When Harry Met Salford


In its heyday, Cross Lane in Salford buzzed with activity. Within half a mile, there were butchers, bakers, chemists, furniture shops, clothing shops, toy shops, two undertakers’ parlours, a railway station, two music halls, two cinemas, a drill hall, an open market, churches, and eighteen – yes, eighteen – pubs. Standing high on Cross Lane was the Regent Theatre – later known as the Palace.

Upon opening in 1895, theatrical magazine ERA – with the nickname “The Actor’s Bible” – noted “the vast experience of the architect could suggest has been done to make the building as complete and comfortable as possible”. Shaped as a horseshoe, the interior was brightly decorated in cream, lavender and gold. Entering the theatre, you would walk across grand mosaic tiled flooring to reach the 1700 capacity auditorium split into the pit and a lavish gallery. Local historian Tony Flynn, in his book The History of Salford Cinemas, calls the Regent Theatre a “magnificent building”.

In this grand theatre, which cost £14,000 to build (around £1.5m in today’s terms), magician and escapologist Harry Houdini was lying in a coffin. He wasn’t dead. This was September 1904. It would be another twenty-two years before the artist, whose real name was Erik Weisz, would meet his fate after rupturing his appendix in a stunt gone wrong. The magician was performing his infamous finale, ‘Mysto’s Coffin Trick’.

Tony Flynn argues that the theatre always produced a series of firsts in Salford.

He said: “The Regent Theatre had established itself as Salford’s foremost place of entertainment. The theatre was the venue for Salford’s first moving picture show in 1901, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s Animated Picture Company.

“(When it became a cinema) The Salford Palace could claim to be the first cinema in Salford to show talking films. The Jazz Singer was screen there on September 2nd 1929.”

Created by John Heywood Ltd, Printers, Manchester - courtesy of the Library of Congress

Created by John Heywood Ltd, Printers, Manchester -The Magic Poster Collection (Library of Congress)

Hidden behind a curtain, Houdini was placed in a coffin with the lid screwed down and the screws were covered in sealing wax. He was free within two minutes. The sealing wax was miraculously unbroken. The great showman then dared his captive audience to perform the same trick for a fee of £300 if they achieved it. He produced the banknotes onstage. There were no takers.

Houdini had fared worse in another Lancastrian town forty miles away called Blackburn, two years earlier. Throughout Europe and the US, Houdini had earned the nickname of “The Handcuff King”, where he challenged audiences to bring forth a pair of any regulation handcuffs and he would break free from them. On October 24th 1902, the proprietor of the Blackburn School of Physical Culture, William Hope Hodgson produced a set of irons wrapped in twine and with the locks altered to a packed house at the Palace Theatre. Reluctantly, with many vocal protests, Houdini accepted the challenge.

After two hours of contortion and false starts, Houdini staggered from behind his curtain onto the stage with his shirt torn from the cuff to the shoulder, his wrists and biceps bleeding profusely, and barely able to stand. When asked two years later about several scars “as though some tiger had clawed him”, Houdini explained that he had simply been to Blackburn.

However, onstage at the Regent Theatre in Salford, Houdini was having an easy ride. After receiving no volunteers to take on Mysto’s Coffin Trick, he repeated the stunt in under a minute – half of the original time. But Houdini did something that made his act different from other copycats, he broke the ‘Magic Code’ and explained how the trick was done: the screws from the head of the coffin had been removed, which gave him time to escape and then replace them.

Magicians and clairvoyants are sometimes synonymous. They apply the same techniques, cater to the same audience and their entire craft relies on illusion. The distinguishment between a clairvoyant and a conjuror is: honesty.

At the start of his career, Houdini and his wife Bess were known as Professor and Mademoiselle Houdini, clairvoyants. However, he had a change of heart after he had a sudden realisation of the “seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed”. As well as being a magician, Houdini became a debunker – a tradition inherited by the likes of James Randi, Paul Zenon and Derren Brown.

"Harry Houdini" by "Famous Players - Lasky Corporation.", US - The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,

“Harry Houdini” by “Famous Players – Lasky Corporation.”, US – The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,

Harry Houdini was the ultimate PR man – he knew how to spin and sell tickets for his shows. Before his appearance at the Regent Theatre, the Handcuff King asked the Chief Constable, Mr J W Hallam, if he could be locked in the police cells in Bexley Square. Tony Flynn describes the incident in his Cross Lane book:

“Permission was reluctantly granted. Houdini was shown into a cell, his clothing was taken off him and the cell was locked. His clothes were locked in an adjacent cell. Within five minutes he escaped, broken into the cell, got dressed and informed the police he was free.”

Tony hypothesises that it was likely he had hidden a skeleton key in his mouth and picked the mouth. It is a good theory. Always accompanying Houdini was his wife Bess and his brother Theo. During a similar escape in the Kremlin, Houdini escaped a Siberian Transport Cell under the guard of the Russian Secret Police. Theo had assisted by sneaking in a skeleton key.

Lock picking was a relatively new skill for Houdini, as the Manchester Guardian reported in 1904. One day, his fellow boarders in a hotel “scoffed at him” one night as the infamous escapologist had to ask for a key from reception as he had lost his.

Tony Flynn calls the trick at Bexley Square a “unusual publicity stunt”, but it was trick Houdini employed to every town and city he played in. Again, to show the shrewdness of Houdini’s public relation skills, when Scotland Yard refused to allow Houdini to perform a similar stunt in London – and with dwindling ticket sales – all of a sudden, a Daily Mirror reporter challenged the magician to escape manacles created over five years, specifically for Houdini to escape from. After more than an hour onstage at the Hippodrome, he was free. The Daily Mirror representative presented a silver replica of the handcuffs as a reward, and all the English newspapers reported on it. His captive fan were unaware of Houdini’s cosy relationship with the Mirror, where he produced columns for them, and the fact that the replica pair had been created a year prior to the challenge.

The Regent Theatre where Harry Houdini ‘treaded the boards’ is sadly no more, after being demolished in 1963. Cross Lane is virtually unrecognisable. The eighteen pubs have been reduced to one, the cinemas are gone and the railway station no longer exists. But the memories still endure, where Harry Houdini joins the alumni of Cross Lane with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, King Edward VII, W C Fields, David Lloyd George and Tommy Cooper all known to set foot in the once busy half a mile in Salford.

Courtesy of Craig Sunter, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Craig Sunter, via Wikimedia Commons


Don’t call me “love”, love!


I tend to shout at the radio. If I am in a public place, and BBC News is on a television screen, all that is missing from my recent tirade is a placard with “Jesus is coming” and an empty bottle of whisky hiding in a paper bag. My newspapers are saturated in spit from my latest exclamation.

You can imagine the decibels I reached when I picked up a copy of The Telegraph, and spotted a story on Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time. The comedian-cum-campaigner has come under fire for addressing communities minister Penny Mordaunt as “love”.

Is the Trews presenter being criticised for a dialect – a sociological language? Or is this detracting from a valid point raised about paying the pensions for the Fire service?

I am very Northern. I don’t own a whippet, nor do I smoke a pipe – but I occasionally wear a flatcap. I am in no control over my Lancastrian accent unless I put on my faux upper class elocution, which somehow transforms into an Australian twang. I miss the odd ‘h’ from a word; I sound harsher in my pronunciation of “mass-ta” over “mah-ster”; and I would be more at home on Coronation Street than Downton Abbey.

You can take the boy out of Blackburn – but can you take the Blackburn out of the boy? My ear has chosen the way I say words, but my brain chooses the words that leave my mouth.

Language evolves. If a word or a phrase has been deemed unacceptable, its use will dwindle and eventually expire. A Victorian term for the Devil was “Mr Spitfoot”, but is the mythological demon named with the title “mister” anymore? Satan, sure. Lucifer, maybe. Perhaps it shows the renowned Victorian respect and formality compared to the 21st Century colloquialisms.

Text speak developed as a result of advance of communication. “Soz” and “Lol” are bastardisations of longer phrases. I, in fact, pondered whether or not I could use the term “bastardisation”, which in itself contains the lexis of “bastard” – a synonym for an illegitimate son or a profanity; the same way that “bitch” is used to describe a female dog or an insult. An earlier form of text speak is “berk”, which is misinterpreted a tame way of calling someone an idiot. It is an abbreviation for the Cockney rhyming slang Berkley Hunt (I’ll let you figure that one out).

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons

Did Russell Brand use the vocative address with unintended actions? If I were to call you “sweetheart”, irrespective of gender, I do not think that your heart would be a diabetics’ worst nightmare – I imagine it would taste quite bitter. If I were to call you “sunshine”, I do not think you are emitted light and heat radiation travelling to the planet from eight minutes ago. If I were to call you “pet”, I do not think you should be on a leash – although I am sure that tickles the fancy of others.

But words can have double meaning, and the delivery of the lexis can contribute to its interpretation. Pronouns were particularly powerful in Shakespearean plays – an address was essentially the same definition, but different etiquettes. If you were to address a superior in the Bard’s plays, it would always be “you”; if they were an equal or an inferior, it would be “thou”. Was Brand delivering “love” as a term of endearment or as a term of degradation? Indeed, he was cheesed off about the Conservative-Lib Dem government not paying the fire service’s pensions, but perhaps used it to disarm and demean.

I guffaw whenever the bank clerk calls me “sir” or “Mr McLaughlin” – and also when I check my account balance. But there would be something terribly amiss if this professional would start calling me “petal” or “honey”. Personal nicknames are just that: personal. In a professional environment, and one could argue that Question Time constitutes as this, formalities still count. Nick Robinson would never call the Prime Minister “Dave” (a relatively tame name), or David Dimbleby would call Nigel Farage “that purple faced casual racist who has far too much airtime on our channel”.

In February, the Speaker of the House wrote to the three main party leaders – David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – asking them to stop their MPs engaging in “public school twittishness”. The Lib Dem leader called for Prime Minister’s Questions to be reformed, and during a Q&A session on Mumsnet, he said:

“It’s just ridiculous. You can’t even call people by their name. You can’t even address people like human beings.

“And so the whole thing is in a language which wasn’t used since 1867 and in a kind of highly aggressive, sort of, macho, chest‑beating, testosterone‑driven idiom which is deeply off‑putting to – to any normal person.”

Courtesy of Innotata, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Innotata, via Wikimedia Commons

This is when the formality dehumanises a political conversation. When robotic terms such as the “Right Honourable gentleman of…” are used in lieu of actual names, people transform to titles and not humans. It works both ways. There can be overfamiliarity and dehumanisation.

Language is subjective. It continues to change, diminish and grow. In his wonderful rant on language pedants, Stephen Fry argues that there are more pedants around; it seems, than those who used the evolving language to write stories, poems and love letters. He calls them “dense and deaf” to language development. New words are “ugly” to the pedants as Picasso, Eliot and Stravinksy were once thought ugly; the same goes for Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.

The vocative address “love” is a term from yesteryear, as are many Estuary colloquialisms that come from Russell Brand’s vocal chords. Dialect is a tale as old as time, and it is worth preserving from a historical, curatorial point of view – but their interpretation has changed over time and appears out-dated. Should we ever condemn someone for choosing language that has been readily available for him or her from birth? That depends on the situation. If it were used as a weapon to diminish the female speaker, then that should not be accepted. The critics can be compared to the pedants who seethe at language development. Russell Brand remarked as soon as the vocative address was uttered that he was “working on the sexist language”. And perhaps we are all working on it, and it will evolve – but perhaps we should excuse some of the old guard whose intention was not to offend, but to communicate.

You can watch the full episode of Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time here.

The Soapbox Presents… A Christmas Carol


“Twas the night before Christmas, and Dan was feeling meek –

Another year gone by without getting Pick of the Week…”

 The Soapbox Presents A Christmas Carol

On Saturday 13th December, Shock Radio broadcast the Christmas special of The Soapbox, where Dan McLaughlin channeled the spirit of Scrooge (see what I did there?) as he was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Taaliah Nazar), the Ghost of Christmas Present (played by Bradley Harris) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (played by…erm…Bradley Harris).

Also featured in The Soapbox Players production was Dan’s weekly visit to the station manager, this time appearing as the Grinch, a sketch entitled Meanwhile in Heaven where Jesus complains to his Father that no-one remembers his birthday at Christmas, and a festive sprinkling of Yuletide songs.

He had no further intercourse (behave – it’s a Dickens quote) with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!