I’m not quite sure why – sometime in 1999 – I bought the large glove puppet from the Aldi store in DIdsbury, Manchester. I was over fifty and had two grown up daughters but there was something about the lugubrious face of the lion with a mouth you could easily manipulate into a roar which appealed to me.
Our younger daughter still living at home was quite taken by the lion and decided he should be called Stanley, after Stanley Holloway who recorded the immortal monologue about a rather foolish boy called Albert being eaten at Blackpool Zoo by a lion called Wallace.
In the 20s and 30s Holloway was the acknowledged master of the comic monologue – usually recited in an exaggerated northern accent in true musical-hall fashion. Most of these monologues were written for him by the poet Marriott Edgar, who he’d first met in 1929 while they were both in a stage revue called The Co-Optimists.
Holloway was already enjoying some success with his own self-written pieces like the classic Sam, Pick Oop Tha’ Musket and around this time Edgar presented him with the script of The Lion and Albert. It was supposedly based on a newspaper report Edgar had seen about a couple who had taken their son to the zoo, only to see the lad eaten by a lion.
So far I haven’t come across any reference to an incident at Blackpool Tower Zoo involving a family losing their child in that dramatic fashion. However, in August 1905 William Livesey – who worked for the Blackpool Tower Company – was eaten by lions. One of his jobs was to help feed those unwell animals being kept away from the Tower in an ‘animal hospital’ on Lytham Road.
On the day in question Livesey had spent the afternoon and evening at a local pub across the road from where currently three lions were being kept. He decided to take his drinking pals over to see the wild animals in his charge. It’s not entirely clear what happened then, but he drunkenly let himself into the yard and at some point the two lionesses got out of their cage. He was mauled to death and partially eaten by the animals who were probably startled and threatened by his presence. His friends made themselves scarce and his body was found the next morning.
The story doesn’t bear much resemblance to Marriot Edgar’s poem, but it seems to be the most likely source of his inspiration. It was headline news in Lancashire, and in nearby Preston, Livesey’s hometown, practically the whole town turned out for his funeral.
The monologue – recorded in 1930 or 1931 became one of Holloway’s most popular. Listening to it again (you can hear it below) it’s still very funny. Part of it is the dead-pan delivery – the story is being told in all seriousness, with lots of rather lugubrious incidental detail such as Albert’s stick ‘with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle – the best that Woolworth’s can sell’. (Apparently the original 78rpm record was a bestseller in Woolworths store in Blackpool where it sold for sixpence). The keeper asks: ‘Are you sure it’s your boy he’s eaten?’ Pa retorts, ‘Am I sure? There’s his cap!’
And Mother is unsurprisingly ‘vexed’:
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in.
In the thirties and forties it was a popular party piece at family gatherings. There’d probably be an uncle who fancied himself a humorist and loved taking centre stage who’d be easily ‘persuaded’ to perform. Indefatigable wild life campaigner Virginia McKenna claims that her love affair with lions began not when she appeared in Born Free in 1966 but when she was five and recited the monologue for friends of her parents. It was also the party piece of Angela’s Auntie Margaret, and was read in tribute at her funeral by her daughter Niamh.
It’s generally held that lion in the ‘somnolent posture’ of the poem is called Wallace after the first African lion to be bred in Britain, living from 1812 until 1838 which also had that name. It’s true that Wallace did become a popular name for lions. But my own theory is that at the start of the thirties – just before the poem was written – Holloway and Marriot Edgar went to Hollywood where Edgar met his half-brother Edgar Wallace. So I think it’s a tribute to a family member.
Stanley (the lion puppet) is still with us. He was a great favourite with all our grandchildren when they were little, and still gets an outing now and again. He accompanied me (above right) at a family party in May 2015 when I was dressed in fancy dress as Lawrence of Arabia – a homage to Monty Python’s Scott of the Sahara (I think). All the grandchildren thought that – dressed in the flowing gallabiyah I’d bought in Egypt a few years before – I was representing Jesus! I suppose some people would say that T E Lawrence imagined himself to be the Messiah but we won’t go there now.
You can read the full text of The Lion and Albert here.