Billy Merson: From Factories to the Films

Billy Merson (William Henry Thompson, 1879-1947) was born and bred in Nottingham and got his show biz start as an acrobat and comedian at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. For a time he worked in factories by day while making inroads in music halls at night, finally chairman (emcee) at London’s Players Theatre, He also wrote numerous popular songs including “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life” (which was covered by Al Jolson), “The Photo of the Girl I Left Behind”, and “Desdemona”. George Formby Sr. was his frequent stage partner. Merson appeared in ten silent comedy films between 1915 and 1917. In 1922 he starred in the hit West End musical Whirled into Happiness. 1926-27, he starred in three DeForest Phonofilms: Billy Merson Sings Desdemona, Billy Merson Sings Scotland’s Whiskey (a spoof of Harry Lauder), and Billy Merson in a Russian Opera. Through the ’30s he appeared in a handful of additional talking films: Bill and Coo (1931), Riding High (1937), The Show Goes On (1937), Chips (1938), Scruffy (1938), and Remember When (1939). His last turn was as a walk-on in the wartime entertainment Let the People Sing (1942).

To learn more about music hall and vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent and classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.