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Sir George Robey (20 September 1869 – 29 November 1954), born George Edward Wade, was an English music hall comedian, singer and musical theatre actor. He was known by audiences as the "Prime Minister of Mirth". Aside from his music hall acts, he was perhaps best known for his song "If you were the only girl in the world".
Robey was born at 334 Kennington Road, Kennington, London. His father George Wade was a civil engineer who spent much of his career on tramline design and construction. Robey's mother Elizabeth Mary Wade née Keene was a housewife; he also had two sisters. Robey spent much of his early childhood travelling to the English provinces with his family who moved frequently so his father could honour his working commitments. Robey began his school life in the mid-1870s when he attended a dame school. In the later months of 1880, he moved to Germany where he studied in Dresden and excelled in Art and Music. He earned small fees from performing music and song at local venues, adopting the stage name "Robey" from a firm of builders, finally changing it by deed-poll.
Robey's London début was made at the Royal Aquarium, as assistant to Professor Kennedy, a burlesque mesmerist, in 1891. In this act he sang songs, pretending to be under hypnosis. He was soon performing in his own act, and was booked at the Oxford Music Hall in June 1891 aged 21.
Like many of his time, Robey's act consisted of patter and song, with elaborate stage costumes, often appearing in drag. He was renowned for his double entendres, and ordering his audience to "Desist" and "Kindly temper your hilarity with a modicum of reserve", in the manner adopted by later comedians such as Frankie Howerd. Naturally, these exhortations had the opposite effect.
During World War I he was known for his enthusiastic participation in recruitment drives for the army. In one theatre he promised "a shiny florin for every recruit who signs on tonight". He raised over £500,000 for war charities and at the end of the war he was offered a knighthood for his services, but declined, accepting a CBE.
In 1916, he appeared at the Alhambra Theatre in the musical/revue The Bing Boys Are Here. He was given the leading male part, Lucius Bing, opposite Violet Loraine as Emma. It became one of the most popular musicals of the time. His duet with Loraine If You Were the Only Girl (in the World) became a "signature song" of the era and endured as a pop standard.
Robey was also an artist, and a number of pen and ink self-caricatures are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Robey also appeared in films. Among his most notable roles were Sancho Panza in both the 1923 film versions of Don Quixote, as Ali Baba in the 1934 film version of the musical comedy Chu Chin Chow, and as the dying Falstaff in Laurence Olivier's film version of Shakespeare's Henry V.
Robey appeared in the early sound films And Very Nice Too and Good Queen Bess (both 1913), made in the Kinoplasticon process, where the film was synchronized with phonograph records. He also wrote and starred in two Lee De Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film productions, Safety First (1928) and Mrs. Mephistopheles (1929), both directed by Hugh Croise.
Notes and references
- Harding, James. "Robey, George", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed October 2013 (subscription required)
- Baker, p. 272
- George Robey biography (It's Behind You! Music Hall history) accessed 26 May 2008
- The Royal Aquarium (Arthur Lloyd theatre history) accessed 26 May 2008
- Incident recounted in The Slogan - Sidelights on recruiting with Harry Lauder’s Band by Private Joseph Quigley (Simpkin London 1916)
- "George Robey", Hull Daily Mail, 18 September 1942, p. 1
- "The Bing Boys are Here", Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1 May 1916, p. 2
- Credit list for George Robey, British Film Institute, accessed 21 March 2012
- Baker, Richard, Anthony (2005). British Music Hall: An Illustrated History. London: Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7-509-3685-1.
- George Robey at the Internet Movie Database
- Brief biography
- "If You Were the Only Girl (in the World)" sung by Loraine and Robey, 1916 (mp3)
- Ye Olde Tree and Crown
- Eight digitally restored recordings of George Robey