On February 5th 1960 the TV presenter Eamonn Andrews surprised Harry Welchman in a taxi outside the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London. This became Harry’s appearance later that week on the popular TV show of the time ‘This is Your Life’. Unfortunately the recording of that show doesn’t exist any longer; it would have been interesting to see what, if anything, they had to say about Harry’s early family life and indeed some of the more tortuous parts of his own career.
Harry was mainly a stage performer but between 1915 and 1954 he made 19 films, some musical and others straight drama.
His obituary in The Stage in 1966 described him as:
“.… the most famous musical comedy hero of his time, with handsome stage presence and a fine voice, admirably suited to the melodious scores of the romantic shows of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties.”
His theatrical and film career is well-documented elsewhere and though I will mention in this section of the story various productions with which he was involved, I am more interested in exploring the social aspects of his life. Before starting though why not take a look at Harry Welchman in the flesh in this Youtube recording of Harry Welchman singing ‘A Bachelor Gay’ in the 1932 film ‘The Maid of the Mountains’. Click here.
At the end of the previous post we left Harry Welchman at the age of 15 living in Congresbury, Somerset, with Janet Coke and her two eldest daughters Janet Sarah and Edith. He remained with them whilst he completed his schooling and then went straight onto the stage in 1904. He joined a touring musical comedy company led by Ada Reeve (who also appeared in the ‘This is Your Life’ programme in 1960) and made his first appearance on stage at the Royal, Boscombe, in the chorus of Winnie Brooke, Widow.
At the age of 20, whilst playing Dandini in Cinderella at the Marlborough, he was spotted by Robert Courtneidge, the theatrical manager-producer (also father of Cecily Courtneidge). This led to him becoming a juvenile, and subsequently main, lead in such West End hit productions as Tom Jones (1907), The Arcadians (1909) and Princess Caprice (1912). By this time he was living in London with his ‘foster-mother’ Janet Sarah and her sister Edith.
On 8th July 1913 Harry married his first wife, the actress Joan Challoner who was described by The Stage at the time as:
“.… a young acress who for the past eighteen months has been a member of Sir Herbert Tree’s company at His Majesty’s. Miss Challoner became engaged to Mr Welchman during the run of ‘Drake’, in which piece she was understudy both to Miss Phyllis Neilson-Terry and Miss Amy Brandon Thomas.”
Her entry to the profession came through an interesting route, being a member of the Stock Exchange Dramatic and Operatic Society which seemed to be a philanthropic organisation aiming to promote aspiring actors.
In 1915 Harry made his first film playing the lead role in Mr Lyndon at Liberty. Then the war intervened. It’s not clear whether Harry actually saw active service but he was commissioned in September 1916 into a Special Reserve of Officers in the Royal Field Artillery. Harry’s theatrical career was put on hold for a while but Joan Challoner continued hers through the war, including performances in the War Relief Matinees (her matinee was under the patronage of Queen Alexandra in aid of the Women’s Emergency Corps).
Their marriage was not to last though and in 1922 Joan initiated divorce proceedings against Harry. It’s hard to determine how scandalous this would have been at the time but it seems to have been widely reported in the press of the time and the story suggests that it was quite acrimonious.
According to the Pall Mall Gazette of 19 January 1922:
“In the Divorce Division today before Mr Justice Hill, Mrs Joan Dorothea Welchman petitioned for a decree of restitution of conjugal rights against Mr Harry Welchman, an actor.”
The article described the breakdown of their marriage and the fact that Harry had walked out in April the year before. However, by July 1922 more details had emerged pointing to an affair that Harry was having. The Nottingham Journal of 20 July continues the story:
“ACTRESS SET FREE. DIVORCE GRANTED TO MISS JOAN CHALLONER.
Lord Buckmaster, in the Divorce Court, yesterday heard the petition of Mrs Welchman …. for a dissolution of her marriage on the ground of the adultery and non-compliance with an order for restitution of conjugal rights of her husband Mr Harry Arthur Welchman, the musical comedy actor.
Petitioner gave evidence that …. she never stayed with him at any time during 1921 at the Burford Bridge Hotel …. Edith Oliver, chambermaid at the Burford Bridge Hotel, who identified respondent by means of a photograph, gave evidence that in October, 1921, he occupied a bedroom at Burford Bridge Hotel with a woman not the petitioner. A decree nisi with costs was granted.”
