HERBERT CAMPBELL

22nd December 1844 - 19th July 1904





The great music hall comedian, vocalist and pantomime star of Drury Lane, Herbert Campbell was born HERBERT EDWARD STORY on 22nd December 1844 at 16 Hamilton Street, Lambeth to Henry George and Hannah Story (nee Fisher). 

 


After leaving school Herbert worked as an office boy for a London newspaper but it was whilst he was working in a gun factory at Woolwich that he saw Raynor’s original Christy Minstrel show and followed his destiny.   He soon set about organizing his own amateur minstrel troupe and with fellow work mates he toured extensively throughout the south east of London, raising money for charitable causes along the way.

 

 

It was during this time that he was spotted and engaged by professional minstrels Harman and Elston and for two and half years they performed successfully together under the name Harmon, Campbell and Elston.  Herbert having gained a deal of experience decided to try his luck as a comic vocalist and made his first solo appearance at the Alhambra in Shoreditch and Collins Music Hall in Islington in 1868.   

 

 

Herbert Campbell soon established himself as a popular music hall comedian and sang many, many songs that included “Did You Ever Hear A Girl Say No?”, It’s Enough To Make a Parson Swear”, “They Were A Lovely Pair” and  “Mother Will Be Pleased.”

 

 

But it was his partnership in pantomime with the Dan Leno (1860-1904) that made him a real star.  More often than not Herbert, all 19 stone of him, would appear as Dame alongside the diminutive Dan, and it only took seconds for them both to step out onto the stage to have their audiences falling out of their seats with laughter.  

 

 

Later on in life, Campbell, Leno and comedian Harry Randall decided to go into business together and formed a music hall management company. Quite often they would top their own bills.

 

 

Herbert Campbell’s glittering career came to a sudden end in 1904, when Herbert, whilst alighting from his brougham in between halls, called out to a friend, which frightened his horse and sent him falling to the ground. 

 

 

The injuries sustained in this tragic accident caused a series of paralytic seizures and Herbert sadly died on 19th July 1904 aged 59.   His best chum, the great Dan Leno, died just three months later.

 

 

Herbert’s obituary in The Stage remembered him as “a long popular figure and a sincere and generous friend.”

 

 

 

In December 2011, we restored his final resting place. 

 

(A DETAILED PROFILE OF THE LATE GREAT HERBERT CAMPBELL WILL FEATURE HERE SOON!)

 

Here is an interview with the great HERBERT CAMPBELL . . . . 

 

For the twenty-second consecutive year Mr Herbert Campbell is at present providing a liberal share of the fun of the Drury Lane Pantomime.

 

It is a distinction of which the burly comedian is justly proud, for not only is it a record which has no parallel, but it stands as eloquent testimony to the lasting popularity of one whose art has survived the changes of well-nigh half a century.  That he has been brightening the lives of the British public for more than forty years, Mr Campbell tells you with the wide, indeliable smile with which he has been shedding rays of cherrfulness for the greater part of his life.  He makes no secret of the fact that he is a veteran, on the contrary, he seems to revel in the reflection that he is one of the very few survivors of the contemporary comedians of his early days.

 

What is the secret, one may ask, of the popularity which outlives two scores years and every-changing taste, which survives the growth of new generations of children?  Ask Herbert Campbell and he only smiles, but in that beautiful, ever-expanding beam of gladness you read your answer.  It is the man’s own popularity.  Since he has grown up from the slim, young man into the corpulent embodiments of prosperous geniality, since as may be assumed, he has laughed and grown fat in the full enjoyment of the lighter side of life and the rewards of success his particular type of humour – which, in its predominant characteristics of breadth and unction, may be described as national – has secured him a lasting position in the affection of countless thousands of admirers.  It must not, however, be assumed that Herbert Campbell makes his appeal merely by the temporary re-arrangement of the features for that he relies entirely upon grimacery for that large share of public favour which has, among other things, kept him at ‘the Lane” for twenty-two years in succession.

Regarded solely from the point of view of pantomime, the effectiveness of physical contrast has, in some measure, increased the value of Herbert Campbell’s services.   The possession of a singularly placed temperament and a rigidly methodical mode of living have, it is probably, been contributory causes of the comedian;s present ample proportions.  In short, Herbert Campbell, being a large genial gentleman of physical as well as artistic breadth, makes an admirable foil to one of comparatively diminutive stature and widely different methods.  Hence the long and brilliantly-successful association with Dan Leno.

