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Until I read the following article in the archives of The Stage, I presumed When Knights Were Bold was solely the work of Harriett Jay, since the only writing credit on the play is her regular pseudonym, ‘Charles Marlowe’. However, it seems that the original version of the play was yet another collaboration with Robert Buchanan:
The Stage (19 January, 1922 - p.13)
The Evening Standard is responsible for the following statement:—“‘When Knights Were Bold’ was brought to the Kingsway quite on the off chance, for the Christmas season. Now comes the news that its run will continue indefinitely— twice daily in the meanwhile. I suppose this is quite the most remarkable instance of failure encouraged to success. When Buchanan wrote ‘When Knights Were Bold’ it was in the form of a romantic drama. On this Jimmy Welch lost a thousand pounds’ then insisted on turning it into a farce, with results as stated.”
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With the exception that Buchanan did not write the play; but Charles Marlowe; that it was not originally written as a romantic drama; that Jimmy Welch did not lose a thousand pounds on it, which, as a matter of fact, he did not possess at the time; and that he obviously could not turn it into a farce when it already was one, the Evening Standard’s paragraph is fairly correct.
* * *
So many incorrect statements have got about in reference to this play that I am going to tell the real facts of the case, which are within my own knowledge.
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The play was originally called “In Days of Old,” and written for the late Weedon Grossmith, who, I don’t suppose, ever attempted a “romantic” lead in his life. Weedon did not like the play for some reason or other, and turned it down in favour of another play by Robert Buchanan and Harriett Jay (Charles Marlowe) called “The Romance of a Shopwalker” which was produced at the Vaudeville about 1895. About this time it was found that the title “In Days of Old” had been used for a romantic drama by Edward Rose, produced at the St. James’s in 1899, so the second line of the famous song was selected, “When Knights Were Bold,” and every opportunity was sought to secure a suitable comedian for the part. Buchanan and Jay suggested a triangular management with a certain young producer, in which each agreed to provide an equal sum of money to start operations, the first production to be “When Knights Were Bold.” This producer met Jimmy Welch at luncheon one day, and informed him of the new and important partnership he had just entered into. In the course of conversation Jimmy inquired about the opening play, and when he heard it said: “Do you want any money?” “Yes,” said the producer. “Well,” said Jimmy, “if you give me the part of Sir Guy I can find a man to put up a thousand pounds.” “Are you sure?” “Yes,” said Jimmy, “Come with me, and I will introduce you to him.” They met Jimmy’s friend, found everything correct, and the manager said he would see his partners and make an appointment to introduce Welch, but could not promise the part for certain, as Robert Buchanan, by agreement, had reserved the right of casting the play.
* * *
The three partners met, and the producer said all he could in favour of Welch playing the part. Buchanan said: “I don’t know him; what’s he like?” “Oh, he’s a good character actor, who made a hit in ‘Rosemary’ at the Criterion.” “Well,” said Buchanan, “bring him up here to-morrow, and we can have a look at him.” Jimmy came forward on the following morning, but Buchanan was not impressed with his appearance for the part, and said: “He’s too snipy for Sir Guy.” So Jimmy had to be told gently, but firmly, that he could not have it.
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The triangular partnership did not materialise. Buchanan was taken ill, and the manager went to the States. When Buchanan died Jimmy obtained an option on the play from Miss Jay, for which he paid £100, this being provided by the late Fred Mouillot. The twelve months expired, and Mouillot refused to put up any more money, saying: “The play is too old-fashioned for words.” Time went on, and in due course the author demanded the return of the MS., which Jimmy did not wish to part with. Eventually he managed to find another £50, and secured a further six months’ option.
