The Mousetrap ensnares tourists

The definition of a Londoner, it could be said, is someone who hasn’t seen The Mousetrap, the world’s longest running stage play, having played over 25,000 performances since opening in November 1952 over six months before the Queen’s Coronation.

Written by Agatha Christie as a radio play entitled Three Blind Mice and broadcast in 1947, she rewrote the whodunit for the stage and The Mousetrap was first seen exactly 60 years ago this week, opening at The Ambassadors Theatre on 25th November 1952 before transferring to its present location, the beautiful St. Martin’s Theatre next door 22 years later.

[T]he play entered the record books on 12th April 1958 becoming the longest running show in the history of the British theatre (shows didn’t have the longevity they do today).

The first leading roles were played by Sir Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim and over time 382 actors have appeared in its production. David Raven entered the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘Most Durable Actor’ for his 4,575 performances as Major Metcalf and spare a thought for the late Nancy Seabrook who spent 15 years as an understudy.

Even the scenery must hold some kind of record lasting 50 years before being replaced in 2000, without a loss of a single performance, still faithful the original design.

Capture-1I saw the play in the late 60’s (does that make me a non-Londoner?), and you expected the entire production to appear in black-and-white as the set and dialogue was reminiscent of the early British films.

The theatre seats 550 and in the foyer many tourists have themselves photographed by a wooden sign informing the audience how many performances have appeared on stage. Most don’t go to see the play for it is part of the London experience with the audience as much a part of the proceedings as the cast.

The person who probably has the best experience of The Mousetrap has to be Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, to whom she gave the rights to the play on his 9th birthday.

The producer and promoter of the original production was Peter Saunders, married to Katie Boyle who in the 1960’s presented The Eurovision Song Contest which brought viewers attention to the memorable line ‘Nul points’ – strange that.

A torrent of ink

The Levenson inquiry is due to be published this week into the conduct of Britain’s free press and to make recommendations of curbs, if any, that should be placed upon the newspapers.

Nothing new then. In 1495 Sir Roger L’Estrange, the booming, bewigged licensor of the press, tried to ban pamphlets “throbbing with sedition” that were in circulation at that time.

At that time it was Caxton’s apprentice, the appropriately named Wynkyn der Worde, who first set up shop in the area of Fleet Street. William Caxton (the first Englishman to print books in London) had worked in Westminister working for rich patrons. Wynkyn after a little legal wrangling inherited the business upon Caxton’s death and in 1500 decided to build up business producing relatively inexpensive books for a mass market, declaring:

“I am going to make a torrent of ink run through ze streets of London. I will drown out all ignorance . . . I will be ze father of Fleet Street!”

And so he did.

By the time of his death in 1534/5, Wynkyn had published more than 400 books in over 800 editions, though some are extant only in single copies and many others are extremely rare.

Fleet Street was to become synonymous with print and publishing, but broadsheets as we know them were still a long way off. Politics and religion were a no-no for the presses, so ‘execution prints’ (gory details of hangings, drawings and quarterings) and quasi-scientific pamphlets thrived.

After 1695, journalists were free to criticise government policy or satirise the Church without ending up pilloried, gaoled, or having various body parts chopped off.

The Daily Courant was first published on 11th March 1702 by Edward Mallet from his premises “against the Ditch at Fleet Bridge”. This is now Ludgate Circus beneath which lie the buried waters of the Fleet, once clogged up with dead dogs, raw sewage and suicide victims. This is the primordial ooze out of which the Gutter Press arose, an irony probably not lost on Levenson witnesses seeking newspaper restrictions.

Fleet Street was an ideal location for the London press. Ever since Tudor times the street was renowned for its profusion of ale-houses and taverns and by 1700 there were 26 coffeehouses. Little changed for over 250 years and a contemporary account by Bill Hagerty a former Fleet Street editor can be found here.

Because Fleet Street was one of London’s main arteries transporting people and mail between Westminster and the City, these became lightning rods for political, financial, and overseas news. Journalists capitalised upon this and would mingle and eavesdrop in local establishments, returning to their offices with fresh gossip.