 

Surely no broader contrast either in the physical or artistic sense was ever furnished by any other pair of jesters – the one plump unctuous and deliberate and the other lean, perky and spasmodic. 

That’s an ingenious management should, in view of Herbert Campbell’s outside measurements, have early determined to cast him for the past of an infant is but natural, and so it came about that in the 1888-9 pantomime “Babes in the Wood,” he set the town roaring with laughter at his delightfully funny performance as the boy babe.

It requires either a very profound nor a very delicate sense of humour to grasp the possibilities of Herbert Campbell in the blue satin knickers, sailor blouse, white socks and beribboned straw hat f a boy-babyhood, supported by so able and sympathetic as colleagues as Harry Nicholls as the baby-girl.   Who of the thousands that saw these twain pushed on in their perambulator will forget the querulous complaining’s of that colossal infant or the tearfully droll manner in which he, having withdrawn a three-foot pin from the interior of the perambulator, said “No wonder I was peevish!”

Was it not also during that same season (Dan Leno’s first pantomime at Drury Lane by the way) that Herbert Campbell, leaning far our of his perambulator to watch his nurse flirting with a soldier, imposed so severe a strain upon the portion of his costume that with a distinctly audible “Rip” the garment gave up the struggle, while the all unconscious comedian maintained his position in the presence of an audience literally convulsed with laughter?

Quite apart, however, from such unrehearsed effects or the trick played by Arthur Roberts during the run of “Sinbad” in the Drury Lane season of 1882-3 – a trick, by the ways, the bare mention of which still raises shouts of laughter among the old hands of “the Lane” staff – Herbert Campbell has, both on the stage and behind the scenes, been associated with much of the merriment for which the historic temple is famed at Yuletide.

And yet it is not altogether easy to say just how the comedian makes the Public laugh.  If you were to ask Herbert Campbell the question he would probably assume an expression of gloomy abstractions and say ”Oh, I’m blowed if I know.” This reply you might regard as evidence of that modesty which is characteristic of many successful men, but it is very probably true that he could not analyse the exact process by which he gets his effects.  Assuming always that in pantomime he is a grotesque figure in a costume invariably designed to make a man of his build look absurd, and a strong appeal to the public eye is already made.  To this the comedian adds qualities that place his success beyond doubt. To many the very sound of Herbert Campbell’s voice is the signal for explosive laughter.  It is a voice which his nearest and dearest friends could not truthfully say that it was melodious or soothing; for its purpose it is an organ of far more useful quality; it is powerful, resonant and far-reaching, and for those to whom a clear understanding of the words of a song is necessary, it is as good a voice as any comedian or his audience could desire. 

But setting aside the voice, the physical attributes and capacity for humorous “wheeze” and gesture, it is probable that Herbert Campbell makes his appeal principally by means of a facial expression that is really remarkable.  His is a face so perfectly moulded for its purpose that its loss to the stage would have been little short of a public calamity.

Extraordinary mobility of feature and an equally extraordinary capacity for thinking out new moves for the nose, the lips and the eyes, enable the lucky possessor of a unique face to portray all the human emotions without uttering a word.

In studying a new song the comedian, having mastered the words and the melody, presently begins to select from his repertoire of “faces” a number that may be suitable for the new work in hand.  If there be in the song a note of mock pathos he has a droop of the mouth and a re-adjustment of the eyeball that instantly present a picture of mournful humour.  For the sentiment if rollicking fun he has a dozen changes of the mouth, each of which is calculated to fill an entire audience with soulful gladness.  In short, Herbert Campbell’s face is one of his principal assets, and when at length he brings his labours to a close he will be remembered by a grateful public as one whose sunshiny countenance was ever cheering to look upon.  To these advantages Herbert Campbell adds humour that is rich, broad and pleasantly devoid of subtlety or of any quality that demands of his audience severe mental pressure.