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Soon after this he met a backer, who it was said put up £10,000, and Jimmy took Terry’s, where he produced “The Heroic Stubbs,” by Henry Arthur Jones; then a play by Brandon Thomas, which was, I think, called “Marriage,” and a revival of “The New Clown.” Unfortunately, all three were all unsuccessful, so Jimmy decided to book a tour and try his luck with “The New Clown” in the provinces. It was only then, after all his capital had been lost, that he again thought of “When Knights Were Bold,” and in desperation put it on at Nottingham on September 17, 1906, where it was so successful that Frank Curzon took it to Wyndham’s, and it caught on at once, and has remained one of the leading theatrical moneymakers ever since, in spite of having been previously turned down by almost every manager in London.
The above article appeared in the ‘Round About’ column of The Stage, written by ‘Pillicoddy’. Whoever was concealed behind that pseudonym, he obviously knew Buchanan and Jay and so his account of the origins of When Knights Were Bold - give or take the occasional mistake over dates - is probably accurate. There are other mentions of Buchanan and Jay in Pillicoddy’s other columns which add to his credence, and I’ve placed these on the following page:
Pillicoddy, Buchanan and Jay.
2. Good Old Times
One error in Pillicoddy’s account is the original title of the play. At some point it may have been called In Days of Old but there are several references to another collaboration of Buchanan and Jay entitled, Good Old Times and it would appear that this was the original version of When Knights Were Bold. In February 1889, Hall Caine’s play entitled The Good Old Times was produced at the Princess’s Theatre by Wilson Barrett which would have necessitated changing the name of the Buchanan/Jay play.
The Glasgow Herald (10 January, 1896)
OUR LONDON CORRESPONDENCE.
65 FLEET STREET,
. . .
I UNDERSTAND that two pieces, both by Mr Robert Buchanan, are before Mr Weedon Grossmith, and that one of them will be the next production at the Vaudeville. The comedies are respectively entitled “Good Old Times” and “The Shop Walker.” They are said to be the survivors of nearly 800 plays by various stage aspirants which this unfortunate manager has had to peruse.
The Era (11 January, 1896)
ROBERT BUCHANAN’S PLAYS.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.
Sir,—It is an old adage which says that the world knows more of one’s private business than one does oneself, and the truth is illustrated daily by the extraordinary statements of the theatrical gossip-monger. I see it stated in print to-day that Mr Weedon Grossmith will shortly produce one of two plays, the names of which are incorrectly given, “by Mr Buchanan.” May I ask you to state that, up to the time of writing, I have made no arrangement with Mr Grossmith to produce any work whatever, and that, in any case, I am only the part-author of any work which he may have had under consideration. I strongly object to have my business arrangements anticipated by the writers of newspaper paragraphs, and I also strongly object to have my unborn plays christened for me at the font of the Printer’s Devil.
Yours truly, ROBT. BUCHANAN.
The Cottage, 44, Streatham-hill, S.W.,
Jan. 9th, 1896.
The Stage (6 February, 1896)
(From the Chit Chat column.)
When I announced that either The Shop Walker or Good Old Times, both by Robert Buchanan, would be the next production at the Vaudeville, the dramatist, with Charles Reade-like vigour, laboured me with abuse – in another paper. Now, however, it appears that The Shopwalker, re-christened The Romance of a Shopwalker, is to be produced on or about Thursday, the 20th inst.
In the following letter from Buchanan and Jay concerning coincidences of plot in Josiah’s Dream and two of their plays, The Maiden Queen and “a comedy”, the structure of the latter mirrors that of When Knights Were Bold and is presumably Good Old Times.
The Era (23 May, 1896)
TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.
Sir,—We observe that a farcical comedy called Josiah’s Dream was produced on Thursday evening at the Strand Theatre. Curiously enough, it bears a strong resemblance in subject to two works in which we have collaborated, and which have been completed for a considerable time. The prophetic vision of the Coming Woman, as she is to be a hundred years hence, is to be found in an opera, The Maiden Queen, while the structure of the farcical comedy— involving, as it does, two acts of contemporary life, and one act which takes place in a remote period—closely resembles the structure of a comedy which we wrote more than a year ago. We do not suggest for a moment that the author of Josiah’s Dream has plagiarised our ideas, but certainly the long arm of coincidence has been at work, and as both our pieces are set down for early production we think it desirable to make this explanation, lest in the fulness of time we ourselves should be accused of adopting any suggestions from Josiah’s Dream.
