If ever there was a real rags-to-riches story, the life of Charlie Chaplin is it. From London workhouse boy to global superstar, he was one of Britain’s most successful sons. Charlie died on Christmas Day in 1977. It’s a good day to remember him.
I saw Charlie for the first time at primary school in the 1960s, when a man with a projector and screen came to show us a collection of short silent movies in which he played the Tramp. We loved him.
He first played his famous character in 1914 at the age of 25. All his short films were made before 1922, so the handsome young man in this picture, taken in about 1920, was the real Charlie who made us laugh.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in Walwarth in South London on 16 April 1989, the son of two music hall entertainers. They separated and he stayed with his mother. She was committed to a mental asylum, where she eventually died. Charlie was sent to live in a workhouse twice before he was nine years old and also lived briefly with his father, a chronic alcoholic, who died when he was 11. Life could not have been much harder for a boy.
Remarkably, despite his difficult childhood circumstances, Charlie began to act from a very young age. He said he first performed at the age of five. By the time he was ten he was touring English music halls as a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads, a clog-dancing troupe. He was with them for two years.
By the age of 16, Charlie had already toured in Britain three times as a solo performer and starred in a West End show. He joined a circus and became its star attraction. By 20 he was starring at the London Coliseum. At 21 he was touring North America, where he was described as one of the best pantomime artists ever seen.
Charlie signed with Keystone Studios in California to make his first films in 1914 and only a few months later was directing them himself. He developed the Tramp persona for his second film and every aspect of his work began to come under his control.
Short films were made at an astonishing rate, a new one every three or four weeks. Before long Charlie was acting, directing, producing, writing the scripts, and writing the scores. He moved into full-length features, and then from silent films to ‘talkies’.
Charlie’s portrayal of the Tramp continued into his feature films. One in particular shows him at his finest. City Lights was the last silent movie he made and tells the story of the Tramp’s love for a blind flower girl and his efforts to raise funds for her sight saving surgery. Here is the beautiful final scene. As usual he composed the music.
Charlie’s body of work was vast. His films became increasingly political, which ultimately hindered his career. The Great Dictator, released in 1940, boldly satirised Adolph Hitler and opposed the rise of fascism. It was well received and a box office hit but also drew criticism from some quarters.
The FBI began gunning for him and when he dared criticise the excesses of capitalism and argue against war in a film he was swept up in the paranoid purges of McCarthyism and accused of being a communist. He left the US in 1952 for a premiere in London and was banned from coming back. It was 20 years before he returned one last time to accept an Academy Award.
Charlie Chaplin was loved across the world and his Tramp was perhaps the most widely recognised character of all time. His personal contribution to the development of the film industry was incalculable. He received many awards and honours, and in 1975 was knighted by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Remembering Sir Charlie Chaplin, who passed away on Christmas Day 1977, aged 88.
This week’s High Court judgement restricting the use of puberty blockers and all the hoo-ha since reminds me of someone I met a long time ago as a child of ten, when I read Roberta Cowell’s Story. The momentous nature of her gradual decision to change sex seems relevant.
More usually I would have read adventure stories back then, but this was on the shelf and something made me take it down. I remember first looking at the pictures: Robert as a World War Two fighter pilot and as a racing driver, both heroic occupations to a boy like me, and Roberta, also racing cars. I read it from cover to cover, straight off.
Robert was the first man in Britain to have gender reassignment surgery and become a woman. There was almost no support available to him and the social stigma was immense. The mental torment was the thing. It was easier to change his body than his mind, and a change of mind took time. It was surely the most difficult change that any human being could ever make.
I was gripped by Roberta’s story. At the time I had no understanding whatsoever of the subject and don’t believe I even knew what sexuality was. I feel fortunate to have read it when I did. I learnt a lot and perhaps avoided misconceptions I may otherwise have held. It’s not that I now believe in gender reassignment, I just don’t believe it’s wrong.
I would recommend Roberta Cowell’s Story to anyone for a lesson in bravery and strength. It can be found online if you look. Choosing the right pronoun to use is difficult here—she said so too. It’s her story, but his as well. I have long thought that the film of the book is overdue.
Roberta died in 2011. By coincidence, I learnt of this in a newspaper article written by my friend Matthew Bell for The Independent two years later. Remarkably, his was the first report of her death in any newspaper, and even her two children were unaware of her passing at the time. Had I known, I might have attended the funeral myself.
