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Bransby Williams
 
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The Aristocrat
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The Difference
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BRANSBY WILLIAMS 1871 - 1961
 
Bransby Williams, born Bransby William Pharez, brought acting to the halls with monologue works of a scale and variety which have never been surpassed.
Born in Hackney, London on 14th August 1870, he started his working life as a tea taster in Mincing Lane. He made his professional debut doing impersonations of Dan Leno and other music hall stars in working men's clubs and, in 1890, appeared as Sydney-Carton in The Noble Deed at the Oxford. The presentation of Dickensian characters was the foundation of his music hall act and lasted throughout his career, from his first appearance at the London Shoreditch on 26th August 1896. In addition to Sydney Carton, Williams presented such varying Dickensian characters as Scrooge, Uriah Heep and Little Nell's Grandfather. To these he added his impressions of leading actors of the day such as Henry Irving, George Alexander, Fred Terry and Martin Harvey in some of their most histrionic Shakespearean and other roles. Much of the fascination of Bransby Williams' act lay in the skill with which the young man, suitably dressed for each part, made his lightning costume and make-up changes from youth to old age and back again in full view of his audience.

By 1897, Williams was so well established that he shared "Top of the Bill" with Dan Leno at the London Pavilion and, in 1903, consolidated his career in the halls by signing a three year contract for eighteen weeks a year at the Empire, Leicester Square. In that same year, partly no doubt in keeping with the new monarch's more relaxed views (and certainly at the end of the official mourning for Queen Victoria) both Dan Leno and Bransby Williams became the first variety artists to appear by royal command at Sandringham.

Certainly Bransby Williams could claim credit for lifting the whole tone of the halls: following his Dickensian success - and noting Albert Chevalier's song monologue popularity - he decided to extend his repertoire by including several dramatic monologues. He chose material which still allowed him to dress in character and demonstrate his versatility. In 'Is Pipe, Williams would appear in a smoking jacket following the action to the words as he lit his pipe. In such Charles Winter monologues as The Caretaker and the Lounger, Williams would dress accordingly while changing into the round cap and heavy oriental make-up required of 'The Pigtail of Li-Fang Fu'.
The musical background for most of this work was produced by Cuthbert Clarke, the musical director (and Williams' first accompanist) at the Empire, Leicester Square. It was while appearing at the Empire that Williams truly established his dramatic monologue success with Devil May Care, the work of Charles H. Taylor. Taylor, a charming personality, was to die young, but not before achieving a great success with Tom Jones. Of the other regular Williams writers, Arthur Helliar was popular in amateur circles; F. Chatterton Hennequin was a branch manager for Keith Prowse; Ridgwell Callum and Robert Service wrote Canadian and Wild West material based on their own travels and Sax Rohmer (born Arthur Sarsfield Ward and creator of the Fu Manchu character we know today) provided the main oriental input. In order to absorb an appropriate atmosphere for his work, Rohmer took to living in Limehouse where he would sit dictating to his secretary hidden behind an oriental screen.

Sax Rohmer, who also used his pen name Carolus Rex when contributing material for George Robey and Little Tich, was one of the many writers whom Bransby Williams gathered around him at his famous Sunday night suppers in the years before the First World War, at his house in Brixton. Others came from even more unusual sources. Colonel John Hay was the American ambassador in London and Jim Bludso, his story of the Mississippi steam boat captain whose ship goes down in flames, was first performed by Williams when crossing the Atlantic on the Caronia in 1905. By a strange coincidence, there was a fire on the Caronia on the same voyage. Despite this, Bransby Williams' southern accent was much admired by the many Americans on board, including his ship's concert party chairman Charles Hughes, Chief Justice of the United States.

This interest and enthusiasm for original material served Williams well and he performed over a hundred monologues, most of which he recorded. The range of his repertoire was to provide material - and inspiration - for monologue performers both professional and amateur. Williams' own career suffered badly when, in the early thirties, he broke a five year contract while appearing at the London Palladium to be with his wife after she had been in a car accident. The subsequent black-listing, the demise of the music hall and an ill-fated "legitimate" theatrical overseas touring venture reduced him from one of the highest paid performers to near poverty. However, with the introduction of television, he bounced back and, for many years, his performance as Scrooge was an annual event on Christmas Eve. He died in 1961 at the age of 91.

From 'The Book of Comic and Dramatic Monologues' ISBN 0-241-10738-5
Compiled and edited by Michael Marshall.

 
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