TV chat show host Michael Parkin­son se­lects Char­lie Chap­lin

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

“The world needed cheer­ing up af­ter the First World War. His Lit­tle Tramp brought so much joy to so many peo­ple – you’d have to be made of stone not to laugh at Chap­lin”

Char­lie Chap­lin was a co­me­dian and film-maker whose ‘Lit­tle Tramp’ per­sona helped make him silent cin­ema’s big­gest star. He grew up in Lon­don in poverty, be­gan per­form­ing in mu­sic halls as a boy, and at 18 or 19 joined the Fred Karno troupe, end­ing up in Hol­ly­wood. He was later ac­cused of com­mu­nist sym­pa­thies and forced out of the US, set­tling in Switzer­land, where he died aged 88.

When did you first hear about Char­lie Chap­lin?

Through my coal miner dad, John, who took me at the age of five or six to the lo­cal cin­ema to see one of his films. My fa­ther – the other great hero in my life – loved the old comics and laughed so much that he fell off his seat into the aisle and was rep­ri­manded by the cin­ema man­age­ment. I was in stitches too. That cin­ema trip was the start of my life­long love of Chap­lin.

What kind of per­son was he?

Chap­lin was the first great film star and the man who prac­ti­cally in­vented film com­edy. He was an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­di­vid­ual – one of the true gi­ants of the 20th cen­tury. He wasn’t a nice man, but most tal­ented ge­niuses are not. He knew what he wanted, he was a slave-driver in the stu­dio, and he worked peo­ple un­til their legs dropped off. But look where he came from: he was sent to the work­house at seven, and when he was 14, his mother was com­mit­ted to a men­tal asy­lum. So he was more than a ge­nius, he was a survivor.

What made Chap­lin a hero?

First and fore­most, his abil­ity to make the world laugh. And the world needed cheer­ing up af­ter the hor­rors of the First World War. His Lit­tle Tramp brought so much joy to so many peo­ple – you would have to be made of stone not to laugh at Chap­lin. He spent years per­fect­ing his craft, and his prat­falls, props (such as his bowler hat and cane) and funny walk were the prod­uct of his mu­sic hall years. Sec­ondly, the fact that de­spite grow­ing up in unimag­in­able poverty, he went to Amer­ica and achieved so much, help­ing to cre­ate the Hol­ly­wood we know and be­com­ing a cin­ema leg­end. Co­me­di­ans since owe so much to him, and his hu­mour en­dures to this day.

What was his finest hour?

For me The Cir­cuss (1928), in which t he ring­mas­ter of a strug­gling circus hires Chap­lin’s Lit­tle Tramp as a clown, but dis­cov­ers he can only be funny un­in­ten­tion­ally. It earned him Os­car nom­i­na­tions for best ac­tor, best di­rec­tor and best writ­ing, but the Academy gave him a spe­cial award for “writ­ing, act­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­ing The Circus”. In truth, he had so many finest hours, be it The Gol­drush (1925), Mod­ern Times (1936) or The Great Dic­ta­tor (1940).

Is there any­thing you don’t par­tic­u­larly ad­mire about him?

No­body is per­fect, and Chap­lin cer­tainly wasn’t. He liked teenage girls, and today he’d have been driven out of the film busi­ness. But I’m not judg­ing him by his pri­vate life, I’m judg­ing him by his ge­nius for mak­ing peo­ple laugh.

Are there par­al­lels be­tween Chap­lin’s life and your own?

None at all. My fam­ily might have been poor and work­ing class, but I had a happy, safe life, while he had a dread­ful child­hood.

If you could meet him, what would you ask him?

Sadly, I never got to in­ter­view Chap­lin. I think he was fright­ened to ap­pear on a chat show in case his pri­vate life came up. Be­sides, I’d have needed a dozen chats to cover his ex­tra­or­di­nary life! If I had met him, I’d have thanked him for mak­ing my dad laugh. Michael Parkin­son was talk­ing to York Mem­bery

Michael Parkin­son is a broad­caster, jour­nal­ist and au­thor who pre­sented the talk show Parkin­son from 1971– 82 and 1998–2007. His new CD, The Great Amer­i­can Song­book, is out now


LIS­TEN AGAIN Dis­cover more his­tory heroes through Ra­dio 4’s Great Lives:­grammes/b006qxsb

Char­lie Chap­lin wear­ing over­alls and hold­ing a wrench, sit­ting on top of an enor­mous set of gears in a still from the film Mod­ern Times (1936)

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