'The Funniest Man Alive' (19 March 1874 – 5 May 1944)
She sells seashells on the seashore,
the shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure,
for if she sells seashells on the seashore,
then I'm sure she sells seashore shells
Comic, singer, actor and unionist Wilkie Bard (right) was a great talent, a stage device inventor and a powerful voice in the early 1900s' entertainment industry. His name also became common parlance for a political development.
Music Hall at the time was booming, with large concert halls and Variety theatres springing up in every city, and every town offering two or three venues with up to four daily shows, seven days a week.
With growth came resentment: a day’s pay was now being stretched to include extra matinees; last-minute changes to cover a sister theatre’s gaps meant long journeys with no travel expenses; and show cancellations due to lack of performers led to losses for those on the bill.
A meeting to discuss these problems was held in 1906 between a selected group of producers, the Grand Order of Water Rats, and the Music Hall Artists Railway Association. This gave birth to the Variety Artistes’ Federation, which quickly acquired a membership of over 5,000 performers keen to benefit from its mission “To promote the interests of Variety artistes and to abolish all abuses detrimental to their welfare”.
When 22 London theatres refused to recognise the union, VAF pickets caused their shows to be ‘blacked’, denoting the power of the new movement. Wilkie Bard’s name was the populist choice for the union card/‘Bard’, which quickly mutated via cockney rhyming slang into a ‘Wilkie’.
Bard was born in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester in Lancashire on 19thMarch 1874 as William August Smith, named after his father William Herbert Smith. At fifteen, Bard started work as a textiles clerk for the firm that employed his mother, Marie Stetzer. Fond of playing the fool and quoting the jokes of local Stockport comedian, Harry Liston (right). Bard appears to have been apprenticed at the factory so his mother could keep an eye on him.
By the time he was eighteen, Bard was clowning and singing in the ‘free & easies’ around his home area in Manchester. These taverns and supper clubs - The Slip Inn, The Falstaff, The Rising Sun - gave him the opportunity to build on his natural comedic talent while maintaining the day job. Performing in Liston’s Bar, the hall named after his idol, was a particular thrill.
One of Bard’s first comedy engagements was as an ‘extra turn’ at the newly-reopened Grand Temperance Theatre of Varieties on Peter Street, Manchester, previously known as The Grand Circus. Its owner and producer, Ted Garcia, would pack his shows with acts and on opening night - 20th February 1893 - the bill included The Flying Dillons (left), The Courtney Brothers, Nellie Leybourne, Alex Day (cornet-player), Lillie Winter, Archie Howard, The Columbia Trio, Kittie Hives (skipping rope dancer), Danton and Dunbar, Ted Bride (Irish comedian) and The Stanley Combination (sketch troupe). So Bard’s career was launched alongside some of the best in the business.
Bard was paid £4 a week to be on stand-by for the theatre. Despite the pressure on acts to perform up to seven times a day in different locations, Bard rarely made it on to the stage. Pre-VAF and fearful of dismissal, performers did all they could to make their slot.
Nonetheless, it was a prestigious position for the young William Smith who had by now changed his name to ‘Will Gibbard’, and was beginning to build a reputation. On his day off, he was offered a choice of spots in other venues, and at a decent level of remuneration.
Within two years, having already established a good name for himself in the Lancashire area, Bard moved on to grab some London limelight. On 11thFebruary 1895, he appeared at the prestigious Collins Music Hall on Islington Green. He foolishly tried to indulge the locals by presenting them with a coster act: a market tradesman singing Cockney songs. When Bard launched into ‘My Little Nipper’, the song made famous by Albert Chevalier whose work in the genre was well-established, he started to lose the audience who rejected his inauthentic attempt to play a Londoner.
Now wise to the possibility of a north/south divide, Bard began to convince himself that he could only work the theatres north of Stoke. He decided to give London a few more months to see if he could crack some southern smiles before returning north. Then one night at the Granville Theatre of Varieties in Walham Green (right) he met a young singer, Nellie Stratton, and swiftly fell in love. On 29 July 1895 at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury, witnessed by musician Francis James Peers and the actor Herbert Arrowsmith (Bert Monks), Bard and Stratton were married.
Bard was determined to be a success on the London stage, and changed his name once more to improve his chances of gaining repute, though this came about by accident. While performing on a bill with renowned thespian Bransby Williams (left) known for his exaggerated pronunciation, ‘Will Gibbard’ ended up sounding like ‘Wilkie Bard’ - and the name stuck.
Williams was also instrumental in increasing Bard’s theatricality, coaching him on wigs and make-up. The bald wig and high-circled eyebrows which Bard adopted became his characteristic guise.
Although Bard now had a new look, he was aware that his stance as a middling comic would not change without something else to set him apart. One night in the late 1890s, at The Canterbury Hall in south London, Bard was introduced to songwriter Frank Leo (a local Lambeth resident), who offered him a few of his comedy songs. They seemed to work well for the young comic, and when Leo penned the tune It Was
B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L exclusively for him, both their careers changed for the better.
