Obituary: John Morley

John Austin Morley, actor, writer: born Birmingham 13 December 1924; author of The Magic of Houdini 1978, The Performing Arts 1980; died Brighton 16 July 1994.

ONE of the best of all show-business encyclopaedists, John Morley, the light comedy entertainer, was a veritable mine of information regarding pantomimes past and present.

Through careful research and an almost fanatical feeling for this aspect of theatre, Morley could quote at length who was who and when, say, Dan Leno was Buttons at Drury Lane, together with a whole supporting cast: invariably Herbert Campbell was one of Leno's stage partners in a production devised by the eminent Sir 'Gus' Harris, who would be aided by such illustrious designers as Sir FL Burnand, J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins - who was father of that other Collins, Frank, for so long 'lieutenant' in the years that followed of Sir Charles B. Cochran. Such facts poured forth like a Niagara . . .

Although he had started out as a revue artist in his youth, Morley described himself as a 'panto- scriptwriter' who in a lengthy career had more than 250 pantomime scripts to his credit. As historian, archivist and performer all rolled into one, he was faithful to the main 'storylines', his adaptations never departing far from the originals.

Morley was born in Birmingham, the son of a prosperous businessman, in 1924, and spent his childhood immersed in picturebooks; he was taken to his first pantomime in the city, at the old Prince of Wales Theatre. His uncle further whetted his nephew's appetite by purchasing for him a miniature toy stage.

Morley was educated at Uppingham and St John's College, Cambridge. He joined the Cambridge Footlights, where he was spotted by that revue duo the Two Hermiones (Baddeley and Gingold), who encouraged him from the start. During the Second World War he joined the Forces, became a Coldstream Guard in 1943, and got his grounding by writing shows for the troops, scoring a notable double by becoming an officer and having his first panto produced by his regiment at the same time. It was called Dick Whittington and His Kit. All very camp, maybe, but the storyline was observed and adhered to ever after.

Getting back into civvy life in 1946, Morley caught the eye of the experienced Robert Nesbitt who, sensing talent, introduced him to the London Palladium as gagman and co-writer for their panto Puss in Boots. From 1960 he worked for a decade in Scotland with the Howard and Wyndham company, making pantomimes with the choreographer and producer Freddie Carpenter. Back in London Morley wrote on demand to suit the diverse talents of such a mixed batch of artistic talent as Evelyn Laye - as Prince Charming in Cinderella at the Palladium and in other roles - Arthur Askey, Les Dawson and Danny La Rue, to mention a few.

Morley wrote for television, providing gags and scenes for Big Night Out and The Basil Brush Show, but was happier when working at the small Players Theatre, where under the expert guidance of Dominic Le Foe and such trusties as Alan Curtis, a high standard was achieved in over 54 Victorian- style pantomimes. The company was run during this time by first Harold Scott, then Leonard Sachs, and finally, perhaps best of all, by Le Foe, the present impresario in the newly acquired premises off the Strand. Puss in Boots, Dick Whittington, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella were some of Morley's contributions, and such other artists as Ivy St Helier and Clarkson Rose joined the residents from time to time.

As gagman, occasional player himself and nearly always senior panto scriptwriter, Morley lent a presence that was a commanding strength when he was called upon to change and improvise at short notice. He loved pantomime beyond all other forms of entertainment and made a considerable contribution to it in a life which served this stylised area of show business, never forgetting the fairy tales and folklore that are the basic ingredients of true pantomime.

John Morley modernised the gags of 'Baron Hardup', 'Alderman Fitzwarren' and the rest to meet current trends, but was enough of a traditionalist to observe throughout his life that the clock had stopped at midnight before Cinderella had returned from the Ball. Actually, in the early 1900s, before this most devoted of panto-lovers was born.

(Photograph omitted)

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