In 1862 Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book of London described a visit to The Times as:

“A visit to the office during the time the huge machine is at work, casting off its impressions at the rate of 170 copies a minute, will present a sight not easily to be forgotten. From five till nine in the morning this stupendous establishment, employing nearly 300 people daily on its premises is to be seen in active operation.”

By 1900 most of the national newspapers were located in or near Fleet Street, alas today Fleet Street is a pale imitation of its former self. The printing offices have been replaced by blue plaques, including one for the Courant.

It’s a testament to the impact of what was started by Wynkyn der Worde over 500 years ago and evolved into an uncensored press that ‘Fleet Street’ endures in the British lexicon as a metaphor for the newspaper industry – even though one of the few publishers still left on Fleet Street is the London office of D.C. Thomson & Co., creator of the Beano.

Scandal at the Café Royal

The Café Royal is due to re-open soon with much of its original features still intact. If any of its early customers chose to revisit the hotel after nearly 100 years they would immediately recognise it, unfortunately Regent Street the road it occupies would be unrecognisable to its architect John Nash.

When in 1929 the new Regent Street was proposed the architects had every intention of building a new Café Royal and they were astonished when there was an outcry from across the world at the prospect of the beautiful Café Royal being destroyed. After a long campaign, which included representations from the Royal family, a compromise was reached – the interior of the dining room, with its magnificent decorative scheme, would be carefully removed and then when a room the exact size of the old room had been built in the new Café Royal the old interior would be slotted back into place.

The hotel was originally conceived in 1865 by Daniel Nichole-Thévenon, a bankrupt French wine merchant fleeing his creditors with just £5 in his pocket.

[L]ater the Café Royal would flourish under the ownership of his son and at the time was considered to have the greatest wine cellar in Europe. By the turn of the 20th century it was the centre of fashionable London, numbering amongst its guests dining at the hotel’s Grill Room or Empire and Napoleon Suite: Winston Churchill, Graham Greene and Elizabeth Taylor.

Some of the first boxing rules were written down in the hotel by the National Sporting Club, which held black-tie dinners before fights held there. A 1950’s boxing ring complete with blood stains was auctioned by Bonham’s prior to the hotel’s recent refurbishment.

Over the years the Café Royal has seen its fair share of scandal. In 1894 the night porter was found with two bullets in his head, a murder which was never solved.

The hotel’s most famous scandal arose between a conversation (the last civil one both men should engage with each other) between Oscar Wilde and The Marquess of Queensberry.

The Marquess, who instigated the hotel’s boxing matches, and whose name is associated with the sport’s rules, confronted Oscar Wilde and his friendship with the Marquess’ son.

Wilde, a serious absinthe drinker would enjoy liquid lunches at the Café Royal, and the dining room would set the scene for the early 20th century’s biggest scandal and the eventual demise of its most popular playwright.

The Marquess confronted Wilde about his dalliance with his son, the spoilt neurotic Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas.

For once Oscar Wilde could not charm his way out of his predicament as he had on numerous occasions. The Marquess of Queensbury stormed out to leave a misspelt card at Wilde’s club:

For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite

For a playwright of Wilde’s stature the misspelling must have been almost as serious affront as the accusation.

Wilde held a council of war at the Café Royal with among others George Bernard Shaw who urged him to let the matter drop.

In court Queensberry could avoid conviction for libel only by demonstrating that his accusation was in fact true and furthermore that there was some ‘public benefit’ to having made the accusation openly. Queensberry’s lawyers hired private detectives to find evidence of Wilde’s homosexual liaisons to prove the fact of the accusation. The libel trial became a cause célèbre as salacious details of Wilde’s private life with blackmailers, male prostitutes, cross-dressers and homosexual brothels appeared in the press.

Wilde would lose the case and be himself arrested at the Cadogan Hotel (you now pay a premium to sleep in the same room); put on trial and served two years hard labour for gross indecency.

He would be released a broken man and never return to writing plays to such critical acclaim.

Pull the other leg

[A] one-legged transvestite female impersonator could have lost England the American Colonies in a scandal that rocked Georgian society.

