Prism

Out of Time: Fred Karno, the Man Who Discovered Charlie Chaplin

11 October 19 illustrations: Natalie Owen

From growing up on the streets of Nottingham to becoming a pioneer of British comedy, few people made as great an impact on the entertainment industry as Fred Karno. Credited with discovering Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, his meteoric rise to fame was only matched by his rapid fall from grace with the advent of film…

If you’ve ever enjoyed the work of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or a good old-fashioned pie-in-the-face, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Fred Karno, the music hall impresario who many credit as the “Father of Slapstick”. In a time where the foundations of modern comedy were being laid, Karno unwittingly prepared a young generation of talented comedians to blaze a trail into the brand new medium of film. Ironically for Karno, it was the unprecedented popularity of moving pictures that would eventually herald an end to music hall dominance and leave him bankrupt. Some hated him, more loved him, but all respected the impact he made during his tumultuous life. In British comedy history, few cast a shadow quite as large as Fred Karno’s. He was a king in his own lifetime. 

A pioneer, innovator and notoriously harsh taskmaster, Karno, who was born Frederick John Westcott, spent his formative years in Nottingham, having moved here from Exeter as a young child. His unconventional route into show business came while working as a plumber when, after doing some repairs at a gymnasium, he enquired about joining. A born athlete, Fred was a natural, and soon found himself competing and winning prizes in various Nottingham fêtes. An interest in juggling, collaboration with other gymnasts and a stint in the circus all led to a turn in pantomime, where he adopted his new stage name: until the day he died, Frederick John Westcott was only ever known as Fred Karno. 

His career continued to gather momentum until the 1890s when his focus shifted to promoting slapstick acts with an array of different performers. By 1906, Karno was living in London and pushing 32 different sketches around the country, achieving a level of success that saw his house turn into the ‘Fun Factory’, a headquarters designed for managing acts, storing props and nurturing fresh talent. Among those new faces were a young Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Jefferson – the real name of Stan Laurel, both of who received their first break in the business from Karno. 

At that time, slapstick comedy was virtually unknown on the music hall scene but, having spotted an apparent gap in the market, Karno developed a repertoire of sketches that audiences took to immediately. Working around the licensing restrictions that prohibited dialogue, his innovative use of visual and physical comedy exposed contemporary audiences to something they had never seen before. It was well-orchestrated, highly-skilled chaos, leading one reviewer to write that his show was “one of the most fantastically funny ever known.” Such was the popularity of his troupe, that the phrase “Karno’s Army” entered popular parlance as a byword for chaos, a phrase regularly used by British troops to describe the disordered nature of service in World War One.

His innovation didn’t stop at the stage, as Karno firmly established himself as the master of self-promotion and one of the pioneers of the publicity stunt, reaching a point where his name alone was enough to guarantee any venue in the UK sold out weeks ahead of his troupe’s arrival. This fame facilitated his ability to develop young talent, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that, without Karno, there would be no Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. In fact, Stan Laurel once said of Karno, “He didn’t teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy, he just taught us most of it. Above all he taught us to be supple and precise. Out of all that endless rehearsal and performance came Charlie Chaplin, the most supple and precise comedian of our time.”

His name alone was enough to guarantee any venue in the UK sold out weeks ahead of his troupe’s arrival

Karno was also something of an eccentric and a womaniser, having twice married and had two sons, and spent £7,000 (around half a million pounds in today’s money) on Astoria, a lavish, palatial houseboat on the Thames, which would later become a floating recording studio for Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Additionally, he built an extravagant new hotel on Tagg’s Island named The Karsino, which became the playground for Edwardian high society. 

The success in the British music halls saw the Karno Company – including Chaplin and Laurel – embark on several tours of the United States. However, it was on one such tour that talent scouts spotted the highly-skilled, physical comedy talent in his troupe, leading to many of his most talented performers being poached for work in the burgeoning silent film industry. Resultantly, the early Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy silent comedy films are packed full of Karno talent. 

For years, Karno had been inadvertently digging his own grave. The talent he’d helped nurture and shape had quickly helped launch film as the foremost form of entertainment. The era of music hall dominance was over, and Karno either had to adapt or die with it. His fall was almost as fast as his rise, and Karno was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1927.

He travelled to Hollywood in 1929 to catch up with Chaplin and Laurel and was offered an assistant-director job by Hal Roach, a monolith of the silent film era. The offer wasn’t tokenistic, as Roach had once described Karno as, “Not only a genius, but the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him.”

But having spent almost his entire professional life as the man in charge, Karno was either unwilling or unable to adapt to playing second fiddle in the studio system, and found himself on a boat back to England in 1930, having made no impression on Hollywood whatsoever. 

The era of music hall dominance was over, and Karno either had to adapt or die with it

He found limited success on the stage again, but a further foray into the world of film, 1935’s Don’t Rush Me, was a monumental flop, and Karno found himself bankrupt for a second time. The man who had done so much to shape the British entertainment landscape was now a penniless outcast; the comedy world had moved on without him.  

Karno spent his declining years in Dorset until his death in 1941 at the age of 75, a shadow of his former bombastic self and largely forgotten by the comedy community. 

However, there was one man that never forgot. Having heard that Karno was in financial trouble, Charlie Chaplin gifted his old mentor the money to buy an off-license, enabling him to earn a living. In the midst of his unprecedented global success, Chaplin remembered the debt he owed to Karno, the man who plucked him out of relative obscurity and put him on the path to becoming the most famous man in entertainment history. 

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