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Knight light

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley puts wit and Punch editor Sir Francis Burnand in the spotlight

31 December, 2020 — By Neil Titley

Sir Francis Burnand

WHEN Camden Town’s rock venue Koko burnt down in January 2020, it joined a list of ill-fated and combustible local halls. In 1882, the Park Theatre in Park Street, Camden, was consumed in a similarly spectacular conflagration. One witness who watched its demise with chagrin was the playwright and satirist Sir Francis Burnand (1836-1917), whose new play was due for performance there.

Born into a wealthy family in Mortimer Street (near Goodge Street), Burnand attended school at Eton – he later claimed that “the moral teaching of all public schools is summed up in the formula: never tell a lie when the truth will do as well”.

In 1854, he entered Trinity College Cambridge, where, in defiance of the Vice Chancellor’s wishes, he founded the university Amateur Dramatic Society (the still-famous “ADC”).

One aspect of Cambridge that intrigued Burnand was that some of the undergraduates were by no means young. A few had gone down and up again several times (“like drowning men” as he put it). One of them, Digby “Cracker” Cayley, was at one point in the unique position of being the only undergraduate at Downing College despite the place being fully staffed with deans, professors, chaplains, etc. They existed chiefly for his benefit and left him in a position of almost total control.

The college servant would arrive with a message from the chaplain asking when – or more likely if – he might desire morning chapel. Burnand wrote that Cracker, having probably not arrived back from a drinking expedition until 3am, “would curtly but decidedly reply with very brief but emphatic recommendations as to the direction in which the chaplain’s emissary was to turn his steps”.

Later, another servant would arrive with a breakfast tray and a polite note from a tutor humbly inquiring at what hour Cracker might like to have a lecture and if not might he suggest another day – or indeed week.

After graduation and briefly flirting with the Church and the Law, Burnand chose the theatre as a career. He wrote over 100 burlesques and adaptations, among them the 1866 Black-Eyed Susan and the 1869 hit The Turn of the Tide at the Queen’s Theatre in Long Acre.

The poster for Black-Eyed Susan

He found his true métier when he was appointed editor of the humorous magazine Punch. During his long reign from 1880 till 1906 the comic pun was in vogue. A typical example was the response to the question: “Is life worth living?” – the answer being: “It depends on the liver.”

Burnand had a bluff attitude to most things. His view of the supernatural was that “it was all down to rats”, while his membership of the Freemasons was due mostly to the craft’s attractive instruction “From labour to refreshment.”

However, he insisted on removing the bohemian “boozers” of the previous Punch generation. After one lengthy editorial lunch, two of these gentlemen had fallen down the stairs, then solemnly picked each other up, shaken hands, and had been ushered through the door by Waller, the magazine’s servant.

Burnand oversaw a celebrated Punch series when he published George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody – the book format of which has never been out of print since 1888. His satirical attacks on the aesthetic movement both in his magazine and in his stage success The Colonel also proved popular. They grew increasingly bitter, however, after the Wilde scandal and the fact that one of Burnand’s own sons was convicted of “unnatural offences”. After the case, Burnand gave his son an allowance but only on the condition that he changed his name to “Anton Strelitski.”

Although he was the first Punch writer to be knighted for his efforts, Burnand became something of an absentee editor in the later years. One contributor, RGC Price, said that the first signal anyone had of a rare Burnand foray into work was hearing the sound of two heavy thumps as he threw his boots out of the door of his office.

Visiting contributors “would find him looking rather lost and eating shrimps out of a paper bag”.

Burnand’s answer to the accusation that: “Punch was not as good as it used to be” was: “It never was.”

In another outlet for his talents he became the librettist on Sir Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera Cox and Box, the only non-WS Gilbert collaboration in the usual repertory of the D’Oyly Carte Company, and the only work by Burnand still regularly performed.

Despite being known for his general good humour, Burnand never managed to conceal his envy of WS Gilbert.

He had an uneasy feeling that the latter would always outshine him both as a librettist and as a wit.

At a lunch party, Burnand was discussing the anonymous contributions that arrived at his magazine: “It’s extraordinary the number of really funny things I get sent to me at Punch.”

WS Gilbert raised his head: “Really! Why don’t you put some of them in?”

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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