Pierrot shows and concert parties – meta-fiction in Brighton Rock

Jack MCNaughton in Brighton Rock
The seaside concert party headed by Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley) put on their show to a practically deserted sea front. Jack McNaughton is second from the left.

Jack McNaughton had an unwitting role in delivering some classic meta fiction to the silver screen in his role as a member of a Pierrot concert party in the classic British Noire Brighton Rock.

Concert parties were a hugely popular feature of seaside towns like Brighton during the 1930s and 1940s. Often broadcast on the BBC, concert parties in Brighton included Jimmy Hunter’s Brighton Follies from the Palace Pier Theatre, the New Brighton Follies from the Floral Pavilion and Jack Sheppard’s Concert Party, which performed on Marine Parade.

Pierrot Shows were started by Clifford Essex in the 1890s. He brought the idea over from France, forming the Pierrot Banjo Team which then became the Clifford Essex Royal Pierrots – so called because they played for Prince Edward, later Edward VII on the Royal Yacht at the Cowes regatta in 1891.

Pierrot troupes became so popular that by the 1920s there were over 500 of them entertaining the summer crowds at seaside resorts around the UK. They provided platforms where budding entertainers, singers and comedians honed their acts before taking them to wider audiences on radio, TV, theatre and film.

The tradition of seaside Pierrots in pointed hats and black or coloured costumes decorated with pom-poms who sang, danced, juggled, and joked on the piers of Brighton, Margate and Blackpool lasted until the 1950s.

Pierrot troupes appeared in art and popular culture. Walter Sickert’s painting Brighton Pierrots, 1915 is an atmospheric depiction of a concert party performing under electric lights at dusk on Brighton seafront. There is an air of melancholy about the image as the performers play to a diminishing late summer audience.

Jack McNaughton in Brighton Rock
Hermione Baddeley gives an impersonation of Harry Lauder to amuse studio staff during the lunch break

Pierrots also feature in literature and film. One of the main protagonists in Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock is the leader of a Pierrot troupe in Brighton. The novel was later adapted for the screen by Greene and Terrance Rattigan.

In the film, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough), a Brighton gangster, murders a journalist Fred Hale -who was in Brighton to promote his paper – at the fairground. Brown’s gang hold Hale responsible for the death of their leader, Kite. Ida Arnold (Hermione Badderley), the leader of a Pierrot Troupe, who spent some time with Hale in the time before his murder suspects foul play. After being fobbed off by the police she undertakes her own investigation into Hale’s death. The lives of Pinkie, his girlfriend Rose, Pinkie’s gang (Spicer, Dallow and Cubbit) and Ida collide with tragic consequences as Pinkie becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to establish an alibi for Hale’s murder while trying to stave off the attentions of a rival gang.

Brighton Rock is a classic noire in the mould of the traditional American gangster movie. In the US, the film was called Young Scarface. It was directed by John Boulting and produced by Roy Boulting with cinematography by Harry Waxman. The gritty realism of Brighton Rock presages later British gangster classics like Mike Hodges’ Get Carter and Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

One member of the Pierrot troupe was Jack McNaughton in one of his first film role after returning to England from the Far East after WWII. He had worked with Hermione Badderley in the Gate Revue before the war and became a regular in the Boulting Brothers’ productions.

Click here for more on Brighton Rock.

To find out more about Clifford Essex and the Pierrot tradition have a listen to this three-part series on Radio 4.

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