Audiences began to see a new side to Bard and they liked it. His singing and Lancashire patter gained him the approval of the London crowds and those to whom he performed nationwide. Leo created new songs for Bard such as Do You Know Any Funny Stories?, novelty tunes like Popping In and Out, and character ditties including My Little Deitcher Girl. Bard’s celebrity grew and as consequence, Frank Leo demanded more money. Too much more money for Bard, who had no choice but to terminate the partnership.
Leo assumed that Bard’s new-found success would quickly wither without his songs, but by then Bard had established himself as a strong comedy vocalist, and songwriters were queuing up for him to perform their work.
One such writer was George Arthurs (left) who had written the Music Hall classic Joshu-ah. For Bard he wrote the renowned I Want To Sing In Opera!, during which Bard portrayed a kooky old prima donna who confided in her audience that she was down on her luck.
I want to sing in opera, if I could have my choice,
I want to sing in opera, I’ve got that kind of voice.
Signor Caruso told me I ought to do so,
So that’s why I want to sing in opera,
Arthurs helped Bard to create characters for sketches, and the two became close as they worked together. Bard now wanted two spots on each bill, in order to showcase The Turkish Bath Attendant, The Park Keeper or The Night Watchmen, which were all becoming firm favourites with the crowds.
But he was probably best in his eccentric, droll female roles (right): an assortment of personalities stretching from menial stage cleaners to supercilious aristocrats. His unique skill was in creating authentic figures to whom people could relate, rather than the usual exaggerated caricatures of Music Hall.
His success with these personae caught the attention of Manchester impresario J. Pitt Hardacre, who promptly offered him a pantomime stint at the Gaiety Theatre. The result - Bard’s 1906 Window Twankey in Aladdin - was a huge triumph, breaking box office records. The Manchester Evening News reported that the entire staff of the cotton factory where Bard had once worked turned out to watch, including his mother, Marie Stetzer, who was immensely proud to acknowledge her son’s progress from office clerk to top of the bill in just over a decade.
From this moment on, Bard would perform every year in a Christmas pantomime. The high point came in 1908 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, when he played the most envied panto part of the era: Idle Jack in Dick Whittington. Bard impressed the producers so much, he was invited back the following year to play Widow Twankey in Aladdin. Unfortunately, he was constantly upstaged by the actor George Graves as Abanazar (right), who made his first entrance in an aeroplane surrounded by live chickens.
The Music Halls were now at their height, and good headlining acts were in demand. Bard had so many skills to offer theatre managers that he was particularly popular. He had by now created sketches to perform with his wife, Nellie, who was such a fine singer that she would also have her own spot.
They became one of the most sought-after couples in Britain. One of the first acts to offer merchandise for sale in the foyer, the Bards also recorded several phonogram records that worked well as self-marketing.
Bard was a comic of the people. His characters were recognisable to them, and his own behaviour was distinctly different to that of many other comedians who milked their celebrity status. During a 1907 stint at the Hippodrome in Brighton, Bard heard that Scottish comedian Harry Lauder (right) was playing the town’s Regent Theatre at the same time. Lauder was to be met at the station on his arrival by Scottish pipers, with a horse-drawn carriage to take him on to a large ceremonial press reception with the Mayors of Brighton and Hove. Together with the manager of the Hippodrome, Billy Boardman, Bard saw an opportunity to debunk the event, and had a thousand leaflets printed which read:
Mr Wilkie Bard will arrive at the station at 12:30 carrying his own suitcase and take a Corporation tram to the front, entirely unattended. Here, he will be received by the manager of the Hippodrome and a guard of honour, composed of cleaners from the theatre. After a visit to the Aquarium, Mr Bard, having refused the pressing invitation to lunch with the two mayors, will take a meal at Aunt Betty’s whelk stall on Lower Parade.
Not only did this wheeze lead to a sell-out for Bard’s whole run, but Harry Lauder himself thought it very funny.
The pair would eventually share a bill together. In 1912, Oswald Stoll, the managing director of Moss Empires, decided that Music Hall should benefit from royal recognition. Many acts had performed before George V in his Sandringham and Windsor homes, but despite being a fan of the genre, neither he nor any member of the royal family had ever attended a public variety show. On 1st July, the first-ever Royal Variety Show (initially called The Royal Command Performance) was produced at the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus (right).
The bill included all of the country’s headline acts such as George Robey, Harry Tate, Fanny Fields, Vesta Tilly, Little Tich and Arthur Prince. A surprising decision was the exclusion of Marie Lloyd, the biggest name in Music Hall. She had performed privately for the royal family but was deemed too risqué for an encounter in public. Harry Lauder was directed to follow Bard in the line-up, but he insisted that the ballerina Anna Pavlova go between them. Although the producer had wanted the show to finish elegantly with a ballet set, rather than the audience joining Lauder in a chorus of Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,Stoll buckled and agreed to the change.