Yours truly, ROBERT BUCHANAN and CHARLES MARLOWE.
35, Gerrard-street, Shaftesbury-avenue, W., May 22d, 1896.
Perhaps the letter was prompted by this account of the play in the ‘Chit Chat’ column of The Stage - note the title of the third act:
The Stage (21 May, 1896 - p.11)
To-night (Thursday) the Strand will be re-opened under the management of Mr. W. Spencer with, as you have already been told, a new three-act facical comedy, written by Charles Rogers, entitled, Josiah’s Dream; or, The Woman of the Future. The cast of characters is: Josiah Jenkins, Mr. Sidney Harcourt; Algy Gushington, Mr. Graham Wentworth; Charlie Templeton, Mr. J. A. Benthan; John Hardy, Mr. George Raiemond; William, Mr. Richard Blunt; Caroline, Miss Ada Branson; Georgina, Miss Lettice Fairfax; Johanna Bucklaw, Miss Mary Allestree; Frederica, Miss Florence L. Forster. The acts are indicated as follows:—Act one, Josiah Sleeps—Josiah Jenkins’s House at Brixton. A.D. 1896; act two, Josiah Dreams—A.D. 2000; act three, Josiah Wakes—Back in the Good Old Times. The new scenery for this piece has been painted by Mr. Bruce Smith.
There was another mention of Good Old Times following Buchanan’s death.
The New York Tribune (11 August, 1901)
A great quantity of unpublished literary matter was left by the late Robert Buchanan. Much of it is unfinished, but there is a long poem which is complete, and several finished plays are among the relics. One of these, “The Good Old Times,” will probably be presented in London next spring. Buchanan had intended to write his memoirs, but only disconnected jottings for the work exist.
However, the best evidence for When Knights Were Bold being a later version of Good Old Times occurs in a court report in The Times of July 21st, 1917. The case was brought by Harriett Jay against the widow of James Welch and contains the following statement:
“On July 3 Miss Harriet Jay, who wrote the play some time before 1901, and who is also the author of ‘The Life of Robert Buchanan,’ issued a writ against Mrs. Amy Hannah Welch, the widow and administratrix of the estate of her husband, Mr. James Welch, asking the Court to declare that an agreement in writing dated September 9, 1905, between the plaintiff and Mr. James Welch as to the performing rights of a play therein called Good Old Times, but now called When Knights were Bold, was an agreement personal to Mr. James Welch, and that it ceased to be operative on his death.”
The full report of the case is available in the When Knights Were Bold - Miscellanea section, but this extract does provide a definite link between the two plays.
A final indication, from the play itself, that the Pillicoddy account is accurate, is the fact that in the review of the play’s premiere in Nottingham in The Stage, the time lapse given between the acts is 700 years. The first and last acts are set in 1906, the second in 1196. 700 years would indicate that the play was originally set in 1896 - which would fit ‘Pillicoddy’s’ chronology since The Romance of the Shopwalker was produced in that year. In The Stage’s review of the play’s London premiere the time lapse is corrected to 710 years.
3. So why just ‘Charles Marlowe’?
So, if one accepts that When Knights Were Bold was originally a Buchanan/Jay collaboration called Good Old Times written around 1896, then one has to ask why did Harriett Jay decide to remove Buchanan’s name from the play? Their comic opera, The Maiden Queen, has a similar chronology, written in 1896, not performed until a copyright performance in 1905, then published in 1908, but Buchanan’s name was retained. The following piece appeared in several American papers and there is no mention of Buchanan as co-author of the play, so Harriett Jay’s decision to present herself as the sole author of the play would seem to be deliberate rather than the result of some oversight.