espite its significance as the major form of working-class stage entertainment over a sixty-year period, the music hall remains a neglected area in studies of nineteenth-century music. Much of the scholarly work available tends to focus on social and economic issues, which are usually linked to the troubled relationship between popular culture and public morality.1 Treatment of music-hall performance has been confined mainly to biographical discussions of the stars of the halls, especially the lions comiques. In the late 1980s, however, questions of performance and style, and the representation of character types, such as the ‘swell’, formed the subject of a few critical studies.2 This article moves on from there to consider not just parodic representation or character acting but the ‘imagined real’ of certain music-hall characters. Leading the confusion of the real and the imaginary in the 1890s was the portrayal on stage and in song of the Cockney, often a costermonger. Costermongers or, more familiarly, costers were itinerant street traders who usually sold fruit or vegetables from a donkey-drawn barrow (the name was derived from costard, a type of apple). My argument is that from the 1840s to the 1890s the representation of the Cockney in musical entertainments goes through three successive phases: it begins with parody, moves to the character-type, and ends with the imagined real. In this final phase, the stage representation is no longer derived from the flesh-and-blood Cockney; instead, it consists of a replication of an already existing representation.3
Phase I: Parody
hen Charles Dickens introduced the Cockney character Sam Weller into his serialized Pickwick Papers in 1836, the impact was enormous; for a start, sales increased a thousandfold over those for the previous issue. The binders had prepared 400 copies of the first number but ‘were called on for forty thousand of the fifteenth’.4 In consequence, the character was to have a lasting effect on the representation of Cockneys elsewhere.
Many of the features of what became familiar as ‘literary’ Cockney language are already in place in the anecdote that Sam Weller delivers on his first appearance in Pickwick Papers:
‘My father, sir, wos a coachman. A widower he wos, and fat enough for anything—uncommon fat, to be sure. His missus dies, and leaves him four hundred pound. Down he goes to the Commons, to see the lawyer and draw the blunt—wery smart—top boots on—nosegay in his butt on-hole—broad-brimmed tile—green shawl—quite the gen’lm’n. Goes through the archvay, thinking how' he should inwest the money—up comes the touter, touches his hat— licence, sir, licence?’—‘What’s that?’ says my father.—‘Licence, sir’, says he.—‘What licence?’ says my father.—‘Marriage licence’, says the touter.—‘Dash my veskit,’ says my father, ‘I never thought o’ that.’—‘I think you wants one, sir’, says the touter. My father pulls up, and thinks abit—‘No,’ says he, ‘damme, I’m too old, b’sides I’m a many sizes too large’, says he.—‘Not a bit on it, sir’, says the touter.—‘Think not?’ says my father.—‘I’m sure not,’ says he; ‘we married a gen’lm’n twice your size, last Monday.’—‘Did you, though’, said my father.—To be sure we did,’ says the touter, ‘you’re a babby to him—this way, sir—this way!’—and sure enough my father walks arter him, like a tame monkey behind a horgan, into a little back office, vere a feller sat among dirty papers and tin boxes, making believe he was busy. ‘Pray take a seat, vile I makes out the affidavit, sir’, says the lawyer.—Thankee, sir’, says my father, and down he sat, and stared with all his eyes, and his mouth vide open, at the names on the boxes. ‘What’s your name, sir’, says the lawyer.— ‘Tony Weller’, says my father.—‘Parish?’ says the lawyer.—‘Belle Savage’, says my father; for he stopped there wen he drove up, and he know’d nothing about parishes, he didn’t.— ‘And what’s the lady’s name?’ says the lawyer. My father was struck all of a heap. ‘Blessed if I know’, says he.—‘Not know!’ says the lawyer.—‘No more nor you do,’ says my father, ‘can’t I put that in arterwards?’—‘Impossible!’ says the lawyer.—‘Wery well,’ says my father, after he’d thought a moment, ‘put down Mrs. Clarke.’—‘What Clarke?’ says the lawyer, dipping his pen in the ink.—‘Susan Clarke, Markis o’ Granby, Dorking’, says my father; ‘she’ll have me, if I ask, I des-say—I never said nothing to her, but she’ll have me, I know.’ The licence was made out, and she did have him, and what’s more she’s got him now; and / never had any of the four hundred pound, worse luck. Beg your pardon, sir,’ said Sam, when he had concluded, ‘but wen I gets on this here grievance, I runs on like a new barrow vith the wheel greased.’"
