Friday, 4 August 2017

The Black Sheep of the Family

Jim and I went to a most intriguing soiree at the British Library on Monday evening - part "potted history", part cabaret, and in part a "workshop" for a full-scale musical extravaganza based up on the great man's life - Fred Barnes: the Black Sheep of the Family: "all about the Victorian invert Fred Barnes and his outrageous music-hall career, brought to life by Christopher Green". Mr Green is, of course, more famous for his creation "Ida Barr" [who made a spectacular appearance at my sister Hils' wedding!].

And it was marvellous! Fred Barnes's story is of course a fabulous one - more outrageously gay than many of the late 20th century artists who supposedly "broke the mould"; he flounced and flaunted himself across the Music Hall stages more than half a a century before the likes of Liberace, Sylvester, Bowie or Boy George were even gametes. His meteoric rise and equally spectacular (and somewhat sordid) fall will make for an excellent (and long overdue) show - and, from what Chris told us, it is already mooted to be staged at Wilton's Music Hall (co-starring Roy Hudd) in 2018.

However - what of those stories of Fred's life he related to an enraptured audience? They are somewhat sketchy [mainly due to Mr Barnes' notoriety; few comprehensive biographical details were ever published], but fascinating...

From The Guardian:
[Fred Jester Barnes was] a "wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis", fond of pink-and-white makeup and his pet marmoset; he had been inspired to take the stage by Vesta Tilley and the original Burlington Bertie. But by 1907, he was bored. Inspired by his father, a Birmingham butcher who despaired of his theatrical son, Barnes wrote a new song, The Black Sheep of the Family, about the "queer, queer world we live in". The song had its first outing on a Monday night at the Empire; the crowd of 1,500 loved it, and Barnes - who later joked that he had written the song in a fit of pique at being repeatedly given a tricky "first turn" billing - was soon promoted to the star slot.

From British Music Hall - an Illustrated History by Richard Anthony Baker:
Fred Barnes, the original singer of Give Me The Moonlight (1917) [later made world famous by Frankie Laine] and On Mother Kelly's Doorstep (1925) [which became one of Danny La Rue's mainstays], was among the most popular entertainers of his day. But his career ended by heavy drinking and his homosexuality. Having earned thousands of pounds, he finished his days in poverty...

...It is impossible to tell how many people knew Fred was gay. [Homosexual acts were then illegal.] At first, it became known in the profession. Fred was derided for wearing more stage make-up than most and he earned himself the nickname "Freda". Quentin Crisp has recounted that, on making visits to Portsmouth as a young man, friendly sailors jokingly asked him if he knew Fred. It is probably true that Fred's father knew of his predilection. Whatever the truth, Fred's store of good luck started to run out in 1913 when his father committed suicide by cutting his throat. One account speaks of Fred's father arriving with a meat axe at the stage door of a theatre Fred was playing, determined to kill him. When he was thwarted, he went home and killed himself. Fred dated his own downfall from that point, although he had many more years ahead of his as a star. In 1914, he said he had no vacant dates for three years and even had contracts booking him as far ahead as 1924.

Fred's success went to his head. He kept four cars, he employed a butler, a valet and two maids; he gambled, getting through as much as £1,500 in one night in Monte Carlo; and he began drinking. His dressing room bill sometimes totalled £30 a week. By 1922 his drinking had become a problem. He was booked to appear in Australia at a salary of £200 a week, more than he had ever earned before, but, every day, he said, he drank more than was good for him and, during the middle of his second week at the Tivoli, Melbourne, he missed a performance. The rest of the run was cancelled... Back in Britain, theatre managers soon got to know of his unreliability. In Brighton, he was taken off the bill at the Hippodrome for being drunk on stage...
However, for me the greatest revelations about Fred were his absolutely outrageous defiance of the rules and the law of the land, regardless of the consequences. QX magazine, partially quoting from Paul Bailey's book Three Queer Lives related:
Fred liked men in uniform. In 1924 The Times reported that he’d been arrested in Hyde Park for “being drunk in charge of a motorcar.” He had tried to bribe the arresting officer with £100. The paper gallantly made no mention of the half-dressed sailor seen running from the scene of the crime. Fred was sentenced to a month in prison. When he was released, he was banned from the Royal Tournament as “a menace to His Majesty’s fighting forces”...

...but, according to Chris, he continued to get back in to the Tournament, year on year - often with the help of "his boys"!

What a remarkable man Fred Barnes was. And Christopher Green is the perfect man to "bring him to life"!

Here's he is performing as Fred [at Duckie's Lady Malcolm's Servant's Ball]:



  1. Fab. I think we should start collecting old sheet music.

    1. If we stumble across any of Fred's, then we could be sitting on a goldmine, apparently. Much of the paraphernalia surrounding him (possibly due to his scandalous behaviour) is missing, and even the British Library has only a tiny amount... Jx


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