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Dan Leno as Widow Twankey in 'Aladdin' at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1896.

Dan Leno as Widow Twankey in 'Aladdin' at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dan Leno was a star of the music halls in the 1880s and known as the ‘Funniest Man on Earth’. He was also one of the most popular pantomime dames of the 1890s.

Born in 1860 his real name was George Galvin and, like many music hall performers, his parents were also on the halls. His first performance was at the Cosmotheca Music Hall in Paddington, London where he was billed as ‘Little George, the Infant Wonder, Contortionist and Posturer’.

He became known as a clog dancer, travelling the halls around the country, often giving twenty shows a night in different taverns. In 1880 he became World Champion Clog Dancer and won a silver belt. The judges sat under the stage and listened to the beats.

His clog dancing didn’t go down so well with audiences in London and he turned instead to developing his comedy routine. Leno developed a rambling character monologue as part of his comic song where he would talk directly to the audiences.

He managed to evoke a whole gallery of characters based on minute observation, which conjured up the street life of London, where people gossiped on their doorsteps and through open windows.

Leno claimed that the characters in his songs were all founded on real people; the talkative old woman, the Beefeater with more interest in the refreshment room than history, the chatty shopkeeper. One of his most famous monologues was the neighbour gossiping about the imaginary Mrs Kelly. ‘Mrs Kelly, you know Mrs Kelly’. But all his comedy was tinged with pathos - like many of his audience, he was the little man, and his comedy was an out- pouring of deep grievances.

In 1886 Leno played the dame in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Surrey Theatre. Such was his success that Augustus Harris hired him as dame at Drury Lane for the 1888 production of Babes in the Wood. He became one of the greatest and most popular of all pantomime dames and continued to play during the Christmas season at Drury Lane for the next 15 years.

Leno’s nickname, ‘the King’s Jester’, came after he appeared before Edward VII at Sandringham House in Norfolk in 1901. He died after a nervous breakdown at the age of 42. He had performed almost daily for 36 years of his life.

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