It was possibly the extraordinary life of Samuel Foote that provided the material for Peter Cook’s ‘One leg too few’ sketch, when Cook turns to Dudley Moore portraying a ‘unidexter’ Tarzan “I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you”.

Born into what at one time had been one of the most illustrious families in England, a long running dispute – reminiscent of Dicken’s Bleak House – over his mother’s inheritance, had left the family impoverished. Later send down from Oxford for idleness and ill-behaviour Foote was to spend time in a debtor’s prison.

He would become the first person to write a true-crime novel recounting the murder at sea of one of his uncles by another uncle. He then went on to write some immensely popular plays, but if this had been the sum total of his success little be known about him today.

But in 1776 his life would change when the brother of King George III, the Duke of York played a practical joke on Foote to ride a horse. He was thrown off the animal and suffered a compound fracture of his leg. With medicine in its formative years the only recourse for this kind of injury was to have the leg amputated.

A little remorseful for Foote’s lost leg the Duke persuaded his brother to give Foote’s fledgling Hay Market Theatre a Royal warrant. This is why today it is known as the Theatre Royal Haymarket, it is also the reason actors say ‘break a leg’ to wish fellow thespians good luck.

Foote turned the leg amputation to his advantage by writing many highly successful one-legged comedies with him in the starring role. A route that Peter Cook avoided when he penned the famous ‘Tarzan Sketch’, giving Dudley Moore the one-legged part.

The ever resourceful Foote circumvented the censorship laws which forbade imitation of other people at that time. Any work written directly for a show had to be submitted to The Lord Chancellor. As much of his work was satirical Foote invented the tea party, which he charged its members for a dish of tea and they got a topical comedy on the side. This is why the Boston Harbour Riot was called the Boston Tea Party.

In 1776 his life would be turned upside down. By now one-legged Foote was Georgian London’s top celebrity, but his footman (presumably he only needed one footman) accused him of ‘sodomitical assault’. The press then erroneously named Foote’s accuser as Roger.

This gave the news periodicals the copy of a one-legged Foote ‘rogering’ a footman named Roger. To which retorted Foote “Sodomite? I’ll not stand for it”.

All this set Georgian society alight and as the coffee houses were discussing Foote’s predicament most failed to notice a certain Thomas Jefferson had written a rather good document declaring independence for his country, which had been ratified by 56 delegates to the Continental Congress.

The greatest lost figure of Georgian has now been the subject of an autobiography written by Ian Kelly who goes out on a limb to redress this oversight. Mr. Foote’s Other Leg.

The elephant in the room

During the time that I was studying there I would spend a lot of my time at college staring out of the window at a silver cube in the middle of the Elephant and Castle northern roundabout. Today I would bet the thousands who pass through that roundabout don’t even notice the enormous box in front of them. At 75ft wide and 20ft high it is what must be by volume the largest monument in London – and nobody seems to notice it.

[T]he Michael Faraday Memorial was designed by the brutalist architect Rodney Gordon who, with the regeneration of the Elephant in the early 60s, wanted to embody his visionary credentials of the man who was the area’s favourite son, who was born in nearby Newington Butts.

Unfortunately even though the notorious Heygate Estate was still under construction vandalism was already a problem. So out went Rodney Gordon’s box of glass, which would have allowed the public to see the London Underground transformer beneath, and thus make a connection with the pioneer of electricity. The glass was substituted by polished stainless steel panels, but they needn’t have bothered with the increasing traffic levels closer inspection is almost impossible marooned as it is surrounded by the Elephant and Castle gyratory system.

In 1996 Blue Peter held a competition, which was won by a local schoolgirl from English Martyr R.C. Primary School, to design a lighting scheme to illuminate its 728 steel panels and thus draw the public’s attention to its presence.

That same year the monument gained Grade II listing status, unlike its neighbour the Heygate Estate currently in the process of being demolished.

The box has appeared on the BBC’s Dr. Who and Harry Potter, but despite its size and prominence it is ignored by Londoners. In 1995 the Evening Standard carried a picture of the cube with the caption ‘What on Earth is it?’

For more about post-war Elephant and Castle check out my colleague’s View from the Mirror.