Leslie Lincoln Henson (3 August 1891 – 2 December 1957) was an English comedian, actor, producer for films and theatre, and film director. He initially worked in silent films and Edwardian musical comedy and became a popular music hall comedian who enjoyed a long stage career. He was famous for his bulging eyes, malleable face and raspy voice and helped to form the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) during the Second World War.
Born in Notting Hill, London, Henson became interested in the theatre from an early age, writing and producing theatrical pieces while at school. He studied with "the Cairns–James School of Musical and Dramatic Art as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of 19. His first West End role was in Nicely, Thanks! (1912) and he later starred in several hit West End Edwardian musical comedies, including To-Night's the Night (1915) and Yes, Uncle! (1917). After briefly serving with the Royal Flying Corps, he was released from active service by the British government to help run a concert party called "The Gaieties", which provided entertainment for the troops during World War I. After the war, he returned to the West End, playing in Kissing Time (1919) and a series of musical comedies and farces throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
At the start of World War II, together with Basil Dean, he helped to form ENSA, with which he entertained British troops abroad. Henson's post war stage success continued in revues, musicals and plays, including a West End adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody in 1955. Henson's film career was intermittent, and he made 14 films from 1916 to 1956. The most notable of these was Tons of Money in 1924, which introduced the popular Aldwych farces to British cinema audiences for the first time. In 1956, Henson's friend Bobbie Hullett died in circumstances that struck him as suspicious. Henson anonymously notified the police that her doctor, John Bodkin Adams, should be investigated. Adams was subsequently tried for murder but acquitted.
Leslie Henson was born in Notting Hill, London, the eldest child and only son of Joseph Lincoln Henson, a tallow chandler, and his wife, Alice Mary (née Squire). He was educated at the Emanuel School (Wandsworth), and at Cliftonville College (Margate). Interested in the theatre from an early age, Henson wrote and produced theatrical pieces while at school. He worked briefly in the family business but soon studied with "the Cairns–James School of Musical and Dramatic Art".
Henson began his professional stage career at age 19 in the provinces with The Tatlers' concert party, soon appearing in London in the pantomime Sinbad at the Dalston Theatre at Christmas 1910. After concert appearances, he toured in The Quaker Girl in 1912 in the role of Jeremiah. His first West End role was later that year in Nicely, Thanks! at the Royal Strand Theatre. Actor Stanley Holloway dedicated a chapter in his 1967 autobiography to Henson, describing how Henson helped establish his career by signing him to perform in Nicely Thanks! He performed with The Scamps' concerts and starred in the comic roles in hit West End Edwardian musical comedies such as To-Night's the Night (1914 on Broadway and 1915 at the Gaiety Theatre, London), Theodore & Co (1916), and Yes, Uncle! (1917). His malleable features, bulging eyes and raspy voice made him an audience favourite, especially in his own comic sketches. He also appeared in films occasionally, beginning with Wanted: A Widow (1916).
Henson signed up with the Royal Flying Corps but was removed from active service to run a concert party group called "The Gaieties" in the 5th Army, to give shows for the troops in 1918. He returned to the West End in musicals and comedies, including Kissing Time (1919), Sally (1921) and Tons of Money (1922), in which he starred as Aubrey Allington. The last of these led to the long-running series of Aldwych Farces, which he co-produced with Tom Walls.
Henson starred in a string of comedies at the Winter Garden Theatre, including A Night Out (1920), The Cabaret Girl (1922) and The Beauty Prize (1923). In 1924, he played Aubrey Allington again when he and Walls made his most notable film, Tons of Money, which introduced the Aldwych farces to British cinema audiences for the first time. In 1926, he starred in Kid Boots in London and then toured the English provinces in Betty Lee in 1926.
In 1930, Henson and his business partner Firth Shephard co-leased the Novello Theatre and presented a series of farces, It's a Boy! (1930, also starring Henson), It's a Girl! (1930), Lady Luck, Funny Face, Follow Through, Nice Goings On! (1933), Lucky Break and Aren't Men Beasts! (1936), which starred a young John Mills.
In 1935, he and Shephard took over the Gaiety Theatre, London and produced four successful shows, Seeing Stars (1936), Swing Along (1937), Going Greek (1937) and Running Riot (1938). During the run of the last of these, the aged theatre was condemned and was required to be closed. Henson also returned to film work in the 1930s, appearing in A Warm Corner (1930), The Sport of Kings (1931), It's a Boy (1933), The Girl from Maxim's (1933) and Oh, Daddy! (1935). His later films were The Demi-Paradise (1943) and Home and Away (1956). In 1938, Leslie Henson was appointed president of the Royal Theatrical Fund.
At the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the UK from a tour of South Africa and, together with Basil Dean, formed the Entertainments National Service Association, also known as the "ENSA", a government-sponsored organisation with which he entertained British troops in Europe, the Near East and the Far East. He was in London in 1940, however, for the revue Up and Doing and in 1942 for Fine and Dandy (at which the King and Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were surprise guests), both at the Saville Theatre. In 1945, he starred in The Gaieties at the Winter Garden Theatre, and in a revival of 1066 and All That at the Palace Theatre, London. In 1946, he toured the provinces in The Sport of Kings.
