THE DAY ROBB BROKE OUT
Our June 2017 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Robb Wilton, Tommy Handley and Arthur Askey were the three most famous Liverpool-born comedians of the 1940s. Robb's catchphrase was "The day war broke out …". In the words of Dr Tom Preston, who spoke to us on 5th June, he was "a master of studied inaction". John Lennon, Ken Dodd and Les Dawson were all fans.
In fact Robb Wilton was already almost 60 years old when WW2 broke out. He had been working as an actor since the 1890s, often accompanied by his wife Florence Palmer. Born in Tillotson Street, Liverpool in 1881, his real name was Robert Smith. His father, a print compositor, was a Protestant from Dublin, and his mother was a Catholic from Everton. By 1891 the family had moved to Woolton. Robb's father had taken over the pub at 67 Quarry Street from his son-in-law, who had moved to the Black Horse a few doors away.
In 1899 young 'Robert Wilton' made his début in Dishonoured at the Theatre Royal, Garston. After that he moved around, joining a new company every few months. At the Theatre Royal Hull he played a French marshal in A Royal Divorce, the play that is said to have popularised the line "not tonight Josephine". It was there - in the melodrama Greed of Gold - that he met his future wife. They married in 1904. Three years later he was billed as Robb Wilton for the first time, in Who Was the Woman?. A 1909 advert in the 'Era' magazine called him a "Song and Patter Comedian". Later that year he was top of the bill at the Leeds City Varieties, and in 1914 he was "supported by Full London Company" in the revue Enquire Within.
After WW1, Robb joined Fred Karno's company, had a big house in Birkenhead and a flat in Kensington, London. In his Sunbeam car, he was one of the first Music Hall stars to drive himself around the country. In 1923 he and Florence embarked on their one and only 'world tour' - to Canada, the USA and Australia - performing Sherlock Bill which was set in a police station. His Fire Chief and Magistrate characters had also been introduced by this time. In 1926 he moved into a detached house overlooking Potters Bar golf course, and was in a Royal Performance with the Tiller Girls and Jack Hylton.
In the 1930s Robb found fame on radio, the occasional film and early TV variety shows. The Magistrates Association objected to his portrayal of the bumbling Mr Muddlecombe JP on BBC Radio's The Court of Not-So-Common Please, but, as Tom put it, "Lord Reith gave them short shrift". The 1940s brought mixed fortunes. The couple had moved to Rhyl when the BBC Light Entertainment department relocated to North Wales. In 1947 Robb became 'King Rat', a prestigious position in the showbiz charity world. But in 1949 their son Robert (another actor) fell from a window, aged 36. The verdict was accidental death, but Florence was never the same again. The following year, owing to 'extreme fatigue', Robb was ordered to rest.
Robb died in 1957, aged 75. He was active almost to the end. In 1955 he had starred (as a magistrate!) with Arthur Askey and Thora Hird in the film The Love Match. In 1956 - by which time he and Florence were living in Mayville Road, Allerton - he was on ABC TV's Hometown Saturday Night from the Crane Theatre in Liverpool.
In the question-and-answer session, Tom was asked where the name 'Wilton' had come from. He offered two theories. Perhaps he initially chose 'Robb Woolton' but people found this difficult to pronounce? Or perhaps it was from Marie Wilton, who was a favourite of his sister (herself an actress).
Based on his researches, Tom Preston has written the first-ever biography of Robb Wilton. We look forward to its publication later in the year.