Friday Flashback: Florrie Forde

Friday Flashback is a semi-regular feature drawing on recent news stories to delve into the archives, looking back on oft-neglected corners of Australian film history.

Earlier this week, the National Film and Sound Archive announced their annual round of additions to the wonderful Sounds of Australia registry, honouring audio achievements of cultural, historical or aesthetic importance to the Australian nation, all nominated by members of the public.

Amongst this year’s additions was a fabulous little ditty by Australian music hall artiste Florrie Floyd, whose Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy is a classic of music hall entendre. But despite her Australian roots, Forde actually spent most of her working life in Britain, where she moved at the tender age of 21 for a life spent in the footlights.

Florrie Forde

Florrie Forde

Born Flora Flannagan in 1875 in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, she fled to Sydney after the death of her mother, adopting her stepfather’s surname for early performances at the Port Jackson Pavilion and Polytechnic Music Hall in 1892. Quickly building a niche singing popular and comic songs, she also performed in pantomime and ‘legitimate’ theatre, and toured Australia with Harry Rickard’s variety troupe.

Offered a tour of Britain, Forde opted to venture abroad under her own steam, and this weekend marks the anniversary of her first appearance on the London stage, singing at the Pavilion, Oxford and South London Palace in a single night over the 1897 August Bank Holiday weekend. Those performances led immediately to a three year contract with the Moss and Thornton circuit, and she was billed as ‘Australia’s Marie Lloyd’ and quickly established a reputation as the Queen of music hall sing-alongs, as well as sideline as one of the portliest ‘principal boys’ in panto.

Florrie Forde topping the bill at Morecombe's Winter Gardens in the 1910s

Florrie Forde topping the bill at Morecambe’s Winter Gardens in the 1910s

After participating in the first ever Royal Command Performance in 1912, Forde reached the height of her fame during the Great War. A prolific recorder of music hall anthems, she was well-known for renditions of Down at the Old Bull and Bush, Pack Up Your Troubles, It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, and the tune recently added to the Sounds of Australia registry, Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy. Although she spent almost her entire working life in Britain, Forde was nevertheless known for an ‘enduring sense of Australian-ness, evident in recordings of her broad, nasal vowels, which she retained until the end of her career’ (Brownrigg).

By the 1930s, music hall was on the wane, as motion pictures continued to gain popularity. With the advent of sound, British cinema of the 1930s (like its Australian and Hollywood counterparts) became enamored with the potential for musical delights. Particularly prominent in Britain was a cycle of musical comedies either adapted from or set in and around the music hall, and often featuring some of its biggest names translating their acts from stage to screen.

For her part, Forde appeared in two of these films. The first, released in 1934, was My Old Dutch, directed by Sinclair Hill for the Gainsborough studio. Adapted from Albert Chevalier’s famous cockney ditty, it starred Betty Balfour and Gordon Harker and traced the life of a cockney family – including Forde’s Aunt Bertha – in the lead-up to World War I, during which the son dies serving with the Royal Flying Corp.

Florrie Forde and Betty Balfour in My Old Dutch (1934)

Florrie Forde and Betty Balfour on the set of My Old Dutch (1934)

That same year, Forde’s second foray into motion pictures was the John Baxter-directed quota quickie Say It With Flowers. It told the story of Kate, a genial, much-loved flower seller in the Old Kent Road market, whose illness prompts the community of stall-holders to stage a benefit concert and raise funds to send her on a recuperative trip to the seaside. Held in the back of the local pub, the benefit is populated by a gang of ageing music hall stars donating their collective talents to the cause. Amongst those appearing on stage is – to quote Jeffrey Richards – ‘the massive, matronly Florrie Forde, exuding a primal maternal warmth, performing a medley of her greatest hits’.

Forde also performed in Royal Cavalcade, a film celebrating the best of variety and music hall from throughout the 25-year reign of King George V, and shown in cities throughout Britain and the Empire on May 4, 1935. The following year, in the midst of 128 consecutive performances in the Lyceum pantomime The Forty Theives, a chance encounter with an American film executive – who had witnessed the 59-year-old Forde playing the principal boy – might have lead to a late-blooming Hollywood career, filling a void left by the death of the much-celebrated plus-size comedienne Marie Dressler. That career never eventuated, but Forde continued to perform throughout Britain until 1940, when she died suddenly, shortly after entertaining patients at a naval hospital in Aberdeen.

Anon., ‘Florrie Forde. Marie Dressler’s Shoes‘, The Longreach Leader, 25 April 1936.
Anon., ‘Florrie Forde’, Australian Variety Theatre Archive.
Jeff Brownrigg, ‘Florrie Forde (1875-1940)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography (ANU, Canberra).
Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain [3rd. ed.], I.B. Tauris (London, 2010).

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