“Come in and know me better, man!” quoth the Ghost of Christmas Present and I suppose that’s the reason I haven’t yet treated of so estimable figure as George Robey (Sir George Edward Wade, 1869-1954) despite having already written about well over 150 of his English music hall colleagues, most of them of lesser significance than Robey. I wanted to know him better. And because his cinematic footprint is light, he’s a difficult fellow to know. American audiences are most likely to have seen him as Falstaff in Olivier’s Henry V (1944), but that’s a little like knowing an elephant by its tail. We can’t begin to do justice to him today, but we wanted no more time to elapse before giving him some of what he is owed, even if we must promise to pay more, over time, going forward.
Robey conquered most of the theatrical forms of his day. In his young adulthood he worked in an engineer’s office (having received some education in the sciences) and began his performing life by dabbling in mandolin playing, jamming with a group of musicians in pubs. This led to led to singing songs to his own mandolin accompaniment and being a stooge for an American comic hypnotist named Professor Kennedy in music halls. He rapidly became a sensation as a singer of comic songs like “The Simple Pimple” and “He’ll Get It Where He’s Gone to Now” in the halls in the early 1890s.
From here he worked up a number of comic characters he performed with costume changes, ranging from a swell dandy, to a Chinese laundryman, to drag characters. He was to become a leading pantomime dame, as well.
Robey soon reigned supreme in both music hall and holiday pantos, and was widely considered one of the greatest English stage clowns of his age. This led to West End revues like The Bing Boys Are Here, Zig Zag, Joy Bells and Johnny Jones. On stage in the early years of the century he performed with the likes of Daphne Pollard, Leon Errol, Lupino Lane, and Eric Blore. There are also records of his singing, some of which can be heard on Youtube.
Robey made fewer than three dozen films, with nearly half of them being silent. In 1923 he was Sancho Panza in a silent version of Don Quixote. Another notable silent was 1924’s The Prehistoric Man. In 1929 he was Mrs. Mephistopheles in Mephistopheles, a Deforest Phonofilm. In the ’30s he began to play legit roles on stage, including several Shakespearean productions. Radio and television would come to be among the media he embraced. His last screen credit was a 1952 version of The Pickwick Papers.
Robey was first offered a knighthood in 1919 but demurred, fearing it would alienate him from his working class audiences. He finally accepted the honor just a few months before his death. In addition to over sixty years of stage and screen activity, Robey was also an avid cricketer and footballer, and even played semi-professionally for a time.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Robey appears never to have been tempted by American vaudeville (another reason I hadn’t yet written about him). It seems that Robey had more than enough work to keep him busy in the home country.
For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.