In the past 2 years I have written about big celebrations on this date. First there is World Vegetarian Day https://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-vegetarian-day/. Then, here in China, it is National Day https://www.bookofdaystales.com/national-day-peoples-republic-china/ commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 – a major holiday which lasts a week. This year it’s perhaps time for something a little more light hearted. So let us celebrate the birthday (1890) of Stanley Holloway, internationally renowned for his part as Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but very well known to several generations in Britain for his monologues and his parts in Ealing comedies.
Holloway was born in Manor Park, Essex (now in the London Borough of Newham), the younger child and only son of George Augustus Holloway (1860–1919), a lawyer’s clerk, and Florence May née Bell (1862–1913), a housekeeper and dressmaker. George left Florence in 1905 and was never seen or heard from again by his family.
During his early teenage years, Holloway attended the Worshipful School of Carpenters in nearby Stratford and joined a local choir, which he later called his “big moment”. He left school at the age of 14 and worked as a junior clerk in a boot polish factory. He began performing part-time as Master Stanley Holloway – The Wonderful Boy Soprano from 1904, singing sentimental songs such as “The Lost Chord”. A year later, he became a clerk at Billingsgate Fish Market, where he remained for two years before beginning training as an infantry soldier in the London Rifle Brigade in 1907.
Holloway’s stage career began in 1910, when he traveled to Walton-on-the-Naze to audition for The White Coons Show, a concert party variety show arranged and produced by Will S. Pepper, father of Harry S. Pepper, with whom Holloway later starred in The Co-Optimists.This seaside show lasted six weeks.
In 1913 Holloway was recruited by the comedian Leslie Henson to feature as a support in Henson’s concert party called Nicely, Thanks. In later life, Holloway often spoke of his admiration for Henson, citing him as a great influence on his career. The two became firm friends and often consulted each other before taking jobs. In his 1967 autobiography, Holloway dedicated a whole chapter to Henson, whom he described as “the greatest friend, inspiration and mentor a performer could have had”. Later in 1913, Holloway decided to train as an operatic baritone, and so he went to Italy to take singing lessons from Ferdinando Guarino in Milan. However, a yearning to start a career in light entertainment and a contract to re-appear in Bert Graham and Will Bentley’s concert party at the West Cliff Theatre caused him to return home after six months.
In the early months of 1914, Holloway made his first visit to the U.S. and then went to Buenos Aires and Valparaíso with the concert party The Grotesques. At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, he decided to return to the UK, but his departure was delayed for six weeks due to his contract with the troupe. At the age of 25, Holloway enlisted in the Connaught Rangers. In December 1915 he was commissioned as a subaltern because of his previous training as a private in the London Rifle Brigade. He was stationed in Cork and initially fought against Sinn Féin during the Easter Rising of 1916. Later that year, he was sent to France, where he fought in the trenches alongside Michael O’Leary, who later won the Victoria Cross for gallantry. Holloway and O’Leary stayed in touch after the war, becoming close friends.
On being demobilized on 1 May 1919, Holloway returned to London and resumed his singing and acting career, finding success in two West End musicals at the Winter Garden Theatre. Later that month, he created the role of Captain Wentworth in Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse’s Kissing Time, followed in 1920 by the role of René in A Night Out. Holloway made his film debut in a 1921 silent comedy called The Rotters.
From June 1921, Holloway had considerable success in The Co-Optimists, a concert party formed with performers whom he had met during the war in France, which The Times called “an all-star ‘pierrot’ entertainment in the West-end.” It opened at the small Royalty Theatre and soon transferred to the much larger Palace Theatre, where the initial version of the show ran for over a year, giving more than 500 performances. The entertainment was completely rewritten at regular intervals to keep it fresh, and the final edition, beginning in November 1926, was the 13th version. The Co-Optimists closed in 1927 at His Majesty’s Theatre after 1,568 performances over eight years. In 1929, a feature film version was made, with Holloway rejoining his former co-stars.
In 1923 Holloway established himself as a BBC Radio performer. The early BBC broadcasts brought variety and classical artists together. He developed his solo act throughout the 1920s while continuing his involvement with the musical theatre and The Co-Optimists. In 1924 he made his first gramophone discs, recording for HMV two songs from The Co-Optimists: “London Town” and “Memory Street”. After The Co-Optimists disbanded in 1927, Holloway played at the London Hippodrome in Vincent Youmans’s musical comedy Hit the Deck as Bill Smith, a performance judged by The Times to be “invested with many shrewd touches of humanity.” In The Manchester Guardian, Ivor Brown praised him for a singing style “which coaxes the ear rather than clubbing the head.”
Holloway began regularly performing monologues, both on stage and on record, in 1928, with his own creation, Sam Small, in “Sam, Sam, Pick oop thy Musket.” Over the following years, he recorded more than 20 monologues based on the character, most of which he wrote himself. He created Sam Small after Henson had returned from a tour of northern England and told him a story about an insubordinate old soldier from the Battle of Waterloo. Holloway developed the character, naming him after a Cockney friend of Henson called Annie Small; the name Sam was chosen at random. Holloway adopted a northern accent for the character. The Times commented, “For absolute delight … there is nothing to compare with Mr. Stanley Holloway’s monologue, concerning a military contretemps on the eve of Waterloo … perfect, even to the curled moustache and the Lancashire accent of the stubborn Guardsman hero.”