The characterizing features of Sam Weller’s language can be grouped together as follows:
1. Addition, subtraction, and substitution of letters: for example, ‘horgan’ (organ), ‘babby’ (baby), ‘gen’lm’n’ (gentleman), ‘des-sayr’ (dare say), ‘arter’ (after), ‘archvay’ (archway), ‘inwest’ (invest).
2. Use of catchphrases or sayings: for example, ‘Dash my veskit’ [waistcoat]; ‘struck all of a heap’; ‘I runs on like a new barrow vith the wheel greased’.
3. Use of the present tense for the past: for example, ‘His missus dies and leaves him four hundred pound’; ‘up comes the touter’.
4. Use of non-standard vocabulary (neologisms, malapropisms, and dialect words): for example, ‘broad-brimmed tile'; ‘draw the blunt\
Back slang does not appear, nor the rhyming-slang so associated with Cockneys speech. Cockney humour is there in the association made between roofs and heads — the reference to wearing a ‘broad-brimmed tile’. Compare the examples of slang Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor (1851) cites as being used by the costermongers.'6 These show the common use of back slang, which sometimes, though not always, changes a meaning to its opposite: for example, a ‘trosseno’ means not an honest sort (‘onessort’) but a bad sort of person (as ‘yrob’ means a bad boy). They also offer insight into Cockneys humour—‘do the tightener’ means to go to dinner, that is, cause one’s clothes to become tight at the waist. Dickens is restricted in the use he can make of actual Cockneys slang, because it would not be understood by his middle-class readers; therefore, a phrase cited by Mayhew, like 'cool ta the dillo nemo5 (look at the old woman), is out.
Some features of Cockney language and character may be of Dickens's invention, and others exaggerated by him: for example, the extent to which an initial 'w' is replaced by V and vice versa.7 We also have to bear in mind that Dickens was not writing for a Cockney readership. A literate Cockney would not, after all, require special Cockney spellings. Moreover, there is often a moral prejudice at work when Dickens writes non-standard English. The description used to be 'substandard English', a phrase that could easily suggest that it accompanied substandard morals: it helps to explain why some of Dickens's characters, like the good Oliver Twist, unaccountably resist what may be interpreted as the 'corruption' of the street vernacular. Even a middle-class character who uses slang, like James Harthouse in Hard Times, demonstrates a tendency to moral weakness (Harthouse's 'idle' use of language is symptomatic of his indolent life; he is continually ‘going in' for things but lacks application).
Now let us examine an example of parodic representation in song. The Ratcatcher's Daughter, a 'serio-comic ballad' that enjoyed immense success in the 1840s and 1850s, is supposedly sung by a Cockney and tells a tale of costermonger romance and tragedy. The words, in fact, issued from the pen of the Revd Edward Bradley,8 and the music (headed with the expression mark comicoso con jokerando) is attributed to the comedian Sam Cowell (1820—64).9 The latter had been born in London but, from the year after, grew up in America, where he gained his acting experience.10 He returned only in 1840 and, later that decade, made this song popular at Evans's Song and Supper Rooms. These formed part of a hotel located in Covent Garden, an area where costermongers were a common sight, thus enabling patrons of Evans's to make an on-the-spot comparison between the real and the parody. Costermongers may have set up their barrows or gone to collect food in London's West End, but this was not, of course, a Cockney area of the city. Those were the East End and across the Thames in Lambeth; both places were inclined to assert that they were home to the genuine Cockney. The Song and Supper Rooms of the 1830s and 1840s, whether in Covent Garden or in and around the Strand, cannot be considered remotely working-class in character or clientele, although some of the performers there were later to make the transition to the stages of the more socially varied and geographically dispersed music halls. The tune and first two verses of The Ratcatcher's Daughter are given in Ex. 1. Repeating the previous taxonomy of Cockney features, a lyric analysis of the complete song11 reveals the following:
1. Addition, subtraction, and substitution of letters: for example, 'haccident’, '’at’, 'nuffink’, 'arter’,
2. Use of catch phrases or sayings: for example, 'bunch of carrots’; 'cock’d his ears’; 'dead as any herrein’ ’ (herring).
3. Use of the present tense for the past: for example, 'so ’ere is an end of Lily-Vite Sand’.
4. Use of neologisms, malapropisms, and dialect words: for example, 'putty’ (pretty); and in the spoken passage after the last verse: 'resusticated’, 'seminary’ (cemetery).
Ex. 1. The Ratcatcher’s Daughter. Words by the Revd E. Bradley, music attributed to Sam Cowell.
