An Apple for Chaplin this Christmas
A year begins with John Whelan (pictured above) and myself sketching out a project plan and ends with an accumulation of Chaplin books: most of the pages well thumbed and words digested; some semblance of meaning extracted for artful purposes. But for a long period of time, I subscribed to the view that Buster Keaton out-classed Charlie. There is still a snobbish tendency to belittle the "Little Fellow," regarding his playful anarchy as a mere slap and dash; although, fair to say, this primal quality holds true to the early Keystone films. Funding permitting, a major arts project in 2019 will redress this balance and more. John and I want to commission ten artists, all working in different media, to explore the contemporary relevance of Chaplin's life, politics and films; rooting this in the community context of Lambeth and Southwark where he was born and bred. Imagine a month long festival of Chaplin-inspired art! We want to build on the Arts Council funded, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle (2017), where we imagined Chaplin meeting Michael Caine outside the Coronet Theatre in the Elephant and Castle.
Reading The Tramp's Odyssey, I was particularly moved by an interview Chaplin gave to a journalist from the New York Times in 1920. Chaplin was by this stage a global film star. His iconic image had evolved from the Satyric drunk into a rounded character who could command the high notes of comedy and the lows of pathos. The Kid in all its majesty was around the corner, arguably his first masterpiece.
Chaplin had also become mega-wealthy and powerful, calling all the creative shots in his own studio. But only a few years before he was a struggling performer on the stage, having endured the hardships of childhood in slum-torn Walworth and Kennington. Chaplin's parents were both music hall performers: his alcoholic father had abandoned the domestic life; his mother would suffer from psychosis. With no parents to look after Charlie and his brother Sydney, they both spent time in the workhouse.
In the interview, Chaplin recounts Christmas as a seven year old at the Central London District School for Paupers. Presents were being lined up on a table for the young inmates: tin watches, bags of candy, picture books. Chaplin had his eye on one particular object, a "big fat red apple". He had never seen such a beautiful fruit before and perhaps was motivated by a hunger that the institutionalised food could not meat/meet. When he was approaching the front of the queue, an elder pushed him out of the line and took him back to his room. Chaplin was haunted by these brutal words:
"No Christmas present for you this year, Charlie - you keep the other boys awake by telling pirate stories."
As it's the season of goodwill, let us rewrite history and surround Chaplin with apples and exotic fruits galore. The photo above shows the seven-year-old Chaplin (middle centre, leaning slightly) at the Central London District School for paupers, 1897. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.
What were those pirate stories Chaplin told his peers and which got up the snooty noses of the authorities? We can visualise him acting out cut-throat characters, obsessed by trinkets of gold. Perhaps this play had an element of the outsider, the Tramp that was to be.
I am also paying my own black and white homage to Chaplin with the following series of photos.
Fade in to the Church on the High Street, Willesden, the year of the Second Millennium. A cleric is fighting a losing battle to the world outside but maintains his sense of humour.
The Tramp wanders into shot with a new bowler hat, baggy trousers and overripe boots that was bequeathed to him down at the Clothes Bank. He is seated on the wall oblivious to the sign above his head. He tries to make eye and smile contact with each passer by. They avoid him like the plague.
The Tramp suddenly screams in silence. There is an attack in his jacket breast pocket. A circus of fleas from the previous owner of the suit? No! He pulls out a.......
The title card reveals it is merely the ringtone of a new fangled mobile phone.
Welcome to the year of Chaplin, 2019.