When The Co-Optimists re-formed in 1930, he rejoined that company, now at the Savoy Theatre, and at the same venue appeared in Savoy Follies in 1931, where he introduced to London audiences the monologue “The Lion and Albert.” The monologue was written by Marriott Edgar, who based the story on a news item about a boy who was eaten by a lion in the zoo. In the monologue, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom react in a measured way when their son Albert is swallowed. Neither Edgar nor Holloway was convinced that the piece would succeed, but needing material for an appearance at a Northern Rugby League dinner Holloway decided to perform it. It was well received, and Holloway introduced it into his stage act. Subsequently, Edgar wrote 16 monologues for him. In its obituary of Holloway, The Times wrote that Sam and Albert “became part of English folklore during the 1930s, and they remained so during the Second World War.” These monologues employed the Holloway style that has been called “the understated look-on-the-bright-side world of the cockney working class. … Holloway’s characters are mischievous, like Albert, or obstinate, and hilariously clueless. He often told his stories in costume; sporting outrageous attire and bushy moustaches.” Here’s an original recording:
Beginning in 1934, Holloway appeared in a series of British films, three of which featured his creation Sam Small. He started his association with the Ealing Studios in 1934, appearing in the fifth Gracie Fields picture Sing As We Go. In 1941 Holloway took a character part in Gabriel Pascal’s film of Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, in which he played a policeman. He had leading parts in later films, including The Way Ahead (1944), This Happy Breed (1944) and The Way to the Stars (1945). After the war, he played Albert Godby in Brief Encounter and had a cameo role as the First Gravedigger in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet. In 1951 Holloway played the same role on the stage to the Hamlet of Alec Guinness.
Holloway also starred in a series of films for Ealing Studios, beginning with Champagne Charlie in 1944 alongside Tommy Trinder. After that he made Nicholas Nickleby (1947) and Another Shore (1948). He next appeared in three of the most famous Ealing Comedies, Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). His final film with the studio was Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953).
In 1954 Holloway joined the Old Vic theatre company to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Robert Helpmann as Oberon and Moira Shearer as Titania. After playing at the Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company took the production to New York, where it played at the Metropolitan Opera House and then on tour of the U.S. and Canada. The production was harshly reviewed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, but Holloway made a strong impression. Holloway said of the experience: “Out of the blue I was asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company to tour America with them, playing Bottom. … From that American tour came the part of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady and from then on, well, just let’s say I was able to pick and choose my parts and that was very pleasant at my age.”
In 1956 Holloway created the role of Alfred P. Doolittle in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. The librettist, Alan Jay Lerner, remembered in his memoirs that Holloway was his first choice for the role, even before it was written. Lerner’s only concern was whether, after so long away from the musical stage, Holloway still had his resonant singing voice. Holloway reassured him over a lunch at Claridge’s: Lerner recalled, “He put down his knife and fork, threw back his head and unleashed a strong baritone note that resounded through the dining room, drowned out the string quartet and sent a few dozen people off to the osteopath to have their necks untwisted.” Holloway had a long association with the show, appearing in the original 1956 Broadway production at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, the 1958 London version at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the film version in 1964. In The Manchester Guardian, Alistair Cooke wrote, “Stanley Holloway distils into the body of Doolittle the taste and smell of every pub in England.”
Holloway continued to perform until well into his eighties, touring Asia and Australia in 1977 together with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and David Langton in The Pleasure of His Company, by Samuel A. Taylor and Cornelia Otis Skinner. He made his last appearance performing at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1980, aged 89.
Holloway died of a stroke at the Nightingale Nursing Home in Littlehampton, West Sussex, on 30 January 1982, aged 91. He is buried, along with his wife Violet, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in East Preston, West Sussex.
Although Holloway is often considered the consummate stage Cockney, his east London bona fides are a bit frail. His roots are more along the lines of lower-middle class Essex-cum-East London, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt given that he played Cockneys well – certainly miles and miles ahead of Dick van Dyke’s supposedly Cockney sweep in Mary Poppins, which came out the same year as My Fair Lady.
Quintessential east London food is pie and mash served in pie and eel shops. During the Victorian era, industrial air pollution tended to be worse in the east and south east of London due to the prevailing westerly wind, with the result that the East End was settled more by the working classes, while the western part of the city was home to higher social classes. The working class were poor and favored dishes that were cheap, in plentiful supply, and easy to prepare.
The savory pie had long been a traditional food, and its small hand-sized form also made it a transportable meal, protected from dirt by its cold pastry crust. European eels baked in a pastry crust became a common worker’s meal since eels were one of the few forms of fish that could survive in the heavily polluted River Thames and London’s other rivers at that time. Supply was plentiful through to the late 19th century, particularly from the Dutch fishing boats landing catches at Billingsgate Fish Market. Adding cheap mashed potatoes made it a plate-based, sit-down meal, and a sauce made of the water used to cook the eels, colored and flavored by parsley, made the whole dish something special.
Later, and for a higher price, mutton or inexpensive minced meat could be alternatively ordered as the pie filling. After World War II, as the eel supply dwindled and beef often became cheap and in far greater supply from overseas sources, minced beef became the more popular pie filling.
Pie and eel shops now mostly sell pie and mash — a minced beef and cold water pastry pie served with mashed potato. As a teen I had a number of friends from east London whose families had been relocated from bombed out sections after World War II. It was common for them to go back to London on weekends, and we often ended up at a pie and eel shop for lunch. In those days they had plain tiled walls and scrubbed deal tables to eat at.
There should be two types of pastry used for the pies, the bottom or base should be suet pastry and the top, short pastry, although this varies. It is common for the mashed potato to be spread around one side of the plate and for a type of parsley sauce to be poured on top of it all. This sauce is commonly called “eel liquor sauce” or simply “liquor,” traditionally made using the water kept from the preparation of the stewed eels. As you will see from this video, cooks will not part with their recipes, which differ from shop to shop. The taste of the liquor is one of the prime factors in choosing which shop you prefer. These recipes are generations old and I would not know where to start in recreating one, although I’d start with eel broth and malt vinegar blended with lots of chopped fresh parsley.