Betty Bolton

Versatile Twenties actress

The actress and singer Betty Bolton was one of the last surviving links to pre-1920s London theatrical revues, the world of early Beatrice Lillie and the young Gertrude Lawrence.

Betty Bolton, actress and singer: born Nottingham 26 January 1906; (one daughter); died London 2 April 2005.

The actress and singer Betty Bolton was one of the last surviving links to pre-1920s London theatrical revues, the world of early Beatrice Lillie and the young Gertrude Lawrence.

She began as a child performer. Her mother Maud (as Madame Bolton) ran a school of dance in Nottingham and was later a West End stage manager. "Betty", as she was originally styled (no surname), made her début in 1916, at the age of 10, in a revue called Some, at the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand. Gertrude Lawrence was the principal dancer.

This was partly the work of Harry Grattan, and one of a series of revues that he wrote with snappy titles like Odds and Ends and Mind Your Backs during the First World War and into the 1920s, some of them produced by André Charlot. Betty played both little boys and little girls in these shows - "precocious little beasts". Photographs from two of these revues, Cheep (1917) and Back Again (1919), show her remarkable powers of facial expression. In 1917, The Sketch called her "the youngest actress on the London stage".

Betty Bolton had tremendous versatility as a performer, and she displayed it in almost every branch of entertainment available in the 1920s and early 1930s: revues, straight plays, films, recordings, even early television. The last show in which she performed as a child was the musical fantasy Fifinella, in late 1919.

She continued to appear in revue (Come In at the Queen's Theatre, 1924, and Charlot 1928 at the Vaudeville) but also in melodramas like The Dybbuk, about demonic possession (in 1927) and The Wolves, in which she played an Eskimo. With her dark good looks and command of languages, she specialised in exotic roles as a grown-up actress: in 1924, she played Almond Eye, a slave-girl in the musical play The First Kiss. The last West End play in which she seems to have played was Appearances, by Garland Anderson (Royalty, 1930), an interesting item on the theme of racial prejudice.

As well as the 1930 film version of The Wolves, Bolton was in the sound sequences of Balaclava (1928) and in Long Live the King (1933), for which she remembered Dorking serving as a stand-in for Russia. On the radio, she appeared in a series of cockney sketches, 'Erb and Emma, with Harry Grattan, who also wrote them. Bolton was decidedly part of 20th-century history when, on 22 August 1932, she made an appearance in the very first, experimental, television transmission, along with Betty Astell (Mrs Cyril Fletcher), Fred Douglas and others.

Betty Bolton's name is well known to 78rpm record collectors of the vintage kind, as a dance-band vocalist, solo comedienne, and occasional torch singer. Although her recording career stretched only from 1929 to 1935, she made records for 11 labels. Her effective contralto cover versions have a distinctive, lilting quality all their own.

As a comedienne, some of her material might have been seen as rather daring. A snippet of her 1931 version of "She Jumped on Her Push-bike and Pedalled Away" was included in a 2003 BBC Pick of the Week. It stood up extremely well.

Betty Bolton retired from the theatre, gradually, during the 1930s, after the birth of her daughter, Judyth Knight.

Alan Black



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