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Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 2 November 2002

Bransby Williams (1870-1961)
English music hall character impersonator and mimic

Bransby Williams

(photo: unknown, probably Hana, London, circa 1900)

Bransby Williams, whose real name was Bransby William Pharez, was born at Hackney in London on 14 August 1870. Early in his career he had varied experience, including that of an amateur actor, before making the stage his profession and spending some years in stock and touring companies. He made his first appearance on the music hall stage at the London Music Hall, Shoreditch, on 26 August 1896, when he gave imitations of popular actors of the day including Beerbohm Tree as Svengali in the dramatic play, Trilby after George Du Maurier’s novel of the same name, that had opened at the Haymarket the previous October. Afterwards Williams developed a wide range of characters, including many from Dickens, which he presented in monologues, recitations and sketches. His act became solidly successful, and his reputation was made, following his appearance at Sandringham by command of Edward VII on 3 December 1903. For the next forty years he became a fixture of popular entertainment, appearing in pantomime and later on radio and television. His last stage appearances were on a tour in 1946 in a dramatisation of Edward Percy’s thriller, The Shop at Sly Corner.

Williams appeared in a number of films, including Adam Bede (1918) after George Eliot’s novel, in which he took the title role opposite Ivy Close playing Hetty Sorrel; and the 1921 version of The Adventures of Mr Pickwick in which he played Sergeant Buzfuz alongside a distinguished cast headed by Frederick Volpe, Mary Brough, Ernest Thesiger, Athene Seyler and Thomas Weguelin. He also made several recordings, two of which, entitled ‘The Awakening Of Scrooge’ and ‘The Street Watchman's Christmas,’ (cylinders for Edison, London, November 1913), may be heard at Cylinders on the Web.

Bransby Williams died on 3 December 1961 leaving a son, the actor Eric Bransby Williams, and grandson, Paul Corin whose Magnificent Music Machines - Player Pianos, Pipe Organs and of course The Mighty Wurlitzer - provides a welcome reminder of the sounds of the past.

Bransby Williams as the Grandfather Bransby Williams as Fagin

Bransby Williams as two of Dickens’s characters:
(left) the grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop and (right) Fagin from Oliver Twist.

(photos: Hana, London, circa 1900)


‘"About fourteen years ago."
‘The speaker was Bransby Williams, and he was answering a question I had put to him as to when he made his first appearance as an entertainer.
‘"Tell me about it," I said.
‘"I will," replied the actor, "but I think I would rather go home first and write it for you." ‘"So much the better," I murmured.
‘We were seated in a brougham which was just then flying through the streets from one Hall to another. The artiste was late, and peeped at is watch at the rate of about two or three peeps per minute, but, at length, after an aggravating stop caused by a block in the traffic near Piccadilly Circus, we reached our destination. Before the carriage had properly stopped Mr. Williams had disappeared, and by the time I had found the stage door he had been on the stage, found out "where he was," so to speak, and had commenced to make-up. And while he was thus engaged, I jotted down the few things had had just told me. Bransby Williams, whom you all know, of course, as the man who impersonates characters from Dickens in the music-halls, and who, by the way, is half Jewish and half Irish, is thirty-one years of age, and has been on the stage ever since he was twenty. It is five years ago since he gained fame and fortune with imitations of popular actors, a fact which induced him to take up the "Dickens" series. These were such an unexpected success that Shakespearean characters were added to his repertoire, which was still further enriched, last winter, by a series of characters - notably Fletcher, Uncle Tom, and the irrepressible Topsy - from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
‘I have frequently seen Mr. Williams’ performance, and can speak with a good deal of knowledge about my subject.
‘His "make-ups" are remarkably clever. As he stands on the stage before you, dressed up in the likeness of "Shylock," or "Barbaby Rudge," or "Uncle Tom," or any one of the many popular characters whom he impersonates, it is hard to realise that you are looking and listening to the same handsome, boyish-looking man who but a few moments ago walked down to the footlights in evening dress, and told you the character he was about to represent.
‘Let me see, now, I left him making-up. Well, he is still at it, but he has been on the stage twice, and is now dressing up, and being dressed, for his third character.
‘Had you been privileged as I was, on this evening in question, to stand in the wings, where "make-up" box, mirror, costumes and wigs were arranged on a table and chairs, you might have seen the tottering old grandfather of The Old Curiosity Shop, just after making his broken-hearted speech on the death of little Nell, leap forward like a war-horse as the curtain falls, and while aged hair and worn-out garments are falling around him in different directions, you would perceive that Bransby Williams was apparently being torn to pieces. Simultaneously, two or three able-bodied dressers spring to the attack, rip of his vestments, and seemingly endeavour to flay the old man alive. A pair of trousers fly to his feet, and with an exultant leap upwards, clothe his legs; the rub of a towel smoothes out many wrinkles; face, neck and hands change from their natural colour to black; a frenzied pull envelops him in a tunic; a woolly wig is fixed with a slap, white eyebrows and beard are set in their places, the face assumes a different expression; one peep in the glass; and as the orchestra strikes up a "down South" melody, enter - Uncle Tom.
‘Here follows some more realistic acting, ending with the prolonged death of that famous old negro, and a sensational fall backwards over a table.
‘Back he rushes to the wings; there are more things to take off and more to put on, and in less than sixty seconds the actor is again on the stage, looking and acting to the life some other popular character.
‘"Work! Yes, I should think it is work," said "B.W.," as the perspiration rolled down his forehead.
‘Those who sit in front of the curtain howl, and clap, and cannot get enough of this wonderfully versatile actor, and yet, could they but appreciate the difficulties of his gigantic task, I doubt if they would be so eager to bring him on for an extra character.
‘"And you see," continued Mr. Williams, when he had better recovered his breath, "I don’t get unlimited time in which to do the work. My turn may be a fourteen minutes’ one, or it may be longer, but, whatever its length, it is ‘sandwiched’ between two other turns - a clog dance, a comic singer, or what not. I mention these things to show you that I really haven’t time to get into the spirit of my work."
‘"It seems to be pretty thoroughly appreciated, at any rate," I replied.
‘"If applause is anything to go by; and that reminds me: when I was performing at Portsmouth once, a place where you would think Dickens would be universally known, I finished my show by impersonating the great novelist himself sitting in his armchair. The curtain had no sooner risen on this picture than a voice from the audience shouted ‘Bravo, Salisbury.’ A little bit galling, wasn’t it?"
‘I agreed that it was, and soon afterwards, as I was saying au revoir to Mr. Williams, I asked him not to forget to send me the promised account of his first appearance.
‘"Oh, by the bye," he replied, "you will find the very thing you are asking for in this year’s Era Annual. Why not copy that?"
‘When I reached home I turned up my copy of the book in question, and found the little article referred to, and, acting upon his suggestion, here it is. Says Mr. Williams:-

