Harry Pelissier was born in 1874, in Finchley, the son of a diamond merchant who wanted his son to join the family business. But after only six months working at the office, Harry realised that he preferred music and the stage. With friends he formed ‘The Baddley Troupe’ and in 1894, they were giving performances for charities in London, including ones in Hampstead. Soon after turning professional, Harry saw that his Pierrot style of entertainment was replacing negro minstrels as the most popular seaside show. Pierrots wore a type of clown costume derived from the 17C Italian Commedia dell’Arte. The following year Harry bought control of the show, renamed it Pelissier’s Follies, and reduced the number of performers from ten to six. He believed a more sophisticated set of sketches would have greater appeal than the seasonal pier show and could tour all year round in theatres and music halls.
In 1898 Pelissier’s Follies supported the famous music hall star Albert Chevalier; (who wrote the popular humorous tune, ‘Appy ‘Hampstead’). Over the next few years the Follies became very popular, appearing in London at the Alhambra, the Palace Theatre and the Tivoli Music Hall. In 1903 the group consisted of Harry, Lewis Sydney, Marjorie Napier, Dan Everard, Ethel Allandale and Gwennie Mars.
Their show combined parodies and skits on opera, Shakespearean plays and current London dramatic and musical successes, which Harry called ‘potted plays.’ In December 1904 Pelissier’s Follies were one of the acts chosen to perform at Sandringham before the King and Queen, to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. They established a regular show at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue and also toured the provinces: it was a relentless schedule. One of their most popular sketches was ‘The Wild West Kilburn Shooting Act’, a parody of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. (It would be wonderful to see this performed in Kilburn today!)
Gwennie Mars, the Kilburn Folly
Gwennie Mars was the stage name of Gwenllean Mary Evans who was born at 75 Southampton Row Bloomsbury, in 1880. Her father Ebenezer Evans was a Welsh musician, who came to London in the 1850s. He worked as a piano tuner and gave lessons on the harp and piano. Gwennie’s brother Herbert was a comedian, and her sister Maud also joined the Follies, where she played the piano. In 1890 the family were living at 6 Fordwych Road and by 1897 they had moved to 26 Kilburn Park Road.
Gwennie said she first appeared on stage at the age of six in a duet with Maud. In her teens she joined a concert party and then became a principal girl in touring pantomimes. She developed a comedy routine playing piano and singing songs in broken English, which culminated in a seven week engagement at the Alhambra.
When Harry Pelissier saw Gwennie perform, he asked her to join his Follies troupe. She became one of its most popular members with her imitations of the music hall star Harry Lauder. Following one of Lauder’s many visits to the USA, she changed the words of his most famous song, “I love a lassie” to “I love the Yankees.”
Smiling and slim, she made her entrance with the Harry Lauder walk, leaning on a replica of his crooked stick, and brought the house down. In make-up, in voice and in manner, Miss Gwennie Mars gives a resemblance which is astonishingly true. And she has, more marvellous still, got Mr Lauder’s exact expression.
|Gwennie Mars as Harry Lauder|
The audience also loved her parody of Ophelia, who in the Follies version of Hamlet, fails to drown.
Marriage and a new life for Gwennie
By the 1901 census, the Evans family had moved again, to 26 Kilburn Priory, near Maida Vale. Ebenezer died here in May 1909 and was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green Road.
The 1911 census shows Gwennie and her mother had crossed the Kilburn High Road, to 143 Brondesbury Villas. That April she married Henry Burkinshaw, a civil engineer who worked in India. The fact the wedding was to take place was widely known, but no-one knew where. The service was held at Holy Trinity Church, Brondesbury Road and attended by close friends and family only. Described in one report as ‘exceedingly pretty,’ Gwennie wore a beautifully embroidered white silk dress made in Calcutta, a present from her husband.
Lewis Sydney, a fellow Follies star, was the best man. Harry couldn’t attend but his brother Fred took his place. One of the wedding presents was a handsome clock with diamond studded hands. The note said it was from ‘The Claque’ a group of four well known gentlemen, one of them a Cabinet Minister, who were frequent visitors to see Gwennie whenever she appeared at The Apollo. The honeymoon was spent in Eastbourne; Gwennie then intended to rejoin the Follies for the remainder of the season, before leaving England in October to be with her husband.
The Burkinshaw’s son, John Hugh, was born on 3 September 1913 and baptised in St Paul’s Cathedral in Calcutta. Sadly Gwennie’s health was badly affected by the Indian climate and although sent to recuperate in the cooler and fresher air of hills, she never recovered. She died the following year aged only 33 and was buried in Mussoorie Cemetery, leaving £1,545 in her will.
John Hugh Burkinshaw was sent back to England to be educated. He became a consultant paediatrician, serving as a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War. Later appointed a consultant at St James Hospital in Balham, John wrote academic papers and a popular book called ‘Your Book of the Human Body’ (1961).
What happened to the Follies?
The loss of Gwennie, one of its leading members left a role to be filled in the troupe, which was booked to appear for years ahead. When the Follies opened at the Apollo in August 1911, ‘in some respects not so happily inspired as usual.’ Harry knew he had to wow his public, so he came back with a new programme and a new recruit, Miss Fay Compton, ‘who has a pleasant voice and shows considerable aptitude for mimicry.’ Fay’s brother, Compton Mackenzie (who became a well respected and prolific author) was writing for the troupe. The review in ‘The Stage’ praised individual performances (including those of Harry and Fay), but criticised some of the material: one skit was described as ‘weak and laboured’ while another was said to be ‘rambling.’