Reading Matthew’s account again now is sad, but it’s good to be reminded that someone who impressed me so at such an early age was eventually remembered, especially by a friend.
The challenges faced by this brave individual were beyond what most of us could match. Flying Spitfires in combat, taking a direct hit over enemy territory and crash landing, enduring harsh captivity by the enemy, eating raw cats to survive. These are no mean feats. Competing in a Grand Prix is likely something we would dream of but never achieve. How many men would have the balls for his ultimate act of courage?
Roberta’s story is one of strength but also a cautionary tale, and in respect of this week’s High Court judgement, I am in favour of it. It rules that only those above the age of 16 have the ability to consent to medical treatment and restricts the earlier use of puberty blockers. Such caution seems eminently sensible to me.
I think of what my mother taught me through her use of wise adages: It is better to be safe than sorry; measure twice, cut once; good things come to those who wait.
Regret Not Me by Dora Darling – no English song more beautiful than this
For those of us who love our England, its place in our hearts is beyond compare. Perhaps we feel it most where we are born and bred, but the whole is precious and there can be nowhere more magnificent, more steeped in our history, than the ancient Kingdom of Wessex. Driving west to Glastonbury from my home in Canterbury last week was a magical journey through this land, and by the time I passed Stonehenge I couldn’t love my country more.
I was going to visit my friend Rosie. We share a taste in music and last year she introduced me to a voice I had not previously heard, a voice that really touched me and stirred my sense of Englishness. Rosie sent me a video, recorded where she lives on the Somerset Levels, of a song crafted with care from a poem by the quintessential English poet Thomas Hardy, a man of Wessex, who through his work did more to keep its name alive than any other.
The title of Hardy’s poem was ‘Regret Not Me’, and the voice that turned it into song belonged to Dora Darling. Even her name sounded perfect. Hardy’s words could be on any English language syllabus and enjoyed in print alone, but in such sweet song I found their beauty mesmerising. I have played the song over and over and it resonates so deeply I could have it on a permanent loop.
The name of Glastonbury is known far and wide, if not for its Tor and ancient legends, then certainly for its famous music festival in nearby Pilton. English history, belief, and culture old and new are very deeply rooted in the area. William Blake’s words to ‘Jerusalem’ immortalising the supposed visit by Jesus as a child to Glastonbury have stirred many millions of English souls. How often have we sung about those feet in ancient time?
As I came close to Glastonbury last week and turned off the A303 just past Sparkford, who should be on Glastonbury FM Radio, being interviewed and singing songs from her forthcoming album, but Dora Darling! The broadcast could not have been more perfectly timed. Better yet, I was about to meet Dora, though I didn’t know it then.
It was good, as ever, to see Rosie and I shouldn’t have been surprised when Dora turned up with her two adorable young children because Rosie is like a magnet. But what an unexpected pleasure it was to meet the voice I’d heard and so enjoyed for the past year. I was also delighted to discover that ‘Regret Not Me’ is included on Dora’s album, The Quest, released later this month.
I have since heard the album and it is, of course, divine. Details of its release will appear on Dora’s Facebook page and website. English music festival organisers please listen and invite her to your stages when they resume.
There can be no finer English poet than Thomas Hardy and surely no English song more beautiful than this by Dora Darling. This is my England.
The Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford has a focus on musical education. It stands alongside the singer’s former school, Dartford Grammar School, and Sir Mick funds the Red Rooster Project, providing children’s music tuition at the Centre and in several local schools. On 24 and 25 October last year the Centre hosted the first two performances of Rice Harvest, a new musical produced by Keith Hale and William Dashwood for Parasol Music Productions. Most of the cast members are from the surrounding area and of school age.
Rice Harvest is the fruit of a project that began in 1978 in a recording studio in London, when Vietnamese ‘boat children’ were housed in Kensington Barracks, having just been rescued at sea by a British ship. They were traumatised and invited to the studio, where they sang and made friends. The experience became part of the life’s work of musician and composer Keith Hale, culminating in Rice Harvest – the musical.
This Facebook video is from the performance at the Mick Jagger Centre on 25 October. The producers give particular recognition to the Vietnamese families, especially the children, who have worked hard to make the show a success. Plans are underway to continue the journey of Rice Harvest together.
