THE MAN WHO WAS OLD MOTHER RILEY: THE LIVES AND FILMS OF ARTHUR LUCAN AND KITTY MCSHANE (hardback)
“I am in awe! Robert Kenny’s analysis is quite brilliant, and exactly what Lucan deserves after all these years.”
Anthony Slide, author and film historian
“A timely, fascinating and unique study of an unjustly neglected star.”
Jeffrey Richards, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, University of Lancaster
“This is a book I devoured!”
Richard Anthony Baker, author, broadcaster and former BBC News Assistant Editor
During the 1930s and 40s, Arthur Lucan and his wife Kitty McShane were among the highest-paid and most admired variety artistes in Britain. They packed theatres throughout the land, and made a series of zany films with Arthur as the belligerent washerwoman Old Mother Riley, and Kitty as her flighty daughter. But fame and fortune went to Kitty’s head, and offstage she made Arthur’s life a misery; he collapsed and died—in costume— in May 1954, one week before he was due to appear in court as a bankrupt.
The story of the tears behind the Lucans’ onstage laughter is told here in greater detail than ever before, demolishing old legends, re-assessing the comic genius of Arthur, and revealing the sadness of alcoholic Kitty, who lies today in a forgotten, unmarked grave.
Dr. Robert V. Kenny was for many years a lecturer in French Language and Literature at the University of Leicester. He also directed the University Theatre and founded a chamber choir, Coro Nostro, which continues to flourish after his retirement. Throughout his career he produced and directed plays, operas and concerts, in addition to his teaching and research.
From The Call Boy: Journal of the British Music Hall Society, January 2015
John Wade, virtuoso magician and no stranger to these columns, recalls how some years ago the Savage Club archivist showed him a letter to the Club from Arthur Lucan asking for his football pool coupon to be sent to the Empire Theatre, Liverpool so as to avoid the beady eye of the hen-pecking Kitty McShane. Indeed, hen-pecking was the least of it, for Robert V. Kenny's profound biography of the couple describes the Savage Club, where Arthur Lucan was a much-respected member, as a male refuge for him from the violent tantrums of his wife. The profligate spendthrift Kitty, copiously wasteful of the fortune procured through her husband's comic genius, was just as likely to be enraged by his wish to have a tiny flutter on Littlewood's, as she was – she, who had driven him out of his own home as she installed her lover, Billy Breach aka Willer Neal – to go ballistic should he exchange a friendly word with a pretty girl in the chorus.
This is a serious and major study of over 400 pages, two-thirds devoted to the life and strife of Lucan and McShane and a third to five analytical essays on the couple's plentiful film-making. Robert Kenny is at great pains to correct what seem to be the myriad errors of his predecessor commentators and he is keen, with some justification, to raise the critical bar on Arthur Lucan, placing him high in the pantheon of British comedic icons. He more than once writes sorrowfully of the might-have-been moment round about 1931 when the impresario Lew Lake was so captivated by the 'contrasting comicalities' of Arthur Lucan's frenzied eccentricity and Bert Arnold's deadpan stillness that he sought to launch them as a double act. Robert Kenny reckons that, but for Kitty McShane's predictable disruption of that scheme, the two might have found fame in Hollywood as rivals to Laurel and Hardy.
The contradiction of an angry mother and sweet-talking daughter sketch, ending with a profusion of broken crockery on the stage, with a battered, humiliated husband and venomous wife act, marked by unholy tempest off stage, has long been a colourful chapter in theatre legend. Is it not said that Kenneth murmured to George Western, as both lay in hospital beds bandaged and splinted after a road accident, “Well, it's better than going on after Lucan and McShane”? And another former brother Savage, Dominic le Foe, claimed the rights on that story as, he argued, the collision occurred as the Western Brothers were en route to a gig at his behest.
Thus, as Robert Kenny finds, it is impossible to keep the monstrous Kitty out of the limelight, whereas the quiet, kindly figure of her husband only comes into prominence when performing. The text is a constant struggle between Arthur's angelic antics on stage and Kitty's satanic ones off stage. She constantly gets under the author's feet as he tries to catch the essence of the Old Mother Riley magic and, as if in revenge for her stifling of the Lucan muse, he lambasts her at every opportunity for her 'frilly frocks', wooden acting, poor business sense and false clinging to youth as well as her coarse-grained, alcohol-fuelled temper.
Robert Kenny reminds us that Arthur Lucan was 52 years old and a well-known 'dame' and comic performer before, in 1937, the screen writer Con West came up with the title of Old Mother Riley for the first of fifteen films for that garrulous washerwoman. It is a reminder, too, that film was the main vehicle for Old Mother Riley's success. Although Robert Kenny rightly points to Arthur Lucan's stage fame boosting his cinematic appeal, there is no gainsaying the potency of the movies per se. By this time and until Arthur Lucan's death in 1954 the cinema was attracting upwards of 30m tickets sold a week, an annual total of 1.5bn, several times the numbers attending theatres, legitimate or otherwise.
Seeing and enjoying that first Old Mother Riley film as a five year old, I cannot have been alone in averaging two cinema visits a week against one or two variety visits a month. Old Mother Riley turned up on the radio with some success but hers was largely a visual phenomenon, compared with, say, Tommy Handley, Robb Wilton or Al Read as consummate broadcasting comics. So, I think, many of us will recollect with pleasure Old Mother Riley as a film star – and Robert Kenny very properly devotes ample space and devout cogitation to that subject. He also emphasises children's delight in Old Mother Riley whilst tending to stress the adult themes, observing all manner of social and political angles in Arthur Lucan's canon.
Having been a child admirer, inclusive of keeping a watch on Old Mother Riley's comic strip in Film Fun, I would prefer to concentrate on Old Mother Riley as a children's entertainer, by no means an ignoble profession. In a culture where grandmothers were implacably solid, watchful of misconduct and suspicious of anything 'rude', a word for which my much-loved grandmother could have furnished Roget's Thesaurus with fourteen synonyms, it was the frenetic, circus clown acrobatic wildness, the levitating legs and whirligig arms, of Old Mother Riley that was eye-opening. The contrast was shockingly delightful to the childish mind – and the fact that her daughter was no longer a bright young thing, a point constantly emphasised by Robert Kenny, went unnoticed by youngsters, oblivious to Kitty's refusal to accept ageing in that fictional arena of all fashions of oddity.
The wondrous expertise of Old Mother Riley as a children's entertainer must have been uppermost in my mind when doing a short scrutiny of double acts, for, although including Lucan and McShane, it was only in brief. I had always thought of Kitty as more of an assistant rather than an integral partner, perhaps akin to the several actors who played Cynthia alongside Hylda Baker and rarely saw their name in the programme. Or Jerry Desmonde, that very skilled and astute straight man for the brilliant Sid Field, albeit it was never Field and Desmonde on the billboards.
What a richly researched and affectionately composed volume this is to launch its reviewer – and surely its readers – into such a stream of memories and perceptions. And does Mrs Brown's Boys carry some salty and extremely 'adult' overtones of Old Mother Riley and her daughter Kitty? Be it noted as superficial coincidence that Brendan O'Carroll (Agnes Brown) is married in real life to the talented Jennifer Gibney (Mrs. Brown's daughter, Cathy).