This was how American audiences first came to know Charlie Chaplin in 1910: as a drunken "swell", barging into the ticket line for a music-hall show, disrupting the performance inside, moving seats, pushing punters, striking a match off the bald head of the tuba player and fighting with the conductor. Meanwhile, in the upper balcony, among the lower classes, an equally drunk pleb (also played by Chaplin) is yanked back before he can fall into the stalls. When the acts begin - La Belle Wienerwurst, Tutty-Frutti the Snake-Charmer, and the Fire Eater, the swell climbs on the stage, throwing pies at the players and dunking loose snakes in the tuba. Chaos ensues.
This was a sketch originally called Mumming Birds, performed by Chaplin with the Fred Karno company during its tour of America. It was also the basis for his 1915 short, A Night in the Show, and a revival of one of the classic music-hall sketches of the era. Mumming Birds was put together by Billy Reeves in 1904, and Charlie was not even the first Chaplin to play the swell: that honour went to his brother, Sydney. Mumming Birds was actually the longest-running sketch the English music halls produced, part of a rich tradition bequeathed to the infant Hollywood by the London stage (one of the other members of Karno's company in 1910 was Stanley Jefferson, later known as Stan Laurel).
Not that an American reader would have gained any sense of that history when Chaplin discussed the sketch with a San Francisco newspaper in 1915, claiming the innovations of others for his own. "At last came an opportunity to play an 'all-pantomime' role in the most famous of comedy organisations in England," he said. "It was Fred Karno's London Comedians, and ... A Night in an English Music Hall was the star offering on their list. It was produced with a stage within a stage ... When the curtain arose, the proscenium of a miniature stage was seen, with boxes on each side and a 'pit'. The 'audience' was composed of typical characters found in any of the 'alls ... I was cast for the aesthetic role of the drunk. This was a part which might have been repugnant to one's finer sensibilities. But after I had studied its possibilities, I saw the vast amount of genuine, uproarious fun that could be extracted from it. But what interested me most that I could play it from beginning to end without uttering a syllable."
But Chaplin, inveterate spinner though he might have been, was neither the beginning nor the end of the music hall, just part of its rich tradition. "An entertainment of the People, for the People, by the People," wrote the theatrical historian W MacQueen Pope. "Larger than life ... it ignored half tones, it went out for highlights all the time." In this, the music hall built upon the wider tradition of English satirical theatre, born from the ebullient echoes of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and revived in John Gay's Beggar's Opera, the 18th-century play that prompted the imposition of censorship on the English stage. But comedy continued to flourish, married to the Italian commedia dell'arte and its stock characters of Harlequin, Pantaloon and Pulcinello - who became the English Punch - and, on the London stage, begat Joey Grimaldi, King of Clowns, in the era of the Napoleonic wars.
Grimaldi satirised everything, from John Bull to everyday London types: fops, dandies, street vendors, fish-women, bakers, piemen, lovers and beggars caught in the eternal evil of gin. From the crazed world of Regency England, with its great divides of rich and poor, its parliamentary circus, its mad cartoonists such as Gilray and Rowlandson lampooning the powerful, Grimaldi's freakshow of the industrial revolution gave way to Victorian Britain, and the era of empire building, bold technological and scientific change, and political reform driven by continuing pressure and rebellion from below.
The music halls became Britain's safety valve, the topsy-turvy fantasies of the world turned upside down. Beggars become rich men, rich men beggared, men dressed as women, and women as men. If it was Charles Dickens who best portrayed in print the strains of early Victorian England - the cruelties of exploitation, his gallery of characters of all walks of life, orphans, beggars, thieves, clerks, dreamers and eccentrics - it was the music halls that would represent the breath of the streets and the foibles of ordinary men and women on the stage.
In the 1880s, Dan Leno would follow Grimaldi in donning the guise of the Cobbler, the Railway Guard, the Fireman, the Unemployed, the hen-pecked husband or the "Chattering Wife". George Robey sang comic songs and delivered his patter dressed in a black clergyman-like coat, a battered bowler and twirled cane. "Little Tich", born Harry Relph, who never grew beyond 4ft tall, had six fingers on each hand and, it was said, six toes below, cavorted in elongated shoes, more than 2ft long, on which he performed his "big foot" dance. Another star of the halls, Albert Chevalier, sang "coster" songs, inaugurating the "pearly king" costume that would become a London staple, warbling: "Knock 'em in the Old Kent Road." Great women stars, like Vesta Tilley and Vesta Victoria, played with audience expectations of gender by performing in slick male attire.
Beside these famous names there was a host of smaller fry eking out a living on the British variety stage. Two of them were a married couple, Charles and Hannah Chaplin, resident in Walworth, London, at the time of their marriage in June 1885. Chaplin was primarily a singer of comic songs of ordinary life, and promotional song sheets show him as a raffish chap, with shiny top hat and coat or light breezy jacket, amid vignettes of champagne bottles and revellers out for the night with the words: "Off to the Moulin Rouge." They were to have two sons, Sydney John, born in 1885, and Charles, born on April 16th, 1889 - to add to another son, born to Hannah out of wedlock. (There was doubt over the fatherhood of Sydney, too.)
The hard, Dickensian childhood of Charles and Sydney has become the stuff of legend, sifted by biographers, and addressed by Chaplin many times, from the earliest years when his fame began to spread. He told his American interviewers, variously, that his early life was mundane, that he had been born in Fontainbleau, France, during his parents' stage travels, and that both his father and mother were dead. His alcoholic father's demise and his mother's decline into mental illness and incarceration remained a running sore and a source of both his social conscience and the intense melancholy of the clown. The Tramp character had its roots in his great powers of observation, as well as his "borrowing" from the tricks and costumes of his mentors. Among these influences were also the many tramp comedians of American vaudeville, themselves avatars of an authentic American reality - the tramps or hobos who rode the rails across America in the decades after the civil war.
Despite the success of the Tramp, Chaplin was loth to discard the Drunk, the upper-class rake of his old stage triumph, who would return repeatedly, his finest outing in Chaplin's early masterpiece of 1916, One AM, and his last appearance being in The Idle Class of 1921. He was Chaplin's template of a theatre of dumb anger and aggression, an imp of the perverse, a rebel against convention and acceptable behaviour, who would morph into the more gentle character that would become "the little fellow". But primarily it was not Chaplin but his audience who decided this would be the mask the kid from Lambeth should adopt as his face.
Above all else, Chaplin remained the great observer of the absurdity of life's endless struggles, an actor trained with Karno's "Speechless Comedians" to express each thought and attitude in mime, a man who could not stand on a street corner or sit in a room without absorbing every move and gesture, learning, first at Mack Sennett's Keystone, and later with his own dedicated companies, to use the camera to expand his audience from the beer-guzzling habitues of the English music hall to the entire world.
From 1921's The Kid, Chaplin would develop his vision through his mature features: The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times. Here he achieved a simplicity of tone that would spin off in fine symphonies of light and shadow on the silent screen that he was loth to leave. The kid from Lambeth still cast his spell, but, from the 1930s, war, racial hatred, economic disasters, and his own political troubles forced the tramp to take on new, speaking disguises - the Jewish barber and his nemesis Adolf Hitler, the French serial killer Verdoux, even an exiled king in an imagined New York of the McCarthy witch-hunts. But everyone knew it was still just Charlie, dissimulating to survive. He prevailed even over his own death in Limelight, his late, melancholy tribute to the older Chaplin and his stricken mother, idealised in Claire Bloom's crippled dancer. The clown was shown to be all too mortal. But the mask still endures, in a time perhaps not so different from his own.