Adam Shaw spoke to a self-proclaimed Protestant Ulsterman who has a play about the first celeb superstar
The cult of celebrity is greater than it ever has been. Reality TV stars such as Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner have racked up millions of followers on social media on the back of merely having their lives filmed. Being famous for being famous can lead to a life filled with red carpet shindigs, flashing cameras and a surprising number of business opportunities. It can even enable you to become President of the United States.
But way before Donald Trump was ‘firing’ people and judging beauty pageants, there was a man who commanded attention simply by the way he dressed. This man, Beau Brummell, ‘the patron saint of dandies’, is the subject of a play by playwright Ron Hutchinson, which is making a revival at the Jermyn Street Theatre in central London next month.
Ron, an Emmy Award-winning writer who hails from Lisburn, developed a fascination with ‘The Beau’ thanks to his famous wit and overall presence.
“Until the middle of the 19th century you could have the aura of celebrity but not be a celebrity – the English language didn’t work like that,” he explained. “Those who had that aura before The Beau had gained fame or notoriety for something they’d done – won a battle, married into royalty, split their family’s heads open with an axe.
“Brummell’s fame was based on his persona and very public care for how he dressed.
“Long before the Kardashians he was known not for the substance of his achievements but for the name he carried, his image and the attitude to life he displayed.”
Inability to keep schtum
He drew attention to Brummell’s inability to hold his tongue, even in the presence of the Prince of Wales, if he felt he had something funny to say. Comparing him to Oscar Wilde, Ron believes these are the people from that period who should be celebrated – even if for nothing more than their chutzpah.
“‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ would not have been something [Brummell] would have understood,” he said. “What’s the point of thinking up something witty to say if it remains unsaid? Oscar Wilde did the same thing at his trial when he remarked on the impossibility of bedding an unattractive youth.
“That one remark was pounced on by opposing counsel Edward Carson – yes, that Edward Carson – and Wilde was in effect finished.”
Ron used to be called out himself by an old schoolmaster, who regularly accused him of impudence. This primary school teacher at Ballypriomore on Islandmagee would often remark “you think you’re funny, Hutchinson, don’t you?”
Now, by throwing in some of his own one-liners alongside Brummell’s, he has the chance to find out if he is. The play has a further personal touch for Ron as he recalls his relationship with expensive, Brummellesque, Jermyn Street shoes. There is a statue of the famous dandy halfway down the road and Ron explained how he spent a fair bit of money on a pair of handmade shoes from nearby.
“This is a chance for me to get some of my money back. Also, my dad was a bricklayer and, after wearing wellies all week, he liked to put on an expensive pair of shoes at the weekend,” he said. “In fact, when I was clearing out his wardrobe after he died, I found several pairs of a famous Jermyn Street brand name, barely worn. For my feet, this show is personal.”
He believes that Irish audiences, at least those of a creative persuasion, will be able to relate to the play, particularly in relation to the attitudes of Brummell and his valet. He explained how Irish writers would tend to focus on political upheaval; very much in the same way the valet does following the French Revolution.
IRA Bomb in Coventry
Brummell, on the other hand, believes the most lasting upheavals are those which occur during private life. As someone from the island of Ireland, it was a political event which dominated his own writing for the early part of his career. “I first found my voice as a writer after I was nearly blown up by an IRA bomb in the 70s in Coventry,” he said.
“Trying to figure out what it meant to me as a Protestant Ulsterman in exile became my main work for several years and led to exploring issues of the collective versus the individual.”
Ron never intended to get into writing. It was only when he accidentally enrolled on a Speech and Drama class at night school that he even gave it some thought.
“It felt like something I’d been waiting for all my life and didn’t know it. I started writing for stage, screen and radio and basically never stopped,” he said.
His writing took him all the way to Hollywood, where he worked with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Samuel Jackson. He has documented his time in La La Land in a memoir, which is set to be published this year.
Some of the material will also be used as the basis of a one-man show entitled Clinging To The Iceberg. Despite his love of Ireland, Ron was quick to move across the Atlantic; citing his father’s decision not to emigrate and the glorious weather as key reasons. “We were all set to go to Australia under the ten pound assisted passage scheme in the 50s when my mother refused to leave her three sisters.
“The bags were unpacked and it rankled my father years later that he hadn’t insisted on us making the move,” he said. “When I got the chance to go to the States I didn’t hesitate, with his regret in mind.
“I fell in love with Los Angeles immediately and immoderately and decided to find a way to stay on when the weather forecaster said ‘two days of rain and no end in sight’. “If 48 hours of light drizzle was news, this was the place for me.”
He has rubbed shoulders with some of Hollywood’s most famous names – though, in the end, they might not have the same influence that Brummell has. He is proud of what he’s achieved throughout his career, and, in terms of practicality, ranks his monthly pay cheque from the Writers’ Guild of America among his highlights. But another thing which has brought a smile to his face is the fact that his piece about Brummell is to make a comeback.
“I’ve always kept a foothold in theatre,” he explained. “Most plays are gone like snow off a ditch, even the most successful ones, so it’s great to welcome The Beau back, so many years after he first surfaced.”
He invites people to dust off their finest shoes, don their smartest attire, grab a silk handkerchief and head to Jermyn Street to celebrate ‘the original celebrity’.
Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness is showing at Jermyn Street Theatre from 13 February to 11 March.