Each month I take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. So far we have looked at Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball and Yorkshire’s Marti Caine and now we are looking at famous Music Hall and Pantomime star Vesta Tilley.
Vesta Tilley was what we would call a ‘character act’ today. I think she is still an inspiration to female performers as she had so much power in the theatre, earning a massive weekly wage compared to many of her male counter-parts. I admire her because she was serious creative; approaching every character with meticulous detail and not performing until she was absolutely content in her preparation. Tilley was a very special artiste; particularly because she performed dressed as men.
Tilley was born Matilda Alice Powles in Worcester May 13th 1864. The name ‘Vesta Tilley’ was not decided upon until April 1878 while performing at The Royal Music Hall, Holborn, London – ‘Vesta’ referred to both the Roman Goddess of the hearth and home plus a brand of safety matches, and ‘Tilley’ was her childhood nickname for Matilda.
Her father went by the stage name of ‘Harry Ball’. He was a Music Hall Chairman, comedy actor and songwriter who went on to write several of his daughter’s early songs. Tilley expressed a huge interest in theatre as a child and first performed (dressed as a boy) aged five year old. Under her father’s guidance Tilley toured the ‘provinces’ – the towns outside London – sometimes performing alongside her father. In 1874 she made her London debut and by the time she was eleven she was supporting her family financially.
Although she did try performing as herself during the early years, the teenage Tilley resorted to dressing exclusively as a man stating: "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” She particularly enjoyed playing dandies and fops; smart middle-class men about town with inflated egos. She was so immaculately dressed she became a fashion icon for men.
“Vesta paid meticulous attention to detail when dressing and took over an hour to get ready, padding and constructing her figure. She even wore men’s underclothes. Women’s underwear of the time was tightly corseted and would have looked strange under men’s clothing. She never cut her hair short but wore it plaited into tiny braids and coiled around her head under a wig.
Vesta aimed to create convincing male characters. Her most famous character was the man about town – smart, middle class, well dressed and polite. This was the character in her hit song ‘Burlington Bertie’. It tells the story of a ‘swell’ who stays out all night partying and doesn’t get up till 10:30 in the morning.” V&A Museum.
The songs she performed were risqué and often poking fun at the men she was emulating. The lyrics were ironic and would encourage the audiences to laugh at her portrayals of the fashionable young men of the day – I imagine similar to ‘Made in Chelsea’ types now. Female members in the audience particularly would enjoy this material and saw her as a symbol of independence during the changing Edwardian times of suffrage, especially since at her height she commanded a £500 a week wage which must be an amazing amount in modern money.
As well as young fops, Tilley played soldiers, clergymen and even a Judge – each role taking months to perfect before she brought it out for an audience to see. I think this attention to detail must have meant each performance was very special; you would not forget having watched Vesta Tilley.
Vesta Tilly played the principal boy in pantomimes (when the principal boy was still traditionally played by a woman and not Gareth Gates or half of Jedward). She performed in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at the Birmingham Theatre Royal twice, the title role of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (famously a very unlucky pantomime for all you panto-fact-finders) but she was best known for playing ‘Dick Whittington’, a role she would play throughout her career.
She met and married Walter de Frece in 1890 in Brixton. He was the son of a theatre manager and he would go on to managing Tilley’s career namely securing her regular gigs his self-founded chain of music halls ‘The Hippodrome’. She would go on to perform for royalty at the Royal Variety Performance in 1912 and she even made an impression in America touring the States in plays and musicals.
Tilley would play a big part in the recruitment drive for the forces during the First World War and was was nicknamed ‘Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant’. She would perform in hospitals and sell war bonds. However, Tilley perhaps knew that war was not the great ‘game’ of Jessie Pope’s poem as she controversially sang a song called 'I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One' about a solider being over-joyed at being wounded and coming home from the battlefield – a view that the propaganda of the First World War tried to stifle.
Off stage, Tilly was very feminine and dressed in fur coats and jewellery – I see her as a British Fanny Brice. There is very little footage available of Vesta – YouTube has several musical recording – but there is a film somewhere out there called ‘The Girl Who Love a Solider’. She had previously been involved with pioneering technology to sync gramophone recordings to create talking pictures but this one was a silent film and the “three or four of the hardest working weeks I have ever experienced” she states in her autobiography. Tilley played several roles in the film and found the process exhausting – she vowed she would never make another film and she kept to that vow.
Her husband Walter went on to become a Member of Parliament so it was thought he should leave the stage as being an actress was not a fit job for the wife of an MP. She went on a year-long farewell tour from 1919-1920 and all the profits went to local children’s charities of each area, she never had children herself. When she did finally retired from the stage in 1920 she was presented with a series of books known as ‘The People’s Tribute’ featuring over 2 million signatures including Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. And for this reason alone I think she is a worthy entry for the ‘Vintage Funny Women Awards’.
Tilley became Lady de Frece upon her husband’s knighthood and they then moved to Monte Carlo. Her autobiography was published in 1934 and she passed away in 1952 aged 88.
Contact me with suggestions of future nominees on twitter @MirandaDawe
Miranda Dawe is an actress, singer and stand up comedienne, as well as being one of the semi-finalists in the Funny Women Awards 2013. www.MirandaDawe.com