Lewes-based Miles Jenner brings to the stage the remarkable life of music hall star Billy Merson in a one-man show he offers at Chichester’s Assembly Room on Saturday, July 20 at 7.30pm (www.thenovium.org/boxoffice).
It’s the story of a man with a remarkable ability to bounce back from adversity – and always to reflect it in song.
As Miles says, after he was declared bankrupt, Merson came up the song The Yacht I Haven’t Got.
Miles offers a show which will take you through his life, interspersing 16 of his original songs, all under the title If I Catch Alphonso, Tonight!, accompanied by pianist Roger Roser.
“He was basically a music hall artist. He started as an acrobat and went to work in circuses in Ireland and then came to the music hall on the northern circuit in about 1902. And then he got picked up from there.
“He wanted to break away from his acrobatic act which he was doing with his partner. He decided because he was writing comedy songs that he wanted to be a comedian and so they would break up and go their own ways. Billy went off and started his own career.
“He died in 1947 and there is live footage of him on Pathe. I came across him in the 1960s when I bought a Music For Pleasure record about music hall greats. It was a cheap LP with all the names on it that you would have known at that time, and there was Billy Merson on it and I had never heard of him. I listened to it and there was something tremendously new and vital about what he did, and it was still making me laugh. He had quite a lot of influence on the people that came after him, people like Norman Wisdom and Tony Hancock. They would have been that generation that knew of him.”
Little was written about Merson but, a few years ago, Miles discovered a copy of Fixing the Stoof Oop on the shelves of David Drummond’s theatrical emporium in Cecil Court, London. It was an autobiography, written by Billy Merson in 1925 – at the height of his career. It contained much information about his early life but left even bigger questions about what ensued thereafter. The next 22 years became the subject of painstaking research which revealed a story of turbulence and survival – as well as much that had been left unsaid in the somewhat sanitised account of his rise to fame. A strong story line evolved and Miles put pen to paper in March 2017; and so the show emerged… As Miles says, at his peak, Billy Merson would have been doing seven performances a night in London, a couple of venues in the outlying suburbs and then a cab into the West End and then back for the second shows of the evening in the outer venues, doing maybe five or ten minutes each time.
“When he first went into music halls, he would have been earning about £6 a week. By the time he got into London he was earning £20, and he the time he was starring in Drury Lane, he would have been earning £400 which was phenomenal in 1925. He progressed with the industry from music hall to spectacular revues and he went from there into musical comedy by which time he was earning serious money. He was also the very first UK star in a talking picture in 1926.”
But a legal battle over the copyright of a song left him bankrupt – and offered him the chance to show once again his great ability to bounce back…