Harry’s lover seems to have been protected from the press at the time but The People of 3rd August 1924, when announcing Harry’s engagement to Sylvia Forde, chose to reveal those details:
“Harry Welchman was previously married to Joan Challoner; and after she divorced him he was expected to marry Margaret Cooper. The two were very much attached; but, unfortunately, poor Miss Cooper died.”
There is a superb biography of Margaret Cooper on the Kilburn and Willesden history blog site and I have chosen a few extracts here to explain some of the tragedy surrounding Harry’s divorce. Described as the ‘Lady in the Long Silk Gloves’:
“Margaret Cooper was a very popular music hall entertainer at the piano in the early part of the 20th Century ….. Margaret was a very talented musician and composer, playing the piano, violin and organ. After attending the Royal Academy of Music, she worked as an accompanist and sang at concerts and dinners …. Her lucky break came when she was spotted playing at a charity concert by theatre manager Sir Alfred Butt ….. At first rather dubious about appearing on the variety stage, she took the plunge in October 1906 – and never looked back, she was an instant and overwhelming success. When she appeared later that month in Bristol, she was billed as ‘The Latest London Sensation’, in her Inimitable ‘Songs at the Piano’. Her largest fee was £100 for a single performance, which is equivalent to about £8,000 today ….. she was also in great demand for private parties, where she sang before King George V and Queen Mary and visiting royal dignitaries.
….. The death of her husband Arthur in 1918 was a severe blow to Margaret and her appearances in the London variety theatres became less frequent. She died four years later from heart failure … on 27 December 1922. Although she’d not been in the best of health after suffering breakdown a few months earlier Margaret’s death was unexpected.. ….. Several obituaries agreed her death evoked a ‘peculiar pathos’ as Margaret was planning a new life, having agreed to marry actor and singer Harry Welchman in February 1923. But the related scandal that could have damaged Margaret’s image was something the papers chose to ignore, presumably out of respect for the lady.
….. At the time of Margaret’s death Harry was appearing to good reviews in ‘The Lady of the Rose’. Up to then, their engagement hadn’t been made public and there was a good reason for this. Margaret’s obituaries fail to mention the fact Harry was going through a divorce. In July 1922 his actress wife Joan … had been granted a decree nisi, on the grounds of Harry’s ‘statutory desertion and adultery’. This was made final in January 1923, a month after Margaret’s death. Her role is open to speculation, as she is never named in the newspaper reports as the ‘other woman.’
So 1922-24 was evidently a very emotional and dramatic period in Harry’s life in a non-theatrical sense – an adulterous affair, a messy divorce from his first wife, the death of his lover and then only a year later his engagement to his future second wife, Sylvia Forde. I have already covered that engagement in Part 2 of this tale dealing with Sylvia Forde but perhaps one last quotation is of interest from The People of 3rd August 1924:
“An Actor’s Romance. When on the first night of ‘Head over Heels’ there was a new leading lady, Mary Ellis, it looks as though a new name had arrived definitely in the West End. But no; the the poor young lady was replaced in a few weeks, and I have never heard of her again. Put in the chorus that night was a young woman named Sylvia Forde, then unknown, who, last week, was announced to be engaged to Harry Welchman and who, therefore, in consequence, will, I have no doubt, be heard of again.”
Harry’s career continued full flight though as he made his first Broadway appearance in Princess Flavia in 1925 but was also performing then in London in Love’s Prisoner at the Adelphi which only had a brief run and was rated by The Times as an unsuccessful mixture of Gilbert and Sullivan, melodrama and musical comedy.
Perhaps one of his most famous theatrical roles came three years later as the Red Shadow in the stage version of the Desert Song which ran at Drury Lane for more than 400 performances. He definitely set the standard for this role. The Stage in May 1967 was still continuing the comparison:
“.…. when Harry Welchman captured the Town at Drury Lane forty years ago, with the enchanting Edith Day as the Margot of the story, the show had a spectacular production . “
By 1929 Harry’s career was taking another dramatic shift but this time of the theatrical sort – he entered management, setting up a production company for The White Camellia at Daly’s Theatre. Life as a manager was to have its challenges. We’ve already seen in part 2 about Sylvia Forde that shortly before the opening night Harry lost one of his principal dancers and Sylvia was drafted in at very short notice. However, the book Daly’s – A Biography of the Theatre describes the financial consequences of Harry’s change of direction:
“Harry Welchman had little luck in management at Daly’s. ‘It has cost me eight thousand pounds to learn that musical comedy of the old-fashioned sort has no chance today’ said Harry Welchman in a Press interview, discussing the losses he incurred in staging first ‘The White Camellia’ and secondly reviving ‘The Lady of the Rose’ at Daly’s Theatre.”
