The great showmen and conmen of London: why I am proud to be British

I saw a special screening of Showmen of the Streets tonight – a 45-minute documentary about street performers of the 1930s-1960s and their precursors. People like The Earl of Mustard, The Road Stars, The Amazing BlondiniPrince Monolulu, The Man with X-Ray Eyes, The Happy Wanderers (who I just about remember playing Oxford Street in my erstwhile youth) and Don Partridge aka ‘King of the Buskers’, who actually managed to get into the UK hit parade and who hired the Royal Albert Hall in 1969 to stage a show called The Last of The Buskers with some of the great street performers of that and previous eras.

A couple of characters not in the film whom I remember are Don Crown and ‘Little Legs’.

Don Crown used to perform an act with budgerigars in Leicester Square and various other places. I used him on TV programmes a couple of times but, the last time I met him, he was a broken man: he had become allergic to feathers.

True and sad. Though I see from his website that he seems to have recovered and performs on the South Bank in London.

The other character I remember was a dwarf called Roy ‘Little Legs’ Smith who was a busker himself, but he also used to collect money for street performers. A busker would play the queues in Leicester Square and Little Legs would go along collecting money in, as I remember it, a hat. The theory – which proved true – was that it is almost impossible not to give money to a dwarf collecting for a busker.

Little Legs appeared in the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour. He died in 1989 and, according to his obituaries, he had worked for the Kray Twins as an ‘enforcer’ in the 1960s. Indeed, a book Little Legs: Muscleman of Soho was published in 1989 which traced, among other things, “his long career as a street entertainer and card-player”. In 1999, his nephew stood as a candidate for Mayor of London.

I merely pass this on.

The DVD of the documentary Showmen of the Streets is being released in a couple of weeks time.

Director John Lawrenson – who used to perform the ‘ball and cup’ magic routine in London’s streets – is currently preparing a new film about great hoaxers, including William Donaldson (aka Henry Root) who wrote to prominent public figures with unusual or outlandish questions and requests and published their replies.

Also in the film will be the late but glorious Fleet Street hoaxer Rocky Ryan who, among other career highlights, persuaded major British newspapers to print stories that sex and drug orgies were taking place on Mount Everest and that the Yorkshire Ripper was being let out of Broadmoor to go to the local disco as part of his rehabilitation into society. He also managed to persuade several Israeli newspapers that Adolf Hitler was alive and well and living in Golders Green… a famously Jewish London suburb.

It makes you proud to be British.

Although Rocky Ryan was Irish.

But let’s not get into that.

4 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Movies, Theatre

4 responses to “The great showmen and conmen of London: why I am proud to be British

  1. Pip

    I knew Little Legs briefly, towards the end of his life. He would visit his literary agent who had offices above ours in St. Martin’s Lane. Roy would pop in to visit us, have a sup of his “cold tea” before tackling the second flight of stairs. He was quite a character and some of the stories you mention above he told to us. Other stuff we later found out when his Obit was published.

  2. I remember Roy Smith well but only briefly spoke to him, he wasn’t interested in talking to me. First noticed this local character as a young soldier on leave in 1973, there was an air about him that said he was a dodgy type, and being what he was I saw him about quite a bit over the years, ‘bottling’ for buskers and drinking at the Polar Bear pub in Lisle st W.1. I was a dispatch rider for ten years so got to see a lot of him, it turned out his long absence once was his being in prison. Talking to east Londoners who knew him as children (I live in Whitechapel/Shadwell area) I didn’t get a very rosy picture of him, a car thief (YES!) and one claim from someone that he had tried to recruit children to do his stealing for him, a Fagin. Reading his autobiography both in ‘Homeless but for St.Mungo’s and ‘Muscleman of Soho’ I see he was as perfectly capable of conning people as he was assaulting them.
    If I was a midget I think I’d want my revenge on the world too, that said he was not a good character if you ask normal people who really knew him for real.

  3. I met Roy “Little Legs” a few times at the Bear & Staff in the mid-to late 80s. He was lovely company, charismatic, if a little menacing on first impression. Enjoyed his company tremendously, listening to his recollections, and he was an absolute charmer towards my mother. Last time we met was at the same place and he looked ill. He told me was going to meet his publisher about his life story. I have just purchased his autobiography. It’s so nice to see there is stuff about him on the net.

  4. I remember when I first saw ‘little legs’ in 1973, I was 16 and on leave from the army checking out Soho, there was an air about him that said he was an under world type. Being a local character I saw him over and again as a sailor in soho and then as a dispatch rider. It was during that time in the 1980s I was drunk in a soho pub called the Polar Bear that was a bit rough, I got to speak to him a bit but he seemed very cliquey …which he was. The barman told me he was ‘well on form’ (drunk) and he had been to a ‘proper drinking club’ …one of those members only drinking dens they had around soho then if not now. I did notice his longish absence and that was explained when I read the book of him. I hadn’t realised he was the midget in The Magic Mystery tour though, he was younger then.

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