Sunday, September 27, 2020

CAPTAIN BAIRNSFATHER’S THE BETTER ‘OLE

 

Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1929) was huddled in a trench on the Western Front when he began to pass the quiet time by drawing cartoons. His cartoons made his fellow soldiers laugh.  They identified with his various characters and their situations. By the end of March 1915, the British magazine “The Bystander” published one of his cartoons. It was so well received that the magazine’s editor asked Bairnsfather to send a cartoon for each of its issues. During his time in the trenches, Bairnsfather would draw two cartoons a week for publication. It took him about two days to complete one.  Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons helped the British people put a comic face on tragic circumstances that were part of their everyday lives. He became the most famous cartoonist of World War One.  

      


In 1917 Bairnsfather and Arthur Eliot (1874-1936) adapted several of his widely known cartoons into a play format for the stage.  The play was titled “The Better ‘Ole.”*  This was the name by which Bairnsfather’s most famous cartoon of World War One was also known.

 

 
 This comedy was based on Bairnsfather’s war experiences which he had turned into popular cartoon images. Since the major character in his cartoons was named Old Bill, he became the central character in the play. The play was broken into segments instead of acts and scenes. Each segment was developed from selected cartoons—two segments featured situations related to explosions, seven were fragments that were termed “Splinters” and the were developed from one or more popular cartoons and the last segment was a gas attack. The settings for the segments were somewhere in France and England before November 10, 1918.

An example of one of the splinters is Splinter Three: The setting is a “Billet” located behind front lines in France where the British soldiers rested after returning from the trenches. There are French girls in this scene and the action commences when Old Bill finds a German spy’s plans.  Old Bill attempts to foil the spy’s plans by blowing up the bridge before the Germans do; however, he nearly executes himself.  He gets into serious trouble, but at the last moment a beautiful French female named Victoria saves him. Bill is awarded the Legion of Honor for foiling the German plot. He returns to his wife in England and visits his favorite pub named The Better ‘Ole. The Better ‘Ole was the actual name of Bairnsfather’s favorite pub in London.

A musical score was created for the play. The music was composed by Herman Darewski (1883-1947) and the lyrics were by Percival Knight (1873-1923) and James Heard. When the script was completed, Bairnsfather went to Italy to create war cartoons for Italian publications.

Arthur Eliot remained in London and searched for a theatre manager who would produce this unique theatre piece. Charles B. Cochran (1872-1951) agreed to produce “The Better ‘Ole” at the Oxford Music Hall. The original London cast starred Arthur Bourchier (1863-1927) as Old Bill and French actress Edmée Dormeuil (1896-1983) as the female lead.

Charles Cochran was a showman who knew how to engage his audiences. For this production he wanted audiences to experience a bit of the battlefield environment, so he created the atmosphere of the Western Front. The box office looked like a dug-out and there were sandbags all around the theatre’s foyer. Inside the theatre’s lobby, the band for the production played popular contemporary war songs such as “Tipperary.” There were also slides projected on the walls featuring many popular trench/battlefield cartoons by Bairnsfather.

“The Better ‘Ole” opened in London on August 4, 1917 and continued to play twice daily for more than a year. The storyline contained “three hundred of the best jokes enacted during the war” and it included three of Bairnsfather’s major cartoon characters--Old Bill, lively Alf, lady’s man Bill. These three characters represented the optimistic attitude of the regular British soldier known as “Tommy.” Bairnsfather also portrayed Tommy while he was in conflict, but without any false heroics.

“The Better ‘Ole” racked up a total of 811 performances making it one of the most popular British war plays. Once the production closed in London, there were three to five touring companies performing it in the cities across England where it was advertised as “Greatest attraction and biggest draw of the day.”

Shakespearean actor Charles Coburn (1877-1961) and his wife Mrs. Charles (Ivah Wills) Coburn (1882-1937) produced “The Better ‘Ole” in New York City. It opened at the small Greenwich Village Theatre on October 19, 1918. This production moved to three other theatres always seeking larger seating capacity. It closed on October 4, 1919 after playing 353 performances. Charles Coburn starred as Old Bill for the American audiences.

The October 21, 1918 “New York Times” review of the play stated that “if one may judge by the quality of the performance and the gales of laughter which swept through the little audience, it is destined to move uptown and recreate on Broadway the success it has already scored in London.” The unnamed reviewer also believed the play had “the utmost freshness and delight” as well as a “rollicking spirit.” He believed everyone fortunate to see it would be swept off their “feet by the sheer force of sincerity.” 

Coburn also arranged for several touring theatre companies to take this play to major American and Canadian cities. Eventually there were twelve touring companies performing “The Better ‘Ole” not only in the United States, Canada and England, but also in Australia, India and Africa.

Two film versions of “The Better ‘Ole” were made. The first one was a silent film made in 1918 by a British Company and Charles Rock (1866-1919) starred as Old Bill. Warner Brothers made the second film of “The Better ‘Ole” and it was released in the United States during the Fall of 1926. It starred Syd Chaplin (1885-1965) as Old Bill. Syd was Charlie Chaplin’s older brother. It was the second film to employ Vitaphone sound so it has a synchronized musical score and sound effects. This film is available currently on DVD. The “New York Times” reviewer believed the screen version was weaker in characterization and atmosphere than the stage production, but it is still “The Better Ole.”

 

* ‘ole is the Cockney pronunciation for the word “hole.” This accent drops

 the initial “h” sound from a word. A listener can quickly identify that the speaker

 is an English person from the greater London area.

 


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