No reality effect is achieved by the lyrics of this song for a variety of reasons: first, because of its satirical character (for example, the reference to her 'sweet loud woice’); second, because of the random way it drops an initial 'h’ (for example, 'hat' in the first verse, ‘’at’ in the second); third, because of the mechanical way it exchanges an initial V for ‘w’ (which highlights a glaring inconsistency in verses 8 and 9, where 'what’ appears in the former and ‘vot’ in the latter); and fourth, because of its patronizing use of malapropisms, like 'seminary’ for 'cemetery’. One expression, 't’other’ (for 'the other’), stands out oddly, since it is normally associated with the speech of West Yorkshire. Sam Cowell, as the singer, would have been constructing a persona for the audience not to laugh with but, rather, to laugh at. Another Cowell song, Bacon and Greens, shows the kind of audience he expects to be performing to in the unidentified musical quotations used for its interludes. There would be no point choosing quotations that would go unrecognized (they are Bishop’s Home, Sweet Home!, Haynes Bayly’s Long, Long Ago, and Balfe’s The Light of Other Days). It need hardly be added that the musical style of The Ratcatcher’s Daughter is more redolent of the drawing room than the street; this ‘polite’ character, indeed, adds to its humour.
Another example of the Cockney parody song is Villikins and his Dinah, sung by Frederick Robson as the character Jem Bags in a 'comedietta’ at the Olympic Theatre12 entitled The Wandering Minstrel (1853). It was again made famous by Sam Cowell.13 The 'Villikins’ of the title is offered as a Cockneyfied ‘William’, but that there is nothing particularly Cockney about the tune is evident from its being known in the USA as the melody of'Sweet Betsy from Pike’. A selection of words and phrases will give its flavour: ‘wery’, 'siliver’, ‘parient’, 'consikvence’, 'inconsiderabl’’ (mala-propism for 'inconsiderate’), 'diskivery’, ‘unkimmon nice’, 'mind who you claps eyes on’.
It is instructive to compare these parodic songs with Sam Had, a ballad that the Scottish entertainer W. G. Ross derived from the earlier Jack Hall14 and made famous at the Cyder Cellars,15 one of the West End’s less salubrious venues, located at No. 20 Maiden Lane (which runs parallel to the north side of the Strand). Melodramatic in its cursing and brutality, it has little in common with the songs so far discussed. However, we need to find out what was taking place in venues that were even further downmarket to obtain an idea of what costermongers were watching and listening to at this time. Evidence, admittedly in prejudiced form, can be gleaned from the journalist James Ritchie’s description of a costermongers’ ‘Free and Easy’, a sing-song in the concert room of a public house:
I once penetrated into one of these dens. It was situated in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house. . . . Anybody sings who likes; sometimes a man, sometimes a female, volunteers a performance, and I am sorry to say it is not the girls who sing the most delicate songs. . . . One song, with a chorus, was devoted to the deeds of 'those handsome men, the French Grenadiers’. Another recommended beer as a remedy for low spirits; and thus the harmony of the evening is continued till twelve, when the landlord closes his establishment.16
Further insight is provided by Heniy Mayhew’s account of a ‘penny gafP, in this instance a public entertainment taking place on a small stage in a converted room above a warehouse:
The ‘comic singer’, in a battered hat and . . . huge bow to his cravat, was received with deafening shouts. Several songs were named by the costers, but the ‘funny gentleman’ merely requested them ‘to hold their jaws’, and putting on a ‘knowing’ look, sang a song, the whole point of which consisted in the mere utterance of some filthy word at the end of each stanza. Nothing, however, could have been more successful. . . . The lads stamped their feet with delight; the girls screamed with enjoyment. When the song was ended the house was in a delirium of applause. The canvass front to the gallery was beaten with sticks, drum-like, and sent down showers of white powder on the heads in the pit. Another song followed, and the actor knowing on what his success depended, lost no opportunity of increasing his laurels. The most obscene thoughts, the most disgusting scenes were coolly described, making a poor child near me wipe away the tears that rolled down her eyes with the enjoyment of the poison.17
To summarize Phase 1, the subject position of the parodic Cockney song was middle class. It was influenced in its language by Dickensian Cockney, and in its music by bourgeois domestic song. It represented Cockneys as figures of fun for those who had little cultural understanding of working-class Londoners. Consequently, these songs that supposedly issued from the mouths of Cockneys bore no relation to what was happening in pubs and penny gaffs of the East End.