Bransby Williams as the Grandfather

‘Then you hold your tongue, and keep the melting pot ready.’

Bransby Williams Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist.

(photo: Hana, London, circa 1900)

‘"Everything has a beginning - yes, and I have been thinking over some of my beginnings: one I most distinctly remember. It was my first appearance as an entertainer - some thirteen years ago. I was employed in a paper-staining manufactory in London, now the head of the great Wall-paper Amalgamation, and I had been in the designing room about two years. One of the designers was interested in a mission [for charity], and was about to give a tea to a lot of poor, raged children, and had heard of my "larks" and imitations of several of the people in the works; for there I imitated and sketched them all, and led them, I am afraid, a terrible dance. Well, I must explain that to the rolls of foreign paper that came into the works there was attached at each end a piece of wood about five inches long and three inches square. I got a lot of these and started carving them, or shaping them with a penknife into all the heads of the characters in a Punch and Judy show. For Punch’s nose I got a special piece of wood and shaped it, and then screwed it into the large piece. Then I painted them and made them all up, and clothed them correctly with different sorts of materials that I obtained. I even made the coffin and the gallows necessary for the show; the only thing I had not got was ‘Toby.’ Now, the next thing was the ‘show.’ Well, as I did not intend to give more than a performance at home, I secured a big heavy trunk from my mother, cut away the top part, and hung curtains over it, etc., and made it into a ‘fine’ stage.
‘"But presently Mr. ---, the designer and mission-worker, persuaded me to give the ragged children a Punch and Judy show, and I promised. It was a cold, very cold night, and rather foggy. I couldn’t afford a cab, and to carry the things down into the train never entered my dull head; so I packed the ‘dolls’ in a box and put them in the show stage. Now just try to imagine the weight of the heavy trunk and box of dolls which I had set out to carry on my back, having about every few yards or so to sit down and rest - the most miserable collection on this earth. I did this for about three miles, and landed at my destination more dead than alive, for I may add that at that time I was a weak lad, and had suffered much from bronchitis. Anyway, I arrived there, and, soon, my enthusiasm put new life into me and I ‘showed.’ And, after all, the shouts of laughter at the show ere payment enough. I can remember many of those poor wan faces now, how they lighted up after their tea, and how they laughed at my show, which I had to cart home again. Oh, the horrors of it! I got home somehow, however, and was quite ill; so bad that I did not return to business for two or three days. That was my first appearance.
‘"Another event was my first appearance as a nigger with ‘props.’ I was a bit handy at lightning sketching of celebrities (when it was a craze years ago), and used to do two nigger songs and ‘patter,’ and then sketch on a blackboard. I had a board specially made - I’ve got part of it now; it was very weighty, with legs to fold and screw with heavy screws; then I had a large carpetbag. I was engaged (oh, how proud I was, too!) to appear as ‘Bransby Williams, Negro Comedian, Character Impersonator, and Lightning Cartoonist,’ at the Central Hall, Bishopsgate, formerly known as the City of London Theatre, in one of the Saturday variety shows. ‘I got there.’ Oh, how easy to write those three words, and how different when I remember ‘how’ I got there, with the cumbersome blackboard under my right arm, nearly touching the ground as I struggled along, and with the big bag which held my ‘props,’ heavy wooden boots, etc.! All my ‘props’ were made by myself, the pair of long boots I wore in my stump speech having been fashioned out of felt tops with long wooden soles strapped on. Well, I got there, as I told you. The enthusiasm exhibited cheered me for the ordeal. I ‘blacked up’ and was ready, feeling as nervous as a cat, and then I went on. I worked hard, and soon had the audience roaring and applauding my political sketches. I filled in as much time as I could for them, and of course they were glad, and saw, I suppose, how anxious I was. When I had finished and had washed, I was handed the grand salary of 2s. for my labour, but I was quite satisfied because of the honour.
‘"Things are somewhat different now; I don’t have to have very heavy ‘props,’ nor do I carry them myself, and I don’t work for honour and glory only. Still, I love to look back on the old times when I slaved hard for a few shillings as an amateur entertainer and I know it did me no harm."’
(The Playgoer, London, Friday, 15 August 1902, pp.300-305)

Bransby Williams as Long John Silver

Bransby Williams as Long John Silver from a dramatisation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s
Treasure Island, one of the pieces in which he toured Canada at the end of 1928 and beginning of 1929.

(photo: unknown, circa 1928)

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© John Culme, 2002