William Henry Payne made his first appearance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, as Saint Paul in the drama Catherine of Cleves, and, later on the programme, as Madoc Mawr, the ogre, to the Hop o’ my thumb of child star Elizabeth Poole. Many an anecdote has been told about this pantomime and Payne’s grotesque success in his role and its heavy costume. But most importantly, Hop o’ my Thumb marked the effective beginning of a long, long series of appearances by 'Mr W H Payne', in the major cities and theatres of England, as a star pantomimist and comic, dancing actor. One obituary which I have read tells of how WH and his sons did their annual pantomime and, then, went into lotus-eating mode for the rest of year, until it was time to prepare the next Christmas entertainment. Well, maybe so when he was seventy, but not at this stage of his life. He might have been a star at panto time, but he was engaged for the season: and that meant he not only appeared in the character roles in the ballets which made up such an important part of any patent theatre programme, but also bit parts in drama, in Shakespeare, in farce and even in opera. WH carried a napkin or a bombardon, sported a uniform or Turkish trews, in the premieres of all sorts of pieces, including some extremely famous ones, during the next forty-five years of his life and career. As well as a few that lasted only one or two nights!
Now, I’m not going to follow his career through year by chronological year, with lists of credits. Oh, I’ve got them. They fill up over twenty pages of notes. I mean, just the forty odd pantomimes from 1831 onwards … not to mention the ballets, old and new, the plays and operas. If anyone wants chapter and verse, they can send me a plain brown envelope (stamped) with a couple of hundred dollar bills inside, and I’ll tidy the list up. Here, I’m going to summarise, with lots of titles in brackets … don’t worry, I know how to. I squeezed Charlotte Dolby into 32 pages …
Similarly, the family. Ann, as well as bearing three more children, had a modest career as a supporting ballerina behind the Carlotta Grisis and Fanny Elsslers of the time. But she held that place, as few English girls did, amongst the hordes of Morlacchis and Lerouxes chasing the British ballet pound, although she was clearly overtaken by her younger daughter latterly. All four Payne children made fine careers: Harriet moved from being a featured dancer to being a fine mezzo singer in opera, Fred and Harry made themselves a big name in their father’s business of pantomime, and Annie … well, who knows what Annie could have been. The Peggy Hookham of her day? But she chose marriage, children, comfort, a long life … Anyway, the family will only appear, here, from time to time. This article is for Willie.
I will detail Willie’s first seasons at Covent Garden, just to show that it wasn’t all grotesque comedy and pantomime. After Hop o’ my Thumb, came the English version of Robert le diable with WH cast as Zamiel, and when Ellen Tree and Charles Kemble played Katherine and Petruchio: he was the music-master. The spectacle The Tartar Witch and the Pedlar Boy, with Misses Taylor and Poole in the title-roles featured him as Benaksa, chief of the roving tartar horde, before it was time for The Merchant of Venice (Salanio), Hamlet (Rosencrantz), The Hunchback (Stephen), The Dark Diamond (Pescara), The Beaux Stratagem (Hounslow), Julius Caesar (Cinna), Black-Eyed Susan (Quid, not even the double hornpipe!), the ballet of Masaniello (Pietro) and a number of others such, until panto came around again and he starred as Tasnar ‘chief of the longheads and no bodies’ in Puss in Boots. In the close season at the Garden, he and Ann migrated to the Victoria Theatre, where they were ‘primos’ in such as in the pantomimed Don Juan and played everything from ballet to melodrama. Well, one just did. And then it was back to ‘town’ and Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog. As well as the Friar in Twelfth Night, Dirk Hatterick in Guy Mannering, Dougal in Rob Roy, a featured dance in Gustavus III, and most memorably Myssouf, the Chief Eunuch, in the jolly Paris ballet The Revolt of the Harem. Ann was ‘a slave’ but later got promoted to the role of Mina.
The couple took a break from the Garden, it seems, in 1836, and at Christmas they appeared back at the Pavilion in the panto Tom Moore of Fleet Street. He, unusually, was dame in the opening and clown in the harlequinade, whilst she danced Columbine. And then, also unusually, they turn up at the theatre for Race Week at Newcastle, with this surprising advertisement.
I think not. Mons Albert, Mme Albert, Mdlle Albert were dancers at the principal theatres of everywhere. Had Ann, maybe, depped for one of the ladies at some stage?