Phase 2: The Character-Type
n the 1860s the Cockney becomes one among several character-types available to the music-hall performer; others can be, for example, Irish, blackface, rustic, or a city ‘swell’. The character-type differs from the parodic Cockney in that he or she is no longer viewed through a satirical lens. This is not to deny that character-types can slip easily into stereotypes. An important feature to note during this phase, however, is that the identity of the performer is not confused with that of the character. The performer is unmistakably acting a role on stage, as Harry Clifton played the part of a brokenhearted Cockney milkman in one of the enduring songs of this decade, Polly Perkins of Paddington Green [performance].18
Alfred Vance (real name Alfred Peck Stevens, 1839—88), one of the lions comiques, was the first to represent the coster on the music-hall stage.19His The Ticket of Leave Man (1864)20 is very different from The Ratcatcher's Daughter in both its lyrics and its Jewish melodic and rhythmic character (see Ex. 2).
The presence of Jewish elements should come as no surprise, given that Mayhew, basing his figures on calculations by the Chief Rabbi, had estimated the number of Jews living in London at mid-century as 18,000.'21 A later survey suggests that the figure may have been around 25,000.22 The majority of the Jewish working class lived in the East End, especially in or near Whitechapel. The overall population of Whitechapel was 73,518 when Charles Booth was writing in 1891,23but by then many more Jews had arrived (London’s Jewish population, native and foreign-born, had increased to 140,000 by 1900). One might speculate as to whether or not Cockney back slang owes anything to the fact that Hebrew is read from right to left, in other words backwards compared to English.24
Certainly, in a Cockney back-slang expression like 'esilop' for 'police' it is a reversal of how the word is read rather than how the word sounds (which would have produced 'seelop'). Interestingly, the Cockney music-hall performer George Coborn24 sings the chorus of his well-known Two Lovely Black Eyes in several languages, including Hebrew, on a record he made in 1904.24
Until they began to be undersold by poor Irish immigrants, Jewish street traders had almost a monopoly on the sale of oranges and lemons, the former fruit being as popular in music halls then as popcorn is in cinemas today. More than anything, perhaps, Jews were associated with clothes and tailoring, providing the 'slap-up toggery' for a Cockney night out or Sunday jaunt. Because of the strength of the Jewish community in the East End, the Jewish Cockney was a well-known character. The father of a popular songwriter of the 1930s, Michael Carr (born Maurice Cohen), for example, was a boxer known, significantly, as 'Cockney Cohen'. Whether being a Jew or being a Cockney came first was probably no more an issue than whether, say, being a Catholic came before being a Scouser (Liverpudlian).
It is difficult to find contemporary Jewish secular music to compare with Vance's Ticket of Leave. One of the melodies for Hallel, however, has several points of resemblance and was published in a collection of music of the Sephardic liturgy seven years before Vance's song appeared (see Ex. 3).27 Sephardim were originally the dominant Jewish community in Whitechapel but, as they became affluent, began to leave the area. Their place was taken, in the main, by Ashkenazim from Poland and Russia. I also offer, perhaps less reliably, an example of a traditional Jewish folksong, Ale Brider ('We are all Brothers’), because of the interesting comparison it provides with Vance's song (see Ex. 4).
It will be noted that most of the melodic material of all three occurs between the tonic and fifth above, that minor gives way to relative major, and that they all feature a melodic stepwise descent from fifth to tonic. The latter is most striking at the final cadences of Exs. 2 and 4 (see bracketed passages), which also share a 2/4 rhythm and vigorous accompaniment.28 Vance's song's kinship to a Jewish musical style is not flattering, however: the singer is a Cockney member of the criminal fraternity: to be given a 'ticket of leave' was to be released on probation.
Vance's coster representations met with resounding success from the moment he introduced his coster songs like The Chickaleary Cove on the music-hall stage in the 1860s. However, it should be borne in mind that he was not just a Cockney character actor or coster comedian; he was 'The Great Vance' and played other character-types such as the 'swell'—the exhibitionist toff or swaggering ‘man about town'. Example 5 gives a taste of the very different character of music and lyrics found in his celebrated swell song The School of Jolly Dogs.
To summarize Phase 2, the identity of the performer remains separate from that of the character portrayed. The cultural experience of Cockneys is mediated by performers who are character-acting on the music-hall stage; hence, the appeal of the Cockney character-type is broader in class terms than that of the parodic type.
