From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, one of the most popular English entertainers was Stanley Holloway, who carved out a niche for himself reciting comical poetic monologues in a northern working class accent, one of the last hurrahs of the old ‘Vaudeville’ music hall tradition. He went on to star in films and television on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as on the stage. Most of his famous monologues were written for him by the poet Marriott Edgar, who had worked with Holloway in a 1920’s stage revue called The Co-Optimists. By the 1960’s, few British households with one of those new-fangled record players did not have an LP of Stanley Holloway monologues.
By far the most iconic of the Stanley Holloway monologues was The Lion and Albert, which was so popular when first introduced by Holloway in 1931 that he commissioned Edgar to write a series of follow-ups based on the Albert Ramsbottom character. Incredibly, the original was inspired by an actual newspaper headline, where a boy was reportedly eaten by a lion in Blackpool Zoo. Apparently Edgar found this amusing! Maybe he knew the boy… But in any case, by the 1970’s, most British people ‘of a certain age’ could have recited the famous opening stanzas of The Lion and Albert … even if they would mistakenly refer to it as Albert and The Lion.
The piece pokes gentle fun at a number of Northern British stereotypes of the day. Being careful with their money. Dressing up on Sundays. Respect for authority. Understatement. Dour practicality, and a largely absent sense of humor. All encapsulated in a typically Vaudevillian piece of Theatre Of The Absurd.
I had mentioned in passing in a previous column that in my youth I sang in a Male Voice Choir known as the B.U. One of the things we regularly did was visit retirement homes, and perform a small concert for the retirees. Although our repertoire was far more serious and high-brow than the expected fare of sing-along classics, our little show was always warmly received. But whatever else we might have sung, we always ended up the same way … one of our troupe was able to recite from memory the entirety of The Lion and Albert, complete with his own approximation of Stanley Holloway’s famous faux-northern accent, and it was always – without exception – everybody’s favorite part of the show, bar none.
Nowadays, The Lion and Albert has largely drifted from popular awareness, its simpler, less sophisticated expression of entertainment having long since been deemed inadequate. But iconic art will always remain iconic art, and The Lion and Albert – for all its unapologetic anachronism – is just as hilarious today as it ever was. The simple nonsense of the poetic doggerel, the dated accent, the dead-pan delivery, are all absolutely classical in their own way.
Here is Stanley Holloway, reciting his famous monologue, in a recording from about 1932:
… and here’s the poem itself, if you want to follow along:
There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh air and fun,
And Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.
A grand little lad was young Albert,
All dressed in his best, quite a swell,
With a stick with a horse’s head handle,
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.
They didn’t think much to the Ocean,
The waves, they was piddling and small.
There was no wrecks and nobody drownded.
In fact, nothing to laugh at at all!
So, seeking for further amusement,
They paid and went into the Zoo,
Where they’d Lions and Tigers and Camels.
And old ale and sandwiches too!
There were one great big Lion called Wallace.
His nose was all covered with scars.
He lay in a somnolent posture,
With the side of his face on the bars.
Now Albert had heard about Lions,
How they was ferocious and wild.
To see Wallace lying so peaceful,
Well, it didn’t seem right to the child.
So straightway the brave little feller,
Not showing a morsel of fear,
Took his stick with his horse’s head handle
… And shoved it in Wallace’s ear.
You could see that the Lion didn’t like it,
For giving a kind of a roll,
He pulled Albert inside the cage with him,
And swallowed the little lad whole.
Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence,
And didn’t know what to do next,
Said “Mother! Yon Lion’s ate Albert!”,
And Mother said, “Eeee, I am vexed!”
Then Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom,
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done,
Complained to the Animal Keeper,
That the Lion had eaten their son.
The keeper was quite nice about it.
He said “What a nasty mishap.
Are you sure that it’s your boy he’s eaten?”
Pa said “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”
The manager had to be sent for.
He came and he said “What’s to do?”
Pa said “Yon Lion’s ate Albert,
And him in his Sunday clothes, too.”
Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller.
I think it’s a shame and a sin,
For a lion to go and eat Albert,
And after we’ve paid to come in.”
The manager wanted no trouble,
He took out his purse right away,
Saying “How much to settle the matter?”
Pa said “What do you usually pay?”
But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone.
She said “No! Someone’s got to be summonsed!”
So that was decided upon.
Then off they went to the Police Station,
In front of the Magistrate chap.
They told him what happened to Albert,
And proved it by showing his cap.
The Magistrate gave his opinion
That no one was really to blame,
And he said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.
At that, Mother got proper blazing,
And, “Thank you, sir, kindly,” said she.
“What, waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy Lions? Not me!”