Ian Kelly On ... Samuel Foote - the first superstar stand-up
Kelly's other books include biographies of Casanova and Beau Brummell, while his stage acting credits include Lee Hall’s multi award-winning The Pitmen Painters.
Ian Kelly: "I have nothing against your right leg; the trouble is, neither have you." The Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore Tarzan sketch set a sort of bench mark in bad taste, one-legged-actor jokes half a generation ago. It turns out the joke - and the whole idea of stand-up, with however many legs - dates back to Samuel Foote, founder of the Theatre Royal Haymarket and probably the most important ‘lost’ figure of the 18th century. He was a one legged celebrity impressionist whose star burned brighter than even David Garrick’s in the age of Dr Johnson: a sort of Oscar Wilde of the age of Sheridan whose life-story combines farce, tragedy, murder… and two of the most sensational trials in British history.
Foote’s rise to fame was based on three unrelated accidents: the loss of his leg after a disastrous practical joke, his extraordinary gifts as an impressionist, and a murder within his family which he turned into a true-crime bestseller. Out of this was born the most singular career in stage history. He flouted convention in transvestite roles, evaded the censors by selling his scurrilous satires as ‘Tea Parties’, wrote a series of plays for one-legged actors - accordingly not much revived - and established London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket, granted a royal license because the Duke of York was so contrite about his part in the bet that had lost the comedian his leg. And yes, his name really was Foote.
He first came to the attention of coffeehouse London as the first ‘celebrity impressionist’ in the first age when such a thing might be possible. But because he also wrote arguably the first ever true-crime bestseller, oddly, Foote stands as godfather not just to modern stand-up, but also to British crime writing. The main reason he has been largely ignored in theatre history however, despite his later plays being very funny, is that he was charged with homosexual assault - possibly, as was written at the time, ‘a stumped-up charge’ - and his resultant trial ruined his health and reputation.
Even so, he is responsible for much that is familiar to this day: if you’ve ever cursed the idea of the matinee - as either audience-member or overworked actor - curse Foote: it was his idea. The Alistair McGowan or Eddie Izzard of his day, he also has a lot to teach us about the fascination theatre audiences had and have with the private lives of the famous. But despite all this, his glinting, wicked sense of fun remains a draw today as it was then: ‘Sirs’ wrote Doctor Johnson, ‘even though I had determined not to like Mr Foote, I was fairly obliged to lay down my knife and fork and laugh myself out... he is irresistible.’
Mr Foote's Other Leg: Comedy, tragedy and murder in Georgian London is published by Picador and available now