Phase 3: The Imagined Real
hen we reach Phase 3 in the 1880s, the performer is no longer thought of as playing a role but as being the character. In putting forward this argument, I must warn against too close a link being made to Jean Baudrillard's theory of simulacra. I am, certainly, claiming that, just as in Baudrillard’s third-order simulation, this third phase substitutes ‘signs of the real for the real itself’,29 but Baudrillard sees third-order simulation as a feature of twentieth-century post modernity: it is a ‘generation by models of a real without origin or reality’.30 As far as the music-hall Cockney ceases to relate to the real wrorld and is, instead, generated by stage models, this phenomenon might be considered to adumbrate the type of postmodern hyperreality Baudrilland has in mind. He did, after all, make the following pertinent comments on the role of art: ‘For a long time now art has prefigured this transformation of everyday life. Very quickly, the work of art redoubled itself as a manipulation of the signs of art. .. . Thus art entered the phase of its own indefinite reproduction.31
The music-hall Cockney song becomes increasingly self-reflexive. Bessie Belwood’s Wot Cheer ’Ria (Herbert—Bell Wood, 1885) has a title that is a catchphrase in the making: in the lyrics to later songs (discussed below) it moves, over time, to ‘Wot Cheri and ‘Wot’cheri, gradually transforming itself into the ‘wotcha’ still heard around the East End today.32 Bessie Bellwood (1857—96) wras regarded as a real Cockney, and she had a hand in the writing of this her best-known song. Actually, her real name wras Kathleen Mahoney, and she started out as a singer of Irish songs.33 So, now we see the influence of the Irish Cockney as well as the Jewish Cockney.34 The song concerns someone attempting to rise above her station, speculating a ‘bob’ (one shilling) for a posh seat in the stalls rather than sitting with her friends in the cheap gallery seats (see Ex. 6). It might be thought that Jewish elements can still be detected in this song, in the melodic style of the minor-key verse and in the key change to the relative major for the refrain, but perhaps these features came now as an influence from already assimilated elements in other music-hall songs. From now on, it becomes difficult to say exactly where Jewish elements come from, even in twentieth-century musical theatre such as in Lionel Bart's Oliver! (1960).35
A clear example of how inward-looking music-hall song has become in the 1880s appears in the chorus of What Cheer ’Ria in the line 'she looks Immenseikoff’[sic], which refers back to a Cockney swell-song hit, Immensikoff written and sung by another star of the halls, Arthur Lloyd (who, we might note, was actually Scottish) in 1873 (see Ex. 7).
It should be mentioned, perhaps, that the swell was not a character-type restricted to male performers: Jenny Hill (1850—96) portrayed another Cockney would-be swell in ’Any (E. V. Page) in the 1880s.36 The character itself remained male, however; there was no London music-hall equivalent of the female swell or gommeuse seen in Parisian cafés-concerts. The female counterpart of ’Arry and his pearly buttons was his 'donah’ ’Arriet and her feathered bonnet. It was she Shaw had in mind for Eliza Doolittle when he set about writing Pygmalion in 1913: 'Caesar and Cleopatra have been driven clean out of my head’, he remarked, 'by a play I want to write for them in which he shall be a west-end gentleman and she an east-end dona with an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers.’37
The self-reflexivity of music-hall song is evident in both the title of Wot Cher! (Chevalier—Ingle) of 1891 and, musically, in its use of minor-key verse and relative-major chorus. However, some details of pronunciation have changed: we are given ‘very’, not the ‘werry’ that was used in the first verse of Bellwood’s song. Cher! enjoyed enormous popularity and helped to establish a jerky dotted rhythm and leaping melody as standard features of coster songs. The overall effect can be enhanced with lurching stage movements and cracks in vocal delivery (see Ex. 8).
The song was made famous by Albert Chevalier (1861—1923), who was important to the growing respectability of the halls. The music-hall management were, at this time, concerned to emphasize that men took their wives to the music hall rather than going there to consort with ‘loose women’. The police had become very persistent in looking out for prostitutes: they even opposed a licence to London’s lavish Oxford Music Hall in 1874 on the grounds that women had been admitted without men, which they assumed could mean only one thing.38 Mayhew’s research had shown that costers usually cohabited in an unmarried state, so Chevalier’s coster song My Old Dutch (1892; performance) strikes a blow for respectability.39
It is a eulogy to forty idyllic years with his wife ('Dutch’ is short for 'Duchess of Fife’, Cockney rhyming slang for 'wife’). With his theatrical flair, however, Chevalier raised the emotional temperature of the song, as well as introducing social comment, by singing it in front of a stage set consisting of the doors to a workhouse, a place that was often a last refuge for many poor elderly couples and which segregated them by sex. Notice how respectability pervades the music itself, in the guise of features that would have been associated with the middle-class drawing-room ballad (see Ex. 9). Similar repeated quaver chords appear, for example, in the final repeat of the refrain of Come into the Garden, Maud (Tennyson—Balfe, 1857). The song has untypical harmonic richness, and more attention has been given to the bass fine than is the norm for music-hall songs. It has an unusually active harmonic rhythm, too, lending it hymn-like associations.
