When Essie Fox wrote The Somnambulist, a Victorian novel with scenes set in Wilton’s music hall, and with one of her characters being hell-bent on having that venue closed down on grounds of moral decadence, she could hardly have guessed that this May 25, on the eve of her book’s publication, Wilton’s – which has survived for so long, ever since the 1850’s – would find itself faced with closure, having failed to secure restoration funds in its bid for the Heritage Lottery.

When the VV first visited the hall and saw the glint of brass barley-twist pillars that support a balcony above, she wondered what those metal poles might once have reflected in the hall’s heyday, when Victorian operatic stars ended their Covent Garden shows and jumped into cabs to be ferried out east, to sing at Wilton’s all over again – or when George Leybourne performed Champagne Charlie – a song so popular at the time that it led to a generous sponsorship deal, after which he drank nothing but Moet champagne.

Wilton’s is an historical gem – but not only for its music hall acts. During the London Dockers’ strike, by which time the hall was a Methodist mission, it provided the starving workers with 2,000 meals a day. And when the Methodists moved out, with the area designated for ‘slum clearance’ John Betjeman fought passionately to save it from demolition. A listed status was secured, with hopes that Wilton’s might be preserved, and for many years now its doors have re-opened, producing some wonderful shows for the public.

But the hall’s structure is rapidly failing and desperately in need of work without which its director, Frances Mayhew, says it will close by the end of the year.

If you agree with Essie Fox in believing that Wilton’s closure would be a needless event resulting in the permanent loss of this’ living’ time capsule of history, then please do donate to the Wilton’s fund by pledging whatever amount you can at: www.wiltons.org.uk/

And if you want to find out what the fuss is all about, Wilton’s puts on regular guided tours with details on their website – as well as information about its current shows.

Essie’s debut novel, The Somnambulist, is published by Orion Books:  http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/books/the-somnambulist-hardback


Following on from her previous post about Sir W S Gilbert, the VV has just ordered a copy of the 1999 Mike Leigh film, Topsy-Turvy.

Topsy-Turvy dramatises the events between 1884 and 1885 during the Savoy Theatre production of the Mikado, depicting all the stresses and strains between Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan - both on, behind, and off the stage.

The opera was inspired when Gilbert and his wife went to visit an exhibition of Japanese art in Knightsbridge. When the musical had been written and rehearsals were well in progress he brought in some of the Japanese girls who showed the ladies of the chorus how to walk and use their fans in the most convincing manner - in fact, giving them quite a snap if the following clip is anything to go by -

From what the VV has seen so far the film is a feast of colour and song, and with stars such as Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and Leslie Manville, it promises a great deal indeed.

The VV shall return to this post in due course and give her comments on the film, and meanwhile if you've already seen Topsy Turvy please do let her know what you thought.



Sir William Schwenck Gilbert 18 November 1836 – 29 May 1911

One hundred years ago today W S Gilbert died. 

Born the son of naval surgeon who went on to write novels and short stories, Gilbert himself originally trained to be part of the legal profession. But it seemed he was not suited to the life of a barrister, and with fewer and fewer clients, and when forced to address a dwindling income he also began to write, particularly for the theatre in which he was tirelessly enthusiastic, creating operatic burlesques, plays and libretti, stories, song lyrics, pantomime scripts - even designing sets and stage costumes, or providing his own illustrations for Bab Ballads; a collection of comical verse. (Bab was his nickname as a child). 

An illustration from Bab Ballads

But what really changed his life and guaranteed its future fame occurred in 1871 when Gilbert was asked to write a piece called Thespis, with music provided by Arthur Sullivan, already a popular young composer. The score was never published and the music has now been lost, but that first endeavour came to the notice of the producer Richard D’Oyly Carte, after which the two men were commissioned to create many more such collaborations which went on to be known as the Savoy Operas, after the theatre in which they were housed. 

Performance of The Pirates of Penzanze

Beginning with Trial by Jury, they followed with other successes such as H M S Pinafore , The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado – all of which proved to be in great demand as respectable Victorian entertainment – with a frisson of irreverent wit beneath, but neverless deemed suitable for the amusement of young and old alike.

There were many memorable songs with lines such as – ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one’, or ‘Short, sharp shock’, or  ‘What never? Well, hardly ever!’ or ‘Let the punishment fit the crime’ – all of which are still frequently used today. But, contrary to what might be imagined, although their working partnership went on for more than twenty years, the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was not a happy one. Gilbert would write the libretti and then simply sent the words off for his partner, and as the years passed many frictions arose. Gilbert’s ‘topsy-turvy’ dramas where accepted social order was turned upon its head, with many public figures being lampooned and parodied, often clashed with Sullivan’s desire to be friends with the upper classes and rich.So, towards the end of their careers, by which time both men had been knighted, their paths diverged, more often than not working alone, and often on serious projects.
From The Mikado, a children's book by W S Gilbert 
with illustrations by Alice B Woodward, published posthumously in 1921 

Gilbert built The Garrick Theatre, and when he wrote The Hooligan, the play was deemed to be so gruesome that women in the audience fainted. But, he also revisited his previous successes by writing children’s books based on the stories of HMS Pinafore and The Mikado - for despite having a reputation for sometimes being 'prickly', Gilbert was known to love children, and he could be extraordinarily kind – often paying for cabs for his theatre staff if they worked too late or the weather was bad, and setting up funds for friends who had fallen into penury. 

