More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’

21 Apr


Last year I wrote a post about Dan Leno’s act ‘Queen of My Heart’, in which he played a bashed wife in a parody of romantic song. Really, the post was about the whole genre of songs concerning domestic violence and masculine anger towards women which I had encountered in acts performed on the 1880-90s Australian variety stage.

The post, perhaps provocatively entitled ‘Clownish Misogyny’, attracted a number of comments by Leno aficionados. They objected to his act being singled out in this way. It was wrong, they said, to make Leno the poster-boy for music-hall songs about misogyny. Most of his repertoire was about men making fun of themselves, and when he played women it was with a pathos and a knowingness underlying the comic shtick which gave them an emotional complexity of their own.

I was amazed, given this exchange, to find Tony Lidington performing ‘Queen of My Heart’ in his performance, Dan Leno: The King’s Jester (reviewed in my last post). Having seen it, I can see that in many ways those commenting on the post were right. That song, at least, is more a painfully matter-of-fact commentary on the reality lived by battered women than a humorous attack upon them. And yes, it portrays the ‘heroine’ getting ready to give back as good as she got later in the night.

The joke, then, is on romantic sentimentality far more than the woman herself in the song. But still, there is something highly uncomfortable about it from this retrospective vantage. The notion that a woman being bashed about might be presented in comic mode in any sense is uncomfortable, however much of a pathetic undercurrent the performance possessed.

As Lidington presents it in Dan Leno, songs about the underside of lower working-class married life were a feature of Leno’s early routines in the London halls, as indeed they were of others’ routines at the time. Leno was steered away from this subject matter by the managers of the halls once he went big towards the end of the 1880s, however, when the business was aiming aggressively at a wider-than-working-class clientele.

‘Queen of My Heart’ may not have been representative of Leno’s entire oeuvre, then, but it was characteristic of a certain genre among his performances early in his music-hall career. The recordings he later made did not cover this period of his performing life,  and so do not capture the tenor of those early songs.

Note: The above image is a picture of Leno as a panto dame by Stanley Cock, and was sourced from the About Postcards blog.

7 Responses to “More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’”

  1. Lidian 21 April 2009 at 7:02 pm #

    What was Leno’s background re his relationships with women? This is fascinating, thank you yet again. I will have to look up your last-year’s post…

    • Melissa Bellanta 25 April 2009 at 6:17 pm #

      Well, I couldn’t rightly say I know much about Leno’s relationship with women. He was married to another music hall performer and had multiple children (five, from memory): I have seen a photograph of them outside their house in Balhham, London, looking respectably suburban, in a brief display of biographical info which Lidington got together for his Dan Leno production. There is nothing to say for sure that his songs based on domestic violence were drawn directly from his own family when he was a child, but both his father and stepfather were alcoholic and down-and-out, and may well have expressed this violently towards Leno’s mother when he was young. What had happened to his wife by the time he had experienced his breakdowns around the 1903 I cannot say… Does anyone else know this?

  2. Barry Anthony 23 February 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    Just for the record a good deal of Leno’s repertoire from the late 1880s onward survives on Gramophone Co. discs made between 1901-1903, including the Queen of My Heart parody.

    We don’t really have any evidence that Leno’s father and step father were alcoholic – they were certainly both well respected performers who like most other variety artists of their time had highs and lows. Leno doted on his mother and appears to have been very fond of his stepfather.

  3. Barry Anthony 23 February 2010 at 10:37 pm #

    Leno’s wife Lydia nursed the comedian during his final illness and inherited his estate of around £10,000. She remarried – another performer – in 1907 and lived until 1942.
    Lydia was a more than capable performer in her own right, and during their early years of marriage often appeared with Leno.

    • Melissa Bellanta 23 February 2010 at 10:40 pm #

      Now that’s certainly something I didn’t know. Thanks, Barry. And thanks for the call for caution about branding the Lenos senior as alcoholics – it’s easy to fall for that kind of generalisation, perhaps even prejudice, about variety performers from that time.

  4. Barry Anthony 19 June 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    Just to let you know that my biography of Leno “The King’s Jester” has now been published by I. B. Tauris. I hope that I’ve taken a fair, but frank, view of the comedian.

    • Melissa Bellanta 21 June 2010 at 5:45 am #

      Many thanks for letting me know, Barry. Congratulations! I’ll check it out. – Melissa

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