Rice Harvest – the musical, a production involving children and young people from 20 schools between London and the Medway towns. Rice Harvest is inspired by real life events. It tells the story of child refugees fleeing the Vietnam War and finding safety after being rescued in the South China Sea by a British ship. Composer: Keith Hale riceharvest-themusical.co.uk
Keith Hale has a rich history of musical projects, from working with David Bowie on Bromley’s iconic free open-air rock concerts in the 1960s to playing keyboards internationally with Ginger Baker and writing hit records with Toyah Willcox. He writes and arranges children’s musical productions and teaches music in Kent schools.
Rice Harvest is Hale’s collaboration with William Dashwood, for many years a teacher of mime. Dashwood studied with ‘the father of modern mime’, Etienne Decroux, and has performed worldwide, written and produced numerous shows and worked as movement director in children’s television.
Directed by Matthew McDowall, who teaches at both Italia Conti in London and Liz Burville Performing Arts in Bexley, Rice Harvest is a love story in a war zone. It is based on real life events, when as many as 800,000 Vietnamese refugees fled by sea, often in un-seaworthy boats, during the civil struggle that continued after the fall of Saigon and the departure of American forces at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
The cast includes lead actors Emily Tran and Khai Dao, playing teenage classmates in a small village school attacked by soldiers during choir practice. They make a perilous escape by boat, their story one of love, innocence and hope in a world of bitterness, divide and conflict. Saved by the crew of an offshore oil rig, they meet further danger before being picked up by a British ship bound for England. The choir finally reconvenes in a London studio, where they are invited to sing.
The original 1978 Rice Harvest recording is here. The children who appear in it and their story of survival against the odds inspired this musical.
Parasol Music Productions is established with the aim of working with schools and professional musicians and actors to produce and perform modern musical theatre, and to foster an appreciation of music and the performing arts, especially in schools and among young people. Theatres and others who wish to support the project are invited to contact [email protected].
My childhood memories of Reg Curtis are not of a paratrooper but of an important member of my family, a happy, smiling man and the life and soul of the party. Reg was married to my cousin Betty but as they were more than thirty years older than me they were always known as Uncle Reg and Auntie Betty. Reg was very tall and I remember being fascinated by the way his right leg thrust forward and clicked as he walked. At some point I learnt that this was an artificial leg, and later still that he had lost the real one in the war.
Reg and Betty were a kind and welcoming couple and when I spent a week with them at age eleven my memory is of one of the best holidays I ever had. I loved their garden, which to a small child seemed the longest garden in the world. Reg built a new house at the end of that long garden after selling the old house to pay for it. He did most of the work himself whilst he and Betty shared a tiny gipsy caravan on site. Nobody could fail to be impressed by such a man who, despite the loss of a leg, was not only earning a living as a landscape gardener but also building his own house. My brother Mike tells the story of arriving at the new house to see Reg shinning up the roof tiles to fit the chimney pot.
As a boy born in the 1950s I had seen a lot of World War Two memorabilia changing hands, especially in my own back garden where Mike and his friends, six years older than me, conducted a brisk trade in British and German helmets and much more besides. It seems remarkable now that all this stuff was circulating freely but ‘war comics’ were a must-read for every schoolboy and the war itself was still being played out in our imaginations, although it was never taught to me in school and I don’t recall adults ever talking about it.
I knew nothing much about Reg’s military service until he published his first book, Churchill’s Volunteer, by which time I was already 40. I now know that in the intervening years he had been returning regularly to Arnhem, where he had been shot and lost his leg, but it was not until 2004 that I went there with him myself, together with brother Mike, for the 60th Anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Arnhem. It was then that I at last began to understand the significant part that Reg had played in the war. Not that Reg ever described his role as special—he would simply say that he had ‘done his bit’.
What struck me immediately in Arnhem in 2004 was that Reg was treated with such extraordinary respect, almost reverence, by the local people. My uncle and his fellow Veterans were the centre of attention and people of all ages wanted to speak with them and shake their hands. Here in Arnhem they seemed more important than movie stars and it was a joy to witness this and to see in Reg that the depth of feeling was mutual. To discover that after sixty years such love was felt and friendship treasured was a real eye-opener to me.