 The Gilberts

Personally, he was also known to be very fond of the opposite sex. In 1867 he married Lucy Agnes Turner or ‘Kitty’, a woman eleven years his junior, and though never having children of their own, later on they did unofficially adopt an actress called Nancy McIntosh who’d been cast in one of Gilbert's plays, and who later shared their Harrow home which went by the name of Grim’s Dyke.

That name seems somewhat poignant now as, at the age of 75, Gilbert was to meet his death when suffering a heart attack while going to the aid of two little maids who'd been swimming in his lake – or so the official story goes. But, as the VV mentioned previously, Gilbert was fond of his female friends - and that fondness persisted until his death. Let us hope that he went with a smile on his face, which seems to be only fitting and fair considering the legacy he left behind; all those works that continue to make us smile.

Gilbert by the cartoonist Spy



The VV can hardly believe it but, by the end of this month, her novel will actually be published.

And here is a Review of The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. The VV loves this because Pamreader really 'gets' all the themes and nuances that she hoped to convey in the novel.



In Michel Faber’s novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, the subject of some previous posts – the main male character, William Rackham, has inherited a soap ‘empire’; the product famed for its Lavender perfume and also having William’s face printed on the packaging.

What a brilliant decision of Faber’s to select that particular product on which to base his industrialist’s wealth, with William's story reeking of filth and degradation. 


A contemporary Victorian model for a business such as Rackham's could very well be that of Pears – the company that won a medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851. How proud William Rackham would have been if only his soap had achieved as much! 

Pears soap was named after Andrew Pears who originally hailed from Cornwall before travelling to London to set up in trade as a barber.  There, in 1789 Andrew began to manufacture cosmetics which he based on glycerine and natural oils, with those ingredients believed to be purer and kinder than some others which which enhanced what was then the fashionable look of an ‘alabaster’ complexion - but which also contained harsh ingredients such as arsenic or lead.

As the years went by Pear's cosmetics business grew popular and prospered, until eventually handed down to Andrew's grandson, Francis. Francis then built a factory on the outskirts of London, in Isleworth and, later, in the nineteenth century, his son-in-law, Thomas J Barratt, helped to promote the family brand before he took over as head of the firm. 

Barratt is sometimes spoken of as the father of modern advertising. He took to buying the rights to art which he then reproduced as posters, adding enormously to the popularity of the soap. If you look for Pears in Google images you will find a huge selection of prints. Why, even Mr Millais, one of the VV’s favourites, provided a picture for Pears to use: ‘Bubbles’ is still very well known today.

Another promotional method was to use the soap as an emblem of cleanliness of the civilisation spreading throughout Queen Victoria's Empire. Images such as this one below would be construed as racist today, though it is actually mild compared with some of the others used.

Ingeniously, at one point, unwanted coins were bought from France and then re-pressed with the words ‘Pears Soap’. This advertising tool was then often passed off as common currency. 

Lily Langtry, famed for her ivory skin, was employed as a celebrity endorser of the brand, for which she was very handsomely paid - a fact that Punch magazine made fun of in various cartoons. 

Between 1891 and 1925 Pears printed Christmas Annuals - books with stories where some pages were filled with the company's advertisements. 

Also in the early twentieth century the 'Miss Pears' competition was born, with families entering their little girls in the hope that they might then become the next beautiful 'face’ of Pears. 

Pears soap is an enduring brand that can still be bought in the shops today, the almost transparent amber bars being unique and widely loved – so much so that when Unilever, the company who now own the brand, attempted to alter the perfume there was an enormous public campaign to revert to the original.

I'm sure that Mr Andrew Pears would be extremely proud to know that his recipe endures today.




Another post on The Crimson Petal and the White, simply because the television dramatisation of the book proved to be such a roaring success. And the VV must also take time to admit that her previous fears were proved to be wrong - in that the screenwriters had not cut the part of William Rackham's little daughter, Sophie. She was there after all, and wonderfully played by the child actor, Isla Watt - and the VV's only reservation was that in the final episode Sophie's future appeared to be safe and secure, whereas in the book the conclusion was far more ambiguous and, if anything, the suggestion was that Sophie might well go on to be trapped in Sugar's previous way of life - with Sugar acting the madam, just as her own mother had done before - which would have been tragic for all concerned - and which would have haunted William Rackham who, despite the VV's initial doubts was admirably played by Chris O'Dowd.

