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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Proclamations of the Red Queen

2nd April 2009

Review: Patrick Newley: The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick (2007)

Posted by: Craig Young

 Patrick Newley: The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick: Third Age Press: London: 2007

From the fifties onward, visitors to London’s variety clubs were likely to encounter an odd character on stage. Mrs Gladys Shufflewick was a red-nosed inebriated elderly Cockney cleaning woman who was overly fond of large quantities of port and lemon. She often sported a flowery hat with cherries atop it and a fur stole made of untouched…(…) cat. This “weak willed and easily led” matron was once married to a pheasant-plucker and characterised herself as broad-minded to the point of obscenity. If she imbibed too much, she was likely to end up on a 29 bus, sans vetements.

As one might have already guessed, Mrs Shufflewick was a drag artiste (or “dame comedian” as they were then called) of historical vintage. She was the alter ego of one Rex Jameson (1925-1983), a working-class lad who grew up in London’s Southend after being adopted. Wartime was traumatic, and young Rex escaped to the movies until he was called up in 1942. He joined the RAF and was inevitably inducted rapidly into the RAF’s Gang Show,  which consisted of morale-boosting entertainment tours to theatres of combat like wartime Cyprus, North Africa and Italy.

In 1946, he was demobbed, but unfortunately for his later career and subsequent life, he’d developed a rather problematic taste for strong liquor. In 1950, Mrs Gladys Shufflewick made her debut on stage, and became a popular variety club item  whenever she recounted her disastrous Blackpool holidays, pub crawls with her mate Lilly and constant inebriation. Her initial stories were saucy but not too risque, and Rex/Shuff made the acquaintance of other British comedy legends like Tony Hancock, Danny La Rue (a drinking companion), Hylda Baker, Les Dawson and Barbara Windsor, as well as Julie Andrews.

The sixties proved profitable for Shuff, who popped up at then-popular seaside entertainment venues, as well as at the heyday of music variety hall performances and on BBC Light Entertainment.  From the mid-sixties, nightclubs began to replace variety venues, but Mrs Shufflewick adapted well to her new circumstances. Unfortunately, Rex’s alcoholism was getting worse, and his  constant drinking and gambling meant he never achieved the financial security that he deserved. It took its toll on his reputation as an artiste and he became known as a ‘difficult act,’ even though Mrs Shufflewick herself remained as popular as ever.

By 1967, the Sexual Offences Act had been passed, and male homosexuality had been narrowly decriminalised. Gay pubs opened and Mrs Shufflewick found a new lease of life and new audiences to cater to. By this time, her stage persona was picked, sour and bawdy, which went down well. Unfortunately, she never copyrighted her routines, which were ripped off by lesser talents. Meanwhile, Rex had met Dave, a burly gay Irish Northern itinerant labourer and they became living companions, as opposed to lovers. Sadly, Rex’s alcoholism eventually took its toll on his health. Just when he was attracting the interest of new alternative comedians, he collapsed and died in Camden High Street. As he was intestate, the Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund paid for his funeral. Fortunately though, bootleg tapes, CDs and BBC Radio Programmes have resulted in a new audience for her, and a compilation CD may soon be produced.

Mrs Shufflewick deserves a new generation of admirers, judging from her later agent’s fond biographical account of this unjustly neglected diva.

Tags: General

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