In 1948 he starred in Bob's Your Uncle. Later performances included "straight" roles, though with less success, such as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950), in which he toured, and as Samuel Pepys in a musical composed by Vivian Ellis And So to Bed by J. B. Fagan (1951). He also had a hit in the title role of the musical farce Bob's Your Uncle (1948) by Austin Melford and later starred in Relations Are Best Apart at the Theatre Royal, Bath (1953), as Mr Pooter in a stage adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody (Duchess Theatre, 1955), and as Old Eccles in a musical version of Tom Robertson's Caste (1955). Henson acted up until the time of his death.
Family and death
Henson was married three times, in each case to actresses:
- Madge Saunders (died 1967), whom he married at St. George's Church, Hanover Square, Marylebone, London in 1919,
- Gladys Gunn, in 1926
- Harriet "Billie" Dell, in 1944
His sons from his second and third marriages are, respectively, Joe, a farmer, and Nicky, an actor. Nicky's sons with ex-wife Una Stubbs are composers Christian and Joseph, and another son with wife Marguerite Porter is Keaton, an artist. Joe's son is Adam Henson.
Bobbie Hullett's death
On 23 July 1956, while in Dublin performing, Henson heard that his close friend Bobbie Hullett had died in Eastbourne. He was suspicious because her husband had died just four months earlier, and their doctor was John Bodkin Adams. He telephoned the Eastbourne police anonymously to warn them of his fears, instigating an investigation that would lead to the trial of Adams on two counts of murder. Adams was acquitted on 11 April 1957, but the Home Office pathologist at the time, Dr Francis Camps, noted 163 suspicious deaths among Adams's patients between 1946-1956.
- Meet Me 'Round the Corner, with Moya Mannering 1912 (streaming audio/HTTP download)
- Sally: original 1921 London cast recordings Monmouth-Evergreen MES-7053 (LP)
- Primrose: original 1924 London cast recordings World Records SH-214 (LP), Pearl 113 (CD)
- Cole Porter in London: original cast recordings from London productions of Nymph Errant”. “Anything Goes”, “Wake Up and Dream”, “Kiss Me Kate” etc. World Records SHB-26 (2xLP)
- Careless Talk. Monologue by Stanley Holloway with Leslie Henson (MP3 download)
- A Few Drinks with Sydney Howard, Columbia (Australia) DOX9
- Notes: The source for the television and film appearances is the British Film Institute. Clips of Henson may be viewed online here.
- 1911 Census Returns of England and Wales, Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA), 1911.
- Shorter, Eric. Henson, Leslie Lincoln (1891–1957), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2011; accessed 20 June 2011.
- "Outstanding Stage Personality", Glasgow Herald, 3 December 1957, p. 3; accessed 8 June 2010.
- Holloway, Stanley; Richards, Dick (1967). Wiv a little bit o’ luck: The life story of Stanley Holloway. London, UK: Frewin. ASIN B0000CNLM5. OCLC 3647363. Chapter 16: "The Lovable Jester", pp. 289–99
- Theodore & Co. Guide to Musical Theatre, accessed 8 June 2010
- Profile, IMDb.com; accessed 17 September 2014.
- Collins, Larry J. "Leslie Henson in Lille". The Charles Laughton Pages, excerpt from Collins, Larry J. Theatre at War 1914–18. Jade Publishing Ltd., Oldham, Lancashire (2004); accessed 8 June 2010
- McCallum, David. "Comedy Connections –Tons Of Money", EdinburghTheatreArts.com; accessed 13 November 2011
- Tom Walls (1883-1949) profile, BritishPictures.com; accessed 2 June 2012.
- Listing of shows in the 1920s noting the shows in which Leslie appeared[dead link]
- Tons of Money, Walls and Henson films, British Film Institute website; accessed 13 November 2011
- "Josie Melville Returning", Canberra Times, 9 December 1926, p. 12; accessed 5 October 2010.
- Suskin, Steven. Show Tunes: the songs, shows and careers of Broadway's major composers, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-531407-7
- "Rob Wilton Theatricalia". Listing of Henson shows in the 1930s. Accessed 8 June 2010
- The Gaiety Theatre, The Theatres Trust, accessed 15 September 2011
- Up and Doing, guidetomusicaltheatre.com; accessed 8 June 2010
- "Princesses' First Night at Theatre", trove.nla.gov.au (Melbourne Argus, 8 August 1942, p. 3); accessed 5 October 2010
- The Grand Theatre, Blackpool, "Stars of the 1940s". See 21 October 1946; accessed 8 June 2010.
- Noel Gay biodata, guidetomusicaltheatre.com; accessed 8 June 2010.
- The British Film Institute Gaiety wedding at St.George's; accessed November 2011.
- "Mr. Leslie Henson Married", Cork Examiner, 9 July 1926, p. 12
- "Nicky Henson - Actor". Nicky Henson. Retrieved 23 April 2009.
- Adam Henson profile, horseandcountry.tv; accessed 16 October 2010
- London Metropolitan Archives, All Saints, Harrow, Register of burials, DRO/108, Item 024; Call Number: dro/108/024.
- Leslie Henson profile, Findagrave.com; accessed 8 June 2010
- Cullen, Pamela V., A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams, London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006; ISBN 1-904027-19-9
- Tons of Money, British Film Institute, accessed 5 June 2012
- "Henson, Leslie", British Film Institute; accessed 5 June 2012.
- Henson, Leslie. My Laugh Story. London: Hodder and Staunton, 1926
- Henson, Leslie. Yours Faithfully. London: Long, 1948.
- Performances listed in Theatre Archive University of Bristol
- Photo and information about Henson
- Photos of Henson