16th August 1912
Charlie Chaplin played in St Peter Port
It’s perhaps logical that August should see the biggest names in show business putting on performances in Guernsey. It is the summer season, after all, during which they’ll be able to play to the largest crowds of visitors.
As well as the Beatles playing in August 1963 and the Rolling Stones in August 1964, Charlie Chaplin chose August for his visit to St Peter Port of 1912. The star of the silent screen was unfortunately still relatively unknown when he appeared on the island as part of Fred Karno’s Comedy Company. If not, his visit might have been better remembered. He didn’t find true fame until he achieved cinematic success in the 1920s and 1930s.
Karno’s travelling show
Fred Karno (born Frederick Westcott) was a music hall impresario. He is credited with coming up with the joke of throwing a custard pie into someone’s face. As well as giving Charlie Chaplin his break, he introduced the world to the man who would later become Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame.
Chaplin became one of Karno’s notable stars. He appeared on notices as Chas Chaplin, and naturally his act involved the spoken word. This was in stark contrast to the silent films for which he later became known.
The Priaulx Library republished a letter from the Guernsey Press of 1939 in which the correspondent recalls seeing Chaplin at St Julian’s Theatre. Although he got his year wrong (he said it had been 1911), he did remember clearly that Chaplin’s act didn’t go do as well as the pie-throwing slapstick that appeared elsewhere on the bill. Karno apparently consoled him, telling Chaplin that the people of Guernsey were “half French” and thus didn’t understand his comedy.
Chaplin was apparently convinced that this is where the problem lay. He therefore mimed his next three performances, all of which were much better received. Could it be thanks to those Guernsey audiences that, when the talking pictures hit cinemas in the 1930s, Chaplin was so reluctant to adopt the new technology – and persevered with silent films?