Mrs Ormiston Chant, a moral crusader outraged by the likes of Marie Lloyd, recorded visiting a music hall in the 'poorest part’ of London and being moved by the audience’s singing of the chorus to this song. She thought the emotion it generated 'might be a means of introducing into lives a tenderness and a sentiment not hitherto displayed’.40 Unlike the style of Wot Cher!, however, the refined style of My Old Dutch had no lasting impact on music-hall songs. In 1911 Hubert Parry felt able to draw a general comparison between the latter and Cockney speech; they were both, he considered, 'the result of sheer perverse delight in ugly and offensive sound’.41
Ernest Augustus Elen (1862— 1S340) was, and still is, often put forward as the ‘real’ to Chevalier’s 'sentimental’ coster, as the ‘tough’ and 'true to life’ character found on the streets of London. Gus Elen’s working-class background is often cited approvingly; Chevalier’s background was lower middle class. Elen had worked as a draper’s assistant, an egg-packer, and a barman, though how much such experiences informed his stage persona is impossible to say. He spoke of the influence of Chevalier when interviewed in the Era (a music-hall paper) in 1905, yet on being asked if he had studied actual costers he replied, 'unconsciously, perhaps’. To point the contrast between Chevalier and Elen, my next example turns from the lovely wife to the horrid wife.
There is a short film of Elen, late in life, performing It’s a Great Big Shame,42 a song about a large, burly man who has fallen victim to a tiny, bullying wife. Elen’s detailed notebook has survived, showing howr carefully he worked out gestures and routines ('Business Make-ups’, as he called them).43 Stage movements can, of course, be timed with precision when accompanied by music. In the Pathé short of 1932, he reproduces the directions in the notebook. Such a meticulous approach is not one associated with ‘being yourself’ or 'getting into character’ using the Stanislavsky method. His movements (the shamble and the jerk), his demeanour (the grim and ‘dead pan’ face to suit a tragicomic role) point to the kinesic and mimic codes of music hall. His characteristic vocal delivery (little falsetto breaks in the voice before plunging down to a melody note) also indicates a stylized performance. In fact, not even these cracks in the voice are left to be improvised: their precise locations are set down in his notes:
When singing lines—at scrappin’ ’e ’ad won some great renown.
It took two coppers for to make ’im move along.
And annover six to ’old the feller dow-own.
On word ‘renown’ Jerk this out—latter part of word like double note (Re-now-own)—an extra Jerk out word (down)44
The music to these words is reproduced in Ex. 10.
The melodic style developed for Elen by the composer George Le Brunn is designed to enhance such a vocal delivery. The style permeates one of Elen’s best-known songs, If It Wasn't for the ’Ouses in Between of 1894 (see Ex. 11 [>performance]). Notice, also, that there is not a plain ‘vamp till ready’ between verses, but something suggesting an opportunity for comic stage business.
The musical style would have driven Parry to fury. ‘Ugly and offensive sounds’ begin almost at once: for example, the first bars of the introduction have the leading-note falling to the sixth that he hated so much, and there are what he would have regarded as crude dissonances in the second half of bar 3. These two songs show the lyricist Edgar Bateman introducing features of the ‘new Cockney’ accent that is found in the work of Andrew W. Tuer (notably The Kaukneigh Awlminek of 1883) and, later, in the work of Bernard Shaw.45 Both writers listened to actual Cockneys speaking and, concluding that the Dickensian Cockney had passed away, introduced phonetically a new range of sounds—not that this stopped other writers, like George R. Sims and Somerset Maugham, continuing in the older vein. Bateman uses the new T’ for ‘th’ in words like ‘think’, and the new ‘ah’ for ‘ow’. In the song sheet of If It Wasn't for the 'Ouses in Between, he finds it necessary to add a footnote explaining that ‘kah’ means ‘cow’. Other features of the ‘new’ pronounciation, for example ‘down’t’ for ‘don’t’, ‘loike’ for ‘like’, ‘grite’ for ‘great’, or Cockney glottal stops in words like ‘little’ (‘li’le’), were not indicated in the song as published, but then Elen was not restricted to reproducing only the phonetic spellings provided by Bateman, as his extant recordings demonstrate. For example, in It’s a Great Big Shame, although Bateman writes I’ve lost my pal’, Elen sings ‘Ive lorst my pal’. However, he retains the long ‘A’ sound in Great Big Shame in preference to Shavian Cockney, which would be ‘Gryte Big Shyme’ 46
An idea of the critical reception of Elen in the 1890s can be ascertained from the typical praising of his performances as ‘authentic Cockney, ‘true pictures’, and an ‘ungarnished portrayal of the coster as he really is’.47 Sixty years later, the abiding memory of Elen was that he was ‘the real thing . . . not an actor impersonating a coster, but a real coster, or, at any rate, a real Cockney of the poor streets’.48 For those who chose to interpret Elen’s stage persona as the real Cockney, the sign had, to borrow words from Umberto Eco, abolished ‘the distinction of the reference’.49 As a result, it now became difficult for performers like Elen to get out of character, either to play other characters on stage or to be themselves off stage.