Mike and I repeated our journey to Arnhem with Reg four times in subsequent years, our last being for the 70th Anniversary in 2014, and each visit has its special memories. One moment etched in my mind is when pushing Reg’s wheelchair on the pathway by the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek a woman of Reg’s age suddenly appeared and threw her arms around his neck, greeting him with affection and giving him a gift from ‘an Arnhem girl’. In my mind’s eye, and no doubt in theirs, they were in their twenties back in 1944, though this was now 2010. I gripped the handles of the wheelchair, trying hard not to intrude on their embrace. On another occasion, we were in the Airborne Museum in front of one of the large black and white display photographs and Reg was naming the men depicted. When he named his friend Wally Baldock a woman behind us asked incredulously, “Did you know my father?” She had never known him and this was her first visit to Arnhem. She came to our hotel and talked at length with Reg.
Nothing prepared me for my first Sunday ceremony at the Airborne Cemetery. I had previously only visited cemeteries when people I had known had died and had never attended a mass remembrance. It was clearly going to be a sober occasion and we had dressed accordingly, Reg well turned out with medals on his blazer and wearing his original beret with cap badge polished. With only five minutes to go before the service began, as Mike parked the car I pushed Reg down the grass towards the front where space was reserved for Veterans in wheelchairs. I was serious, concentrating hard and hoping there was a space for him when the voice of one of his pals called out from the gathered ranks: “Reg, you lazy bugger”, followed by much laughter, not least from Reg. I knew I had nothing to worry about. This was their day and the camaraderie didn’t stop just because they were in a cemetery.
Being the 60th Anniversary, it was a bigger than usual affair in 2004, complete with the presence of Prince Charles as Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment. But it was the way the local people surrounded the place en masse and the intensity of their appreciation that stood out for me. When it came to the annual laying of flowers by hundreds of schoolchildren, to describe this as a moving experience does not begin to do it justice. Tears ran down my face and at the end of the ceremony as I stood beside Reg while he privately saluted his fallen comrades at the monument, I found it the most poignant moment of all.
When, back in England after our 2010 visit, Reg asked if I would help him prepare a new version of his story, first told in Churchill’s Volunteer, how could I refuse? He wanted to be more concise this time, without all the appendices and with a text accessible to readers of all ages. We worked on it for two years, initially at his kitchen table at home in Chestfield and later for several months at his bedside as he recovered in hospital from a nasty fall. We decided to title the book The Memory Endures, which it most certainly did for Reg. I remember the meeting when he dictated his Author’s Preface, from which some heartfelt words in particular have always touched me deeply:
“Between 1939 and 1945 we took part in the greatest conflict in human history. We won the war, of course, and back home in Britain have now had almost 70 years of peace, for which we can all be grateful. What a shame it is, though, that even the vast scale of suffering we went through was not enough to finally put an end to war itself. I don’t suppose there will ever be one way of agreeing about everything but I can’t help hoping that things will eventually get better for everyone, not just us.”
As far as I can ascertain, at the time of his death in January 2016 Reg was the last surviving member of the original 1st Parachute Battalion, the men who volunteered to join No 2 Commando in 1940, re-designated the 11th SAS Battalion, and which became in 1942 the founding battalion of the Parachute Regiment. Reg and his comrades will forever have that unique place in military history, forged at a time when extreme circumstances called upon them all to do their bit.
Each time we visited Arnhem together I stood beside Reg in front of that monument in the Airborne Cemetery as he gave his personal salute to his lost friends. On the last occasion in 2014, just before I wheeled him there, Reg turned to me and said, “Shall we go and give our salute—we like to do that, don’t we.” To be so included in this his most precious of moments was such an honour. I shall return again and salute my Uncle Reg whose memory for me will always endure.
God bless you Reg and may you truly rest in peace.
All profits from the sale of the The Memory Endures go to the Reg Curtis Fund to Support Our Paras, administered by Support Our Paras, The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Charity, providing mobility equipment and disability conversion of vehicles, remedial courses to assist those recovering from wounds, vocational courses to help soldiers transition into civilian life, and more. It was Reg’s wish to support soldiers who may now be experiencing circumstances similar to his own, following the amputation of his right leg in 1944, and his support to the Charity continues in his memory. Please click the Reg Curtis Fund link above to see how much has been donated so far. Copies of Reg’s book are only available direct from PilotsPublishing in order to send all the profits to the Charity.