They returned swiftly to London and to Covent Garden, where they were firmly and fixedly installed over the next six years. Willie had his big moment each year in the theatre's delightfully imaginative pantomimes, in roles such as Leofric of Mercia in the Lady Godiva tale, King Henry in the story of the Fair Rosamund, Master Harrison Saxby who gets involved with The Great Bed of Ware, Prince Manfred in The Castle of Otranto, Guy of Warwick ‘with infinite drollery’ in the history of the Dun Cow, and another King in Punch’s Pantomime (‘we bow down to the supremacy of Payne over pantomime’ ‘words will not do justice to the mingled sublimity and pathos of Payne’s burlesque monarch’). And in between times, he appeared in whatever the theatre produced, and that included a great part of the Shakespearian repertoire as well as the premieres of some notable pieces. When Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons was staged, with Macready and Helen Faucit starred, Mr Payne was Captain Dupont, when Richelieu was mounted he was ‘Third Secretary of State’, and when London Assurance was first performed he was the moneylender, Solomon Isaacs. The theatre had a full ballet company, but when a character dancer was needed, WH was called upon to take such parts as the title-role in Hans of Iceland. And then back to Shakespeare. And it was in Shakespeare that he introduced his children to the stage. When Eliza Vestris produced a memorable Midsummer Night’s Dream (16 November 1840), Willie was cast as Starveling. Vestris herself played Oberon and the fairies featured 8 year-old Harry as Moth and 5 year-old Annie as Peaseblossom. When the pantomime was added to the bill, Harriet, Harry and Annie danced a ‘Chinese pas de trois’ and Annie was featured (‘dances a sailor hornpipe in a style wonderful for so small a child’) as a soloist. The whole was staged, of course, by Mr W H Payne.
In 1843 Alfred Bunn of Covent Garden took over the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and William Payne and his family moved, with the company, thence. Over the next four seasons he, and from time to time the family, appeared in the rather different programmes of the royal theatre. More opera than Covent Garden, less drama, but plenty of ballet and, of course, the immovable pantomime, in which Willie appeared as Orson, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, St George. The ballets, however, featured him regularly as well: in The Peri he was yet another Pasha and Ann danced Aysha, in The Devil in Love he was Hortensius, then there was The Beauty of Ghent, Lady Henrietta (‘a danse des fous grotesquely horrible’), The Deserter of Naples, more of the light-hearted The Revolt of the Harem, Robert and Bertrand, Natalie ou la laitière Suisse in which he featured as Alfred and Ann as the Duchess, the celebrated Le Diable à quatre or The Devil to pay in which Willie starred as the basketmaker opposite Flora Fabbri and Carlotta Grisi, and Giselle with him as Hilarion. He and Ann both danced in La Verven but, sometimes, Ann was cast without her husband (La Tarentule, The Pretty Sicilian). The most notable of such occasions turned out not to be in a ballet, but an opera. When the to-be-famous The Bohemian Girl was produced, Ann took the role of the motherly Buda, apparently with her real-life daughter as the child, Arline. Thirteen year-old Harriet in her first of a lifetime of operas.
In March 1847, WH played a comic valet in Spanish Gallantries and Barek the Bedouin Chief in The Desert, before Bunn’s season finished. And, thanks to the eternal game of theatre-renting, neither manager nor star were returning. Bunn took on the Surrey Theatre, instead, and after a season organising his family in the entertainments at Vauxhall, Willie and family joined him.Ann played Buda, Willie danced The Devil to Pay, Annie was featured is solo dances and, when panto, Battledore and Shuttlecock, came around she was Columbine while father directed, played Young Racket and the clown in the harlequinade. However, Bunn and Mrs Davidge, his lessor, came soon to disagreement, and the Surrey experiment ended.
So while Annie disappeared off to Her Majesty’s Theatre to perform in Le Pas de Déesses alongside the star ballerinas of the town, father and Bunn headed back over the river to … Covent Garden! The opening ballet, The Amazons featured Willie as Don Oscar, alongside Mons Petipa and Mdlle Plunkett, then with Annie in The Devil to Pay, while Bunn prepared his next opera. Willie took a tiny part in Quentin Durward, and played it twice before the theatre went dark. The season and Bunn's lesseeship were over. No Payne in pantomime!, bewailed a public who had been served up Willie’s prime performances, every year, for more than 20. But they were wrong. Payne would play in pantomime at Christmas 1848. But not in London. At Manchester’s Theatre Royal. He took the title-role in Sindbad opposite the future opera prima donna, Susan Kenneth, while little Annie danced .. Robinson Crusoe, Robert and Bertrand, a piece Le Bal Masqué devised by him for them ..