Chris O'Dowd went on to truly 'possess' William Rackham's character, leaving the viewer poised between angry contempt for his boorish and selfish vanity, and complete and utter pity for the ultimate end fate had in store when he was totally outplayed by the prostitute he might have ruined - just as he ruined his wife before when so blind to her pain and suffering.

And when that final episode was screened in Waterstone's Piccadilly last week, followed by a question and answer session with the author Michel Faber, and the actor Romola Garai (who played Sugar so brilliantly), the evening was attended by the writer and actor, Kate Mayfield, who has written the following article -

'An invisible passion ran throughout Waterstone’s event room as the last instalment of The Crimson Petal and the White was screened to over forty eager viewers. After the last image of Sugar and Sophie on the smoky train platform faded, some doors opened and Michel Faber, the author, Lucinda Coxon, the screenwriter, and Romala Garai, the actress who played Sugar, walked into the room.

Michel Faber opened the discussion with his opinion that authors have impossible expectations when their work is adapted. He was impressed and delighted with the series and had no negative experiences. When his book was first published he did not go directly to Google to gauge readers’ reactions, but after the first episode aired, he was eager to find out what people were saying.

Michel wrote the book three times. You might recall in the opening of both the novel and the series a nameless woman is run over by a cab. In the first draft Sugar met her end the same way, while Sophie stood by as a horrified witness to Sugar’s demise. The prostitute Caroline rescued Sugar’s novel only to burn it for warmth. Thankfully, Michel’s wife screamed, ‘No, you mustn’t do that to the readers, or to the characters’.

When asked how he approached the characters he said, “They were not an artificial construct. Once they were real it wasn’t difficult.”

Michel said he could easily give a forty-five minute lecture on the research for the novel. Many people thought he made things up, as in the books and pamphlets cataloguing the prostitutes. The real books of the era were even grimmer, wherein prostitutes were described as grades of hanging slaughtered meat. “One that had hung too long was a bit wiffy.” As intense as his representation of the rookery, the lives and fates of prostitutes were, he toned it down, the reality being much worse.

Michel thought there should have been six instalments instead of four. Lucinda Coxon agreed. She regretted that there was not time to include more of the characters of Henry and Mrs. Fox, an impossible task in four hours.

The project was first brought to Lucinda Coxon by an American studio, from which she immediately bowed out. She rightly thought it wouldn’t survive the process. Time passed and she was raring to go with “a fire in her belly” when the project fell into her hands again and to the BBC. Then Lucinda did something she’d never done before. She ripped the book apart into four sections so that she could travel with it on the tube, and it wasn’t surprising to hear that her biggest challenge was the compression of such a long novel. 

In speaking of adjustments and liberties taken, Lucinda couldn’t find a way to wink at the audience to relay that Agnes suffered from a brain tumour and decided to focus instead on the condition of anorexia, so prevalent in Victorian upper and middle class women whose food intake was the one thing they could control in their lives.

At the end of the novel, Cheesman, the carriage driver, demands and receives sex from Sugar before he allows her to escape. Lucinda said she couldn’t bear it, and had Sugar strike him with her walking cane, finally able to express her anger physically.

Lucinda saw Sugar as such an epic heroine that there could be nothing “domestic” about the ending. It was not important for us to know exactly what happened next. Michel was pleased with the image of the fresh, clean pieces of parchment upon which Sugar begins a new draft of her novel, a new life. We see the blank page at a point where we can no longer look up her knickers, or watch her scratch herself. She finally has her privacy.

Sugar was a role that Romala Garai fought hard to win, but like many large roles, once it was hers she was daunted. She called it “a strange piece of casting” for Sugar was unlike her in every way.

The powers that be at the BBC weren’t comfortable with the idea of a heroine having eczema. The images we’ve seen of Sugar’s eczema-tortured skin were possible thanks to Romala who fought to wear the ugly latex patches.

Romala’s biggest challenge was that she loved Sugar so much she had to continually resist the urge to make her invincible. Sugar is strong in many ways, but also incredibly vulnerable and tender. Romala loved the research, but the director pulled her away from it and asked her to focus on each moment.

All three agreed that what they had learned from the experience was related to the illusory power of women – and how not much has changed. Their opinion was that today women are offered the appearance of power, but someone else is often calling the shots.

Michel Faber ended the evening by saying the success of the book reconfirmed that readers are intelligent and still long for a good story. He was heartened by the fact that literary fiction survives as long as there are characters and story.'

Kate Mayfield

Kate Mayfield's own book is called The Undertaker's Women. You can learn more about Kate, read excerpts from her book, and watch a film trailer which she narrates at this website.

And finally, for a related post, see THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE...