The Chap: Jack Buchanan, Britain’s biggest forgotten star

It’s February 1954 and the Sunday Express has a scoop. Sir Laurence Olivier is learning to dance. More, he is planning to dance with a partner as part of a charity event at the Palladium, organised by Noel Coward. His dancing partner – and teacher – is Jack Buchanan, who the paper finds putting Olivier through twelve hours of rehearsal for what will be a two-minute routine – ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan’, which Buchanan last performed with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, released the previous year.

“Fred Astaire and Jack make it look so simple, but it’s not in the least,” Olivier complains to the reporter. Playing Hamlet is easier, he says.

Buchanan, a few weeks short of his sixty-third birthday, is immaculate as always: pearl grey trilby, double-breasted suit, Malacca cane. He has been making style look simple since around 1917 – it is, in large part, what he is famous for. And famous he is; it’s his name that leads the paper’s headline, not Olivier’s.

But who was he?

He was, simply, the biggest star Britain had for some thirty or forty years. The press had endless epiphets for him. He was England’s Fred Astaire (despite being born outside Glasgow. Scotland, I’m sorry). He was the Best Dressed Man in London. He was Mr Mayfair. He was England’s Maurice Chevalier. He was the Best Dressed Man in Britain. He was the Richest Man in the Theatre. He was Britain’s Shyest Bachelor. He was the Male Greta Garbo. (The last two titles he lost when he married in 1949; he kept news of an earlier, short-lived marriage out of the papers.)

So many labels, which – like all labels – offer little sense of the man. Like Gatsby, there is always something elusive, withheld.

He was a dancer, a singer, a comic actor, a romantic ideal, an impresario, a fashion god. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him. It was a fully fledged cult; people called it Buchananism. By the end of the twenties, when Astaire was still dancing with his sister Adele on Broadway, the New York Times was saying: “Buchanan is easily the best all-round musical comedy actor in show business. He can dance, sing, act, is a talented comedian and an actor-manager of consequence. New York has no-one to match him.”

But if he’s remembered at all now, it’s probably for that role in The Band Wagon, hamming it up joyously as theatrical tyrant Jeffrey Cordova. It’s very funny. And it’s great entertainment. But it isn’t by any measure the best of him. People watch the two men dancing together and compare Astaire’s jazz-inflected style with Buchanan’s English savoir faire. Buchanan holds his own, it is said, but no more. It is forgotten, though, that Buchanan was a decade older than Astaire at this point – and suffering from spinal arthritis, a precursor of the spinal cancer that killed him. It’s surprising he could move at all.

In his prime, though, it was a different story. He was a loose-limbed, elegant dancer of great charm and precision. Nonchalant, to be sure, but moving with a fluidity and grace that always looked effortless, but which, like all style, was actually hard fought. Astaire, for one, was enchanted. Buchanan’s Battling Butler was the first show he saw on his first trip to London in 1923. “Jack was always an idol of mine,” he later wrote. “He had a style and method all of his own. I was captivated by his personal charm and comedy methods.”

Tomorrow, the world

Buchanan was born in Helensburgh, a quiet town on the banks of the Clyde, in 1890. The family were well-to-do, but the early death of Jack’s father in 1902 was catastrophic financially as well as emotionally: what money the family had was spent paying off gambling debts. They were forced to sell the family home – the quaintly named Fairy Knowe – and move to Glasgow where they started taking in lodgers to make ends meet.

Buchanan began his career inauspiciously in 1911 in that graveyard of careers, the Glasgow music hall – specifically Pickard’s Panopticon in Argyle Street, known colloquially as the Pots and Pans. (Stan Laurel may have made his stage debut there too, a couple of years earlier.) His act – under the stage name ‘Chump’ Buchanan – constituted a couple of songs and some comedy patter. He had tried out his jokes in front of his then girlfriend’s father, a vicar, who laughed; on Argyle Street, they did not. He went on four times a day for a week and bombed every time. Glasgow audiences are famously unforgiving; at the Pots and Pans, boys in the gallery would sometimes piss down on the acts they didn’t like. Things might not have gone that badly for Buchanan, but that’s about the best you can say.

Still, he persevered, and made his first appearance in the West End was in 1912. There had been, and would continue to be, long months of unemployment between shows as he sought work. Whatever money he earned, he spent on clothes, rather than – say – food. Looking good in public – always – was almost a moral code. Later, when he was producing his own shows, he would dress all the men, including the chorus, in Hawes and Curtis, his preferred tailor. He did well by the women too: for one production, he commissioned over three hundred dresses from Norman Hartnell. Wearing the very best was important: Lobb made his shoes, Herbert Johnson made his hats. (His dressing-gowns? They came from Turnbull and Asser.)

Ironically, Buchanan dedication to style would stand him in good stead when war broke out in August 1914: he was declared unfit for military service thanks to years of malnutrition. When he became a star, it was rumoured instead that he suffered from tuberculosis, which he denied, if less vociferously than he might have: a secret sorrow was good box office, then and now.

His breakthrough came in 1917 in one of André Charlot’s revues, which also launched the careers of Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence, and were important stepping stones for both Noel Coward and Ivor Novello as writers. When they took one of the revues to New York in 1924, Buchanan became a star there too. The six-week booking was extended to a year, and Buchanan found himself so famous a menswear store on Fifth Avenue started stocking his signature backless evening waistcoat with the slogan, “Jack Buchanan wears nothing else”. Inspired by that experience, he lent his name to a wide range of accessories, including ties, scarves and gloves, and endorsed everything from Bourbon to Rolls-Royce.

By this time, he had started producing his own shows in London, romantic musical comedies built around his skill as a dancer, singer and comic actor. The success he had encouraged him to expand. At different times he owned the Garrick Theatre in central London, the King’s Theatre and the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, and the Imperial in Brighton. He built the now demolished Odeon Leicester Square, although when he owned it, it was called the Leicester Square Theatre; he lived above it in a purpose-built two-storey penthouse apartment until it was bombed in the war.

He made a couple of films in Hollywood around 1930, one with the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, but he could make more money here as a big fish in a smaller pond.

Smash and Grab

Buchanan worked at various times opposite Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Faye Ray and Googie Withers. But his best leading lady was Elsie Randolph, a superb dancer and brilliantly funny comic actress, always happy pushing scenes to their absurdist limits. They were to be Britain’s answer to Astaire and Rogers, but they were something very different too. Katherine Hepburn supposedly said of Astaire and Rogers that he gave her class, but she gave him sex appeal. Buchanan and Randolph have both.

Rogers is an under-rated actor, and one testament to her skill is that she makes it look like dancing with Astaire is easy. Randolph makes it look like dancing with Buchanan is fun. The two dance together the way William Powell and Myrna Loy act in the Thin Man movies: with the easy, light flirtatious intimacy of a couple who know each other too well to take each other seriously, who want nothing more than to delight and be delighted by each other. When Astaire and Rogers perform, we know it is really an Astaire monologue that Rogers is swept up in, a peroration in dance; the choreography is so brilliantly structured it might almost be exposition. With Buchanan and Randolph, it is a dialogue – informal, intimate, and adult – at once both innocent and knowing.

Randolph’s preference comedy was something Buchanan wholeheartedly shared. He hated playing the romantic lead. Although often called on to do so, he fought it as much as he could. “It has always been my desire to make out-and-out comic films, but it has been my fate… to enact the sentimental hero, which candidly has never appealed to me,” he told the papers. More simply, he told director and business partner Herbert Wilcox, “I love to hear them laugh, old boy.”

As an actor, Astaire could deliver a good line well; Buchanan was funny. His preference was for foot-to-the-floor comedy, especially physical comedy, at which he was exceptionally adept – as you might expect a dancer to be. In some ways, this predilection gives some of his films an odd, almost erratic tone, careering as they do through boilerplate romance, banter and repartee, knockabout farce, and even a very British kind of camp burlesque, complete with cross-dressing. What kept the films together was Buchanan himself: the persona of the essentially unruffled gallant, who – however ridiculously ruffled by circumstance – unfailingly regains his poise, smoothing his way out of the most implausible situation with impossible charm. His persona enabled him to navigate the complex hierarchies and rituals of interwar society with the same grace and ease he brought to his dancing. He made the impossible look impossibly easy. Who wouldn’t fall for that?

His film’s titles too feel perfectly on-trend for the years between the wars: This’ll Make You Whistle, That’s a Good Girl, and – my favourite – the unimprovable Come Out of the Pantry. Some of the films are not especially good, not least because they were turned out at an alarming clip – at one point he made four films in six months, starring in three of them – but the best of them are wonderful. Most are sadly unavailable commercially, but of those that are, Smash and Grab – a fast-paced comedy thriller – is probably the best: if you’ve ever laughed at Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau fighting with his manservant, this is where the idea originated. But it’s funnier when Buchanan does it, because he is a better physical comedian than Sellers.

He was a hugely successful recording artist too, with the quirky habit of prefacing his songs with snippets dialogue – a bit of banter with the orchestra, for example, or flirting with Elsie Randolph – that was arch even for the 1930s, but always reinforced the nonchalant image he worked so hard on. Not everyone liked his singing voice, it’s true: at the time, it wasn’t deemed smooth enough. Now, it’s probably the smoothness that we might find a little cloying. There is something of Noel Coward, perhaps, in some of his delivery, and Coward himself was jealous of Buchanan sang his songs more successfully than he did. But there is also a huskiness that modern ears find more appealing, tinged as it is with melancholy. When Cambridge spy Guy Burgess fled to Moscow, he only took two things. One of them was a Jack Buchanan 78, Who (Stole My Heart Away?). That fact itself has a melancholy all of its own.

As he got older, he danced less on film. The Band Wagon was something of a throwback in that respect. But he was rarely off the West End stage. He took the James Stewart role in the first Broadway run of Harvey, later reprising it over here. It was this that landed him the title role in Preston Sturges’ last film, the under-rated The Diary of Major Thompson. The director eulogised him, describing him as “the best dressed man in the world, the English star of stars and a hilarious comedian”, which seems about right to me.

The last man in Mayfair

What you saw in Jack Buchanan was what he wanted you to see: self-assurance, calm, class. In the days when the London phone directory meant something, he ran an ad on the back page that had two words on it – Jack Buchanan. But being Jack Buchanan was a performance all of its own. The pearl-gray trilby he wore at rehearsal with Olivier was no fleeting affectation. He wore it everywhere, even in the office. “I feel protected under it. It gives me confidence,” he said. In his last years a journalist asked him why he had never followed Noel Coward into the one-man cabaret show. “The trouble is, I’m scared”, he replied. The launch of his theatrical empire was driven, initially at least, by the desire never to have to audition for parts, such was his shyness, such were his nerves. That he sought such a audaciously disproportionate response to a common problem speaks to the depth of his anxieties.

When he died, a part of British culture and an ideal of British male elegance died with him. But he probably left at the right time: he would have been horribly out of place in Swinging London, where fashion expressed ideas about identity and authenticity that would have been alien to him.

He had, said WW Macqueen-Pope, the splendidly-named doyen of the interwar London theatre scene, “a charm that could not be beaten down”. To adapt Hemingway’s dictum, true style is elegance under pressure, and for most of his life, Jack Buchanan simply was style.

He was Britain’s last, best class act.

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One comment

  1. I agree that Jack Buchanan is seriously underrated these days. I write as a fan. I have a signed picture of Jack in my collection, and another of Elsie Randolph, in wonderful ten-by-eight portraiture.

    His last films showed that he would have quickly become an embarrassing anachronism. Whilst being suited to the spirit of the 30’s and 40’s, by the 1950’s his style of delivery looked dated. What he projected in public was elegance. The hard reality of late 1950’s and early 1960’s Britain does not really sit well with this. It’s true that, sometimes, people want to dream, people want fantasy, but the fact is that the most enduring British movies of the early Sixties were gritty and realistic; films like “Alfie”, “The Servant” and “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” spring to mind. On TV, the Billy Cotton Band Show was practically a parody of a bygone age, and just as uncomfortable to watch. Meanwhile, the Americans had Elvis and Bill Haley.

    But I think you got to the crucial point about JB. There was then and is now, something in all of us that wants to be as self-assured, as debonair and and elegant as Jack Buchanan.

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