And then things halted. On 1 July 1849, Ann Rountree Payne died. A death certificate would tell us why, I suppose. But Willie was now paterfamilias of four motherless children. He took them off to Gravesend where he staged a season at the Royal Terrace Pier, and then headed back to his new home. Manchester. For much of the next decade the Payne family would be headquartered in Manchester, visiting Ireland at length, and making periodic London appearances, notably for the faithful and persistent Bunn. Instead of being the pantomime star of London, W H Payne became the king of Manchester, through The Mistletoe Bough (1849), Baron Munchausen (1850), Whittington and his cat (1852), Red Riding Hood (1853), St George and the Dragon (1855), The Forty Thieves (1856), and Robinson Crusoe (1857). London lured him a couple of Christmases: Harlequin Hogarth (1851) for Bunn at Drury Lane, and an Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves at Sadler’s Wells (1854), in which WH directed and played Abdallah, and the children appeared as Morgiana, Mustapha and Imagination. But they returned, each time, to Manchester.
Outside the holiday period, the Paynes story-ballets were their staple. WH choreographed a Camargo-ish piece about a brigand chief and a ballerina in which he starred as Manzocchi opposite Annie. The piece was called The Prima Ballerina, or sometimes The Brigand’s Attack, depending on who was being featured. Manchester sighed ‘the ballets are gems of art’, Leeds marvelled ‘such dancing as has perhaps never been seen on this stage’. They repeated the granddaddy of the genre The Devil to Pay, they performed The Merry Millers in which the said Millers, Grist and Chaff, were danced by Harry and WH while Annie was the heroine. They performed dance versions of Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin, The Flying Dutchman, Esmeralda, their Robert and Bertrand and the classic Don Juan …
But change was coming. Before they left Ireland to head for Christmas at Sadler’s Wells, the press reported that the group was about to break up. ‘Mr Payne has sustained a professional career over 30 years, and it was his pleasure to be summoned to the presence of no less than three sovereigns. He has played before George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria..’ But the press was wrong in assuming that Willie was retiring. It was Annie. ‘She is about to be married to a Manchester merchant’. And so she was.
Their 1851 visit to Dublin saw ‘Master Payne’ featured . But ‘Master’ soon became ‘Harry Payne’ as Fred, now aged 13, put in what seems to have been a first appearance, alongside father, brother and sister, in Robert and Bertrand. And from Dublin they moved to Drury Lane. Annie danced the Abbess in Robert le diable and took the title-role of Giselle, Harry and father played in the pantomime and the ballet Vert-Vert, WH played Beppo in Fra Diavolo and danced The Star of the Rhine with Annie, and sister Harriet, now in her twenties appeared in her new guise as an operatic vocalist in The Sicilian Bride. But when Easter came, the Paynes headed back north, there to remain for the duration, until in May 1853 they again crossed, with Harriet back on team, to Ireland. When they performed Don Juan, Annie was the Don, Harry was Don Guzman, WH was Scaramouche and Harriet joined Mrs Wharton in the celebrated ‘Fishing Duet’. When they performed Robert and Bertrand all five Paynes took part.
The family spent some time In London (16 Goulden Terrace, Barnsbury Road, Islington) and played at Covent Garden, before it was off to Manchester and a new version of The Star of the Rhine with father, Harry and Fred featured alongside a ‘Mdlle Comisa’. When panto came around, however, it was ‘Mdlle Elise’ whom Payne chose as Columbine, and she (whoever she was) became the female part of ‘the Payne family’ for a while.
In 1857, WH took time out to direct the tour of the dramatic actress Ristori, in 1858 the three men took part in an English Mimic Company, which played at the Théâtre des Fleurs, Pré Catelan, Paris. And now came the next big change. Louisa Pyne and William Harrison had taken Covent Garden for a season of English opera. But that didn’t mean they were willing to forego the lucrative pantomime date of the theatre. So they hired the Payne men. W H was back in opera! When the company opened with Satanella, he was cast as the Vizier, and in the pantomime of Little Red Riding Hood, he was the Very Wicked Baron and the Wolf, Harry was Corin and danced Harlequin, and Fred was the Baron’s henchman. They played two full seasons with the Opera Company, as well as the intervening tour, with their ballets La Fiancée, Robert and Bertrand, The Ambuscade …
And thus, they became installed again at Covent Garden, where they would star in the pantomimes for twelve consecutive years, until 1870. Fred became a regular Harlequin, Harry was clown and WH played the principal personage of the panto… and Columbine? Both daughters being now married, they spent some seasons going from once danseuse to another, until they finally hooked up with the lady who called herself ‘Mdlle Esther’ or, later, ‘Mdlle Esta’. Esta would stay with them pretty much to the end. But that end was still a long way off.
|Harry and Fred as clown and harlequin|