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George Robey

George Robey was one of the most phenomenally successful of music-hall stars. Unlike most music-hall artistes he had a middle-class upbringing. After being educated in England and Germany, he was destined first for the University of Leipzig, and then, on his father's return to England, for Cambridge. What must have seemed a catastrophe at the time eventually led him to the halls. As he tells in his life story, Looking Back On Life, "I was sent to Cambridge till some of my father's speculations went wrong, and I had to face the facts of life and carve out a career for myself." He began training as an engineer in Birmingham, but found that had little interest for him. He enjoyed legitimate drama, but it was a chance visit to the Westminster Aquarium that led to his becoming a music-hall performer. There he volunteered to be mesmerized by "Professor" Kennedy, and so successfully did he "perform" that thereafter he was welcomed as an unpaid "volunteer." As a result of his singing, supposedly under the influence of mesmernerism, the manager of the Aquarium offered him a professional engagement, and from that moment Robey never looked back.

Robey was a talented man in and out of the theatre. He excelled as an amateur in a number of widely different fields, and in his profession he became known as the Prime Minister of Mirth and was a magnificent pantomime dame. He also played with success in Shakespeare as Falstaff (on the stage in 1935 in Henry IF, Part I and as the dying Falstaff in Olivier's film of Henry V); in comic opera (as Menelaus in Offenbach's Helen); and in films, including that remarkable version of Don Quixote directed by Pabst with Chaliapine as the Don and Robey as Sancho Panza. (He had earlier played Sancho Panza in a silent version of Don Quixote.) Towards the end of his long life, he was knighted.

Although he began as a singer, Robey was more noted on the halls for his acts rather than his songs. Indeed, the song most closely associated with him, "If You Were the Only Girl in the World," is not a music-hall song at all. This became enormously popular in the First Great War, following his singing of it with Violet Loraine, not in the music halls but, significantly, in revue. Robey enjoyed playing with language in the tradition of the hyperbolic chairmen of the old halls. "Kindly temper your hilarity with a modicum of reserve," he would urge his audiences, to be followed by the blunt, deflationary, "Desist!" He would also switch from the mock-elevated to the slang in his songs. A.E. Wilson, in his biography of Robey, Prime Minister of Mirth, records this example:

He told me my society was superfluous,
That my presence I might well eradicate.
From his baronial mansion he bade me exit,
And said I might expeditiously migrate-
In other words, "Buzz off!"

This tradition is still to be heard on radio and television in a slightly different form used by Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd.

"A thing He Had Never Done Before" has a touch of that slightly macabre sense of humour that is frequently found in illegitimate drama. The suicide in the third verse is cleverly introduced. The reversal itself is effective-"And as soon as he recovered, he committed suicide"-and the comedy undercuts the significance of suicide. The refrain that follows is patently true, and the ensuing chorus continues the juxtaposition of macabre and comic with enough variation to avoid it being stereotyped.

The song offers a comic interpretation of the virtues of consistency. Never come home sober if you usually come home drunk. Still less, don't take a bath if that is out of character!

It would be foolish to lay too much stress on the significance of the items chosen to provide the twists and turns of the song-the trousers in pawn, the Salvation Army, the clock sold for fourpence, taking a bath, and the result of kissing a wife-but what is significant is the tone in which these are presented.

There is comic exaggeration (especially in the reaction to the kiss) and an obvious and not very clever guying of the Salvation Army (but notice the upper-class drawl that is imitated here), but the most common tone is matter-of-fact: pawn, bath, and clock provide, despite the song's air of fantasy, a realistic, matter-of-course background.

The refrain is reintroduced effectively on each occasion, and the expression, if not very imaginative (e.g., "And mama tore her hair and started raving like a Turk"), is, on the whole, neat-like the water. As with many of Robey's songs, such as "Without a Word," "I've Done 'Em," "Then I Understood," and "It's Hard," and two given here, the chorus varies at each appearance, only a part of it being repeated throughout.