There are serious problems with this picture of Elen as the real Cockney, however, and they can be illustrated with reference to It’s a Great Big Shame and his performance of that song. The song is a joke; it is not a slice of real life. How often do 6' 3" tall men marry women who are 4' 2" in height? Of those who do, how many become victims of marital bullying? The reality does not square with the song, especially since the reverse, the beating of wives or female partners, was not uncommon in coster communities. In fact, it forms the substance of a joke in the last verse and following patter in another Cockney song, George Cobom’s He's All Right When Tou Know Him (1886). W. S. Gilbert wickedly intimated in the Policeman’s Song (from The Pirates of Penzance) that, far from being intimidated by w^omen, the coster is not averse to ‘jumping on his mother’ followed by ‘basking in the sun’. A po-faced Henry Raynor cites this as an example of Gilberts finding the working class ‘unamiably funny’.50
If, nevertheless, Gus Elen’s character comes across in It's a Great Big Shame as built of typical coster determination and a blunt Cockney ‘I wron’t stand for any nonsense’ attitude, how do we react when we find him adopting a passive role as the victim of a bullying wife himself? In the ironically titled I'm Very Unkind to My Wife (Nat Clifford), he is married to a woman wrho is even prepared to stab him with a kitchen knife. If Elen’s voice is the voice of the true coster, why does his language change (if not always his pronunciation), depending on who has written the lyrics to his songs? There is little Cockney vernacular, for example, in Down the Road (Fred Gilbert, 1893). Of course it may be objected that Elen simply has to sing whatever lyrics others have written; but that is partly my point: his Cockney character is textually rather than genetically constructed. Moreover, he bears the sign of ‘the star entertainer’ in wrhat wras in the 1890s a well-established star system; thus, his own star persona makes a significant contribution to the wray his presence on stage is received. Finally, for a ‘real’ coster his language is remarkably free of swearing: not even the extremely common Cockney 'Gawblimey!’ is to be found. Tuming to the reception of Elen and Chevalier, one is inclined to ask why toughness is perceived as real and sentimentality as phoney. Was the latter mood unknown among costers—there is evidence to suggest otherwise '1—or is it that sentimentality is a mark of untruth for those who espouse the values of high art? And what if the reception of Elen as 'real’ arises, ironically, from a sentimental disposition towards the working class, a desire to see a coster as a 'rough diamond’ on the part of middle-class theatre critics? It was not rare for middle-class perceptions of the working class to be coloured by what was seen in the music hall. Richard Hoggart has even accused the 'stringent and seemingly unromantic’ George Orwell of doing just that.
Marie Lloyd (real name Matilde Wood, 1870—1922), like Elen, had a reputation for being the real thing on stage. George Le Brunn, who had composed hits for Elen, also went on to provide songs for Marie Lloyd and, in her coster-girl songs, she was to adopt similar voice breaks as those worked out by Elen. Yet, despite those who thought she 'expressed herself, the quintessential Cockney’,53 her records reveal that she could put on and take off the Cockney accent at will. Her recording of Every Little Movement Has a Meaning of Its Own (Cliffe—Moore, 1910), for example, is not Cockney.54 Moreover, she characterizes her material: the Cockney persona she adopts on her recording of A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good (Leigh—Arthurs, 1912)55 is not the same as that on The Coster Girl in Paris (Leigh—Powell, 1912)56 even though the song has the same lyricist and was recorded in the same year. Dare one suggest that, rather than being herself, Marie Lloyd was acting? This is not to argue that Cockneys did not recognize themselves in or identify with the music-hall Cockney,57 but such behaviour can be persuasively explained with reference to Althusser’s theory of interpellation and the propensity for human beings to identify with desired images of themselves or others.58 The case I have been making here is that the coster character becomes an example of a desired image created by the music hall and perpetuated by the music hall’s feeding upon itself rather than by drawing ideas from, or representing, the world outside. That is why the issue of reflexivity is so important. My contention is that a representational code is learnt, reproduced, and, bingo, you have a Cockney. Isn’t that how Dick Van Dyke did it in Mary Poppins (Walt Disney, 1964)? In other words, a real figure is not represented anymore: an already existing representation is replicated. Here is an example in a nutshell: a much-admired impressionist represents, say, a politician on TV; then another impressionist comes along intending to represent that same politician but, instead, offers a replication of the previous impressionist’s representation. If this continues, the politician can sometimes seem to be empty and lifeless compared with the replicant.
