng, who could be spotted along the promenade, at one of the drag bars, or at a theatre lovey’s party reciting:
"I’m one of the Queens of England
but I can’t remember which,
I know that Pa had royal blood
and Ma was very rich.
I may be dear Queen Guinivere
who darned King Arthur’s tights,
and cleaned up armour all the day
for all those dirty knights."
In 1977, Byng guested on television’s The Michael Parkinson Show. This introduced him to a brand new audience and he was suddenly back in demand. Byng went on the road as a raconteur, touring a new two-hander, Those Thirties Memories, with musical actor, Billy Milton (together, backstage, the Palladium). Byng was 93 and Milton ten years his junior, but the energy and detail of Byng’s story-telling meant that he appeared to be the younger artiste. It also made it difficult, once Byng was placed in front of a crowd, for the producers to stop him from over-running. The penultimate show, to a sell-out crowd of friends and fellow Brighton performers, was a three-hour bonanza of recollections and anecdotes.
Byng’s last performance took place in December 1986 at the National Theatre, London: the date was chosen as a nod to panto season. Byng walked on in a velvet suit and received a massive round of applause. As it died away, a stagehand ran on to hand Byng a microphone, but he raised his hand to decline, saying: “I’ve been on stage for nearly eighty years now and I’ve never used one yet”. The moment was noted in stage history as the only time a standing ovation has been given after the very first sentence of a show.
Comedian, actor, singer, revue artiste, prolific songwriter and one of the most important pantomime dames of all time – Byng did it all. At the time of his death on 24 August 1987, he was 94. Byng’s influence on other performers can be tracked through the years: the elegant showmanship of Danny LaRue; the double entendrés of “moolies” and “nadgers” as sung by Rambling Syd Rumpole (created by Kenneth Williams); the saucy patter songs of Victoria Wood; the suave innuendos of Tom Allen - all can be traced back to the inventive, audacious talents of Douglas Byng.
Author of his own epitaph, Byng liked to have the last word:
So here you are, old Douglas, a derelict at last.
Before your eyes what visions rise of your vermilion past.
Mad revelry beneath the stars, hot clasping by the lake.
You need not sigh, you can't deny, you've had your bit of cake.
Sources and suggested reads
Newley P. Bawdy But British! The Life Of Douglas Byng (2009)
Byng D. As You Were. Reminiscences (1970)
Merriman A. Greasepaint And Cordite (2013)
Melly G. Douglas Byng - My Hero ( The Independent 17 Sept 1988)