The show was not a success. The press made much of Marie Lloyd’s absence, and described the night as dull and lack-lustre, with many acts showing a lack of confidence. Little Tich was indeed so nervous that he was sick and unable to join the “Variety Garden Party” on stage, when the royals met the cast and other Music Hall stars.
The newspapers also noticed that Wee Georgie Wood had sent along a look-a-like, since he wasn’t prepared to perform at a charity event and miss a night’s paid work. Queen Mary was not happy to see Vesta Tilly dressed as a man, and kept her eyes on her programme throughout the entire act. But the biggest criticism was aimed at Stoll’s change to the order, and it would be seven years before he tried this again.
Despite the show receiving a bad press, it turned out to be good for Bard. His appearance had now put him on the international stage, and overseas producers pursued him. In 1913, after much negotiation, Bard made his US debut at the New York Hammerstein’s theatre, with George Arthurs.
At the time, a UK headliner’s average weekly wage was £250-400. Bard had been offered $3,250 but finally settled at $4000 (£1600), a record-breaking sum even for Broadway. The show received phenomenal reviews and sold out completely. The producers begged Bard to stay, but with the end of the year and pantomime were approaching.
Bard realised he needed his own ‘gimmick’ for pantomime in order to stand out from other performers. So, he introduced 'tongue twisting' songs into his repertoire, singing such lyrics as She Sells Sea Shells On The Seashore, That Tongue Twisting Tango and The Leith Police Dismisseth Us.
Their success was confirmed when Bard’s old theatrical rival George Graves began performing a song called Does This Shop Stock Shot Socks With Spots? One of Bard’s war-time showstoppers - Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers- became a huge hit for him, but an even greater one for Al Jolson in 1914.
Like so many other entertainers during WWI, Bard helped maintain military morale by entertaining the troops both at home and overseas. He became the main attraction at the London Palladium pantos during the war years, and with comic Will Evans first performed sketches involving ‘papering a house’ and ‘whitewashing a ceiling’. These evolved into the current day, popular ‘slosh’ scenes. Bard also helped to keep the failing Palladium in business by persuading the management to increase the number of shows from one to three shows a day, and thereby boost ticket sales.
After the war, Bard went back to Broadway, taking five years of material as yet unseen by the Americans, including his new Welsh miner character. This spot had been ‘bringing the house down’ in the UK but Bard's opening matinee was so disastrous that he decided to close the show and return home.
The Variety editor Sime Silverman talked Bard into ditching two central sketches and finding replacements. Bard’s wife then helped him to dust off a couple of old sketches, ‘The Scrub Woman’ (left) and ‘The Night Watchman’, and by the evening performance, the show was completely different. Two weeks later, the run was extended.
Tours to Africa, Europe and Australia followed. Bard was a global phenomenon, selling out theatres in every continent. In 1923, he sold out the Pantages and Orpheum Theatre circuit in North America, a rare occurrence, and particularly for an English act. An indication of his success was the promotional strap-line on his posters, claiming Bard was ‘The Funniest Man Alive’.
After four years of international work, Bard returned to British Music Hall in 1927. His material seemed somewhat old-fashioned: satirising bathing-machine attendants had had its day. Seeking a new device, he fell back on the interruption technique that had worked so well for him in pantomime. If the Principle Boy was singing a heartfelt ballad, Bard’s Widow Twanky would upstage him by hanging out the washing and drawing the audience’s laughter.
Bard and the rest of the bill - monologists, magicians and ‘spesh’ acts - began to work out where he could interrupt them. This style of comedy has since become a favourite with double acts: the ‘straight’ man attempts to do something serious and the ‘gag’ man interferes. The early masters of this approach were The Crazy Gang.
Bard was back on top of his game but there were signs that his mental health was unstable. The cabaret artiste Douglas Byng noted that Bard would sometimes just walk off the stage at the New Oxford Theatre in London. Still only halfway through a number, he would leave the audience to sing it by themselves. During singer Florence Smithson’s regular scattering of rose petals to accompany her performance of Roses of Picardy, Bard once went berserk in the wings, screaming that her "Flanders poppies" were an insult.
Bard took early retirement in his late fifties. He had been a prudent saver and had sufficient funds to hang up his bald cap and settle in Buckinghamshire. A couple of requests temporarily enticed him from retreat. Phonofilm convinced Bard to make two short films of his sketches, The Cleaner and The Night Watchman. And Oswald Stoll persuaded him into doing his act one last time at the famous Veterans of Variety at the London Coliseum in 1943. Bard passed away a year later.
Wilkie Bard can be heard on many old 78 gramophone discs, but these barely capture the experience of seeing him perform live. His spontaneity, tongue-twister perfection, and momentary, deflating entrances to someone else’s act were quite unique. Bard’s legacy can be seen in the work of The Crazy Gang, Warris and Jewel, Jimmy James, Morecambe and Wise, even Vic and Bob, but his obscurity means few are aware of his influence.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Baker R A British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (2005)
Mellor G J They Made Us Laugh (1982)
Busby R British Music Hall: A Who's Who from 1890 to Present Day (1976)