It may help to clarify the argument by giving an example of a late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century simulacrum that replaces something that was formerly part of the lives of a specific community. This is the ubiquitous 'Irish Pub’. Originally representing a friendly, welcoming, down-to-earth alternative to the soulless urban pub, these establishments can now be found in every major European city. The result is not a proliferation of imitations of pubs that exist in Ireland, but rather a generation from an imaginary model of an Irish pub, a model encoded with every desirable sign of Irishness. Yet, because these pubs replace rather than symbolize, and replace rather than displace, the phase may already have been reached when some people feel persuaded that an 'Irish Pub’ in Berlin or Rome is more convincingly Irish, more real for them, than a pub in Ireland. What is more, just as Cockneys were able to identify with the Cockney replicant, Irish people are able to identify with the Irish Pub simulacrum. Cultural insiders and outsiders alike can be willingly sucked into the experience of hyperreality.
The influence of African-American styles of music, particularly as mediated through dance bands, began to erode the dominance of music hall and variety theatre in British popular culture after the First World War. But wrhen the Cockney did reappear in song, it wras as the replicant—think of Wot'cher me Old Cock Sparrer (1940)59 and My Old Man's a Dustman (1960).60 A glance at the lyrics of the first of these will satisfy anyone that this is a Cockney picture produced with the most economical of imaginative means (see Ex. 12). The Old Kent Road and Lambeth are dropped in as talismanic words, and the merely impressionistic function of ‘Wot'cher’ is evident in its redundant mid-point apostrophe—there is now no sense of that expression's historical origins in ‘What Cheer’. The tune adopts the jerky rhythm found in many Chevalier and Elen songs. It is surely not without significance that this rhythm reappears in the song ‘Wouldn't it be Luverly’ from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956). At one stage in the l990s, the Cockney replicant seemed about to make a comeback in the shape of Damon Albarn on the pop group Blur's album Parktife (1994), but this direction was not pursued further. He was stung, perhaps, by accusations of being a ‘Mockney’. Yet this was a misconception on the part of his critics: like others before him, Albarn was faithfully reproducing a copy of a copy; he was not imitating or mocking an original.
Replication and reflexivity in Cockney stage and screen images in the twentieth century have been most obvious in TV series like On the Buses and in the long-running series of ‘Carry On’ films. However, the new realism of British TV soaps like EastEnders may have put an end to the replicant. Or is such a judgement premature? Here is a quotation from a review in The Times of a TV drama broadcast in March 19S38 on BBC 1 and entitled, of all things, Real Women:
the worst disaster to befall the characters was that most of them were possessed by unquiet spirits from an old episode of On the Buses and started rabbiting on like gor-blimey Cockneys. At first they just said things such as, ‘Me bunion’s playin’ me up.’ . . . Then the poltergeists got angry and started commenting on the script, ‘A flamin’ farce where the ’usband from ’ell’s been knockin’ off me best mate!’ raged one. ‘I must ’ave been so stupid!’ wailed another. ‘I don’t think I could take much more’, moaned the spirit occupying the character of the bride, and you could see the point.61
Indeed, I hope this article has been a further contribution to elucidating the same point. As a final example of Cockney generated purely by code, I must mention the ‘dialectizer’ at www.rinkworks.com which will instantly translate any internet website into Cockney. For example, the phrase ‘the creative process and aesthetic response to music’ is immediately translated as ‘the bloomin' creative Queen Bess and aesffetic response ter music’. It is apparent that while the code is indebted to Shavian Cockney it nevertheless allows for the production of some innovative rhyming slang. Moreover, the rhymes it finds are not rigidly controlled—it generates a variety of rhymes, apparently at random, for words ending ‘-ess’. The effect, of course, is that they seem to emanate from a real person.
Last modified 2 March 2017