He went on to explain:
“.… one or two of the so-called musical comedy houses are no longer business propositions. Rents are enormous, the seating is abominable, of comforts there are none. My advice is ‘scrap the lot’ and build some new ones, or at least leave the shells of the present theatres and reconstruct the interiors. My dream for the future is to have a theatre with seating capacity commensurate with the biggest cinema theatres. This theatre will have all the amenities of a picture house. There will be no charge for programmes and no charge at the cloakrooms.”
I wonder if it was this realisation that perhaps changed his focus towards films – he made more than a dozen in the thirties and early forties, including two 1943 films The Gentle Sex and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. One performance in the thirties though is definitely worth mentioning since it was local. As the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 6th August 1937 describes:
“BARNSTAPLE MAN’S DESERVED TRIUMPH. Strong Supporting Bill of Talent.
Had Harry Welchman, the famous musical comedy star, who is a native of Barnstaple and heads the variety bill at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, this week, met the wishes of audiences he would have been a very very tired man. At each performance he had to take several ‘curtains’, sing extra songs and even when he had smilingly taken his last ‘au revoir’, the applause continued. It was not because he was ‘one of us’ that Devon audiences have been so enthusiastic, for to most of them it was news when he made the statement at the end of his turn. It was simply a delighted mass appreciation of his singing, which included well-known numbers from such musical plays and comedies as ‘Desert Song’, ‘Maid of the Mountains’, ‘Southern Maid’, ‘Rose Marie’, etc. With an excellent voice he combines a charm of manner and histrionic talent that makes his songs doubly enjoyable. Each contribution is given the right atmosphere, and how audiences have enjoyed listening to them! One of the most successful was ‘No More War’, with its telling and dramatic recitative. To this audiences have listened in tense silence, their applause at the conclusion demonstrating their approval of the sentiments expressed.
The high standard set in his particular sphere by Harry Welchman is characteristic of the whole programme.”
He was definitely easing off by the end of the Second World War, though it’s probably a truism that actors never retire. As we have already seen, he moved down to Cornwall with his family in 1947 where he bought a farm but soon became involved in amateur dramatics at the Penlee Park Theatre. This had its origins in 1948 with a successful Cornwall Shakespeare .Festival in which Harry performed in Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The theatre stage in its first year was simply made from borrowed beer crates covered in imitation grass from the greengrocers but the following year the Penzance Town Council commissioned a proper earth and granite stage.
Here is a picture including Harry Welchman (centre) behind the scene in 1957 with the Penzance Playgoers Theatre Club.
In 1950 Harry was interviewed by the Nottingham Journal of 1st June, exploring his views on success of productions on the stage. Harry explained:
“The play’s the thing ….. If you have not got a good play, then even the engagement of well-known people to sing in it will not help you or make any real difference if they have bad material to deal with. The Student Prince has been a great success ever since its original production because it is based on a good play ‘Old Heidelberg’ – a most beautiful love story. ….. To be a real success a musical play must have one or two numbers that people can get hold of. The success lies in the music but the music is inspired by the book. ….. The ‘Maid of the Mountains’ into which ‘A Bachelor Gay’ a song written by J W Tate was interpolated had nothing to do with the play but everyone came away whistling it.”
With these views it is strange that Harry, the non-retired actor, got involved in his final performance in 1959 – John Osborne’s play The World of Paul Slickey, a musical intended as a satire on high-society gossip columnists. The play was apparently a complete disaster with the audience booing at the end. Among the booing members of the audience were John Gielgud and Noël Coward, who later wrote in his diary of the play, “never in all my theatrical experience have I seen anything so appalling, appalling from every point of view“. As the Birmingham Daily Post of 6th May commented:
“One felt sorry for the cast, especially for such veterans as Mary Lohr and Harry Welchman.”
The play closed after six weeks, rather a sad end to Harry Welchman’s career.
Kilburn & Willesden History Blog – Margaret Cooper
Daly’s – The Biography of a Theatre – Management
All Music – Biographical
Penlee Park Theatre – time in Penzance
Big Red Book – This is your life
Wikipedia – biographical