In September 1911 Pelissier surprised his fans and fellow performers by getting married. It was surprising because he was regarded as a confirmed bachelor, wedded to his work. ‘He has declared again and again that he would dare all things but one – get married.’
A tireless composer, with sixty-two published songs to his name by 1911, Harry had several pianos in his home, including one at the end of his bed, ‘for fear of loosing a bright musical inspiration before he could reach the instrument.’
Many were also surprised when they found out who the bride was: his new recruit, Fay Compton. They’d been engaged for just seven weeks. One photo appeared with the caption ‘Two Follies married’ and several reports made much of the fact that he was 37 and she just 16, ‘a pretty young lady still in her teens.’
It was a quiet affair and would have been even quieter, had not the press got wind of it the day before, laying siege to Pelissier’s Finchley home. But only one reporter discovered the church, St Peter’s in Great Windmill Street, Soho. The congregation numbered just five, family and close friends. Fay wore a large hat, a cream serge dress and there were no bridesmaids. The couple appeared on stage at the Apollo as usual that day, at both the matinee and evening performances. In honour of the occasion, Harry introduced a few bars of the wedding march in one of his skits while Fay received enthusiastic applause from the audience. Their son Harry Anthony Compton Pelissier was born in July 1912.
Fay and Harry continued performing in the Follies. In April 1913, Harry appeared to good reviews in Manchester and but he was not a well man and hadn’t been for some time. Some thought he’d had a breakdown but it was more serious than that. Uncharacteristically, he missed performances and rehearsals. In July, the Cheltenham local paper reported the Follies were booked to perform there the following month, but Harry was unlikely to appear as he was extremely ill. In fact, all his immediate engagements had been cancelled. A restorative voyage to Madeira and weeks spent convalescing in the seaside resorts of Ramsgate and Hythe had little effect. He returned to London in mid September where he died at his father-in-law’s home on the 25th. The cause of death was reported as cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure.
Harry’s funeral service took place at Golders Green Crematorium. One of the tributes took the form of a Follies’s skull cap, made of white flowers with black buttons down the side, and dedicated to ‘the great white chief.’ Harry’s ashes were buried in his mother’s grave at St Marylebone Cemetery.
In his will Harry left £13,098, worth over a million pounds today. It was reported that sales of his music had brought in well over £1,000 a year, while for six years his income had topped the £6,000 mark, rising to £12,000 during one particularly profitable year.
There were many obituaries at the time (and later tributes), all praising Harry’s unique talent.
So Pelissier is no more. What a world of wit dies on that phrase! How much laughter will be buried in the grave! Pelissier gave us fun without fatuity. All his humour had an edge but he never cut too deep. He was a master of parody, satire, mimicry, song and everybody knows how cleverly he accompanied himself on the piano.
Shortly before his death, Harry had arranged the Follies should continue under the management of one of the original members, Dan Everard (real name Everard Daniel). He was the only surviving member from the heyday of the Follies.
In November 1913 they opened at the Coliseum. One of the reviews said:
It was – we could not help finding it – in one aspect a melancholy event. Continually one felt one was waiting for something, that the performance had not really begun … only with an effort could one remember that henceforth the Follies could never give us more than the sprit of H.G. Pellissier and echoes of his mirth and music.
In the end, comments were generally favourable with the belief that, ‘when the troupe have put the requisite “snap” into their work, they will have an entertainment that should vie in popularity with the old one.’
But sadly, the Follies never recovered their former glory.
Fay’s full name was Virginia Lilian Emmeline Compton-Mackenzie; her father Edward was a successful actor manager and her mother was an actress. Fay was a versatile and talented actress who appeared on the West End stage in every type of production, ranging from drama and pantomime to comedy to Shakespeare. During her successful career, Fay made over 40 films and also featured in TV and radio productions.
But she was unlucky so far as her married life was concerned. Her first marriage was cut short by Harry’s untimely demise. Then in June 1914, Fay’s engagement was announced to fellow actor and comedian, Lauri de Frece. They were married on 20 September, a week short of the first anniversary of Harry’s death. In the spring of 1916, Lauri told Fay to he didn’t want to live with her any more but in October the couple reconciled, though they still had problems. He told her to leave for the second time in 1917 and while she wanted the relationship to continue, he flatly refused. De Frece died within months of a court ordering a ‘restitution of conjugal rights’ in May 1921.
The following year Fay married the talented actor Leon Fred Quartermaine and they appeared together in many productions. He was granted a divorce in December 1941 on the grounds that Fay had deserted him for over three years.
Fay’s fourth and last husband was Ralph Champion Shotter, whose stage name was Ralph Michael. This marriage was dissolved in 1946, on the grounds of her husband’s adultery with actress Patricia Roc; Ralph was seventeen years younger than Fay.
Fay died in 1978; there are several silent clips of her on Pathe News and you can hear her singing on YouTube:
|Walter Sickert's Brighton Pierrots, 1915|