Wednesday 19 December 2012

2013 Leslie Stuart - The Forgotten Anniversary

A media feature item that provides a regular source of material on thin days in thin times is anniversaries.  There is a relentless trawling of archives and experts to fill in the gaps.  For recent performers and entertainers it gives the opportunity to market back listings or catalogues to turn a reliable penny.

The music world is particularly fond of or almost dependent on these to retread old material and make sure the schedules have items that may get the punters interested.  Sometimes it can become a little combative.

2013 will be the 200th Anniversaries of the births of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi and there is a huge row at La Scala in Milan where the management, instead of opening in the traditional way with a big Verdi are putting on Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

This is not a bundle of laughs and moreover lasts a lot longer than almost all of Verdi’s works.  Quite why this exercise in Wagner’s odder ideas about religion has been chosen is a mystery, but it is possible that money may have been involved.

Given Italy’s financial and economic situation perhaps a good compromise might be Puccini’s “Girl Of The Golden West” sponsored by the European Central Bank and starring Berlusconi’s belles as the saloon girls.

We have our own in the UK with the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.  The Royal Opera will be putting on “Gloriana” to mark both Britten and the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. 

This too is not a lot of laughs and between the grim plot and anguish in 1953 went down like a lead balloon.  It hasn’t been done much since and is amongst few people’s favourites apart from some dances.  But there will be plenty of his music around for his followers to appreciate.

There is someone who has been forgotten.  It is the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Leslie Stuart in Southport, Lancashire at the end of the short commuter line from Liverpool and one time holiday destination.  He was born Thomas Augustine Barrett but made the name change in the late 1890’s for career reasons.

Wikipedia has an article “Leslie Stuart” that sets out what is known about him and a couple of books have been produced by leading musicologist Dr. Andrew Lamb in the last decade, but other than that there is little to be found.

Yet in his time he was at the top in musical theatre, seen as one of successors to Gilbert and Sullivan with George Grossmith, one of their key performers and writers as one of his partners.  Leslie was also big on Broadway in New York.  In 1940, a film was made about him. 

His major hits became staples in popular song for decades and the basis of many of the vocalists in the music halls of the period.  They helped launch many an artiste’s career and in the case of Olive May paved the way for her to marry into the aristocracy.

In the USA he was overtaken by the later major figures in musical theatre.  In the UK the grip of the BBC and the oddities of its musical preferences together with its concentration on dance bands meant there was no room for him.  Also, Lord Reith, Director, would not have approved of Leslie’s bohemian lifestyle and bankruptcy.

Additionally, he was very much of “a man of the people” from a humble background with few connections other than in the theatre.  The BBC once rejected the marvellous Kathleen Ferrier and it was only the support of leading conductors that forced them to retract.

Leslie moved to Manchester when young and has been claimed as a Mancunian since, but his first years were in Liverpool.  By one of those coincidences, Kathleen’s father, William, was born just along the road from Leslie, also in the 1860’s.

But in forgetting anniversaries the BBC etc. have form.  In 2006 as well as Mozart it was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Linley, which barely drew any attention or attempt to commemorate his brief life, despite’s Mozart’s high opinion of his talent.

Given who Linley was and who his family were connected to and involved with there were wonderful opportunities to look and study the London of the mid 18th Century and it’s literary and artistic life.

It is a pity that our leading media and artistic establishment cannot find any time to celebrate and let us hear the work of Leslie Stuart, one of our leading musical talents of the last hundred years, who brought so much pleasure and the love of music to so many.


  1. I think if the BBC, for example, did celebrate the work of people such as Leslie Stuart, then it would win back a solid core of articulate viewers. It would have to be done well though.

    I always thought that was what BBC2 was for.

  2. Leslie Stuart wrote "Soldiers of the Queen", one of the best military marches. No doubt some of his most popular songs, like "Lily of Laguna" and "I may be crazy" (written for a white American, Eugene Stratton, who performed in black face) would be considered racially "offensive" by the forward thinkers of the BBC etc. One of my favourite Stewart songs is a little known early piece, "The girl on the Ran - Dan - Dan", written for the music hall singer Lottie Collins.

    He deserves to be celebrated on his 150th.