"WHERE'S SEXTON BLAKE?"
by Reginald Sackville-West
Note: Reginald Sackville-West was a famous British stage actor in the early 1900s. His most distinctive trait was a deep, incredibly gravelly voice. In a 1965 radio interview, he told the story of how he took lodgings in London and began his long and celebrated career in the theatre thanks to Sexton Blake. His account is here transcribed:
I got a little bed-stitter room down in Kennington and, the first day, I walked to the tram at the corner and I got on the 'tuppence all the way' tram to the Embankment right along to Villiers Street ... used to struggle up Villiers Street and along the Strand, across to the Bodega (see note 1, below) — a wonderful place in Bedford Street. Now this pub was simply packed with pros; packed with actors and actresses from end to end. And therein, on the counter, was an enormous cheese. And they used to give plates of ham away and sausage rolls and red cabbage and everything ... all free. So we used to tuck into this ham and have a tuppenny pint or a penny beer, as the case may be, [and then] look for work.
And there, one eventful day, I met a nice old lady and she said, "Now, I'd like you to join me." She'd got a sketch called 'Sexton Blake' and it had a bloodhound in it, of course — Pedro the bloodhound. She said, "Now, we do three halls a night in a brougham (note 2) and you can be the property boy." And I started as Props. She said, "Now, you live in Kennington, so you'll have to come up to Coal Harbour Lane every morning and do my shopping. I'll give you a string bag and you go round all the market and bring home my shopping and then be at the house at five and we'll start off to work three halls a night. You'll set the stage; you'll put a revolver on the table and so on and so on and you'll be Stage Manager and you'll see to the lights and everything."
So I did three halls a night and I saw every star there was in London, I think, at all the various halls from the Olympia, Shoreditch, to the Hippodrome, Woolwich; I played the lot, including the Holborn Empire. And I worked jolly hard.
And then, one night, she said to me, "Now look, do you think you could speak one line?" And I said, "Well, I'll try Mrs Johnson!" She said, "Very well. Now look, in this scene, Sexton Blake will be locked in a room and you will put on rough make-up and an old cap and look through the top of this door — through a sort of trap door — and somebody will shout out 'Where's Sexton Blake?' and you'll shout out 'At the Rats' Roost, Wapping!'" And I shall always remember that was the first line I ever spoke and I rehearsed it day and night. I used to say it in my sleep, "At the Rats' Roost, Wapping!"
Well, this eventful night came and I said it. She said, "That's very good. You're very good indeed." And she bought me a beer and she gave me another two shillings. She said, "Now you can have 22 shillings a week."
Shortly after that, 'Sexton Blake: the sketch' was turned into a full drama and we did a 'copyright show' — I don't think that's ever heard of now; I've never heard of it (note 3) — at the Old Sadlers Wells Theatre and I was so proud that I walked the stage of the Old Sadlers Wells. I used to see the old wells — the water wells — at the back of the stage. I always remember them (note 4).
And this copyright show was given at nine o'clock in the morning to an empty theatre and one man had to pay to come in. That formed the copyright for the Lord Chamberlain. And we had to have full make-up on and go through the whole play to one man. It was the most extraordinary experience!
After that, I branched out. I thought, well, I must try and get a hard salary ... and I got onto 25 bob, and then 30 bob, and I finally got with 'stock' — that was what they call repertory now — stock at the Elephant and Castle for a very charming man called Tod Slaughter (note 5). And I learned my business there and I got on and played small parts and large parts and all kinds of parts, and gradually got up to £2.10s ... which was an enormous salary!
1. In later years, the Bodega pub numbered George Orwell among its famous patrons.
2. Brougham: a four-wheeled, enclosed horse-drawn carriage with a raised open driver's seat at the front. Presumably Sackville-West means that they travelled from hall to hall in one, rather than performing the play in the carriage!
3. In 1737, the Lord Chanberlain passed 'The Licensing Act'. This gave him the power to license plays, giving rise to the popular phrase "legitimate theatre."
4. The Sadlers Wells theatre used to be a humble musick house until, in 1683, its owner, Richard Sadler, ordered the ground at its rear to be dug up to provide materials for road construction. Ancient wells were uncovered and Sadler, quick to spot an opportunity, claimed that the waters had a remarkable therapeutic quality. The wells soon became a fashionable venue for London's upper classes. Sadler developed the theatre to provide music while his patrons partook of the waters. The theatre is still prosperous today.
5. Tod Slaughter (1885 - 1956) later starred as the villain in the film SEXTON BLAKE AND THE HOODED TERROR (1938) adapted from THE MYSTERY OF NO.13 CAVERSHAM SQUARE by Pierre Quiroule (W. W. Sayer) SBL2 #569 (1937).