Herbert Campbell’s long connection with the theatre has furnished him with a rich store of personal memories and anecdotes.  Of his association with the Grecian Theatre –“The Bird” of bygone days – he has many interesting things to say, and to select one from his collection of stories of the once famous City Road house the following may be taken as typical of the period: - “In 1873, in company with my old friend Arthur Williams, I was present at a well known actor’s first appearance as Lemuel, the gipsy boy in ‘The Flowers of the Forest.’   The character was that of a lad of nineteen but our actor, a man with four days beard, looked more like a blue dwarf.  He is supposed to go poaching, and to shoot a hare in the wood at night. “Here’s half-a-crown, ‘ hes aid to a stage hand. ‘Go down Nile Street’ (at the back of the Grecian) ‘and buy me a good hare, I want it for my poaching scene, but afterwards you can take it home for your supper.’

“The man went down Nile Street, but, economy asserting itself, and thinking only of his supper, bought fifteen-penny Ostend rabbit, ready skinned and skewered.  The consequence may be imagined.

“Lemue stole on the dark stage, gun in hand.

“Ha,’ he cried, speaking his lines with tragic emphasis, ‘there is a finer fat puss, I will bring her down.’

“he took steady aim and fired, and, as the resport of the shot rang through the house, the stage hand gracefully pitched on to the stage not a fine, fat hare, but a skinner Ostend rabbit.

“Of course, the house was in convulsions, and poor Lemuel had to pick up the “game” and exit singing –

“I’ll sell you for a crown my boy,

And that won’t be too dear;

For it’s my delight on a starry night,

This season of the year.”

To make the public laugh nowadays is, it seems, a much more difficult task that it was twenty years ago.  This is explained by the fact that audiences are not so unsophisticated as they were when they roared over such gems of lyrical humour as “Johnny Morgan.”  The evolution in this respect is but natural, seeing that the popular idea of humour has changed as the result partly of America influence and partly because much more is now demanded of the comedian who hopes to succeed.  And while seated in his cosy  home in Canonbury, the veteran comedian, looking the very picture of rotund prosperity, talks of the changes times has worked.

“You see, “ he says “everything is altered. The Music Hall of my younger days is now the Theatre of Varieties.  From dingy, stuffy and unwholesome temples of doubtful amusement, they have changed to palaces – clean, elegant and resplendent with light.  The entertainment, too, has undergone a wonderful transformation.  When I was a young man, foreign artistes were practically unknown in the Music Hall; the comic singer, the serio-comic lady, the impromptu versifier, and perhaps one or two other varieties of turns formed the programme at all the houses.

The chairman – whose disappearance few will regret – was supreme head of ceremonies; upon him depended the good order and conduct of the front of the house.  At the head of his table facing the audience, he kept a more or less watchful eye upon those who occupied seats as smaller tables placed about the floor of the auditorium. For a knowledge of what was going forward on the stage, he looked occasionally into a moveable mirror placed before him, and the announcement of a turn was invariably made by the chairman, who first hammered the table severely and then shouted ‘Mr `Herbert Campbell will appear next.’  Then at the commencement of the chorus there would be further assaults upon the table with the hammer and the entire audience would yell out the refrain as many times as it wanted to, whilst he maddened chairman would belabour the furniture in a frantic but vain effort to restore order.  When I say that a few will regret the disappearance of the chairman, I refer, of course, to the office, and not to those who held it.

“But the most striking change of all has been in the class of audience. It would, of course be absurdly inaccurate to say that when the Music Halls were at their worst no respectable persons patronized them, but it is within the limit of fact to assert that ladies were conspicuous  by their absence, and if they did go to a Music Hall they took care, in most cases, to go so heavily veiled that recognition was impossible. Look at your audience nowadays in the luxurious variety theatres and, remembering what it used to  be, you may well open your eyes in wonder at the miracles which time and a wise supervision have worked for the good, not only of the public, but of those who are financially interested in these establishments.  For the influences which have made for improved conditions have resulted in benefit all round.

“People have sometimes asked me if in all my life I have ever done anything more exciting than sing humorous songs for a living.  Only once, as far as I can remember, have I ever done anything really heroic.  It was when I too the chair at an angry shareholders’ meeting that was held in a brickfield.  I did not, I confess, realise the dangerous proximity of the loose bricks to the itching fingers of the shareholders until it was too late to back out with any self-respect.  It was an act of heroism into which I blundered and from which there was no escape.

“And now perhaps I may say that in two years I shall retire from the profession to which I have devoted practically a lifetime.  I shall not leave the stage without establishing a modest memorial to myself in the shape of a volume of reminiscences which I hope may furnish an interesting record of a long and eventful career.”