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In the last month I have paid good money to see a two-foot-high furry puppet without a face doing an interpretive dance to Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’; one man methodically throwing fruit at another man’s blindfolded head; and a sketch show in which Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson go to America and fight Al Capone.
Am I mad? Not really (although what you think of this may depend on your taste in amusements). I just live in London. I moved here three months ago, and I am slowly discovering that, when it comes to entertainment, if you can imagine it, someone has already made a show out of it – and if you can’t imagine it, then someone has made a show out of it anyway. We’re talking about a city, after all, that currently has a hit musical centred around an animatronic pig and amuses itself each winter by going to watch octogenarians swim laps across a frozen lake. London, in short, is a very strange place.
Part of it, I’m sure, is that London is simply big enough to provide an audience for anything. No matter what the entertainment is, from interpretive body piercing to extreme darning, at least 25 people exist who genuinely want to spend an evening watching it. But what I discovered in the course of recent MA research (at least it started as research, then I just got interested) is that there’s a particularly strong tradition in London, even in comparison to other big cities, of bizarre sights and odd goings-on in the pursuit of amusement.
Londoners have always displayed a very well-developed appreciation for the downright weird, especially if it involves explosions, scantily clad ladies or animals that do amusing tricks. Wilton’s Music Hall, for example (which was, aptly enough, where I went to see the puppet show), boasted in its heyday such niche delights as ‘poses plastiques’, an entertainment that involved several girls, not wearing very much at all, standing still for a while. If they moved, of course, it would have been officially obscene. This is the sort of logic that only works in England.
In 1827 Londoners could have gone to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens to watch an enthusiastic and faithful re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo involving 1000 ‘soldiers’ and real explosions, and in 1852 (I can’t tell you how much this delights me) another pleasure-garden, Cremorne, played host to a woman called Madame Poitevin as she made a balloon ascent dressed as Europa and riding on an actual bull (the bull was dressed as Zeus, and did not much enjoy the experience, leading to several accusations of animal cruelty from concerned viewers).
Animal cruelty did not worry eighteenth century pleasure-seekers quite as much – one of London’s most popular attractions was the Menagerie at the Tower of London, where (I am quoting from Wikipedia here, because this is an unbearably wonderful sentence): “…the price of admission was three half-pence or the supply of a cat or dog for feeding to the lions.” In 1829 the talk of the town was a play called The Elephant of Siam and the Fire Fiend at the Adelphi, highlights of which involved the (very real) elephant of the title opening a bottle of wine with its trunk and then drinking it, and in 1856 a (somewhat edited) Richard III was presented that turned Richard’s horse Surrey into the star of the show. Kevin Spacey, eat your heart out.
Even when animals were not involved, London could still produce some bizarre sights. In 1871, for example, the Covent Garden Theatre showed a production of Blue Beard (as their Christmas pantomime, to make things even more weird) that included a chorus of twelve decapitated women, carrying their heads under their arms and singing ‘Three Blind Mice’. As a dirge.
I could go on. Once you start looking into it, there seems no end to the oddness of London entertainments. Everywhere people gathered, strange things went on. In the 1700s you could have joined the No-Nose Club (ex-members of the Unsafe Sex Club, I assume), the Surly Club (its members met up each week to be rude to each other) or even (if you were that way disposed) a Man-Killing Club, all of which make present-day social groups like Vedanta World London and The London Android Group seem positively ordinary. So, if you think your idea of fun is weird… well, history, as ever, proves that you could always be weirder. I hope I’ve given all you extreme knitters out there a confidence boost.
Oh, and by the way, if you were interested in any of the three shows I described at the beginning of this blog, they were Boris and Sergey’s Puppet Cabaret; The Alternate Comedy Memorial Society at the New Red Lion and Max and Ivan are Holmes and Watson, and all of them were marvellous. I’d definitely recommend them to anyone, or at least anyone who likes puppets, fruit or literary-detective-themed stand-up. And if you don’t, you’re sure to find something else that appeals to you.
After all, this is London.
Robin started out writing literary features for Litro and joined the team in November 2012. She is from Oxford by way of California, and she recently completed an English Literature MA at King's College, London. Her dissertation was on crime fiction, so she can now officially refer to herself as an expert in murder (she's not sure whether she should be proud of that). Robin reviews books for The Bookbag and on her own personal blog, redbreastedbird.blogspot.co.uk. She also writes children's novels. Luckily, she believes that you can never have too many books in your life.